Whose responsibility is disaster relief: Federal or state government?

Posted 29 February 2016

The Western Australia bushfires are another tragic chapter in Australian history. From those in government legal jobs to ambulance officers across the country, Australians gave money, food and offered their services to help those in need.

Yet, the scale of these disasters and the response required begs the question: Whose responsibility is disaster support?

During the bushfires, the Queensland government sent six Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) personnel to help fight the disaster that was unfolding in the western state.

Minister for Fire and Emergency Services Bill Byrne pointed out that the state was more than happy to help out. 

"Our emergency services are always ready to assist fellow agencies during their time of need and there is no denying that the current bushfire situation in Western Australia has been devastating," Mr Byrne said.

The Western Australian disaster is not the only situation that has generated a high level of interstate sentiment and relief effort. For instance, the Tasmania bushfires drew assistance from New South Wales as well as the Australian Capital Territory.

Disasters both natural and man-made can have quite an impact on people both young and old and can even act as driving forces for Australians to enter public service, such as through government legal recruitment. Yet, are the states solely responsible and could greater involvement from the federal government make a difference?

The Australian government highlights that while response efforts are the primary responsibility of state and territory governments, it does recognise the significant costs of natural disasters. In response, it established the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements (NDRRA) to help mitigate some of the financial burden that states currently have to shoulder.  

Through the fund the federal government directly provides fiscal assistance to states in an effort to help alleviate the pressure on their balance sheets, as well as offer early assistance to affected communities. 

The NDRRA can be used by the government to cover up to 75 per cent of expenditure relief and recovery efforts. In this way, the fund is a safety net created by the Australian government when states experience frequent or severe disasters. 

While the combination of multiple stakeholders including the states and the federal government is the norm, efforts are still heavily reliant on local resources - such as volunteer firefighters. 

In response, the government has used public inquiries into bushfires in an effort to improve firefighting, relief efforts and other post-disaster actions. One example is the report on the Perth Hills bushfire. Learning from past mistakes is an excellent way to grow the knowledge base of firefighters and management staff and will no doubt serve its purpose in future disasters.