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date: 28 July 2017

Natural Hazards Governance in Australia

Summary and Keywords

Natural hazards governance varies across Australia for two critical reasons: first, the country’s large size and latitudinal range; and second, its divided federal government structure. The first feature—the magnitude and latitudinal spread—results in a number of climatic zones, from the tropical north, through the sub-tropics, to temperate southern zones and the arid central deserts. Consequently, state and local government jurisdictions must respond to different natural hazard types and variable seasonality. In addition, the El Niño-La Niña southern oscillation cycle has a strong impact. Flooding can occur throughout the continent and is the most frequent natural hazard and most extensive in scope, although extreme heat events cause the greatest number of fatalities. In summer, cyclones frequently occur in northern Australia and severe bushfires in the southeast and southwest. Hence, governance structures and disaster response mechanisms across Australia, while sharing many similarities, of necessity vary according to hazard type in different geographical locations. Climatological hazards dominate the range and occurrence of hazard events in Australia: floods, cyclones, storms, storm surge, drought, extreme heat events, and bushfire (but local landslips and earthquakes also occur).

The second major reason for variation is that Australia has three formal levels of government (national, State, and local) with each having their own responsibilities and resources. The national government has constitutional powers only over matters of national importance or those which cross State boundaries. In terms of hazards governance, it can advise and support the states but is intimately involved only with major hazards. The six States have the principal constitutional responsibility for hazards planning, usually with a responsible State minister, and each can have a different approach. The strong vertical fiscal imbalance among the levels of government does give the national government powerful financial leverage. Local governments are the front-line hazards planning and management authorities, but because they represent local communities their approaches and capacities vary enormously. There are a number of ways in which the resultant potential for fragmentation is addressed. Regional groupings of local governments (usually assisted by the relevant state government) can work together. State governments collaborate through joint Ministerial meetings and policies. The intergovernmental Council of Australian Governments has produced a National Strategy for Disaster Resilience, which guides each state’s approach. Under these circumstances a clear national hierarchical chain of command is not possible, but serious efforts have been made to work collaboratively.

Keywords: Australia, federated government, climate variability, ENSO and IOD, coordination, governance


There is great variation in natural hazard governance across Australia. The two main reasons for this are, first, the country’s size and latitudinal extent that result in many different climatic zones and natural ecosystems and, consequently, natural hazards; and second, Australia’s federal government structure, with its resultant complications of divided and shared powers and responsibilities. Although Australia is affected by many natural hazards, because of its relatively small and concentrated population, the outcomes of disasters in terms of fatalities and economic impacts are much smaller than in countries with much larger and more exposed populations (such as China, the United States, the Philippines, and India) (UNIDSR, 2015). In terms of disasters that affected the insurance industry between 1994 and 2014, which Worthington (2015) lists as bushfires, cyclones, floods, earthquakes, and storms and hail, floods were the most frequent (33 of the 123 events), but bushfires were the most costly per event (A$1052 million per event)(see Worthington, 2015, Table 5, p. 8).

It should be noted also that Australian natural hazard governance arrangements have changed many times in the past, often as a response to investigations following major disasters, and are continuing to evolve. A clear example is the changes in the State of Victoria after the bushfires in 2009 and the floods in 2010–11 as recommended in the reports by Comrie (2011) and Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission (2010) and then responded to by the Victorian State government (Emergency Management Victoria, 2015; Victorian Government, 2012a, 2012b).

This article is structured around these two sources of variation. After this brief introduction, it explores more fully the physical environmental conditions that lead to natural hazard variations, then it explores the governance responses to these hazards, focusing on the roles within the six States and two Territories before briefly alluding to the national government’s role. The final section then draws conclusions and lessons from this analysis.

Australia’s Natural Hazard Environment

The first critical reason for variation in natural hazard governance across Australia is the large geographical size, latitudinal extent, and complex physical geography (landform and climate) of the continent. Governance structures, disaster response mechanisms, and recovery implementation across Australia, while sharing many similarities, of necessity vary according to hazard events in specific geographical locations. While national policy advice is for a comprehensive, “all hazards” approach, State and local government jurisdictions are obliged to respond to different natural hazard types and variable seasonality.

Natural Hazards Governance in AustraliaClick to view larger

Figure 1. The Six Australian States and Two Mainland Territories in relation to the Tropic of Capricorn (Credit: Authors).

Climatic Variation

The diverse geography results in climatic zones ranging from the equatorial and tropical north, through the sub-tropics to temperate southern zones and the arid central deserts (Australian Government, 2013). Weather and hazard occurrence vary within these climatic zones. For example, temperatures can range from below zero in winter in inland and highland areas to extreme heat of over 40 degrees C. in summer in many parts of the continent. There are six identifiable climatic zones that display predominantly two seasonal patterns (ABOM, 2010, 2013a).

Natural Hazards Governance in AustraliaClick to view larger

Figure 2. The Major Climatic Zones of Australia (Credit: Australian Bureau of Meteorology at Creative Commons Attribution Australia Licence).

The Temperate Zones: A Spring/Summer/Autumn/Winter Pattern

In the southern temperate zones, there are summer/autumn and winter/spring regimes, which also affect the desert and the grassland biomes. The temperate zone broadly occupies southern New South Wales, much of Victoria, Tasmania, the southeastern part of South Australia, and the southwest of Western Australia (see Figure 2). The seasons in the temperate zone are described in terms of the southern hemisphere in the following sequence:

  • Summer: December to February

  • Autumn: March to May

  • Winter: June to August

  • Spring: September to November

Except for Darwin in the Northern Territory and Brisbane in Queensland, all of Australia’s State capital cities (Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Hobart, Adelaide, and Perth) are located within the southern temperate zones. In these zones populations are most vulnerable to bushfire and drought hazard. Northern Australia also records extensive grass fires, but these tend to be less intense and because of the smaller population do not often affect large numbers of people.

The Equatorial, Tropical, and Sub-Tropical Zones: A Wet/Dry Pattern

The Tropic of Capricorn (latitude 23°26′13.6″ south of the equator) stretches across Australia passing through the city of Rockhampton on the east coast, to the north of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory and to the north of Cape Farquhar on the West Australian coast (see Figure 1). Thus, the northern half of the Australian continent lies within the tropics and is consequently exposed to climatological hazards different from the temperate southern and central regions. The equatorial, tropical and sub-tropical regions of Australia are most prone to cyclone, intensive rainfall, and frequent large-scale flooding.

Three climatic zones with distinct wet and dry seasons are identified within the northern regions of the continent:

  • Equatorial—the northern part of Cape York Peninsula, Bathurst, and Melville Islands in the Timor Sea north of Darwin.

  • Tropical—across northern Australia including most of Cape York Peninsula, the “Top End” of the Northern Territory, and the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

  • Sub-tropical—the coast and hinterland south from Rockhampton in Queensland to the northern coasts of New South Wales and the coastal lands north of Perth to Geraldton in Western Australia.

The dry season in these zones is usually between April and October when temperatures are lower and skies are generally clearer. The “build up” in the tropical and equatorial sections is the humid time between the wet and dry seasons. It usually lasts for three or four months. The wet monsoon season between November and March is characterized by high temperatures and continued high humidity but relieved by rainfall. Temperatures are usually above 30 degrees C. and sometimes reach 45 degrees C. in areas of northern Western Australia (ABOM, 2013a).

Two additional climatic/biogeographical zones are identified:

  • Desert—arid and semiarid areas in the center of the continent. This includes a vast area of South Australia and Western Australia, southwestern Queensland, northwestern New South Wales, and the southern half of the Northern Territory.

  • Grasslands (savanna)—essentially a belt surrounding the arid and semiarid desert areas extending into the region north of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory (ABOM, 2013a).

El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD)

In addition to its large size and latitudinal range, Australia’s climatic regimes and meteorological hazard genesis are greatly affected by the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycles and the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), factors that are external to the country itself but which have an impact on Australia because of its location between the southern Pacific Ocean and the eastern Indian Ocean.

The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is the main cause of Australia’s recurring climatic variability. The ENSO influence is particularly strong with regard to the frequency of drought (in El Niño years) and tropical cyclones (in La Niña events). El Niño is the negative phase of the ENSO. El Niño events are associated with sustained negative Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) values of below −7 indicating the probable approach of an El Niño episode. These negative values are usually accompanied by warming of the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, the appearance of a warm ocean current off the South American coast, a decrease in the strength of the Pacific trade winds, and a reduction in winter and spring rainfall over much of eastern and northern Australia. In contrast, sustained positive SOI values of above +7 are typical of a La Niña episode. La Niña refers to the strong swing in the southern oscillation toward the western Pacific, accompanied by warmer than normal sea-surface temperatures in the waters to the north of Australia, higher numbers of tropical cyclones (November to April), changed ocean currents, stronger Pacific trade winds, and extensive cooling of the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. Together these conditions result in an increased probability that eastern and northern Australia will be wetter than normal (ABOM, 2013b).

Sustained changes in the difference between sea-surface temperatures of the tropical western and eastern Indian Ocean are known as the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). The IOD is a key driver of Australia’s climate and can have a significant impact on agriculture. This is because events generally coincide with the winter crop growing season. The IOD has three phases: neutral, positive, and negative. Events usually start around May or June, peak between August and October, and then rapidly decay when the monsoon arrives in the southern hemisphere around the end of spring (ABOM, 2013c).

Natural Hazard Types Affecting Australia

The most significant natural hazards to which communities are exposed in Australia are those with meteorological origins: flood, tropical cyclone and associated storm surge, drought, bushfire, heatwave, and severe thunderstorms (ABOM, n.d.a). The hazards risks are exacerbated by continual human encroachment into vulnerable areas such as riverine and coastal plains and by poor policy implementation (management actions and policy, more widely, are covered in the section on natural hazard governance). For comparisons of fatalities in Australia from these hazards, see Table 5 (p. 41) in Coates et al. (2014). For all of these meteorological hazards the Australian Bureau of Meteorology is the primary source of critical information and warnings. For examples of ABOM’s roles, see the sections about cyclones and bushfires.


As in other continents, floodplains in Australia have been the focus of human occupation and settlement, including the large metropolitan and urban centers: “Australia’s floodplains are the commercial, social and ecological arteries of the nation” (QRA, 2012, Part 1, p. 6). Flooding, however, can occur throughout the continent and is the most frequently occurring natural hazard in Australia. Three categories of flood can be identified with different geographical distributions and therefore variability in hazard management and governance (ABOM, n.d.b):

  • Inland flooding, slow-onset floods. This flooding is produced by inland rivers spreading over vast flat areas, particularly in central and western NSW, Victoria, and central and northern Queensland. The floodwaters may linger for several weeks or even months, isolating rural communities. Such floods can lead to major losses of livestock and crops as well as disruption and extensive damage to road and rail networks. Examples occurred in 1990 when an area of over 1 million square kilometers of eastern Australia in Queensland and New South Wales was flooded; and then in 2010–2011, 75% of local government areas in Queensland were declared disaster zones because of flooding (ABOM, 2009a).

  • Coastal riverine flooding, rapid-onset floods. This type of flooding originates from rivers draining to the east coast. Such floods usually last only a few days, but are potentially most damaging to life and property. Generally, such floods have a faster onset, large volumes of water, and there is less time for warnings and preventative action. This type of flooding can occur in and around most of Australia’s major cities but also in rural communities. A good example was the 2010–2011 floods that affected Ipswich and Brisbane Cities (Goff & de Freitas, 2016, pp. 12–13; QRA & World Bank, 2011).

  • Flash flooding. This results from short, intensive rainfall usually from severe storms and cyclones, but with localized spatial extent. This can occur in almost any part of Australia and poses the greatest short-term threat to life and property. Serious problems arise in urban areas when drainage systems are unable to cope with large volumes of water. An example was the flash flood that affected the town of Toowoomba in southeastern Queensland in January 2011. The heavy rainfall (160 mm in 36 hours) event caused a wall of water to rush through the CBD, resulting in the death of several people (Goff & de Freitas, 2016, p. 11).

Box 1: A governance dilemma: Floods and the “1 in 100 year” concept

Several key terms are used for flood risk and flood planning, including:

  • ARI—average recurrence interval—the average or expected value of the periods between exceedances of a given rainfall total accumulated over a given duration.

  • PMF—probable maximum flood.

  • AEP—annual exceedance probability—the probability that a given rainfall or flood height total accumulated over a given duration will be exceeded in any one year (e.g., 1% AEP).

Currently, the 1% AEP or “1 in 100 year” flood event is designated as having an “acceptable” risk in Australia and has generally been adopted as a risk threshold for land-use planning. Local government development approvals and controls usually apply at this level. A “1 in 100 year” flood is defined as a flood that has a 1 in 100 (1%) chance of occurring in any one year, or 1% AEP. The use of AEP to describe the chance of a particular flood level is preferred as it conveys the probability or chance that exists for each year. Nevertheless, the “1 in 100 year” concept is often not adequately defined, and is frequently misunderstood by the community. It is frequently erroneously interpreted as a flood that will only occur once in 100 years. Integrated floodplain management approaches in Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria are trying to address this problem of interpretation and understanding. In this context, the Queensland Reconstruction Authority’s framework is representative of the new “fit for purpose” integrated risk management approach (QRA, 2012).

Tropical Cyclones (Hurricanes or Typhoons)

Tropical cyclones are low-pressure systems that form over warm tropical waters. They derive their energy from warm oceans and do not form unless the sea-surface temperature is above 26.5 degrees C., although once formed, they can persist over lower sea-surface temperatures (ABOM, 2008, n.d.c).

In summer, tropical cyclones can affect all of northern Australia, with the northwestern coast of Western Australia, the Gulf of Carpentaria, and the Coral Sea coast of northern Queensland being the most cyclone prone regions. The cyclone season officially runs from November to April, although very few have occurred in November. The number of tropical cyclones in the Australian region each year varies according to the ENSO state. During La Niña years, there is a greater tendency for tropical cyclones in the Coral Sea, and hence a greater risk of their landfall on Australia’s northeast coast. Conversely, there is a tendency for fewer tropical cyclones during El Niño years. In the Australian region, cyclones have more erratic tracks than those in other parts of the world, which makes it hard to forecast exactly when and where a cyclone will cross a particular stretch of the coast. An example of a tropical cyclone was Cyclone Tracy, which devastated the city of Darwin in the Northern Territory in December 1974 (Goff & de Freitas, 2016, pp. 65–66). This was the most destructive cyclone in Australia in terms of damage to a community, as a whole city was virtually destroyed and 65 people killed. Another destructive cyclone was Cyclone Yasi that impacted on northern Queensland in 2011 (ABOM, 2011).

Natural Hazards Governance in Australia

Figure 3. The Paths of Tropical Cyclones Affecting Australia (Credit: Australian Bureau of Meteorology at Used with permission).

A system of warnings has been developed by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (ABOM). A tropical cyclone outlook is issued at the beginning of the cyclone season to provide an estimate of the level of cyclone activity in the coming season. Outlooks are issued daily throughout the cyclone season providing a 3-day forecast in advance of the probability of cyclone development in the seas around Australia’s coasts. As a tropical cyclone nears the coast, ABOM issues cyclone information bulletins, cyclone watch, cyclone land and marine warnings, and cyclone forecast track maps in GIS compatible format. A tropical cyclone category system expressed as cyclone intensity is incorporated within the warnings system. Intensity is defined by the maximum mean wind speed over open flat land or water. This is sometimes referred to as the maximum sustained wind and will be experienced around the eye wall of the cyclone.

Storm Surge

A storm surge is a temporary rise above the normal sea-water level usually of 1–5 meters along a shore resulting from strong onshore winds and/or reduced atmospheric pressure. This may cause low-lying areas to be flooded, especially if this coincides with a normal high tide. A storm surge usually accompanies a tropical cyclone as it comes ashore. It may also be formed by intense low-pressure systems in non-tropical areas (ABOM, n.d.e). For example, Cyclone Mahina, which made landfall at Bathurst Bay, a popular spot for pearling fleets on Queensland’s Cape York, in March 1899, was recorded as being accompanied by a storm surge of 10 meters that killed 300 people in the pearling fleet and nearby communities (ABC, 2014).


Australia is the driest continent and exhibits very high rainfall variability. The result is often enduring drought. The ENSO cycle is the main cause of drought and recurring rainfall variability in Australia. Occasionally droughts last for 7–8 years causing extreme economic and social stress in rural communities. In general, drought means acute water shortage in areas considered to be suffering from severe rainfall deficiency. The definition of drought uses classes assigned by examining rainfall periods of 3 months or more for affected places to see whether they lie below the 10th percentile (lowest 10%) of records.

Defining drought, and establishing the beginning and ending of a true drought period, is a difficult matter and is therefore an inherently problematic issue of governance. The application of criteria is critical in terms of distributing drought relief funding (ABOM, n.d.d). Drought declaration is the responsibility of both the State and federal governments. An example of lengthy severe drought was that of the “Millennium drought,” which began in 1995 and only really ended with the heavy rains of 2009–2011. This long period of drought affected most of Queensland and southeastern Australia including the nation’s most populous cities—Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Adelaide—and resulted in huge agricultural losses. The total cost of this drought was A$5 billion (Goff & de Freitas, 2016, pp. 33–34).

Bushfire (Wildfire)

Bushfire is one of the most destructive natural hazards affecting large regions of Australia. Bushfires are most intense in the eucalypt forests of southeastern and southwestern Australia. Varied fire seasons reflect different weather patterns. For most of southern Australia, the danger period is summer and autumn (December to April). For New South Wales and southern Queensland, the peak bushfire risk usually occurs in spring and early summer (September to January). Northern Australia experiences fires in winter and spring (June to November). The hazard risk is particularly dangerous in the peri-urban areas surrounding major cities where residential developments have been permitted in forested areas. Most loss of life and property damage occurs around the fringes of cities where homes are surrounded by flammable eucalypt vegetation. The “Black Saturday” fires in Victoria in February 2009 resulted in 173 deaths, 414 injuries, and some 450,000 hectares of land being burned; they are regarded as the most devastating in Australia’s history, causing over A$3.5 billion of damage (Handmer & O’Neill, 2016).

Specific weather elements contribute to increased fire risk. High winds and temperatures, low relative humidity, and rainfall deficiency rapidly dry timber and grass (fuel) that burn very quickly. Hot air can lower the moisture content of forests and grasslands to around 5% and in extreme cases to 2–3%, greatly increasing the speed of the fire front. Three important weather elements are the following:

  • Wind: Winds provide oxygen for, and can drive, bushfires. Winds also carry burning embers downwind, which can start new fires. This is known as spotting.

  • Humidity: Very low relative humidity of less than 20% causes fuels to dry out and become more flammable.

  • Rainfall: The amount of rain preceding the bushfire season affects the amount of dry grasses available. If good rains have resulted in abundant plant growth, later fires can be intense due to increased understory fuel load.

Standards Australia (2009b) classifies Australian vegetation into six categories of “fire types” according to bushfire risk: forest, woodland, shrubland, scrub, Mallee/Mulga, rainforest, and unmanaged grasslands. Grass fires occur mainly on grazing, agricultural, or remote scrub country. Dry grass, parched native shrubs, and dead leaves and twigs provide basic fuel. During droughts and in very hot, windy weather, even heavy fuels like large logs and the leaves and smaller branches of large trees can become dry and flammable. Although grass fires often destroy homes and buildings, they rarely result in loss of human life. Forest fires, on the other hand, are far more likely to cause severe damage to property, infrastructure, and loss of life. Many of Australia’s native plants burn easily. The high oil content of eucalyptus species makes them particularly fire prone. Huge amounts of flammable vapor from eucalyptus leaves create fireballs that engulf the forest upper story ahead of the main fire front. Clouds of dense smoke can mask the fire front from both ground and aerial observation. If weather conditions are severe enough, bushfires in Australian eucalypt forests are very difficult to extinguish (ABOM, 2009b).

Box 2: A governance dilemma: Bushfires and the “stay or go” policy

The prevailing wisdom of staying and protecting one’s property during bushfires, especially in rural Australia, was that a building protected people from the radiant heat, smoke, and embers of a bushfire as the firefront passed through the area; and that active defense of the property (for example, putting out spot fires in the roof eaves before and after the firefront passed over) ensured the viability of the building as a protective structure (Handmer & O’Neill, 2016). Over many years, experience showed that people who died in bushfires across Australia perished in their cars or on foot when caught on roads trying to escape from fires. By the late 1990s it was generally accepted by fire agencies that staying to defend a well-prepared home, or having predefined triggers to leave for a safe place well before the fire appeared, were the two best survival options for bushfire hazard. This led to the formal development of the Prepare, stay and defend your property or leave early policy, being prepared to stay and defend a well-prepared property. This became known as the “stay or go” policy that was formally adopted by all Australian fire agencies in 2005 (Handmer & Haynes, 2008). To be effective, the stay and defend part of “stay or go” makes a number of major assumptions regarding the nature of fire risk including that there is a single fire front that passes over the building within a short time (during which people need protection from radiant heat); that the property itself, and its location, are defendable (Lazarus & Elley, 1984); and that householders are adequately prepared and capable of actively defending their property (Handmer & O’Neill, 2016).

The catastrophic Victorian “Black Saturday” bushfires in February 2009 seriously challenged many of the assumptions behind the “stay or go” policy. Of the 173 people who died in this fire, 113 perished inside their homes and a further 27 just outside them. Twenty-one people died either in cars or on roadways while fleeing the fires. Many, however, successfully escaped approaching flames by car (Handmer & Haynes, 2008). A review of the legal underpinning of the “stay or go” policy focused on the shift in risk and responsibility between the homeowner and the authorities. The final report of the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission (VBRC) called for a revision of “stay or go” policy changing the emphasis toward leaving early and the importance of thorough preparation with the catch phrase “Prepare, act, survive” (VBRC, 2010). In 2014, the Victorian approach to community bushfire safety changed again to “Leave and live.” This was a further clear shift of emphasis toward leaving early as the safest option. The message is that people need to be well prepared, to have clear triggers to leave and not to “wait and see” how the situation develops. Most Australian States reviewed the “stay or go” policy after the 2009 Victorian bushfire disaster and now maintain it in a modified form. Serious challenges of governance remain:

  • to ensure that people maintain thorough preparedness to stay as a contingency plan in case they cannot leave due to a sudden fire or access closure;

  • to encourage leaving early “just in case” on all days of extreme danger is seen as too disruptive to lives and livelihoods and so people increasingly risk staying in the fire danger area; and

  • to ensure the efficacy of the policy and adaptation if days of very high fire danger become more frequent under climate change.

Australia has developed a system for assessing potential bushfire hazard conditions to determine a measure of “fire danger” or the difficulty of extinguishing any fires that may occur (ABOM, n.d.f). The ABOM issues Fire Weather Warnings to alert the public when conditions are likely to be dangerous but does not have the power to declare a Total Fire Ban. This responsibility resides with designated fire agencies in each State and Territory. The issue of a Fire Weather Warning has different impacts on restrictions for lighting fires. The highest category of Fire Danger Rating is Catastrophic, except in Victoria where it is called Code Red. In 2010 all Australian State and Territory governments adopted a single National Fire Danger Rating System (ABOM, 2009b).

Severe Storms

Severe thunderstorms producing lightning strikes, hail, flash flooding, destructive wind gusts, and tornadoes (and sometimes setting off bushfires) can occur at any time of the year throughout Australia, but are most common from September–March (spring–summer). Sparse population across large areas of the continent means that there is a lack of observation, so accurate thunderstorm distribution records are limited. Most damaging storms have been recorded in southeast Queensland and the central New South Wales coast, south to Sydney (ABOM, n.d.g).


Official death tolls from heat stroke tend to be understated because many such deaths go unreported. However, the available statistics show that extreme heat overwhelmingly produces the greatest number of fatalities of all Australian natural hazards (see Coates, Haynes, O’Brien, McAneney, & de Oliveira, 2014). The effects of heatwave on livestock and crops in agricultural areas are great, especially in times of drought. In addition, Australia has a very high proportion of its population concentrated in cities (almost 80% of the population live in the major cities (Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, 2015)) and the population is aging. This urbanized aging population is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of heatwaves (Steffen, Hughes, & Perkins, 2014).

Geological Hazards

As already noted, most natural hazards in Australia are due to meteorological conditions, so the occurrence of geological hazards is relatively minor. Unlike neighboring New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia, the Australian continent is relatively geologically stable. There are no active volcanoes and earthquakes in populated areas are rare.


Australia, however, is prone to intra-plate earthquakes and these are not as well understood as the plate-margin type of earthquakes common in Indonesia, California, Japan, and elsewhere. The historical written record in Australia goes back only 210 years, with the first earthquake recorded by Europeans in 1788 in Sydney. Compared with the world average, Australia’s earthquake occurrence is very low. Earthquakes in Australia have mostly occurred in unpopulated regions, and are of much smaller strength than the world’s most damaging seismic events. The geologically oldest western and central parts of Australia are most seismically active, although there are other areas such as central and coastal Queensland that commonly record seismic activity. An example of the impact of an earthquake hazard was that in 1989 in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia’s sixth largest city. This magnitude 5.6 earthquake killed 13 people (in two buildings) and damaged 70,000 buildings. The total damage bill was A$5 billion (McCue, 2010).


In Australia, landslides and landslips are usually the result of heavy rainfall, soil saturation, and human modification of topography in localized areas, mostly on the steeper, wetter, coastal ranges of eastern Australia (Michael-Leiba, Andrews, & Blong, 1997). A significant landslide was in 1997 at the Thredbo ski resort in New South Wales where 18 people died (Dawe, 1999).


Tsunami are usually generated by earthquakes, undersea landslides, or volcanic eruptions. There is geological evidence that, although rare, sections of the Australian coastline have historically been exposed to tsunami. On average a tsunami is recorded in Australia every two years but most are too small to be observed (Bird & Dominey-Howes, 2006)

The Australian Natural Hazards Governance Context

The Governance Context

The second critical reason for variation in natural hazards governance across Australia is the country’s federal government structure. There are three formal levels of government: the national level (also called the Federal, Commonwealth, or Australian government), the level of the six States and two Territories, and third the local government level. The principal responsibility for natural hazards governance lies at the State/Territory level rather than the national level (Zurita, Cook, Harms, & March, 2015). The national government has only those powers specifically given to it by the former British colonies when they became States within the united single country through the constitution of 1901. These federal powers include matters of national importance or which cross State boundaries. Hazard governance was not one of the powers transferred to the national government so it remains with the States as a “residual” power (Britton & Wettenhall, 1990). The six States (Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, and Tasmania—see Figure 1), as well as the two semiautonomous mainland Territories (the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory), each have their own natural hazard governance arrangements. Local governments are created through legislation by each State or Territory with the powers and responsibilities given to them by that State or Territory. Local-level hazard governance is normally one of these powers but this is always subject to State government oversight and ultimate control. There is no formalized national responsibility for reducing disaster risk or mitigating hazards. This is largely left up to the relevant agencies at State, regional, or district and local levels. Regions and districts are purely administrative artifacts and have no formal authority.

This is not to say that there are no national or country-wide elements of natural hazard governance. Although the national government has a limited constitutional role, it has substantial (and growing) influence by virtue of its financial strength, through the use of national resources (such as defense force personnel) in major disasters, and because of the growing recognition of the need to harmonize arrangements across the country. When the resources of an affected State or Territory cannot deal with a disaster situation, that jurisdiction can request assistance from the Australian government. Emergency Management Australia is the agency tasked with planning and coordinating central government assistance and resources under what is called the Commonwealth Government Disaster Response Plan (COMDISPLAN). Until the Australian Attorney-General’s Department was reorganized in 2009, Emergency Management Australia also provided advice and guidance for dealing with natural hazards (including production of a series of guidelines and manuals) as well as training for the relevant personnel. In 2015 the Australian government helped create the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience, signaling both changes within the national structure relevant to natural hazard governance and a greater focus on mitigation and resilience rather than response and recovery (Department of Attorney-General, 2017). The Institute is, however, essentially a “knowledge center” that coordinates and promotes the sharing of disaster resilience knowledge (AIDR, 2017); it is neither a front line nor a hazard governance agency. It is supported by the Australian government (through the Attorney-General’s Department) as well as the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council, the Australian Red Cross, and the Bushfires and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (AIDR, 2017).

In addition, there are similarities among the States and Territories because the different jurisdictions are guided by similar principles. A good example is the way that risk assessment related to natural hazards and other potential emergency events is guided by the agreed Australian/New Zealand standards, AS/NZS ISO 31000:2009 Risk Management: Principles and Guidelines (Standards Australia, 2009a). These international standards are specifically mentioned in the documentation of some of the States (such as in Western Australia (OEM, 2016b)). The need for collaboration is recognized by emergency management agencies, both government and non-government, and has been operationalized through organizations such as the Australasian Fire and Emergency Management Authorities Council whose membership includes agencies in both Australia and New Zealand working on hazard management, research, training, and communication (AFAC, 2016).

Natural Hazard Governance in the Australian States and Territories


In each of the six States and two Territories of Australia, formal natural hazards governance grew out of the need for emergency management capability. Thus, it is still most commonly incorporated within the responsibilities of a police, fire, or emergency services portfolio and is given its authority through extensions of the relevant emergency services legislation. In some cases, it is a responsibility of a coordinating portfolio such as the Attorney-General, or Premier and Cabinet.

This section now sets out the natural hazards governance structure in each of the six States and two Territories of Australia.

Australian Capital Territory (ACT)

The overall responsibility for hazard governance in the ACT vests in the Emergency Services Agency (ESA), led by a Commissioner under the ACT Emergencies Act2004. The agency helps identify risks as well as planning and coordinating responses and is responsible for the ACT Emergency Plan developed in accordance with the requirements of the Act. The plan “describes the responsibilities, authorities and the mechanisms to prevent, or if they occur, manage emergencies and their consequences within the Australian Capital Territory” (ACT ESA, 2016). Important aspects of the plan are first, that it is an all-hazards plan but there are hazard-specific sub-plans; second, that it identifies the lead agencies that are responsible for the management of identified hazards; third, that it aims to provide a single, flexible, and comprehensive framework; and fourth, that it aims to coordinate the efforts of the lead agencies and other agencies that support them in emergencies. Coordination is provided through a special committee of cabinet, another committee involving senior officials, and one made up of planning officials. The agency’s responsibilities, under the “all hazards” approach, are for the governance of natural as well as human-induced hazards.

New South Wales (NSW)

The relevant legislation in NSW is the State Emergency and Rescue Management Act1989, administered through the Office of Emergency Management within the Department of Justice. The Act empowers the creation of a State Emergency Management Plan. As the name suggests, the plan is set up to deal with events that require “a significant and coordinated response” (Emergency NSW, 2016) beyond those that are dealt with using standard procedures. The plan is also for emergencies that involve both natural and technological hazards. The plan identifies what it calls “combat agencies” with expertise related to particular hazards (for example, NSW Rural Fire Service for bushfires, and NSW Agriculture for animal health emergencies), the heads of which are responsible for controlling relevant emergencies. Where no “combat agency” is identified, control is vested in a State Emergency Operations Controller.

The plan creates state, regional, and local-level Emergency Management Committees. It “devolves control and co-ordination of emergency operations and the responsibility for preparedness, response and recovery to the lowest possible level but lays out a structure by which these resources may be augmented by Region and State resources if the Local level resources cannot cope” (Emergency NSW, 2016).

Northern Territory (NT)

In the Northern Territory, the principal relevant legislation is the Emergency Management Act 2013, which provides the legislative backing for the Territory Emergency Plan of 2016 (Northern Territory Emergency Service, 2016). The Northern Territory has all-hazards emergency management arrangements in place as approved by the Territory Emergency Management Council. The plan makes it clear that the arrangements extend beyond emergency management after disasters because it is structured around the four PPRR stages: prevention/mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. It is an all-hazards approach that includes both natural and human-induced hazards. The report shows that the government is transitioning from a “counter disaster” approach to an all-hazards, emergency management approach that emphasizes resilience. The arrangements distinguish routine emergencies handled by line agencies with specific expertise from hazard-specific emergencies (dealt with by the relevant Controlling Authority) from larger-scale emergencies such as those related to cyclones, flooding, and tsunami. There are separate arrangements for emergencies of national consequence, which require coordination with the national government. As is the case in other jurisdictions within Australia, the arrangements are intended to support emergency management activities at the local, regional, and territory-wide levels, with decision making being handled at the lowest possible competent level. There are counter disaster committees at each of these three levels.

Queensland (QLD)

In Queensland, the relevant legislation is the Disaster Management Act 2003, under which the Queensland State Disaster Management Plan 2016 was produced (State of Queensland (QPS), 2016). The structure of the state’s formal natural hazards administration has changed considerably in the last few years. The government elected in 2012 centralized many of the relevant activities into a Public Safety Business Agency but that government lost office early in 2015. The new government promised a review of the agency, which was carried out in late 2015 (Public Service Commission, 2015). There had been a review of emergency services by the former Australian Federal Police Commissioner in 2013 (Keelty, 2013) and an additional review carried out by the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry that was set up after the severe and widespread 2010–2011 floods (QFCI, 2012). Substantial administrative changes followed these reviews (Arklay, 2015). Keelty’s review referred to an even earlier review led by a government MP into the Queensland Rural Fire Service (State of Queensland, 2013). The central strategic leadership of emergency management in Queensland is now through the Queensland Disaster Management Committee, which is chaired by the State Premier; has a core membership of Ministers from relevant departments supported by their senior bureaucrats; and can invite additional Ministers, public servants, and non-government representatives at the discretion of the Premier. The Inspector-General of Emergency Management (IGEM) reports to the Minister for Police, Fire and Emergency Services. The state’s emergency management approach is supposedly whole-of-government and includes arrangements “based upon partnerships between government, government-owned corporations, non-government organisations (NGOs), commerce and industry sectors and the local community” (Queensland Government, 2016). There is also a State Disaster Coordination Group, chaired by the Queensland Police Service with core membership of public servants from relevant government departments and standing invitees from infrastructure providers, non-government organizations, and the like. In 2014 under the previous government (and the then Minister for Local Government, Community Recovery and Resilience) the state produced a Queensland Strategy for Disaster Resilience (Queensland Government, 2014). Under the post-2015 government this is the responsibility of the Department of Infrastructure, Local Government and Planning. The strategy has a strong emphasis on mitigation, preparation, and hazard reduction, with a special focus on natural hazards. Its relationship to the Queensland State Disaster Management Plan is unclear.

The emergency management arrangements deal with the consequences of “events” that may be natural or due to human action or inaction. Queensland disaster management arrangements are also organized as a three-level hierarchy, involving state, district, and local-level committees and plans. Responsibility for disaster and emergency management is devolved down the hierarchy, but the local level is given the main responsibility for managing mitigation measures while the Queensland State Disaster Management Committee is responsible for coordination with national level agencies. Although the disaster management arrangements include various invited non-government stakeholders, their responsibilities or specific contributions are not clear and coordination within the state government is problematic.

As is often the case in the other states, Queensland has in the past set up ad hoc agencies to help deal with the aftermath of particularly severe events. A good example was the Queensland Reconstruction Authority (QRA), set up after the 2010–2011 floods. In addition to helping with actual reconstruction the QRA also assisted local governments across the state to gain better information on flood plain topography and risks and assisted in the replanning for the relocation of the town of Grantham in the Lockyer Valley that was severely affected by flash flooding (QRA, 2012; QRA & World Bank, 2011; Sipe & Vella, 2014).

South Australia (SA)

The South Australian emergency management structure is legislated under the Emergency Management Act 2004; it is supervised by a council of cabinet Ministers (the Emergency Management Council), with a State Emergency Management Committee (SEMC) of senior bureaucrats reporting to it. The SEMC has a series of advisory groups relating to topics including mitigation and recovery, as well as to specific natural and human-induced hazardous situations. The Committee is also required to prepare and keep updated a State Emergency Plan and sub-plans that incorporate, among other matters, reducing the risks and mitigation of natural hazard impacts as well as response to and recovery from natural disasters. The plan identifies lead agencies (“leaders”), arrangements for inter-jurisdictional coordination, and the structures and procedures for response and recovery, but also, interestingly, provides specifically for recovery evaluation (Government of South Australia, 2015). The various “leader organisations” identified in the plan are responsible for taking a multi-agency approach to preventing and preparing for nine identified hazards (animal and plant diseases, bushfires, earthquakes, escape of hazardous materials, extreme weather, flood, human disease, urban fire, and terrorism).

The South Australian government also claims to take emergency management beyond the response stage to include mitigation: “South Australia is committed to the COAG (Council of Australian Governments) recommendation to fundamentally shift the focus of emergency management beyond response and recovery, to preparation and mitigation. In doing so, South Australia has also adopted the National Principles of Disaster Recovery that identify recovery as integral to emergency preparation and mitigation” (Government of South Australia, 2016). The National Principles of Disaster Recovery were articulated by Emergency Management Australia in 2004, more than a decade ago (EMA, 2004).

Tasmania (TAS)

The principal natural hazard governance document in this state is the Tasmanian Emergency Management Plan (TEMP) mandated under the Emergency Management Act 2006. Issue 8 of the TEMP was produced in 2014 and it is due to be reviewed every two years (Tasmanian Government, 2014b).

Tasmania, like many other parts of Australia, has faced severe damage from natural disasters. In referring to the Tasmanian January 2013 bushfires, the Minister for Police and Emergency Services said that they were “… the worst bushfires in almost 50 years with many properties, businesses and substantial infrastructure destroyed in a number of Tasmanian communities” (Hidding, 2015). Fortunately, no lives were lost, but as has been the case following natural disasters in other states, the Tasmanian government initiated an inquiry into the bushfires and the responses to that disaster (Tasmanian Bushfires Inquiry, 2013). The inquiry, and the state government’s response to its recommendations (Tasmanian Government, 2014a, 2014b), led to changes in the TEMP.

In 2013, within a matter of days after the severe bushfires, a Bushfire Recovery Taskforce was set up to coordinate the recovery efforts of government agencies, the private sector, and community organizations. A Bushfire Recovery Unit was established within the Department of Premier and Cabinet soon after this, tasked with coordinating state recovery activities and supporting local community-led recovery programs (Tasmanian Government, Department of Premier and Cabinet, Bushfire Recovery Unit, 2013). Although Tasmania had suffered numerous bushfires in the past it was not until 2013 that this Taskforce and Unit were put in place. The Taskforce has since completed its work, following a report that sought to provide lessons from the recovery from the 2013 bushfires (Tasmanian Government, 2014a).

The Tasmanian Emergency Management Plan has a section that covers the full ambit of the PPRR (prevention/mitigation, preparation, response, recovery) cycle and what each stage of that cycle means for natural (and man-induced) hazard management in the state (Tasmanian Government, 2015). Under the Emergency Management Act2006 the Department of Police and Emergency Management is responsible for administering the TEMP, while for the purposes of emergency management the state is divided into three regional groupings of local governments. The plan also identifies the roles of local governments, non-government organizations, and the community. The roles of the different actors were clarified, and their coordination enhanced, following the recommendations that flowed from the 2013 bushfires experience. Interestingly the plan provides a structure for consultation about emergency management as well as the structure for responding to emergencies. The structure is based around a hierarchy of state, regional, and municipal committees and their advisory and support agencies.

Victoria (VIC)

In Victoria, the arrangements are formalized through the Emergency Management Act2013 (State of Victoria, Emergency Management Victoria, 2015). The operation of the emergency management system is the responsibility of Emergency Management Victoria (EMV), which is located within the Department of Justice and Regulation, and is headed by the Emergency Management Commissioner. The emergency management system is, however, set out in the Victoria’s Emergency Management Manual (EMMV), which is the responsibility of the State Crisis and Resilience Council (established in 2014). This Council reports to the Security and Emergency Management Committee of Cabinet and hence to the State Premier (see State of Victoria, Emergency Management Victoria, 2015, pp. 1–14). Maintaining and updating the manual is the responsibility of Emergency Management Victoria. The current emergency response governance arrangements result from historical reviews of past natural disasters, especially those after the Ash Wednesday bushfires experienced in February 1983, the “Black Saturday” bushfires of February 2009, and the 2010–2011 Victorian floods. Natural hazard governance, however, is seen as only one component of hazard risk reduction, so that, as in the other states, hazards dealt with in the plan also include terrorism, chemical spills, and disease outbreaks.

The EMMV devotes one section to mitigation, risk reduction, and prevention. This sets out the issues surrounding pre-disaster planning (as well as planning to reduce the likelihood or impact of subsequent disasters). A State Emergency Mitigation Committee has been created to oversee mitigation activities, and the plan also refers specifically to the roles of local governments (through their Municipal Emergency Management Plans). There is, thus, a hierarchy of hazard governance roles, ranging from the central state government’s oversight and planning, through regional groupings of local governments, to individual local governments and communities. In addition, advice has been given to state government from a range of sources, including the various inquiries set up to respond to specific natural disaster events and to give advice with a longer-term horizon, such as the report by the Victorian Centre for Climate Change Adaptation Research on Governance arrangements for climate change adaptation and natural disaster risk management in Victoria (Godden et al., 2013). This report clearly shows how the governance of natural hazards and their risk is, especially in the longer term, closely bound up with an interconnected web of related legislation and policies. For example, Appendix 2 of the report identifies how the decisions and actions taken under six other pieces of legislation (the Catchment and Land Protection Act1994, the Coastal Management Act1995, the Environment Protection Act1970, the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act1988, the Public Health and Wellbeing Act2008, and the Water Act1989) must, under the Victorian Climate Change Act 2010, have regard to the potential impacts of climate change. Climate change is, however, mentioned only once in the EMMV and then only in relation to hazard mitigation.

Western Australia (WA)

The State Emergency Management Committee (SEMC) is Western Australia’s peak emergency management body, set up under the Emergency Management Act2005. It comprises members appointed by the Minister for Emergency Services, a local government representative, and representatives of up to seven relevant state government departments (OEM, 2016d). It is intended to “strategise, organise and oversee the coordination and continuous improvement of emergency management in the State” (DFES, 2016), mainly through advising the Minister, providing a community forum, developing and managing risk management strategies, and preparing plans to deal with the 27 natural and human-induced hazards identified in relevant legislation, ranging from bushfire and tsunami to car crashes and human epidemics. Changes to its structure and support were recommended by the Keelty Special Inquiry into the Perth Hills Bushfires of 2011 (Keelty, 2011). In 2016 the Secretariat then became the Office of Emergency Management as a result of the recommendations of the Special Inquiry into the January 2016 Waroona Fire by Euan Ferguson (OEM, 2016a). Many of Keelty’s recommendations related to the Department of Environment and Conservation rather than specifically to emergency management agencies because the Perth Hills bushfires that were the focus of his inquiry were partly the result of actions (or lack of action) in terms of controlled burning to reduce bushfire hazard. The Western Australia Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements (WANDRRA) are now administered by the Department of the Premier and Cabinet rather than a line department (DFES, 2016).

Western Australia is interesting in that it reflects in miniature the variation in natural conditions that affect Australia as a whole and are outlined in the section on climate and hazards. It covers “nearly 2500 km from north to south, a distance spanning 23 degrees of latitude. This spread encompasses several climatic zones including tropical in the far north, moving through grassland, desert, sub-tropical and on to temperate regions in the south west” (OEM, 2016c).

The SEMC, which is responsible for the State Emergency Management Policy and the State Emergency Management Plan (which incorporates the policy as well as hazard-specific plans (Westplans), support plans and national plans), thus has a wide range of natural hazards to plan for and manage. Its principal focus, though, is on the responsibilities of public agencies. The SEMC has identified six core objectives as fundamental to the well-being of the State relating to people, economy, social setting, governance, infrastructure, and environment. Each of these may be impacted upon by an emergency event and hence also represent potential vulnerabilities. The State Emergency Management Policy assigns specific responsibilities to public agencies in the management of risks related to these core objectives.

As is the case in the other states and territories, and reinforced by the sheer geographical scale of Western Australia, the governance of hazard management is structured hierarchically through state, district, and local levels. There are responsible committees at each of these levels. The State Emergency Management Plan identifies roles for the district and local committees and communities in prevention (mitigation), preparedness, response, and recovery phases, although the principal focus of the plan is on the responsibility of state government and semi-government agencies. Local governments are required to produce Local Recovery Plans and if more than one local government is involved, they are expected to coordinate their activities through a Local Recovery Coordinator.

State/Territory Governance Overview

An issue that faces natural hazard governance in all the states and territories is the connection between emergency response and overall hazard governance. Governments have a clear responsibility to assist their citizens in responding to emergency situations. All the states and territories have emergency response agencies that are well equipped to deal with relatively short-term disasters and crises. Often these agencies are, or include, the police forces, which in Australia are a state/territory responsibility rather than that of local government. Or there are specific agencies set up to deal with, for example, rural or urban fires. But what of longer-term planning and long-term mitigation efforts, for example, in dealing with future climate change? These are often written about or mentioned as objectives in state plans but are less frequently the focus of real attention or action. This tends to lead to a more concerted effort in governance for disaster response and recovery than for mitigation or prevention. This has been widely recognized but only slowly addressed. A 2014 report into disaster funding arrangements in Australia by the Australian Productivity Commission (PC) noted as key findings of its investigation that “Governments overinvest in post-disaster reconstruction and underinvest in mitigation that would limit the impact of natural disasters in the first place. As such, natural disaster costs have become a growing, unfunded liability for governments” (PC, 2014, p. 2). This gap between the rhetoric of enhancing mitigation efforts and the reality of response actions is well illustrated when the strategic visions of the six States and two Territories are compared with the detailed responsibilities set out in their hazard management plans.

The second common feature of approaches by Australia’s state and territory governments is in setting up an “all-hazards” governance structure that deals with both natural and human-induced hazards. Most commonly the same coordinating agencies, and sometimes the same line agencies, are responsible for both. This move was accelerated after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 and the international so-called war on terror. This conflation of hazards is reflected in the words used in the planning manuals of the various state governments.

Thirdly, although the constitutional authority for natural hazards governance is vested in the state governments, and although it is the national government level that provides the bulk of financial support for large-scale disaster recovery, in all states and territories it is the local level of government that is the most intimately involved in both hazard management and hazard planning. All the states and territories require local governments to prepare emergency management plans. Local governments are the first-line responders for most hazard-based situations, and because each of the states and territories has a hierarchical natural hazard governance system the next tier up the hierarchy is normally a district or regional grouping of local authorities. As Zurita et al. (2015) make clear, a form of subsidiarity exists where the principal governance responsibility is allocated first to the local level, then to the district/regional level, then to the level of the state or territory.

National Natural Hazards Governance

In terms of hazard governance, the Australian government can advise and support the states but is intimately involved in planning only for major or nation-wide hazards. The strong vertical fiscal imbalance among the levels of government does give it a powerful financial influence, however. The six States have the principal constitutional responsibility for hazard planning, usually with a responsible state minister, and each can have a different approach to hazard governance. Local governments are the front-line hazard planning and management authorities, but because they represent diverse local communities their approaches and capacities vary enormously. As explained earlier, the national or Commonwealth government’s assistance is triggered when a state or group of states do not have the resources to deal adequately with an emergency and request Commonwealth help. The Commonwealth, through the Attorney-General’s Department and Emergency Management Australia, coordinates emergency responses but also produces guidelines and advice, as well as providing training, for future emergencies (Hunt, 2016). Several national organizations or agencies of the national government continue to play a role in developing or encouraging either national-wide policies or national cooperation among state or territory bodies.

There are a number of ways in which the resultant potential for fragmentation is addressed. Regional groupings of local governments (usually assisted by the relevant state government) can work together in relation to shared hazards. State governments work together through joint ministerial meetings and policies as well as through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). This is the “peak intergovernmental forum in Australia” (COAG, 2016), made up of the Prime Minister, the State Premiers, and the Territory First Ministers, as well as the President of the Australian Local Government Association. COAG has developed a national strategy on community resilience and within this there is a strong push to shift natural hazard governance from “response and recovery” to “preparation and mitigation” (COAG, 2011, 2012). COAG’s policies are worked out through collaboration and are contained in intergovernmental agreements but for state constitutional responsibilities such as natural hazard governance, they have no force of law until implemented by the individual states and territories.

Box 3: Queensland’s Framework for Betterment: An example of governance roles and collaboration

The Queensland Betterment Fund aims at increasing resilience rather than just better coordinating relief measures. An emerging problem was that recovery funding often required the infrastructure to be rebuilt to the same standard that existed before the disaster. The Fund is a Queensland government initiative (managed by the Queensland Reconstruction Authority) that uses State government and Australian government funds available through the National Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements (NDRRA) to increase resilience by rebuilding and improving infrastructure. In 2015, A$20 million was available, A$10 million from the Australian government and A$10 million from the Queensland government. Conditions set by the Australian government included that the funds could only be used for damage associated with Tropical Cyclone Marcia in 2015 and that they could not be used for State government infrastructure. Thus, the funding was essentially for local government assets. The Framework for Betterment as set out in 2015 “allows local councils to restore or replace essential public assets damaged by Tropical Cyclone Marcia to a more disaster-resilient standard than their pre-disaster standard” (see QRA, 2015).

While natural hazards affect the entire country, the governance arrangements and responses can be impacted upon by the resources available and conditions of the localities in which the hazards occur. Although sparsely populated regions of Australia may suffer smaller impacts of disasters brought about by hazard events, the governance response in such regions is also likely to be different and often less effective. In Australia, the non-metropolitan areas are often referred to as “regional Australia” (for country or rural areas) or as “remote Australia” (for more isolated parts of the country). The Regional Australia Institute (RAI) has produced a number of policies and documents that recognize the problems facing small rural and remote communities across the nation, including the problems of recovering after disaster (RAI, 2013). The poor access and limited resources available to isolated populations when compared with those available to larger and well-resourced communities also contribute to variations across the country. In addition, as is the case in other countries, many rural, regional, and remote communities are suffering from population and economic decline, which has implications for hazard governance.

Other organizations with national coverage have also produced national guidelines. A good example is the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA, 2016), which has updated the 2002 Manual 7 linking land use planning and hazard management produced by Emergency Management Australia, a national government agency (EMA, 2002). The later report was funded by the national government and is intended to provide guidance for disaster managers, emergency management agencies, and land use planning agencies, in helping build more resilient communities. Similarly, there is a national university-based and federally funded Bushfire and Hazards Cooperative Research Centre that researches and informs policy makers about hazards, especially but not exclusively bushfires. They have completed a project on sharing responsibility in Australian disaster management (see McLennan & Handmer, 2014).

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), the national broadcaster, has a dedicated section and website (ABC, 2016) that both provide hazard warnings across the nation as well as providing information and links for communities planning for particular hazards. Although not dealt with here, non-government organizations (such as the Australian Red Cross) work across Australia, but have the greatest input into hazard and disaster response/recovery rather than in hazard management, although their advice is often sought when future hazard governance plans are prepared, so that they may be invited on to state disaster coordination committees. Similarly, national organizations such as the Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) provide advice to both the national and state governments about hazard management and risk from a private sector perspective (ICA, 2011). Their recommendations have helped shape hazard management policy.

Natural hazards governance is built on a concept of governance that is far wider than just that of government. In this regard, it reflects the situation in the wider public policy literature (see Minnery, 2007). The extent to which natural hazard governance in Australia (and New Zealand) incorporates government, non-government, and community actors is well captured by the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council in their recent strategic plan (AFAC, 2016, p. 8):

Fire and emergency services have an Australasian workforce of 288,000. Consisting of 254,000 registered volunteers, 34,000 paid staff in career roles (across fire services and parks and wildlife) and 6,000 retained or part time staff. Across the broader emergency management sector, the number exceeds 500,000. This unrivalled capacity … is provided with the benefit of substantial volunteer contributions.

The importance of a range of kinds of public-private partnership in Australian natural hazards governance is well captured in two recent reports (Bajracharya & Hastings, 2015; Bajracharya, Hastings, Childs, & McNamee, 2012) on the partnerships evident in emergency management centered on the Gold Coast region and the 2011 Queensland floods. The partnerships involved government, the business community, the wider community, and the not-for-profit sector. It remains to be seen how far this collaboration in disaster response and recovery is fully incorporated into planning and governance measures to reduce the impacts of, or to avoid, future disasters.


Australia’s natural hazard governance regimes are highly variable. This reflects the variation within the country resulting from its wide latitudinal extent and the resultant differentiated climatic and environmental conditions; but the variation is exacerbated by its federated, three-tier government structure with strong constitutional limitations on the powers of the national government. The principal responsibility for hazard governance, for both natural and human-induced hazards, lies with the state governments. There is increasing recognition of the need to harmonize state government approaches, which has led to the creation of mutually negotiated guidelines through inter-governmental coordinating mechanisms such as the Council of Australian Governments. These guidelines now recognize the need for greater attention to be given to mitigation and preparedness rather than to response and recovery. This advice is increasingly being incorporated into state and territory planning, but whether this is mainly in terms of rhetoric rather than real implementation remains to be seen.

There are critical externally induced variations caused by Australia’s location between the southwestern Pacific Ocean (and so impacted upon by the El Niño Southern Oscillations) and the Indian Ocean (with the resultant impact of the Indian Ocean Dipole). This externally induced variability is likely to increase in future with the impact of climate change and will undoubtedly require future review of hazard governance at all levels.

Several questions arise from this investigation into natural hazard governance in Australia. The first is how governance arrangements can be better coordinated, both within states and territories and between states/territories and the Commonwealth government, particularly in the light of the relatively common organizational restructuring that has occurred. This can be seen to occur after changes in government as well as resulting from the recommendations of the inquiries set up after major disasters. The second general question is where the best balance lies between response/recovery on the one hand and mitigation/preparation on the other. The optimal balance will vary with the kind of natural hazard involved, but it will also vary according to the level of government. Australian natural hazard governance is very hierarchical and “top-down”: state governments direct local government emergency responses, and the Commonwealth government directs states and local government when it can through its control of much hazards recovery funding (such as the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements). There is currently some discussion about greater application of the principle of subsidiarity (see, e.g., Hunt, 2016; Zurita et al., 2015) which if implemented may lead to stronger roles and greater resources for local-level agencies and governments. There is also the question implied in the use of the term “governance” rather than “government,” namely what are the most appropriate roles for non-government actors? Volunteers, local communities, the insurance industry, many business organizations, welfare organizations, and the like are involved in both emergency management and hazard management. They play important roles in response and recovery (Bajracharya & Hastings, 2015) but are yet to be fully or effectively integrated into future hazard management planning.

The experience of the different states and territories indicates that all of the governments involved have shown at times a disappointing inability to learn strategically from their experiences of past disasters. The plethora of reports produced by the historical reviews that have followed Australia’s all-too-frequent natural disasters is a case in point. Future natural hazards governance should include an element of strategic learning from the past.

We end with two more general questions. First, how do the roles and responsibilities for natural hazards governance in Australia’s federated government structure differ from those in other federated political systems (such as the United States, Canada, India, and Germany) and what mutual learnings are possible? Then second, do the same issues and problems that have been identified for natural hazards governance in Australia also impact upon sustainable development planning, including addressing how human activities exacerbate hazard risk?

Further Reading

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2003a). 1301.0 year book Australia, number 90: Feature article 4—Natural disasters in Australia (pp. 16–26). Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved from this resource:

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2003b). 1301.0 year book Australia, number 90: Feature article 5—Understanding natural hazard impacts on Australia (pp. 12–15). Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved from this resource:

Australian Government. (2015). Natural disasters in Australia. Retrieved from

Council of Australian Governments (COAG). (2011). National strategy for disaster resilience: Building the resilience of our nation: Canberra, ACT: Attorney-General’s Department. Retrieved from

Council of Australian Governments (COAG). (2012). National strategy for disaster resilience: Companion booklet. Canberra, ACT: Attorney-General’s Department. Retrieved from this resource:

Goff, J., & de Freitas, C. R. (Eds.). (2016). Natural hazards in Australasia. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Smith, K. (2013). Environmental hazards: Assessing risk and reducing disaster (6th ed.). Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge.Find this resource:

Zurita, M., Cook, B., Harms, L., & March, A. (2015). Towards new disaster governance: Subsidiarity as a critical tool. Environmental Policy and Governance, 25, 386–398.Find this resource:


Arklay, T. (2015). What happened to Queensland’s disaster management arrangements? From “global best practice” to “unsustainable” in 3 years. Australian Journal of Public Administration, 74(2), 187–198.Find this resource:

Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council (AFAC). (2016). Strategic directions for fire and emergency services in Australia and New Zealand 2017–2021. Melbourne: AFAC Ltd. Retrieved from this resource:

Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). (2014). Tropical Cyclone Mahina: Bid to have deadly March 1899 weather event upgraded in record books. Report December 26, 2014. Retrieved from

Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). (2016). ABC emergency. Retrieved from

Australian Bureau of Meteorology (ABOM). (2008). Tropical cyclones. Retrieved from

Australian Bureau of Meteorology (ABOM). (2009a). Queensland floods: January and February 2009. Retrieved from

Australian Bureau of Meteorology (ABOM). (2009b). Bushfire weather. Retrieved from

Australian Bureau of Meteorology (ABOM). (2010). Australian climatic influences. Retrieved from

Australian Bureau of Meteorology (ABOM). (2011). Severe Tropical Cyclone Yasi. Retrieved from

Australian Bureau of Meteorology (ABOM). (2013a). Australian weather and seasons—a variety of climates. Retrieved from

Australian Bureau of Meteorology (ABOM). (2013b). El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Retrieved from

Australian Bureau of Meteorology (ABOM). (2013c). Indian Ocean influences on Australian climate—Indian Ocean dipole. Retrieved from

Australian Bureau of Meteorology (ABOM). (2016). Climate classification maps. Retrieved from

Australian Bureau of Meteorology (ABOM). (n.d.a). Australian climate and weather extremes monitoring system. Retrieved from

Australian Bureau of Meteorology (ABOM). (n.d.b). Australian water information dictionary. Retrieved from

Australian Bureau of Meteorology (ABOM). (n.d.c). About tropical cyclones. Retrieved from

Australian Bureau of Meteorology (ABOM). (n.d.d). Climate glossary—drought. Retrieved from

Australian Bureau of Meteorology (ABOM). (n.d.e). Storm surge preparedness and safety. Retrieved from

Australian Bureau of Meteorology (ABOM). (n.d.f). Fire weather warnings. Retrieved from

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Australian Capital Territory Emergency Services Agency (ACT ESA). (2016). Emergency management. Retrieved from

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Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience (AIDR). (2017). The Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience. Retrieved from

Bajracharya, B., & Hastings, P. (2015). Public-private partnership in emergency and disaster management: Examples from the Queensland floods 2010–2011. Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 30(4), 30–36.Find this resource:

Bajracharya, B., Hastings, P., Childs, I., & McNamee, P. (2012). Public-private partnership in disaster management: A case study of the Gold Coast. Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 27(3), 27–33.Find this resource:

Bird, D., & Dominey-Howes, D. (2006). Tsunami risk mitigation and the issue of public awareness. The Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 21(4), 29–35.Find this resource:

Britton, N. R., & Wettenhall, R. L. (1990). Evolution of a disaster “focal point”: Australia’s natural disaster organization. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, 8, 237–274.Find this resource:

Cao, Y., Boruff, B. J., & McNeill, I. (2013). “Should I stay or should I go?” Defining the preparatory conditions in support of active defence for different fire danger ratings. Research Forum. Retrieved from

Coates, L., Haynes, K., O’Brien, J., McAneney, J., & de Oliveira, F. D. (2014). Exploring 167 years of vulnerability: An examination of extreme heat events in Australia 1844–2010. Environmental Science and Policy, 42, 33–44.Find this resource:

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