Coordination of federal, state and local disaster management arrangements in Australia: lessons from the UK and the US

Disasters Emergency management Central-local government relations Australia United Kingdom United States of America

There are gaps in Australia’s emergency management legislation. The states and territories have extensive and comprehensive emergency management legislation, but the provisions dealing with local government range from almost non-existent (in New South Wales) to significant (in Queensland) despite the clear recognition that local government has, or should have, an important role in this area. The Commonwealth has no federal emergency management legislation, and the Australian Government’s authority to act during times of national crisis can be, and has been, challenged.

Australia shares political traditions with both the UK and the US. Analysis of key legislation from those jurisdictions— the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (UK) and the Robert T Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (US)— reveals important learning that could be adopted in Australia. The UK’s Civil Contingencies Act provides an example of legislation that if modelled by the Australian states and territories would go a long way to mainstreaming local government involvement in contingencies management. 

The UK Act has less application at the Commonwealth level, given the different constitutional arrangements in Australia. For the Commonwealth, an Act modelled on the US Stafford Act would provide legislative authority for Commonwealth action, thereby reducing the possibility of legal challenge to the validity of emergency arrangements. Such emergency management legislation would also identify how the Commonwealth response is to be coordinated and managed. It would help ensure that there could be a considered whole-of-government response to any overwhelming national disaster. A Stafford-type Act may provide a clearer way through the maze that is Commonwealth–state relations at a time when action is required and clarity of responsibility is most urgently needed.

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