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date: 27 June 2017

Natural Hazards Governance in Australia

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Natural Hazard Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Natural hazards governance varies across Australia for two critical reasons. First, Australia has three formal levels of government (national, state, and local), each with their own particular responsibilities and resources. The national government has constitutional powers over matters of national importance or those that cross state boundaries. In terms of hazards governance, it can advise and support the states, but it is intimately involved only in major or national hazards planning. 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 hazards planning, usually with a responsible state minister, and each can have a different approach. 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. Emergency Management Australia (part of the national Attorney-General’s Department) has engaged with other levels of government to produce a National Strategy for Disaster Resilience and other national policies. Under these circumstances, a clear hierarchical chain of command is not possible, but serious efforts have been made to work collaboratively.

Second, climatological hazards dominate the range and occurrence of hazard events in Australia: floods, cyclones, storm, storm-surge, drought, and bushfire (but local landslips and earthquakes also occur). The large size and latitudinal range of the Australian continent results in varied 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 Nino-La Nina southern oscillation cycle has a strong impact. Flooding can occur throughout the continent and is the most common natural hazard. In summer, cyclones frequently occur in northern Australia, as do severe bushfires in southeastern and southwestern Australia. Hence, governance structures and disaster response mechanisms across Australia, while sharing many similarities, vary according to hazard type in different geographical locations.

A newly emergent third factor is the growing influence of the private sector on hazards governance. In Australia, two industries are especially visible. One is the powerful mining sector. Disasters can severely impact their activities, but they have the resources often needed in disaster recovery and reconstruction. Mining companies have assisted their local communities in the past and may seek a greater role in future hazards governance. The insurance industry is the second important private player. Its policies have already significantly influenced local government actions, for example, in planning for floods.