Should the ADF take a bigger role in bushfires and other domestic emergencies? The answer isn’t so easy



SHANE CAMERON/ROYAL AUSTRALIAN NAVY

Susan Harris Rimmer, Griffith University

The Commonwealth and state governments are responsible for keeping people safe, and the role of the ADF is to protect the nation. But how these two roles fit together is not always so clear.

After a tumultuous year of bushfires and the ongoing pandemic, we need a more fundamental conversation about the role of the ADF in responding to domestic emergencies.

The Morrison government has introduced a new bill that would give the ADF more power to respond to emergencies. And a Senate committee has recommended it be “passed without delay”, despite dissent from the Greens.

But questions remain around whether the legislation is even necessary or meets all the recommendations set out in the Bushfire Royal Commission report.




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When the Commonwealth can use the ADF domestically

The scope of the Commonwealth’s “nationhood power” is not settled in constitutional law and so, despite the number of times the ADF has been called out in peacetime, the legal basis of these interventions has always been contested. Section 119 of the Constitution says:

The Commonwealth shall protect every state against invasion and, on the application of the executive government of the state, against domestic violence.

It is generally agreed this does not authorise unilateral military action by the Commonwealth government. The need for this section is due to the fact the states are unable to raise a military force themselves.

But the Commonwealth has radically expanded how the call-out power is used — first in preparation for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and then in response to the Sydney Lindt Cafe siege in 2018.

A convoy of Army vehicles transporting more than 100 Army reservists and supplies on Kangaroo Island during this year’s bushfires.
DAVID MARIUZ/AAP

A bill was passed in 2018, for example, that authorised the use of ADF soldiers to protect Commonwealth interests in Australia and offshore from “domestic violence” if a state requested it.

This bill raised significant concerns over human rights, related to the definition of “domestic violence” and whether ADF or foreign troops would be held accountable for the use of deadly force against civilians.

What does the new bill do?

The new bill would streamline the use of military personnel in a severe natural disaster or emergencies, such as a pandemic. But questions about the parameters of ADF involvement remain unanswered.

For example, the states and territories currently need to ask the Commonwealth for ADF personnel or assets to be deployed and must consent to ADF support during emergencies.

The Bushfire Royal Commission recommends allowing the Commonwealth the power to declare a national natural disaster and get ADF personnel ready to respond. If there are significant risks to lives or property — or it is deemed in the national interest — the government may then deploy the ADF to those areas without state or territory consent.

A child is helped onto an ADF helicopter as Mallacoota is evacuated this year.
Corporal Nicole Dorrett/Australian Department of Defence

This may raise future questions about the scope of the Commonwealth’s call-out powers, as noted in the bills digest and by Professor Anne Twomey’s submission.

Under the legislation, ADF personnel and soldiers from foreign countries would also have immunity from civil and criminal liability when responding to disasters, similar to state and territory emergency services workers.

What else does the Bushfire Royal Commission report say?

The royal commission focused mainly on ways to improve coordination between federal, state and local fire and emergency service agencies in future bushfires.

The commission’s report identified the need for more clarity from state, territory and local governments about how their fire and emergency responders should interact with ADF personnel on the ground, and what they can expect from the ADF in terms of performing certain tasks.

There are many ways the ADF can help states during an emergency, such as logistics support (including both fixed and rotary wing aircraft), sealift (such as the Mallacoota beach evacuation), land transport, engineering and medical support, the building of temporary accommodation and helping to restore communications.

During this year’s bushfires, for instance, the ADF deployed some 8,000 personnel, including 2,500 reservists, to assist with rescue operations and medical and disaster relief. About 500 defence personnel from New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Japan and Fiji also provided assistance.

Army personnel from 5th/6th Battalion, the Royal Victoria Regiment (5/6 RVR), joined Victoria police in a search for bushfire victims.
Department of Defence/Supplied

However, the ADF insists it will not directly fight bushfires. There has also been some reluctance to commit more resources to domestic emergencies, arguing this reduces its focus on preparing for conflict and could reveal its capabilities to potential enemies. Using the ADF is extremely expensive, as well.

Calling in reserves instead of permanent ADF staff would mitigate some of these issues. Reservists have training and can provide personnel support with some specialist skills.

Also, it is easier to compensate and insure reservists, rather than the complicated (and sometimes contested) arrangements around compensation for volunteers and their employers.




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The royal commission found more employment protection and accessible compensation would be required to ensure volunteer firefighters are not “worse off” than ADF personnel or reservists.

There was also some uncertainty in the report about the “thresholds” that must be met before seeking the assistance of the ADF — as in, when a locality has exhausted all government, community and commercial options and needs ADF support.

The Commonwealth government says it is working to clarify this.

The future of the ADF as a ‘dual use’ force

Changes are clearly needed to the ways in which we respond to disasters because, as the report makes clear, they are only going to get worse.

As I’ve argued with colleagues elsewhere, the ADF should become a “dual use” force that should respond to natural disasters both here and in the region.




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In order to justify our current level of military spending at 2% of GDP, the ADF should be trained and ready to deal with the increasing risks associated with climate change, such as handling mass displacement and responding to natural disasters.

Defence should earn their keep. But these interventions should come with strict civilian controls, human rights standards and clarity about roles. The current legislation creates more uncertainty about the ADF’s role in disasters and emergencies, when what the community needs now is clarity.The Conversation

Susan Harris Rimmer, Professor and Director of the Policy Innovation Hub, Griffith Business School, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Scott Morrison pivots Australian Defence Force to meet more threatening regional outlook



Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Scott Morrison will deliver a stark warning that Australia faces an increasingly threatening regional outlook and announce a pivot in its defence posture, when he releases the government’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update on Wednesday.

The Prime Minister will declare: “Even as we stare down the COVID pandemic at home, we need to also prepare for a post COVID world that is poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly”.

He will say the Indo-Pacific is the “epicentre” of increasing strategic competition, highlight “fractious” United States-China relations, and point to rising regional tensions over territorial claims, notably in the South China Sea and on the India-China border.

Australia’s defence policy is being adjusted to concentrate on our immediate region, and to equip the Australian Defence Force (ADF) with greater capability for deterring threats, including by significant new investment in longer-range strike capabilities across air, sea and land.

Morrison will announce the government will buy the AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile from the US Navy, costing about $800 million. This missile has a range of more than 370 kilometres and is a significant upgrade from the current Harpoon anti-ship missile.

The very blunt language and unvarnished tone of Morrison’s speech, released ahead of delivery, reflect the heightening regional uncertainty, as China’s power and assertiveness increase, and American policy is unpredictable.

The update comes as relations between Australia and China continue to deteriorate, with Australia pointing to cyber attacks from “a state-based” actor and China accusing Australia of spying on it.

In his speech Morrison says the 2016 Defence White Paper gave equal weighting across three areas: Australia and its northern approaches, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, and operations in support of the rules-based global order.

“In this update, the government has directed Defence to prioritise the ADF’s geographical focus on our immediate region – the area ranging from the north-east Indian Ocean, through maritime and mainland Southeast Asia to Papua New Guinea and the South West Pacific,” he says.

“With the Indo-Pacific experiencing fundamental shifts and increased threats, our commitment will deepen.

“Our defence forces will need to be prepared for any future, no matter how unlikely,” Morrison says.

“The government has set three new strategic objectives to guide all defence planning, including force structure, force generation, international engagement and operations,” he says. These are to

  • shape Australia’s strategic environment

  • deter actions against Australia’s interests

  • respond with credible military force, when required.

Morrison says maintaining a “largely defensive force” won’t be adequate to deter attacks against Australia or its interests in the challenging strategic environment the country faces.

The ADF’s deterrence capabilities must be strengthened.

It needs “capabilities that can hold potential adversaries’ forces and critical infrastructure at risk from a distance, thereby deterring an attack on Australia and helping to prevent war,” he says.

To meet the new circumstances, “Australia will invest in longer range strike weapons, cyber capabilities and area denial”.

“We will increase the Australian Defence Force’s ability to influence and deny operations directed against our interests — ones below the threshold of traditional armed conflict, in what experts call the ‘grey-zone’.

“This will involve boosting Defence’s special operations, intelligence and offensive cyber capabilities, as well as its presence operations, capacity-building efforts, and engagement activities.”

Outlining the worsening risks, Morrison says: “We have moved into a new and less benign strategic era – one in which the institutions and patterns of cooperation that have benefited our prosperity and security for decades are under increasing strain.

“The Indo-Pacific is the epicentre of rising strategic competition.

“Our region will not only shape our future – increasingly it is the focus of the dominant global contest of our age.

“Tensions over territorial claims are rising across the Indo-Pacific region – as we have seen recently on the disputed border between India and China, in the South China Sea, and in the East China Sea.

“The risk of miscalculation – and even conflict – is heightening.

“Regional military modernisation is occurring at an unprecedented rate.

“Capabilities and reach are expanding.

“Previous assumptions of enduring advantage and technological edge are no longer constants.

“Coercive activities are rife.

“Disinformation and foreign interference have been enabled by new and emerging technologies.

“Terrorism and the evil ideologies that underpin it remain a tenacious threat.

“And state sovereignty is under pressure — as are rules and norms, and the stability these help provide.

“Relations between China and the United States are fractious as they compete for political, economic and technological supremacy,” Morrison says.

He says “the largely benign security environment Australia has enjoyed – roughly from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the Global Financial Crisis – is gone.”

The government’s updated defence funding will see investment in capability grow to $270 billion over the next decade. This compares with the $195 billion decade-long commitment in the 2016 White Paper.

Australia’s sharpened regional focus would have the ADF forming even deeper links with regional armed forces.

“Our new strategic settings will also make us a better, more effective ally.”

However, in a message that Australia no longer is as keen to be drawn into situations further afield, Morrison says, “We remain prepared to make military contributions outside of our immediate region where it is in our national interest to do so, including in support of US-led coalitions.

“But we cannot allow consideration of such contingencies to drive our force structure to the detriment of ensuring we have credible capability to respond to any challenge in our immediate region.

“It is in our region that we must be most capable in the military contributions we make to partnerships, and to our ever-closer alliance with the United States.”The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Angus Campbell to head Australian Defence Force


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The new Australian Defence Force Chief will be Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, Chief of Army since 2015, who became the operational public face of the Coalition government’s Operation Sovereign Borders.

Campbell replaces the present chief, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, 58, who will retire from the ADF in July.

With his promotion, Campbell has jumped over the Vice Chief of the Defence Force, Vice Admiral Ray Griggs, who was involved in controversy over his relationship with a junior officer, whom he later married. Two reviews cleared Griggs of any impropriety. He is now leaving the military.

While the vice chief is frequently promoted to chief, as were Binskin and David Hurley before him, it is not an invariable practice. Neither Angus Houston nor Peter Cosgrove had been vice chief before taking the top role.

Campbell joined the army in 1981, graduating from Duntroon in 1984. Later he served in the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS).

In 2005, he joined the Prime Minister’s Department, rising to become Deputy Secretary and Deputy National Security Adviser. In 2011, he took command of Australian forces deployed in the Middle East area of operations.

He has a Bachelor of Science (honours) from the University of New South Wales and a Master of Philosophy in international relations from Cambridge University.

In his role in Operation Sovereign Borders, Campbell was known for his tight lips in face of questions, often ruling them out as “on water” matters.

Announcing the ADF changes, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Campbell brought leadership and experience to his new position. Defence Minister Marise Payne said he had shown leadership across many roles – “from operational periods of the highest tempo to what some might call a character-building period in Prime Minister and Cabinet some years ago”.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten also praised the Campbell appointment, saying it was well-deserved and the Labor Party “wholeheartedly support it”.

The new Vice Chief of the ADF will be Vice Admiral David Johnston, currently Chief of Joint Operations, where his role has been “to plan, control and conduct military campaigns, operations, joint exercises and other activities” to meet Australia’s national objectives.

John Blaxland, Professor of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU, praised the appointments, tweeting that these were “a good call”. Both were “well-seasoned, intelligent and highly regarded officers”, he said.

He said Campbell understood the importance of closer engagement with our Southeast Asian and South Pacific neighbours.

Houston said Campbell was “an outstanding appointment”. He was very happy the government had appointed such a “strong and well-credentialed team”.

The new Chief of Army will be Major General Rick Burr.

Rear Admiral Mike Noonan becomes Chief of Navy, replacing Tim Barrett the present Navy Chief, who will also retire in July after a 42 year career.

Air Vice Marshal Mel Hupfeld will become Chief of Joint Operations – he is currently the head of Force Design.

The ConversationChief of Air Force, Air Marshal Leo Davies, continues in his present position.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.