The Australian Government will be better able to respond to major emergencies through a new legislated framework for declaring national emergencies.
The National Emergency Declaration Bills, to be introduced into Parliament today will establish a clear mechanism for making an emergency declaration and ensure that national resources can be quickly mobilised in conjunction with state and territory resources.
When a national emergency declaration is in force, it will:
- provide alternative or simplified statutory tests to streamline the exercise of existing Commonwealth emergency powers to ensure a quicker response;
- empower Ministers to suspend, vary or substitute ‘red tape’ procedural requirements where doing so would benefit the community, such as to assist people in disaster-affected areas to access disaster payments or other services;
- enable the Prime Minister to require Commonwealth entities to report on stockpiles, resources and response options;
- create a new power in the Telecommunications Act 1997 requiring telecommunications providers to give the Commonwealth, States and Territories such help as is reasonably necessary, such as sending emergency alerts.
This central new framework for the Commonwealth Government’s emergency declarations will ensure communities get the help and support they need in times of crisis, Attorney-General, Christian Porter said.
The ability for Australia’s national government to quickly declare a national emergency will also send a strong, clear message to the Australian community – and to all levels of government across Australia – that there is a need for an urgent, nationally co-ordinated response to a particular emergency situation.
The Bills implement a key recommendation (5.1) from the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, which was released on 30 October 2020.
The Royal Commission’s report highlighted a range of benefits that would be achieved through the establishment of a framework for declaring national emergencies, including communicating to communities the severity of a disaster early, acting as a marshalling call for the early provision of Australian Government assistance and facilitating coordination with state and territory emergency management.
The Bill provides for the Governor-General to declare a national emergency, on the advice of the Prime Minister, for emergencies that are of national significance.
For a declaration to be made, the emergency must have caused, be causing, or be likely to cause, nationally significant harm to:
- the life or health of an individual, or group of individuals, animals or plants;
- the environment;
- property, including infrastructure, or;
- disruption to an essential service.
The Bill establishes a collaborative approach to emergency response, requiring states and territories to request, or be consulted on, the declaration of a national emergency unless there are exceptional circumstances which necessitate the Commonwealth making a unilateral declaration, the Attorney-General said.
This means swift action can be taken at a national level to deal with rapidly-developing emergencies, particularly in situations where a State or Territory is incapacitated or overwhelmed by events.
Emergency declarations will be limited to a maximum of three-months, with extensions possible if the initial justification for the declaration continues to exist. Of course, if another emergency arises that warrants making an emergency declaration, the declaration could be varied to respond appropriately to that challenge.
The Morrison Government has listened to stories of resilience, patience and courage in the face of disaster, throughout the Royal Commission into National Natural Disasters and indeed the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Australian community rightly expects and deserves swift and unambiguous action when natural disasters strike. This Bill will ensure that action can be delivered without delay.