Wednesday, 9 December 2020
National Emergency Declaration Bill 2020, National Emergency Declaration (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I rise to speak in support of the National Emergency Declaration Bill 2020 and the National Emergency Declaration (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2020. Both bills will implement recommendation 5.1 of the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements. The passage of the bills through the House and the Senate this year will enable the Commonwealth to respond to the impending bushfire season. These bills will allow for a national emergency to be declared by the federal government when an emergency rises to the level of causing or being likely to cause national significant harm. The bills will take an all-hazards approach, which means they cover harms arising from both natural and man-made emergencies. At a high level, the bills allow for the declaration of a national emergency provided the requisite statutory and legislative tests are met.
Once made, the bills allow the exercise of emergency powers including: providing for a streamlined framework for the exercise of Commonwealth emergency powers; enabling ministers to suspend or vary red tape requirements to assist people during the emergency; clarifying the telecommunications industry's obligations and immunities when assisting Commonwealth, state and territory governments—for example, to allow them to text messages to affected regions—and enabling the Prime Minister to require Commonwealth entities to report on stockpiles, resources and response options. Importantly, the framework will not seek to duplicate the primary role of the states and territories in responding to emergencies. States and territories remain the primary responders and agents best positioned to respond to emergencies within their jurisdictions. In particular, it will not seek to encroach upon the states' responsibilities for frontline emergency response actions. The states and territories will in most circumstances need to request the declaration of a national emergency. The Commonwealth can only unilaterally declare an emergency in narrow circumstances such as where consultation is not practicable.
The bills will enable the Commonwealth to take a stronger leadership role during times of national crisis. Making a declaration of a national emergency in and of itself is a political act and it will send a strong message to Australia, as well as to the international community, about the gravity of the emergency and the need for a coordinated national response. The royal commission's report on national natural disaster arrangements highlights a range of benefits—from the ability of the Commonwealth to declare a national emergency, including signalling to the public but also to government agencies the gravity of the situation, to helping to smooth the way for better state, territory and Commonwealth coordination.
As I touched on before—and I think these are important points to note—there are a number of safeguards in the legislation. I think any legislator should approach the idea of declaring a national emergency with some caution, because obviously legislation of this sort has been ripely abused by jurisdictions across the world in different circumstances and at different times. The declaration of a national emergency does obviously provide the Commonwealth government with enhanced powers over those that might exist in peacetime or in regular periods. It's important that we make sure that the exercise of those powers is justified, open to scrutiny and transparent and accountable, and that there are checks and balances upon them. I believe that these bills before the House get this balance right.
Firstly, for a declaration to be made there must be situations which are likely to cause, are causing or have already caused nationally significant harm. I think that's an important qualification here. The harm being done must be nationally significant. That imposes an important threshold that means that a national emergency cannot be declared on the whim of the government of the day but needs to meet an important public threshold test, of being nationally significant. It needs to be nationally significant harm to the life or health of an individual or a group of individuals or to animal or plant life, or alternatively to the environment or to property, including infrastructure, or cause disruptions to essential services. The sorts of things being envisaged here, of course, are bushfires of the scale and severity of those that we experienced over the last summer, but it could also be potentially a pandemic such as COVID-19 that we're experiencing now. It could be disruption of some significance to Australia's international supply chains. It could be another sort of natural disaster. It could be any number of things which are not yet necessarily envisaged but which could be covered by this legislation.
There are two pathways, as previous speakers have noted, to declaring a national emergency, either by the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister following the request of the relevant state or territory chief minister or, in exceptional circumstances, without such a request from a state or territory chief minister, when such a request is either not practicable—perhaps because the state or territory is itself in a crisis at the time—or if nationally significant harm is likely to result to Commonwealth assets or Commonwealth infrastructure. Those are the two pathways to declaring a national emergency.
Ministers who have emergency powers available to them under this legislation once a declaration is made must report to parliament on the exercise of powers under national emergency laws, which I think provides an important safeguard and scrutiny for what is being done. Importantly as well, declaration of a national emergency is limited to a maximum period of three months, with extensions possible. But of course any extension would require scrutiny and justification. Equally importantly, the entire package of legislation will be reviewed after five years, by a relevant parliamentary committee, to see if it's working as intended.
I commend these bills to the House. I think they will provide an important addition to Commonwealth-state coordination tools in response to natural disasters and an important augmentation of the Commonwealth government's powers in helping the community to respond to natural disasters, whilst ensuring that such powers cannot be abused and will be properly constrained.