House debates

Wednesday, 9 December 2020


National Emergency Declaration Bill 2020, National Emergency Declaration (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2020; Second Reading

4:50 pm

Photo of Mark DreyfusMark Dreyfus (Isaacs, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Attorney General) Share this | | Hansard source

The 2019-20 Australian bushfire season, the Black Summer, will never be forgotten. Over 24 million hectares of bush and farmland were burnt. Over 3,000 homes were destroyed. Nearly three billion animals were killed or displaced. Thirty-three lives were lost in the fires. Over 400 deaths were caused by the toxic smoke that blanketed much of eastern Australia. So, indeed, the horrors of the Black Summer will not be forgotten but nor will the response, because we witnessed the very best of Australia in the Black Summer. We witnessed countless acts of extraordinary bravery by Australia's firefighters and emergency services personnel, including thousands of volunteers. Their courage and dedication saved many homes, many lives and whole communities. We owe them a debt that can never be repaid.

We witnessed an extraordinary international response. Firefighters and other personnel from across the world—including the United States, Canada, Singapore, Fiji, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand—sacrificed time with their families over the Christmas period to help Australia when we needed it most. Tragically, three American firefighters lost their lives. We also witnessed thousands and thousands of other acts of kindness and generosity by ordinary people across this country and across the globe. Donations of money, food, clothes and other supplies came flying in, thick and fast. People gave up their time to travel to bushfire ravaged parts to assist their fellow Australians. Many opened up their homes to strangers who had lost everything. The Australian people were tested during the Black Summer and the Australian people responded with courage, compassion and generosity.

The Black Summer will not be forgotten for another reason, too. At the same time as the world witnessed the very best of Australia, we also witnessed the very worst of Australia's political leadership: the catastrophic failure of leadership by an actor, a guy from marketing, who likes to play the role of Prime Minister on television but who did not appear to realise that what he did, or didn't do, had real consequences for the people of Australia. We saw a Prime Minister who proved himself unworthy of the country he nominally led. While it is true that the Black Summer was unprecedented, it did not come without warning. For many months, a coalition of 23 former fire and emergency chiefs tried to meet with the Prime Minister to tell him that a bushfire crisis was coming. They wrote to him. They pleaded with him to listen to their warnings. But, when the warnings came, the Prime Minister's first instinct was to ignore them. When the warnings were realised, his first instinct was to flee the country. When the inevitable criticism followed, his first instinct was to stage a media stunt. When the criticism grew louder, his only instinct was to make excuses. He said, 'I don't hold a hose, mate. It's a state responsibility. I don't have the power to do anything. If only we'd known what was coming.' In the middle of a national emergency, these are not the words of a leader. These are the bleatings of a coward.

In January of this year, the Prime Minister complained that the legal framework that would allow the Commonwealth to declare a national state of emergency does not exist. The Prime Minister wanted Australians to believe that, if only there had been a law that told the Prime Minister how to respond to a national emergency, everything would have been okay. But the law was not the problem. The law did not require the Prime Minister to ignore the coalition of 23 former fire and emergency chiefs in the lead-up to the Black Summer. The law did not require the Prime Minister to fly, in secret, to Hawaii for a holiday while Australia burned. The law did not require the Prime Minister to force grieving and traumatised women and men to shake his hand for a photo opportunity. The law was not the problem; this Prime Minister was the problem.

There is a long history in Australia of the Commonwealth government responding quickly and decisively to natural disasters, including through the speedy deployment of the Australian Defence Force to provide on-the-ground support. There is a long history in Australia of prime ministers showing national leadership and galvanising the country in times of crisis. When the Black Saturday fires hit in 2009, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd did not run. He did not hide. He did not shirk responsibility or make excuses. After the disastrous Queensland floods in 2010-11, Prime Minister Julia Gillard acted the same way. They both acted quickly, decisively and with compassion. They acted in the national interest; they acted like prime ministers.

I'll come now to the bills that are before the House. When the government provided us with copies of these draft bills one week ago, we proposed a number of amendments to address some poor drafting and a number of potential unintended consequences. The government has largely addressed those concerns with the amendments that it proposes to make. As amended, Labor believes that these bills would make a number of very minor and largely technical improvements to the law. We support them.

I fully expect the Prime Minister and his ministers to make very large claims about these bills. The Prime Minister will probably pretend that, had these bills been in place prior to the Black Summer, they would have made all the difference. That's not true, and a press release does not make it true. No amount of marketing would make it true. Beyond providing a statutory basis for the government to declare a national emergency, which the Prime Minister could already do, these bills add very little of substance to the existing large array of powers that are already available to the Commonwealth in response to a national emergency. I urge our friends in the press gallery not to fall for the government's spin.

Labor is, of course, always concerned when legislation is rushed through parliament without the usual process of scrutiny and debate, which are cornerstones for a healthy parliamentary democracy. Problems can be overlooked and mistakes can be made. For that reason, as a condition of Labor supporting the swift passage of these bills during this sitting week, the government has agreed to the unusual process proposed by Labor that the bills will be reviewed by a Senate committee immediately upon passage of these bills through the parliament. I thank the Attorney-General for agreeing to that amendment as well as agreeing to a number of the other sensible amendments proposed by Labor.

The amendments to section 15 of the primary bill, for example, ensure that it would not be possible, in any circumstances, for any minister to vary or suspend the information-gathering or other powers of various parliamentary committees or Commonwealth oversight bodies during a national emergency. The fact that the original bill would have given rise to such a possibility is concerning, but it is not surprising; in fact, it is entirely consistent with this government's approach to oversight and accountability. At best, it is an afterthought.

While the amendments to section 15 are very welcome, I'd like to put on the record that, in these hastily drafted amendments, the government has not expressly excluded the powers of the Information Commissioner from the operation of that provision. I've been assured that this is an oversight which the Attorney-General will address by way of regulation immediately following the passage of the bills. There may also be other acts which should be expressly excluded from the operation of section 15. They include the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor Act, the Australian Human Rights Commission Act, the Public Interest Disclosure Act and all or part of the Privacy Act. I urge the Attorney-General and the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee to give further consideration to those matters.

The amendments proposed by Labor and accepted by the government will also ensure that the powers in the bills—limited though they are—will be reviewed by a Senate committee every time a national emergency is declared. However, the government did not, unfortunately, agree to all of Labor's proposed amendments. One of those proposed amendments, for example, would have required the Prime Minister to consult with the opposition leader prior to declaring a national emergency. That would be a modest and sensible recommendation. Another amendment proposed by Labor but rejected by the government would have meant that a declaration of a national emergency would be disallowable by the parliament. In our view, the capacity of the parliament to take that action along with the requirement to at least consult with the Leader of the Opposition would act as important safeguards to prevent the declaration of a national emergency in clearly inappropriate circumstances, such as for reasons of political self-interest. Those are further matters that should be considered by the Senate committee following the passage of this legislation.

Last, I come to a more significant matter, which is the failure to prepare for the upcoming bushfire season. Much more significant than anything in these bills is the fact that it is December 2020 and the Prime Minister is still refusing to listen to experts in the lead-up to this disaster season—just as, last December, this Prime Minister was refusing to listen to experts. The chief executive officer of Suncorp, one of Australia's largest insurers, has warned, 'Our nation is no better placed to withstand the impacts of extreme weather than we were last year.' Yesterday, the same former fire chiefs the Prime Minister refused to meet with last year repeated their concern that the government has not done enough to prepare for the next horror bushfire season. The Morrison government has not spent one cent of the $4 billion Emergency Response Fund that this Prime Minister announced 18 months ago. This money could be building cyclone shelters, it could be building firebreaks, or it could be building flood levees in disaster prone communities. Instead, this money is sitting in Treasury doing nothing, just like the Prime Minister—another announcement and another failure to deliver.

The Morrison government refuses to support the establishment of a national aerial firefighting fleet—something that Labor committed to doing long before the Black Summer bushfires. Establishing a national aerial firefighting fleet was a key recommendation of the bushfires royal commission—a royal commission the Prime Minister announced but whose report he is now ignoring. It is another example, if another were needed, of this Prime Minister caring only about the headline and delivering nothing.

And, after eight long years of this Liberal government, the Prime Minister refuses to take any real action to address climate change. Indeed, he refuses to even acknowledge that climate change caused by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions is the reason Australia and our friends around the world are suffering increasingly catastrophic events with greater frequency than ever before in recorded history. Just like last year, the Morrison government isn't prepared for the coming disaster season. Just like last year, the Prime Minister is engaging in stunts and making announcements rather than taking the action that is needed to keep Australians safe. The member for Cook needs to stop pretending to be the Prime Minister and start acting like one.

I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:

(1) notes the:

(a) Prime Minister's failure to prepare adequately for the last bushfire season;

(b) Prime Minister's catastrophic failure of leadership during the last bushfire season, which Australians have come to know as the Black Summer; and

(c) bill largely re-states emergency powers that are already powers of the Commonwealth Government; and

(2) calls on the Prime Minister and the Government to:

(a) learn from their catastrophic failure to prepare for, or respond to, the Black Summer;

(b) urgently prepare for this disaster season, including by releasing funding for mitigation works from their $4 billion Emergency Response Fund; and

(c) accept, and implement, the Royal Commissioner into National Natural Disaster Arrangements' recommendation to develop a sovereign aerial firefighting fleet".

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Adelaide, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Amanda RishworthAmanda Rishworth (Kingston, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Adelaide, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Isaacs has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. So, if it suits the House, I will state the question in the form that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.

5:07 pm

Photo of Katie AllenKatie Allen (Higgins, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, 2020 has been quite a year. Governments all over the world have enacted emergency powers to protect the public against the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, I would say that our government has, on record, a great delivery of a response to a crisis that many around the world look to with envy. Early this year, Australia also faced the deadly threat of bushfires, and, again, emergency powers were also enacted. Both of these crises have highlighted the tension that can arise between the need for governments to act quickly in an emergency and the due processes of our wonderful, vibrant democracy.

At the same time, however, we are hopeful to have this legislation in place for our rapidly approaching bushfire season. We are aware of what needs to happen. This is why the government has worked closely with Labor on this legislation to deliver a robust and measured process of review for this legislation once it is in action. And I thank the members opposite for their contribution to ensure that we have the best form of legislation, which has had to be delivered somewhat at speed, you could say, because we do have the bushfire season fast approaching.

I am confident that the National Emergency Declaration Bill 2020 will strike the balance required, providing clarity and efficiency while also preserving our necessary democratic safeguards. The bill will not just deal with one type of emergency; it will have an all-hazards approach, whether they are natural or man-made. All disasters defined in the acts that this has an oversight of remain unchanged. Previously, the definition was different in every act, so the definition for triggering it was different in every act. For example, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 already has the power to conduct land clearing in an emergency, but it will become automatic on declaration of a national emergency for the purpose of keeping people and property safe.

The National Emergency Declaration Bill 2020 will establish a legislative framework for the declaration of a national emergency by the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister. This is in line with the recommendations of the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements. This bill will develop a consolidated list of the wide range of emergency powers at the Commonwealth's disposal during a national emergency and empower ministers to sidestep the red-tape requirements in legislation that they administer. It will also allow the Prime Minister to compel accountable authorities of Commonwealth entities to provide information to assist the government in a national emergency.

Now, we have had two huge disasters in the last 12 months, and the community expects a rapid and coordinated and integrated response. It has been seeing that in action in the last year, and this will continue to improve those processes. This bill could, for example, include information about stockpiles, assets and resources—vital for events such as bushfires. It will provide decision-makers with greater clarity as to the range of powers available in a national emergency. At the same time, it will provide greater efficiency, and this will protect lives and livelihoods.

The National Emergency Declaration (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2020 works in tandem with the aforementioned bill to establish a legislative framework for declaring a national emergency. It amends various acts and regulations that contain powers that are used during a national emergency. However, the consequence of this is relatively confined and creates only one new power, with the imposition of an obligation on telecommunication providers to help in times of national emergency. This may include, for example, sending emergency message alerts. This is merely a reflection of the times. In the past, communities, particularly regional communities in bushfire affected areas, would rely on our wonderful ABC for important and critical messages via radio. But, as we know, so many Australians are now very dependent on their smartphone device—91 per cent of Australians have one—so it's important that we utilise all mediums when there is a national emergency to ensure that people get out when they need to. I know personally, with family members affected by the Black Saturday fires at Marysville and the terrible loss of life through that tragic period, that people did not respond to the request to leave their property. They stayed to defend it and fight, and there were some tragic outcomes as a result.

This bill will streamline existing powers in the case of a national emergency. Amongst a variety of other things, it includes amending the Sydney Airport Curfew Act 1995 to enable aircraft to take off from or land at Sydney airport during the curfew period when it's being done in connection with a national emergency. Obviously, it's sometimes not clear for people that the workings behind a decision for government to act can be curtailed by all sorts of technical aspects, and this smooth-sailing approach to cutting red tape to ensure that governments can act efficiently is very important. This bill is firmly centred on ensuring contemporary practise and efficiency during a national emergency so that we can keep people safe.

It's also important to remember that the efficiency of use must not become the efficiency of abuse. We're all keen to avoid the mistakes of the Victorian government during the COVID-19 pandemic, who failed to understand the balance between responding swiftly in a crisis and ensuring accountability when they sought to extend their emergency powers by an extraordinary 18 months. Like a patient in an emergency, doctors must often step in and work swiftly, frequently without pre-consent. But when a disease becomes chronic, informed consent cannot be a casualty in decision-making between doctor and patient—likewise for our democracy. When time is of the essence, our democracy can and should take a momentary back seat. But when time is no longer of the essence, our democratic processes must always be in the driver's seat. We forget this principle at our peril.

We have seen the good, the bad and the ugly during national emergencies around the globe this year. I think Australians should feel very confident and very secure with the fact that we have a steady pair of hands at the helm. This bill is about ensuring that Australia's practises are top tier, without compromising our democratic foundations. I commend these bills to the House.

5:14 pm

Photo of Helen HainesHelen Haines (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Today, I rise in support of the National Emergency Declaration Bill 2020. This bill makes a significant and important change to the way our country responds to national disasters. What we saw last summer, to be frank, was an inadequate response from the Commonwealth to the bushfire crisis. In Indi, as fires ripped across the High Country over the new year period, when people turned to the government for support, instead of helping immediately, it hesitated.

For too many weeks, the Commonwealth failed to understand what its role was in responding to the national bushfires and what support it would provide to frontline communities. To be fair to the Commonwealth, primary responsibility for immediate disaster management response rests with the states, but the Commonwealth plays a significant role in disaster response and has access to many tools to which the states do not. Funding aerial firefighting, telecommunications infrastructure, running ABC broadcasts, electricity grids, military assistance—these are all in the hands of the Commonwealth.

Many of the key challenges that our community faced were linked to these Commonwealth responsibilities. Towns like Walwa and Corryong lost power for days as a result of the bushfires ripping through the powerlines because, as a nation, we've not invested in energy reliability in remote and regional communities through secure local power generation. In the Upper Murray, where the fires killed thousands of livestock, the mayor of Towong Shire told me: 'We need the ADF. We need them now to help us bury our animals.'

The Deputy Prime Minister kindly called me during that time and asked me, 'What can the government do to help?' My answer was exactly what the mayor of Towong told me. I said, 'Deputy Prime Minister, we need the ADF.' As a result of the delays in deploying the ADF, livestock burial and the clean-up operation took weeks longer than it needed to, with enormous distress. Communities along the border, like Walwa and Jingellic, faced uncertainty and confusion when fires in one state did not appear on the emergency app from the other state. Moving towards a standardised national emergency notification system is a clear role for the Commonwealth. But on each issue, the important point is that in a crisis everyday Australians shouldn't have to navigate the complexities of the Federation—they just need a system that works. When the fire crests the hill of your property, when you've been sheltering in the Corryong College Hall for six days, when you've been evacuated to Wangaratta Showgrounds for the third time this summer, when your home burned down in January and it's December and you're still living in a caravan, the thing you care least about is the constitutional delineation of responsibilities. You just need help. This summer, in too many cases, the Commonwealth was flat-footed and slow to respond. In too many cases more damage was done, the recovery was slowed and the harm compounded by a convoluted and bureaucratic response to a crisis.

In a disaster, to quote the Attorney-General:

The Australian community rightly expects and deserves swift and unambiguous action …

And, last summer, we did not get that. Indeed, this was exactly the finding of the royal commission into last summer's bushfires. The commission found that our disaster management framework is not fit for purpose. It's not fit for purpose now, and it needs significant reform to prepare us for a more uncertain future. The 80 recommendations of the royal commission make clear that Australia was not prepared for the Black Summer bushfires and is not prepared for the hottest summers to come.

This bill is the first actual legislative response to those recommendations, and I support it. This bill will enable the Governor-General on advice of the Prime Minister to declare a national emergency. In order to seek that declaration, the Prime Minister must be satisfied that the emergency has, or will cause, nationally significant harm. The Prime Minister will be required to declare a national emergency at the request of the relevant state or territory. However, the bill also empowers the Prime Minister to unilaterally request the declaration in extremely limited circumstances, including if it is not practicable to make a declaration at the request of a state or territory, if Commonwealth interests are affected or if the Prime Minister is satisfied that it is appropriate to make the declaration without a prior request from the states and territories. This is a significant power that, if used, will do two things. First, it will streamline the Commonwealth's response to disasters by bringing into a single framework all the powers that ministers have to respond to a disaster. Second, it will send a powerful message across Australia and internationally about the severity of a crisis, focusing our national attention on the response and mobilising resources from right across our community to respond.

I support this bill because I believe it takes us closer to a more robust national disaster response framework, and closer to a system that will work better for the people I represent. To explain my reasons, I'd like to read from a letter I sent to the Prime Minister on 3 January this year at the height of our fires. At that time, when heavy smoke blanketed our beautiful region, when thousands had been evacuated and when it looked like the uncontrollable flames would burn until the heavy rains came in spring, I wrote to the Prime Minister to request that he declare a national emergency. I wrote: 'Dear Prime Minister, I have travelled widely through my severely affected border electorate of Indi over these past few days. The situation is unprecedented, with mass evacuations taking place as I write. Small hospitals are evacuating the frail aged, pregnant women and tens of thousands of summer holidaymakers. Our neighbours in New South Wales and East Gippsland are likewise in dire situations. The weather forecast for tomorrow, as I'm sure you are aware, is dreadful. The state government emergency services are magnificent, and the local response is absolutely extraordinary. But it is only 3 January and the capacity for these small communities to maintain momentum for months to come is a huge concern. Likewise is the need for infrastructure, physical and emotional recovery when that time comes. The economic impact on agriculture, tourism and small business will be serious and long term.'

My letter went on: 'Today, I spoke with the Deputy Prime Minister to describe our situation. At emergency briefings and community meetings I have attended, the message is clear: no-one has seen a situation like this before. What is also clear is that people are asking why the Prime Minister has failed to declare a national emergency. I am hearing this from measured, experienced country people.'

In my letter I said, 'Prime Minister, I call on you to declare a national emergency. In doing that, the federal government can support a fully coordinated approach that crosses state boundaries, operationalises supplies to firefighters and damaged communities, provides military support to logistics, deceased animal burial, fuel supplies, traffic management and relief centres, and put in place a long-term recovery plan. It can consider backup support for our heavily burdened rural emergency, local government and health workforce. Prime Minister, these fires are exactly what were predicted months ago. These fires are what our leading scientists, fire chiefs, peak medical bodies and agricultural and community leaders have warned will be a regular feature for Australia as a result of climate change. Prime Minister, I know that my rural community and so many like it are the ones that take the full brunt of these natural disasters. I offer my full support to your government to operationalise any emergency plan for our nation.'

That was written late at night on 3 January. The fires would burn for many more weeks to come. Many more cattle would die, more homes would be lost and more people would be lost. Three weeks later a C-130 Hercules tanker would crash into the Snowy Mountains, killing three US firefighters who had flown across the Pacific to support us.

I support this bill, because last summer I saw up close, as our beautiful region burned, why we need the ability to respond rapidly in a crisis. At the same time, I'd like to record two concerns I have with the bill. In extreme circumstances this bill allows the Commonwealth to declare a national emergency in a given state or territory without consulting with the relevant premier or chief minister, and yet the bill has been drafted without consulting the states or territories. I understand the need to move quickly with this legislation, I truly do, but establishing a unilateral power to declare a national emergency in a sovereign jurisdiction is indeed an extraordinary power and the states and territories should be consulted in that process. I welcome the decision to review the bill immediately upon commencement. I call upon the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee to consult deeply with state and territory governments in that review.

Secondly, I'm concerned that this bill barely begins to implement the recommendations of the bushfire royal commission. Today is the second-last day of parliament for the year. Tomorrow we're scheduled to rise for a summer break which we all hope will be better than last summer. It's concerning to me not just that the government has waited until the last possible moment to debate this important legislation but that we're going into the next season in essentially the same position as we went into the last one. We have no sovereign aerial firefighting fleet, no single app for sending out disaster notifications, no national register of fire and emergency services personnel and equipment and no interoperable communications for emergency services across jurisdictions.

These were all recommendations of the royal commission. These are all the things we must do because the royal commission said it is a matter of urgency. They are things we must do because the royal commission said 'it is plain that the shortcomings that we have identified must be addressed'. And yet, a year on from the fires, we have done none of it. So I support the passage of this bill through the House not because it will solve all the problems in our bushfire response but because it addresses one of the many shortcomings the royal commission identified in our current bushfire response framework.

Today we are legislating to prepare ourselves for circumstances we hope will never darken our nation's door. But we must be clear eyed about this. Australia will again see times in which resorting to these powers is necessary. The time to prepare properly is now, not when the lightning sparks, not when the virus morphs, not when the tsunami swells. I appeal to the government to move with the urgency this issue deserves and fully implement the recommendations of the royal commission. When the next fires hit, we must be ready. I commend this legislation to the House.

5:26 pm

Photo of Dave SharmaDave Sharma (Wentworth, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

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.

5:32 pm

Photo of Trevor EvansTrevor Evans (Brisbane, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank all honourable members for their contributions to the debate. The National Emergency Declaration Bill 2020 will establish a legislative framework that enables the Governor-General, on the advice of the Prime Minister, to declare a national emergency. This bill will operate in conjunction with the National Emergency Declaration (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2020, which will consolidate and streamline enumerated emergency powers across the statute book to enable ministers and officials to act decisively in respect of a declared national emergency.

Together these bills will create a unified framework for the use of Commonwealth powers during emergencies of national significance. The framework will enable a national emergency declaration to be made, sending a clear, strong message to the Australian community of the severity and nature of the disaster and mobilising all levels of government in the response and recovery effort. Importantly, these bills will implement recommendation 5.1 of the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements. The bills' framework will be applicable to emergencies that rise to the level of national significance, whether they be disasters caused by humans or natural disasters. The framework will be able to be employed in respect of emergencies occurring on land or sea, including in Australia's offshore area, or in Australian airspace, and emergencies that are limited to one jurisdiction or that span multiple jurisdictions. This all-hazards approach acknowledges the complexity, scale and significance of the emergency events Australia may face, some with increasing frequency.

The bill provides a power for the Prime Minister to request the declaration at the request of the relevant state or territory, or combination of states and territories. However, the bill also provides the Prime Minister the power to unilaterally request the declaration in limited circumstances. This will ensure that the Commonwealth can take swift action where a state or territory is incapacitated or overwhelmed by the emergency events. This also ensures affected states and territories can continue to focus their energy on operationalising their response and recovery efforts. A declaration may only be made for as long a period as the Prime Minister considers necessary for the purposes of emergency management and for a maximum of three months. The Governor-General may extend the duration of a national emergency declaration for up to three months if the Prime Minister is satisfied of effectively the same test as for the declaration of a national emergency. The Governor-General may also vary other aspects of a declaration—for example, if an emergency affects additional parts of Australia. The government amendments to the bill require that the Prime Minister be satisfied of effectively the same test as for the declaration of a national emergency before the Governor-General may vary the declaration. The bill will provide ministers and decision-makers abilities to suspend, vary or substitute red-tape requirements in laws that they administer where a national emergency declaration is in force. By temporarily removing or varying procedural requirements that may be a barrier to people in emergency-affected areas accessing payments, benefits or services, this power will ensure that individuals affected by a declared national emergency can get the support they need quickly.

The bill provides that requirements contained in certain acts or prescribed in regulations may not be suspended, varied or substituted during a national emergency. Government amendments to the bill extend this list to include statutory requirements contained in legislation establishing oversight agencies and parliamentary statutory committees. The bill provides that, where a national emergency declaration has been made, the Prime Minister may require an accountable authority of a Commonwealth entity to provide specified information to the Prime Minister for the purposes of preparing for, responding to, or recovering from an emergency to which the national emergency declaration relates. This may include information on stockpiles of medical or other supplies held by or available to the Commonwealth entity, assets or other resources held by or available to the Commonwealth entities or options or recommendations relating to actions that may be taken by the Commonwealth. In addition, the declaration framework consolidates and streamlines the various Commonwealth emergency powers across the statute book. This will enable ministers and officials to have a complete picture of the powers that they can use to assist with the response and recovery effort. The making of a national emergency declaration will enliven the ability for ministers and officials to use an alternative, streamlined test to respond to the declared national emergency. These alternative tests are provided for in the National Emergency Declaration (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2020. The bill requires that a review of the act be initiated within five years of its commencement. Government amendments will strengthen these review requirements by a requiring a review of the act immediately following its commencement for report by 30 June 2021 and introducing a requirement for each national emergency declaration made by the Governor-General to be reviewed within 12 months of the declaration being made.

In conclusion, the bills will ensure that the Australian community is aware of the significance, gravity and nature of a declared emergency event, and galvanise support across all levels of government towards the response and recovery effort. The National Emergency Declaration (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2020 will also provide greater visibility to decision-makers of the full range of powers available in a national emergency. As foreshadowed, the government intends to move amendments in the consideration-in-detail stage. I commend these bills to the House.

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill now be read a second time. To this the honourable member for Isaacs has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.

Question agreed to.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.