“I have been very conscious of testing the limits of constitutionally defined roles and responsibilities this bushfire season,” Mr Morrison will say.
“I believe, however, there is now a clear community expectation that the Commonwealth should have the ability to respond in times of national emergencies and disasters, particularly through deployment of our defence forces in circumstances where the life and property of Australians have been assessed to be under threat.
“After this fire season and before the next one, this is an area where we need to get clarity and make some decisions, including changing the law where necessary.”
That means examining the constitutional and legal framework to allow the federal government to declare a national state of emergency, “with clear authorities and appropriate safeguards for Commonwealth action on its own initiative, including the deployment of our defence force”.
The change would likely be achieved through negotiation with the states to pass new legislation interacting with state powers – rather than a referendum to change the constitution.
Mr Morrison also wants stronger accountability for natural disaster risk management, resilience and preparedness.
“This should include the setting of targets and transparent reporting on key actions, with enhanced national standards where necessary,” he says.
“There is no doubt we have learnt lessons from past fires and other natural disasters.
“But too often the findings from these inquiries are forgotten or de-prioritised over time. One of the first tasks of a royal commission will be to audit the implementation of previous recommendations, drawing on work that has already been done in this area.”
Mr Morrison says the number of Australian Defence Force personnel who went to fight the fires climbed from 900 in December to more than 6500 in January, in the largest domestic ADF operation in Australia’s history.
He said any change to the ADF’s role in dealing with natural disasters would also require more training.
“As the years pass, the bush grows back and fuel loads increase, people move in still larger numbers to live in fire-prone areas and dangerous fires occur again in a cycle which must be broken,” he will say.
“We must continue to learn from this fire season so we are better prepared for the next one. Whether that be the deployment of the ADF, local hazard reduction, access to resources such as aerial firefighting equipment, consistency of disaster recovery arrangements or resilience in the face of a changing climate.
“And we must learn from Indigenous Australians and their ancient practices on how to improve our resilience to these threats.”
Federal Bureau Chief Canberra