Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall speaks on the Defence Legislation Amendment (Enhancement of Defence Force Response to Emergencies) Bill 2020

6 October, 2020 


I rise to speak on the Defence Legislation Amendment (Enhancement of Defence Force Response to Emergencies) Bill 2020. Defence's role is to defend Australia and it's national interests. This bill clarifies the legal basis of arrangements for call-out of defence personnel in defence of Commonwealth interests and in protection of state and territories in a domestic scenario. The bill aims to enhance the Australian Defence Force's capacity to provide assistance in response to natural disasters and other emergencies, such as we saw—so sadly—this year during the bushfires and the pandemic. In recent months, we've seen the east coast ravaged by bushfires and we've seen society brought to its knees by the pandemic, and, absolutely, defence assistance has been essential.

Defence has vast capabilities and resources that are for the purpose of the protection of the Australian people, and this is traditionally thought to be the protection of Australia from external threats. However, as we've seen this year, and we have seen it over time but more and more, we are also likely to need our Defence for domestic protection. I thank the work of the Defence Force in response to both of the emergencies that we've seen through 2020. The work that has been done by defence personnel has been invaluable and I can only imagine, for those communities that were absolutely on the front line of the bushfires, how absolutely essential it has been.

Currently, in relation to this bill, the legal basis for the operation of defence forces, especially reserves, in these scenarios requires clarification. We don't need to see a to and fro on the nightly news to understand how or when defence personnel can be called out. Communities need to know that they will be there to help when needed. The measures in this bill will enhance the ability to provide defence assistance. They will streamline the process for calling out members of the ADF Reserves under sections 28 and 29 of the Defence Act 1903. It will provide ADF members and other defence personnel and members of foreign forces with similar immunities to state and territory emergency services personnel, in certain cases, while performing duties to support civil emergency and disaster preparedness, recovery and response. It will amend the ADF superannuation legislation to ensure that reserve members who provide full-time service following a call-out are appropriately covered for superannuation and related benefits.

These are all amendments that are absolutely welcome. But there are some concerns in relation to this bill. This bill allows for the deployment of defence forces, both Australian and foreign forces, to be deployed in Australia in response to natural disasters and other emergencies. Natural disasters are well understood to include bushfires, floods, cyclones and landslides. However, I am concerned with the lack of specificity of these amendments in relation to the definition of 'other emergencies'. 'Other emergencies' could be anything from the pandemic that we're currently experiencing to chemical spills and nuclear incidents—any public health emergency. However, there is a lack of detail and definition of the term 'other emergencies'. Not defining it or at least limiting it to public health emergencies is a concern.

Our Defence Force should never be used for quashing internal protests or the exercise of democratic rights. Section 39(3)(b) of the Defence Act prohibits the use of the Australian Defence Force in industrial disputes and protests, but that doesn't completely quash my concern, because that prohibition does not apply if there is 'reasonable likelihood of serious damage to property'. To be very clear, the Defence Act does not define 'serious damage to property'. So there is a gap, and that gap is concerning.

We've seen a dangerous rise in authoritarian responses to civil protests around the world and in many neighbouring nations. Some months ago the Prime Minister himself spoke words that I found concerning in relation to the right to protest, especially around environmental issues. It would be concerning if there were any intention to use these measures in the amendments for something that was in fact quashing democratic rights.

There's another example of a lack of a definition. For example, the term 'domestic violence' is not defined, yet the Defence Act uses the term 'domestic violence' to justify the deployment of the Defence Force in the civil community. Similarly, it's not defined. There is danger, therefore. Having an ill-defined set of circumstances in which defence personnel can be deployed means that the public don't have assurance about their rights and liberties or that the deployment of defence personnel is not being used for a political purpose. That is something that should be clarified.

Defence personnel are immune from prosecution if acting in good faith under this legislation. The immunities that apply are similar to those of other emergency service personnel, which is absolutely appropriate. I repeat that the term 'other emergencies' should be defined. It must be defined to prevent deployment in circumstances that are not consistent with the public interest and the expectations of Australians. The government claim that they have left this term deliberately ambiguous as the nature of emergencies is that they cannot be forecast. While I agree it is difficult to establish an exhaustive list of emergencies, we can be very clear and define the circumstances in which defence personnel cannot and should not be engaged.

I urge the government to send this bill to a committee to refine the definitions and circumstances in which defence and the reserves can and should be deployed. The referral is important so that organisations, such as the Law Council of Australia, have an opportunity to consult and consider the amendments in detail and present findings to the committee. That would make the law better.

This summer we saw the first Australian climate refugees up and down the east coast of Australia. Defence personnel evacuated people from the beaches of Mallacoota and up and down the east coast. So many communities were decimated. Defence personnel and reservists have been intrinsically involved with the clean up and the rebuild. The rebuild is huge. Over 6,500 defence personnel were deployed in response to the summer bushfires—nearly 3,000 of whom were reservists.

Whilst it's important that we deploy all of our valuable resources to protect our communities from events like this summer's fires and to deal with floods and cyclones, it is also important that we look at the underlying causes. The government needs to step up and address the underlying factors exacerbating these events, actually invest in adaptation and resilience, and help communities protect themselves from extreme events, which we know from the scientists will be more frequent. As a matter of urgency the government needs to address the underlying factors exacerbating these events. The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements found in its interim report:

Australia's weather and climate agencies have told us that changes to the climate are projected to increase the frequency and intensity of natural disasters in Australia. Further warming over the next 20 years appears to be inevitable. Sea-levels are projected to continue to rise. Tropical cyclones are projected to decrease in number, but increase in intensity. Floods and bushfires are expected to become more frequent and more intense.

Australia needs to plan for a worsening scenario of natural disasters.

After last summer's bushfires, the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, made up of 33 retired fire chiefs with a collective experience of over 600 years of firefighting emergency management service to the community, took the lead and held a national bushfire and climate summit on what needs to be learnt. The summit concluded with the release of the Australian Bushfire and Climate Plan, which has 165 recommendations to ensure we do not leave communities unprotected again. The recommendations include establishing a domestic aerial firefighting fleet; early detection, warning and intervention systems; and community resilience hubs.

Nevertheless, having spoken with former New South Wales fire commissioner Greg Mullins, I know that all our strategies and plans to build more resilient communities will be for nothing if we don't mitigate the ultimate cause. We have to do something about climate change and our increasing emissions. Last year, the emergency leaders' warnings to this government were not heeded. I urge the government to learn from its mistakes of last year and to listen now. The government should invest further funds into the established natural disaster response agencies and organisations. The Rural Fire Service, the state emergency services, the country fire services and others require government support. At a time when we're in recession and unemployment is rising sharply, I urge the government to invest in the capabilities recommended by the emergency leaders. This can, of course, be done with defence forces. These organisations need greater capabilities themselves. The measures in this bill only add to these organisations. The Defence Force does not replace them; it works with them.

I support the use of the vast resources that Defence has at its disposal to respond to natural disasters. It is a proper and fit use of the capabilities Australia has invested in. But I urge the government to do more to define the circumstances under which Australian Defence Force personnel can be deployed in response to other emergencies through the explanation of this bill by committee. And the government must do more to protect Australians from a warming climate than just committing to militarise our response to the resulting catastrophes. The government must commit to a target. We must mitigate the risks. If this were an army advancing upon our shores, we would mobilise all resources available, so I urge the government to do that now.