The national emergency declaration came days after the east coast was already underwater. Why?
By Tom Lowrey
Mar 9, 2022 - 3:54:04 AM
By political reporter Tom Lowrey
Mar 9, 2022
Australian Army soldiers arrive in Broadwater, New South Wales to assist with flood relief efforts.
The floods that struck Queensland and northern New South Wales more than a week ago were already being labelled unprecedented.
Now, they are Australia's first "national emergency".
But what does that mean, and where has it come from?
And why make that call now, more than a week after the waters peaked?
Here's a quick guide.
What is a national emergency?
The idea of a national emergency emerged after the Black Summer bushfires.
The royal commission into natural disasters, called after the fires, specifically recommended the creation of a "national emergency" that could be declared by the Prime Minister.
It found that the federal government should be playing a greater role in responding to, and recovering from, natural disasters.
State and territory governments would still take the lead, but when extraordinary disasters occurred - particularly if they stretched across borders - the federal government could make a sweeping disaster declaration.
The idea was that it would place government agencies, and the Australian Defence Force (ADF), on high alert to respond.
And it would allow the government to act and the ADF to be deployed without having been requested by a state government, if need be.
The recommendation was adopted by the federal government and legislation was passed in late 2020.
But the legislation that actually passed parliament did a fair bit less than what the royal commission specifically recommended.
It basically allows the federal agencies to bypass a lot of what it calls "red tape" in responding to disasters and can force agencies to report on what sort of resources they have stockpiled.
Why call it now?
The royal commission was fairly clear that it saw national emergencies as something to declare early on, as a disaster was unfolding.
"A declaration would signal to communities the severity of a disaster early, [and] act as a marshalling call for the early provision of Australian government assistance when requested."
This declaration is coming more than a week after the immediate disaster has occurred, but the clean-up is still in full swing.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended the timing, arguing the situation has developed over the week or so since the waters peaked.
And he said he is yet to receive a formal request from New South Wales or Queensland, something he is seeking now.
Flood declared national emergency
The Prime Minister declares catastrophic flooding in northern NSW a national emergency, triggering federal intervention in the response and directing additional resources.
Soldiers march through a field towards a resident's property, as the resident watches on.
"I don't think it has taken long, we're following the process required for such a declaration," he said,
"The nature of the disaster over a week ago was different to what has emerged over the last week."
Labor has been supportive of the announcement but critical of the timing, with Shadow Emergency Response Minister Murray Watt suggesting it should have come much sooner.
"I do have to wonder why it is that he has waited so long before he actually declared this national emergency," he said.
"He has had the power to do this at any point over the last week."
So what will this actually change?
In short, not a whole lot.
Federal aid and support are already flowing into affected areas, though some have been critical of how quickly it has arrived.
Disaster relief payments and allowances are also being paid to more than 300,000 individuals.
In New South Wales, people in the worst-affected Local Government Areas are going to see their payments tripled - with two more payments of $1,000 to be made to adults, and $400 to children, before the end of this month.
Scott Morrison said the situation in the northern rivers is "catastrophic", on a different level to other flood-affected regions.
But he left the door open to extending that support to more areas if needed.
More than 4,000 ADF personnel have been deployed and 12 helicopters are being used.
And as noted before, the "national emergency" declaration does a fair bit less in practice than what the royal commission had in mind.
Asked what change the declaration might bring, the Prime Minister acknowledged it actually does not mean a whole lot.
"All this does is effectively remove some red tape, when it comes to how Commonwealth agencies are able to perform their duties in relation to this disaster," he said.
"It doesn't impact the ADF resources, they're already fully available: it doesn't trigger any payments, those payments have already been made.
"It doesn't trigger [more federal funding], those arrangements have already been implemented.
"It's another part of the process, but frankly, it's not the most urgent."
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