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date: 13 October 2019

Summary and Keywords

Natural hazards governance varies across Australia for two critical reasons: first, the country’s large size and latitudinal range; and second, its divided federal government structure. The first feature—the magnitude and latitudinal spread—results in a number of climatic zones, from the tropical north, through the sub-tropics, to temperate southern zones and the arid central deserts. Consequently, state and local government jurisdictions must respond to different natural hazard types and variable seasonality. In addition, the El Niño-La Niña southern oscillation cycle has a strong impact. Flooding can occur throughout the continent and is the most frequent natural hazard and most extensive in scope, although extreme heat events cause the greatest number of fatalities. In summer, cyclones frequently occur in northern Australia and severe bushfires in the southeast and southwest. Hence, governance structures and disaster response mechanisms across Australia, while sharing many similarities, of necessity vary according to hazard type in different geographical locations. Climatological hazards dominate the range and occurrence of hazard events in Australia: floods, cyclones, storms, storm surge, drought, extreme heat events, and bushfire (but local landslips and earthquakes also occur).

The second major reason for variation is that Australia has three formal levels of government (national, State, and local) with each having their own responsibilities and resources. The national government has constitutional powers only over matters of national importance or those which cross State boundaries. In terms of hazards governance, it can advise and support the states but is intimately involved only with major hazards. The six States have the principal constitutional responsibility for hazards planning, usually with a responsible State minister, and each can have a different approach. The strong vertical fiscal imbalance among the levels of government does give the national government powerful financial leverage. Local governments are the front-line hazards planning and management authorities, but because they represent local communities their approaches and capacities vary enormously. There are a number of ways in which the resultant potential for fragmentation is addressed. Regional groupings of local governments (usually assisted by the relevant state government) can work together. State governments collaborate through joint Ministerial meetings and policies. The intergovernmental Council of Australian Governments has produced a National Strategy for Disaster Resilience, which guides each state’s approach. Under these circumstances a clear national hierarchical chain of command is not possible, but serious efforts have been made to work collaboratively.

Keywords: Australia, federated government, climate variability, ENSO and IOD, coordination, governance

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