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New federal agency proposed to respond to national emergencies

While the Home Affairs model has been credited internally for its response to COVID-19, the government wants the new body to have a bigger role in co-ordinating responses to national emergencies. This would include dealing with emergencies outside natural disasters such as the repercussions of major cyber attacks.

Professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Australian National University John Blaxland said EMA did not play a big enough role in responding to the summer’s bushfires.

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He said the new body would need to more closely work with states and territories and quickly marshal together Commonwealth resources in a crisis.

“It can’t just be a federal body – it needs to be linked in very tightly with all the emergency mechanisms of the states,” Professor Blaxland said. “It would need to be given the agency and centrality to co-ordinate functions properly in a way which was sufficiently high profile for everyone to look towards.”

Professor Blaxland said any new body should not be “hidden within Home Affairs”.

“The various crises we’ve seen so far have come out of left-field, require inter-agency co-ordination and they have an international dimension – they’re not just a Home Affairs problem,” he said.

During the coronavirus, the government put in place something called the “national co-ordination mechanism” to direct the government’s responses to issues outside the direct health management of the pandemic.

Appearing before the bushfire royal commission last month, Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo suggested that work was being done to combine the mechanism with EMA.

He said it was important to respond to a national crisis regardless of the cause.

“Often they are the same issues. Telecommunications are down. Food supplies have been impaired. People can’t get access to medicine. The power is out,” he said.

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The government will also consider creating a permanent disaster recovery agency, rather than having to create a body to respond to each disaster such as the National Bushfire Recovery Agency.

There is a growing acknowledgement within the Morrison government that Australia will likely face more national emergencies in the coming years.

These include climate change-induced wild weather events, modern supply chains being disrupted by the pandemic and greater instability in the region caused by China’s growing assertiveness.

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