By Professor Jim McGowan AM

A purposeful, methodical approach is required to reframe policy around natural disaster management, and overhaul incoherent funding strategies that are at times out-dated and out-of-sync with what is needed.

New Prime Minister Tony Abbott could be the right leader with the right approach at just the right time.

I have recently led a Griffith University study into the post-disaster experiences of four Australian towns, Marysville, Emerald, Carisbrook and Cardwell. The Regional Australia Institute published the research findings last month in a report called ‘From Disaster to Renewal‘.

This report presents a major challenge for policy makers.

It argues that recovery from a natural disaster needs to be viewed within a broader framework of resilience, moving beyond the traditional focus on relief and reconstruction to incorporate local renewal.

Achieving this broader framework would mean systematic change to the approach of all levels of government.

At present there is an overwhelming focus on the National Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements (NDRRA) which dates back to 1974 and the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment (AGDRP) which concentrates on providing hardship grants for affected individuals.

The NDRRA was developed during a reactive era when the number and impact of disasters was considerably less than in the last decade.

The RAI report notes that the NDRRA generally covers restoration of public infrastructure, but does not provide funding for the restoration of the natural environment. For 21st century businesses, where the natural environment often contributes to the success of a business, this falls short.

While hardship grants provide certainty and clarity about the extent of support from various government levels, they also have the potential to undermine community resilience unless carefully targeted and structured.

In early 2011, COAG adopted the National Strategy for Disaster Resilience (NSDR) advocating ‘a whole-of-nation resilience-based approach to disaster management’.

This recognises that a national, coordinated and cooperative effort is needed to enhance Australia’s capacity to withstand and recover from emergencies and disasters. However, if resilience is a priority for this strategy, then there exists a need to reframe policy for disaster management so that it effectively integrates the prevention, preparedness, response and recovery phases.

A Deloitte Access Economics paper, published in June, estimated that $560m is spent annually by the Australian Government on post-disaster relief and recovery compared with $50m expenditure on pre-disaster resilience.

The commitment to and investment in prevention and mitigation has been miserly in comparison to the expenditure of response and reconstruction, despite evidence of the economic returns and resilience benefits that can be expected from such investments.

This is not a cry for additional resources to support the response to and recovery from a natural disaster but rather the redirection of some of these resources to promote community resilience through mitigation strategies.

Having developed the NSDR, COAG needs to drive the policy reform processes to give effect to its noble aspirations.

In the spirit of policy learning towards improved performance in this key area of intergovernmental expenditure and in the context of the Prime Minister’s “purposeful and methodical approach”, the Productivity Commission should be tasked by COAG with reviewing current policy and funding frameworks with a view to developing a more cost effective and robust approach.

Jim McGowan is an adjunct professor at Griffith University’s School of Government and International Relations and former Director-General of the Department of Community Safety.