The Commonwealth of Australia - Overview

Australia does not have a comprehensive legal and institutional framework for disaster prevention relief at the federal level. In particular, there are no clear legal mechanisms in place to manage the Commonwealth’s response or define the Commonwealth’s role in the management of a catastrophic disaster. The Commonwealth approach assumes that it will be “business as usual” at the federal level in the event of a disaster. The regulation of international disaster relief and recovery assistance rates barely a mention in Commonwealth legislation. The only exception is within Customs legislation, where material brought in to assist the response and initial recovery can be imported without duty.

The lack of federal mechanisms is at least partially explained by the role of the states in Disaster Management. Responsibility for disaster management is primarily a state responsibility, in the first instance, and each state/territorial has its own legislative framework and accompanying strategy. Despite this, the arrangements for disaster response are relatively similar across the eight Australian internal jurisdictions. Each State and Territory has disaster management legislation that provides for disaster planning at State, regional and local level, although the quality and detail of this framework varies dramatically across states. When events require a coordinated and ongoing response, there is provision for a three-stage form of declaration of emergency by the State/Territory. These are “ALERT”, “Emergency” and “Disaster”. Once a formal declaration has been made, the functions and powers to be exercised by the emergency controllers charged with the responsibility of managing the response to the event are triggered. When a hazard event reaches the level of a state of Disaster or Emergency, a whole of government approach is mandated. Relevant Minsters and/or the State/Territory Disaster Controller are provided with broad powers to control access to the disaster site and to commandeer either private or State-owned resources and direct them to the relief effort.


The role of the federal level is to provide support and assistance if required. The key Commonwealth agency in the field is Emergency Management Australia (EMA) which is responsible for national emergency management coordination. It is responsible for planning and coordinating assistance to states and territories under the Commonwealth Government Disaster Response Plan (COMDISPLAN). Sitting within the Attorney General’s department, its primary roles are to assist in maintaining commonwealth disaster response plans and coordinate the response of the Commonwealth Government to a hazard event in response to requests from the State or Territories for assistance.


The COMDISPLAN sets out a formal process by which the two levels of government operate during a potential disaster event. An incident that occurs within a State or Territory is, in the first instance, to be managed by the relevant State or Territory government in accordance with its own legislation and policy and utilising its own emergency services and resources. When the effects of the incident are deemed by the State or Territory to be beyond its capacity, or when specific Commonwealth resources are required, a request is made to the Commonwealth for assistance utilising the formal process set out in COMDISPLAN.


The request is made by the nominated officer in each State/Territory authorised to contact the EMA and seek Commonwealth assistance. The request is then passed to the Attorney General for approval. If approved, it is then passed to the relevant Commonwealth agency for ministerial approval and to provide the required assistance. Where the resources required to meet the needs of the affected jurisdiction cannot be located in Australia the EMA will liaise with the State or Territory government and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to seek assistance from overseas.


NGOs generally insist on remaining independent of Government agencies so in the rare event that NGO assistance arrives in Australia, their response may well be separate from the official response. This may lead to duplication, inefficiency and raise the need for appropriate coordination and control of the response. International assistance from other national governments would be expected to accept the authority of the State agency in command of the emergency response.
The Commonwealth of Australia (Australia) is a federal state founded upon the 1901 constitution. This constitution created a federal “Dominion” within the British Empire from the six colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania. Today the Commonwealth includes the six original states plus the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), which operate devolved governments with similar powers to the states. Local government is a matter for each state/territory, however, although some distinctions exist, the system is relatively uniform across the country with a single tier of local government operating nationally. Seven external federal territories complete the Commonwealth’s Territory. These operate as local government units under direct federal control. Norfolk Island, although formerly operating as a devolved territory, became part of New South Wales in 2015 after the Commonwealth Parliament, controversially, passed legislation to revoke its special status.


All the states and the Commonwealth (federal) government operate Parliamentary forms of government. At the Commonwealth level, executive authority is formally held by the Federal Executive Council, which is chaired by the Governor General. This position exercises the functions of the Head of State (the UK Monarch, styled as the Queen of Australia). The Governor General thus formally appoints Ministers and other senior appointments, although in practice these appointments are made under advice from the Prime Minister (and other Ministers). De facto executive power is exercised by the Cabinet. Ministers (both inside and outside Cabinet) are appointed from Parliament by the Prime Minister and hold their positions entirely at his or her discretion. Coalition governments (which are common due to a long-term alliance between two centre-right parties) can introduce a degree of complexity into this arrangement; as such, positions can be part of the coalition arrangement.


The Australian Parliament is bi-cameral. The House of Representatives is the senior house and the confidence of this house is required for a Prime Minister to hold office. It is directly elected through a constituency based preferential voting system. The Senate is elected on a state and territorial basis with 12 Senators appointed from each state and a further two from each of the two “internal” territories again using a preferential system. The Australian Senate is unusually powerful for an “upper” house having the ability to block both proposed legislation and financial bills. In the latter case, this can force a government to fall. In any event, the executive can call for an immediate dissolution of the Parliament if a bill is blocked by the Senate.


Each state has a unicameral Parliament from which the Premier of the state is elected as head of government. Each state retains a personal connection to the Australian monarch through the state governor, who exercises their responsibilities in the state. As with the Commonwealth Governor General, their power is largely ceremonial. State and Territory governments are formally responsible for disaster management planning. In addition, state responsibilities include policing, the fire service, spatial planning and a number of other matters core to effective DRM. The state/territory level is thus at the core of all aspects of the disaster cycle in Australia.