The sullen stealth of disaster

This is the first article in a series entitled The Disaster Blogs.

Western nations, not just Australia, are in the process of a massive economic transformation. Just look at the middle class. It is fast disappearing, being hollowed out as some say.

Don’t ask me to quote any statistics. Just take a look yourself. Information technology has changed the nature of employment. Many jobs have disappeared.

I used to have an office with a receptionist and other staff. Remember when they introduced that antiquated thing called a pager? It entirely transformed the business. We no longer needed a receptionist and could not afford one anyway.

But the change did more than make the receptionist redundant. It also made the whole concept of an office redundant. And that was just the start. Everything, including the business model, changed thereafter as the technology continued to develop.

I’m glad it did. I would have gone bankrupt long ago had I not adapted to the changes because, frankly, I just couldn’t support the overheads.

But stop to think of the consequences for the people. There was a time when my small consulting business supported up to thirty people including extended families. Now it just supports my wife and myself, when I’m “working” rather than volunteering that is.

The changes were painful for everyone, not just my former staff. It ended my own dream of growing a much larger consulting business and caused tremendous personal pain as I went through the process of terminating each job. I never want to go through that particularly stress ever again. Had I not done so then, however, the pain would likely have been even greater later.

What’s the point of all this? Technological and financial change come hand in hand. That’s pretty obvious.

The changes have been upon me personally for the past 20+ years and my own experience is but a microcosm of what has been happening at a wider level across the whole country, indeed across the world. It seems to be accelerating. Just look at what is happening at the big end of town as companies like GMH, Toyota and Alcoa announce their impending closures.

Put another way, the pain that my former staff and I felt is now being replicated across the face of the nation by a much larger number of people and the businesses that have employed them.

Which brings me to the point: the personal consequences of rapid economic change can be and often are nothing short of a disaster for those directly involved—managers, business owners and staff alike.

This is an area of professional expertise as well as personal experience on which I have long reflected after helping to lead the recovery of Aceh as senior adviser to the Indonesian Government following the world’s greatest human tragedy, the 2004 Tsunami. I wrote about my Aceh experience in Tsunami Chronicles, a six-book series about how we rebuilt that out-of-the-way province in four short years.

All disasters, be they natural or man made, physical or economic, have one thing in common: they overwhelm the ability of those affected to the point where they need outside help to cope.

Three key qualities distinguished what we did in Aceh: coherent, consistent and energetic political leadership from the top; a breakthrough culture of urgency in every department to overcome business-as-usual lethargy; and a reformist zeal that streamlined wider government programs as we worked to make them more responsive than they otherwise would have been.

There was more, much more, but those were some of the standout elements. They worked. But, as I sit to the sidelines observing the present approach to disaster management in Australia, I worry that we as a nation are too complacent in how we think about and approach disaster management. We seem only able to comprehend a disaster like a bush fire or flood when it hits us in the face. The other, wider disasters of a more general but endemic nature, seem to pass relatively unnoticed and get treated from a public policy perspective with the same nonchalance.

About Bill Nicol

Bill Nicol

Bill Nicol is an international government and business speaker and strategist with long experience in crisis management. He helped plan, design and lead Indonesia’s post-tsunami recovery operations in Aceh before writing a six-volume analysis of this and post-disaster operations across Asia and in Haiti—Tsunami Chronicles: Adventures in Disaster Management. He continues to advise the international community on post-disaster operations and recovery architecture, and promotes a greater integration of non-government and private-sector services in these areas. A former print, radio and television journalist and published investigative author, he writes poetry in his spare time and occasionally blogs on management and leadership. He is increasingly drawn back to his roots as a current-affairs television reporter to explore concepts of self and organisational management in an audio-visual format. You can find him at

    CONTRIBUTOR click to Donate

    The Chifley Research Centre relies on contributions from individuals and organisations to fund our operations, events and research. Without your donations, nothing we do would be possible.

  • Andrew Giles & Ryan Batchelor

    Andrew Giles is the Federal Labor Member for Scullin in Victoria. Ryan Batchelor is a director of the Chifley Research

    Ben Hugosson

    Benedict Hugosson is an Organisational Ombudsman for the Swedish Social Democrats, focusing on training and membership development. Benedict has experience

    Cameron Clyne

    Cameron Clyne is the former CEO of National Australia Bank and now chairman of advisory firm Camel Partners and a

    Carol Johnson

    Professor Carol Johnson - Carol is an Adjunct Professor of Politics at the University of Adelaide and has written extensively

    Catherine King

    Catherine King is the Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development.

    David Coats

    David Coats is in Australia as a Visitor at the Chifley Research Centre. He is a research fellow at the

    Gabrielle Kuiper

    Dr Gabrielle Kuiper has a background in science, sustainability and urban planning. She was previously Senior Adviser, Climate Change, Energy

    Emma Maiden

    Emma Maiden is the former Assistant Secretary of Unions NSW. She is currently Head of Advocacy for Uniting, leading their

    Erin Watt

    Erin Watt is the National Secretary of the Labor Environment Action Network. Erin is a National Political Coordinator for United

    Jim Chalmers

    Jim Chalmers MP is Shadow Treasurer, and the federal Labor Member for Rankin. Prior to his election he was

    Jo-anne Schofield

    Jo-anne Schofield is the National President of United Workers Union.

    Linda Tirado

    Linda Tirado is a completely average American. She also has good rants about how much it sucks to be poor

    Lindy Edwards

    Dr Lindy Edwards is the Associate Head of School in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University

    Terri Butler

    Terri Butler is the Shadow Minister for the Environment and Water, and the federal Labor Member for Griffith, Queensland.

    Tim Kennedy

    Tim Kennedy is national secretary of the United Workers Union, organising for secure jobs and a fair Australia.

    Website design and development by