Calling it out: political goals of the Commonwealth’s call out of Defence Reserves

Australian Defence Force Defence force personnel Disasters Australia
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In response to the bushfire crisis, the Commonwealth Government announced a “Call Out” of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) Reserve. Emphasis was placed on the “unprecedented” nature of this Call Out and the need for the Governor-General to approve it.

The announcement took state leaders and emergency service personnel by surprise and was not in response to any lack of resources by the ADF. Rather than providing actual assistance to these bodies, the announcement appears to have had political rather than practical purposes.

The ADF has long experience assisting the civil community in emergencies, with relevant arrangements in place for decades. Thousands of ADF personnel, including reservists, have been involved in responses to disasters such as Cyclone Tracy, the 2009 Victorian bushfires and the 2019 Queensland floods. Where enough reservists volunteer, there is no need to use Call Out provisions. The less extreme “Call For” provisions are sufficient.

Reservists have always been keen volunteers for such service. Indeed, the procedure documents that guide Defence Assistance to the Civil Community (DACC) make no mention of Call Out provisions. DACC arrangements were audited by the Australian National Audit Office in 2014, finding that existing procedures were “generally effective in guiding and enabling the provision of Defence assistance in response to emergencies.”

In addition to providing the Prime Minister with a dramatic announcement in response to a crisis that has seen him under political pressure, the Call Out serves to further the apparent goal of the Defence Minister of raising the profile of the Defence Reserve.

Key findings:

  • The call-out, which took place without request from the states, raises potential legal problems. For example: Whether reservists have the authority to direct civilians not to use a closed road.
  • The ADF, including Reserves, was already involved in helping with the bushfire crisis, with no suggestion that the Commander of the Defence Force was unable to access the necessary resources and personnel.
  • The call-out could pave the way for deployment of Army Reserves in more ambiguous circumstances where the Commonwealth may consider that it has interests that have priority over the interests of the States and Territories.
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