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Black Summer

In September 2019, southern Queensland and South Australia were already contending with bushfires, with state and federal aid mobilised. By November 2019, fires burnt across the country. Before summer’s end, 33 people had lost their lives, more than 3,000 homes had been destroyed,[3] and more than 17 million hectares of land had been burnt, devastating lives and regional economies. Many cities and towns were blanketed in smoke with air quality ranking amongst the worst in the world.[4]  

Australia and the APS are accustomed to bushfire recovery, however the bushfires experienced in 2019-20 required a new level of coordination across Commonwealth, state and territory governments. Governments were coordinating the logistics of large evacuations, protecting the health and safety of communities, and providing immediate financial assistance to impacted people and businesses. Cross-agency and cross-government partnerships were essential.

The National Bushfire Recovery Agency (NBRA) was established on 6 January 2020 to lead and coordinate a national response to rebuilding bushfire-affected communities, and to administer the National Bushfire Recovery Fund.[5] A wide range of support measures were developed across agencies and announced in quick succession. Measures ranged from infrastructure and economic support, to community health, tourism and small business assistance. The NBRA continues to provide funding and support to affected regions.

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements was subsequently established on 20 February 2020 to examine Australia’s arrangements for preventing, mitigating and responding to natural disasters.[6]

Services Australia played a major role in providing immediate assistance, working shoulder‑to‑shoulder with Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel in fire-affected communities across New South Wales and Victoria. During the 2019-20 bushfire season, Services Australia processed more than $223 million in Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payments and took over 200,000 calls via its disaster payments hotline. The average speed of answering these calls was measured in seconds, and in most cases, payments were made in minutes.[7]

See also: Greg Moriarty, Secretary of the Department of Defence, and General Angus Campbell AO DSC, Chief of the Australian Defence Force speaking on the IPAA Work with Purpose podcast series.

The agency also worked with the ADF and Service NSW to deploy and establish multiple Mobile Service Centres and Mobile Service Teams to affected communities. Through a ‘Whole-of-Defence’ approach beginning in September 2019, APS and Defence contractor personnel, 4,300 ADF members including 1,100 Reservists supported the emergency response.[8] Defence opened military bases to provide temporary accommodation to evacuees and emergency service workers. [9]

Case study: Community-minded

Caption: Jaison Basil, ADF Reservist

On 4 January 2020—for the first time in Australia’s history—the Governor General issued a compulsory call-out to deploy up to 3,000 ADF Reservists for civil aid, humanitarian, medical, civil emergency and disaster assistance.[10]

APS employee, Jaison Basil, Assistant Director, Cost Analysis working in the Contestability Division of the Department of Defence was one of the Reservists to answer the call.

In 2017 Jaison joined the Army Reserves and qualified as a Combat Engineer. The role focuses on road clearance, which when overseas might mean looking for mines and booby traps, but on home soil it means assisting with natural disasters such as bushfires and floods. The Reserves appealed to Jaison as he could contribute to the community and maintain his APS career. His APS supervisors remain supportive of his Reserve work and this extended through this call-out.

‘My supervisor was really supportive and kept me in the loop as to what work I was expected to resume with on my return. We caught up every week and made sure I still had that connection to my role and my work.’

Jaison’s first rotation was based in Nowra, NSW clearing trees from 50 kilometres of roads: ‘These were single roads leading into satellite towns. If the road is blocked then the whole town is blocked in.’

His unit worked with the police, the Rural Fire Service, and local councils to ensure entry and exit points remained open and safe. Assisting in nearby Bega, Jaison’s unit cleared trees around a telecommunication tower; a vital asset for surrounding towns to access emergency services.

‘We’re not trained to fight fires but we free up the people who are so they can focus on their primary tasks.’

Jaison returned home to Canberra temporarily to prepare his family and home in case bushfires threatened. When the threat passed Jaison volunteered for a second rotation helping with flood affected areas of Sydney.  

While his APS career in financial policy might appear in stark contrast to his work as a Reservist, to Jaison, supporting his fellow Australians is all in a day’s work for a public servant. ‘I was happy I was there to contribute when this happened. It’s giving back to the community. We help where we can.’

Over the summer, Reservists like Jaison:

  • cleared around 4,850 kilometres of roads and 240 kilometres of firebreaks
  • cleared and repaired over 1,285 kilometres of fences
  • produced nearly 10 million litres of drinking water for Kangaroo Island and Bega
  • provided over 77,000 meals to emergency services personnel and evacuees.[11]

The latest available data indicates that nearly 1,000 APS employees are currently serving as ADF Reservists.[12]

See also: Minister for Defence thanks ADF for its response to bushfires and COVID-19, YouTube.

To support community firefighting efforts, in December 2019 the Prime Minister announced increased access to volunteer leave entitlements for APS employees, and enabled Agency Heads to provide additional leave where needed for firefighting.[13] Commonwealth public servants were provided with up to 28 calendar days of leave for volunteer firefighting efforts. This boost for paid volunteer leave ensured APS employees were able to assist Australian firefighting efforts without using their annual leave.

A global pandemic

In late 2019, COVID-19 began to emerge, and has since become a global pandemic posing significant threats to human health and national economies. On 20 January 2020, Australia’s National Incident Room in the Department of Health was activated for COVID-19.[14]

Australia’s first case of COVID-19 was recorded on 25 January. By the end of March, with 19 deaths and 4,557 confirmed cases, the country was grappling with the health, economic, social and geopolitical implications of the pandemic. This included the increasing numbers of COVID-19 infections, physical distancing requirements, job losses, borders closures, and supply chain and industry disruption.  

Figure 1.1: Australian daily COVID-19 case totals (to 26 October 2020)

Source: Our World in Data

As at 26 October 2020, there had been more than 42 million confirmed cases and more than 1.1 million confirmed deaths worldwide reported to the World Health Organization.[15]

Australia has controlled the spread of COVID-19 through restrictions, physical distancing and inter-jurisdictional cooperation. On 26 October, there had been 27,525 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Australia, which had resulted in 905 deaths.[16] As at 26 October, there had been 114 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among APS employees, and no deaths. APS COVID-19 cases have occurred in Australia and overseas.

‘Every member of the federation of Australia has responded well. One of the great legacies of this outbreak is how our federation has worked well.’

– Dr Brendan Murphy, Chief Medical Officer[17]

[3] The Hon Scott Morrison MP. (2020). Condolences: Australian Bushfires. 4 February.

[4] ABC News. (2020). Australia’s bushfire smoke spreads to NZ as Canberra’s air quality goes off the scale. 1 January.

[5] NBRA. (2020). The Agency

[6] Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements. (2020). About the Royal Commission

[7] The Hon Stuart Robert MP. (2020). Government Services in the digital age: the challenges, the plan and the delivery. (Speech). 7 July.

[8] NBRA. (2020). Assistance from the Australian Defence Force factsheet

[9] Department of Defence. (2020). Written submission to the Finance and Public Administration References Committee Inquiry into Lessons to be learned in relation to the preparation and planning for, response to and recovery efforts following the 2019-20 Australian bushfire season

[10] The Hon Scott Morrison MP. (2020). Press Conference – Australian Parliament House. 4 January.

[11] Department of Defence. (2020). Operation Bushfire Assist 2019-2020. 13 March.

[12] 2017 APS employee census

[13] The Hon Scott Morrison MP. (2019). Media Release: Boosting leave for APS volunteer firefighters. 24 December.

[14] The National Incident Room coordinates national responses to health emergencies and emerging threats. It has been activated since November 2019 in response to the national bushfires, White Island volcano eruption, the measles outbreak in Samoa and COVID-19.  

[15] World Health Organization. (2020). WHO Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard. 26 October.

[16] Department of Health. (2020). Coronavirus (COVID-19) current situation and case numbers. 26 October.

[17] Professor Brendan Murphy in Anastasia Tsirtsakis. (2020). Outgoing Chief Medical Officer praised for work during the pandemic. 26 June.