Emergency management and disaster resilience: a quick guide

16 July 2019

PDF version [240KB]

Helen Portillo-Castro
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security


This quick guide provides information about domestic arrangements at the Commonwealth level to work with state and territory governments on emergency and disaster management and resilience. It also explains some basics about Australian involvement in international initiatives where disaster and emergency management efforts extend beyond Australian borders. Links to relevant sources are provided throughout, and the end of this quick guide offers a compilation of links to other key external resources.[1]

Disaster resilience—policy framework

The National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework, launched in April 2018, sets out the domestic basis for reducing disaster risk associated with natural hazards through domestic policy settings through to 2030. The framework identifies initial strategic outcomes, over the five-year period 2019–23, to inform decision-making across various sectors in the areas of:

  • investment and spending
  • public policy
  • development/land use
  • legislation and regulation and
  • program design and resource allocation.[2]

The initial strategic outcomes are intended to align with Australia’s commitment to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030, endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly as an international agreement on targets and priorities for action.[3]

Relief and recovery—policy and legislative arrangements

Each state and territory has in place legislation dealing with emergencies and disaster response within their own borders. It is under this legislation that authorised officials—for example, the Premier, Chief Minister or State Emergency Coordinator—can declare a ‘state of emergency’ or disaster.[4] Response coordination and planning for any emergency or disaster within any jurisdiction falls to the state or territory government. Hence, the financial burden of disaster recovery and relief falls principally and in the first instance on state and territory governments. However, arrangements exist for the Commonwealth to provide both financial and non-financial assistance.

Financial assistance

According to the 2018 National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework, ‘federal and state government spending on direct recovery from disasters is already around $2.75 billion per year’; with indirect costs ‘borne by many sectors across multiple years’.[5] Economic costs are anticipated to double before 2030, and to significantly increase over the coming decades.[6]

The Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements (DRFA) is the principal mechanism for Commonwealth financial assistance to state and territory governments; whereas the Social Security Act 1991 (Cth) is also relevant to assistance to individuals. Alternatively or additionally, funding may be provided:

  • under Federal Financial Relations payments for specific purposes, as arranged from time to time (such as the National Disaster Resilience Program or the National Partnership on disaster risk reduction)[7]
  • in the form of grants payments to local government and non-government organisations that provide community services (for example, Financial Assistance Grants accessible to local government councils allow for those bodies to direct the untied grant funding to local priorities, including disaster-affected assets)[8] or
  • via tax concessions or exemptions (such as those attached to grants for primary producers affected in early 2019 by the north and far north Queensland monsoon trough).[9]

A $3.9 billion Emergency Response Fund will be established in the 2019–20 financial year.[10] State and territory governments may seek Commonwealth approval to draw up to $150 million from this fund in the event that there is a need for additional financial assistance—beyond what is supported by existing national disaster response programs for domestic incidents—following a significant and catastrophic natural disaster.[11]

Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements

The DRFA provide a basis for the Commonwealth to enter into cost-sharing arrangements with state and territory governments where a disaster presents a significant financial burden. The DRFA is a form of contingent payment from the Commonwealth, stipulated in the Intergovernmental Agreement on Federal Financial Relations as follows:

D42 The Commonwealth may provide financial assistance, usually in the form of partial reimbursement, to the States and Territories for eligible expenditure incurred in relation to a defined disaster.

D43 Payments will be made on the terms and conditions determined in 2011 Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements Determination Terms and Conditions, as amended from time to time by the Commonwealth.[12]

Up to 75 per cent of state expenditure on natural disasters can be eligible for reimbursement by the Commonwealth under the DRFA. Eligibility since November 2018 is contingent on claims meeting current terms and conditions, including relevant categories of assistance measures, thresholds, reimbursement rates and triggers. The categories of assistance measures attract different levels of financial assistance; and disbursement can be through grants or packages relating to recovery from specific disasters or emergencies.[13]

The DRFA categories are:

Category A – Emergency assistance for individuals.

Category B – Emergency assistance for the repair of essential public assets and to support primary producers and small businesses recover from a disaster event.

Category C – A community recovery package that is intended to support a holistic approach to the recovery of regions, communities or sectors severely affected by an eligible disaster.

Category D – Covers ‘exceptional circumstances’, in the opinion of the Commonwealth, to alleviate distress or damage.[14]

The DRFA allow for advance payment from the Commonwealth where the cost of responding to a severe disaster ‘is likely to be greater than the state can manage in the short-term’.[15] State and territory governments can reinvest DRFA funding towards to ‘natural hazard mitigation activities’ where efficiencies are realised from reconstruction projects.[16]

The assistance measures and funding available under the DRFA do not bind or limit state and territory government expenditure where Commonwealth financial assistance is not called upon for mitigation or recovery efforts.[17]

Individual assistance: Disaster Recovery Payment and Disaster Recovery Allowance

The Australian Government provides financial assistance to individuals through the Department of Social Services in the form of:

  • the Disaster Recovery Payment—a one-off payment to eligible Australian residents who are adversely affected by a major disaster and
  • the Disaster Recovery Allowance—a fortnightly payment for up to 13 weeks for eligible individuals whose income has been affected by a major disaster.

These individual assistance payments are both contingent on the responsible minister making a determination that an event is a major disaster.[18]

Non-financial assistance

The Australian Government collaborates with state and territory governments on emergency or disaster preparedness, management and recovery. The Department of Home Affairs holds Commonwealth responsibility for this role, performed through the Emergency Management Australia division—Australia’s national disaster management organisation.

Emergency Management Australia:

Emergency Management Australia’s functions also form part of governance arrangements and operational capabilities underpinning the Australian Government’s responsiveness to emergencies that do not relate to natural hazards, but to national security risks (such as terrorism) that present significant threats to public safety, public health and/or critical infrastructure.[22] Under Part IIIAAA of the Defence Act 1903 (Cth), the ADF may be called upon to assist in the event of ‘domestic violence’ (for example, civil unrest or a terrorist incident).[23]

Recent and upcoming Australian involvement in international initiatives

Australia will host the 2020 Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, a biennial regional summit held under the auspices of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.[24] The Ulaanbaatar Declaration, which was the outcome of the 2018 conference in Mongolia, set a target to ‘substantially increase the number of countries with national and local disaster risk reduction strategies’ by the time the next conference is held in Brisbane in June 2020.[25] The 2020 conference is ‘expected to produce a political declaration on disaster risk reduction and an updated regional action plan’.[26]

Delivered primarily through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia’s aid program provides funding for disaster risk reduction, resilience and relief efforts through its humanitarian programs. The Australian Government pledged in its 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper to increase overall funding for humanitarian programs to $500 million per annum, up from $433.8 million in 2016–17.[27] In this context, the Australian Government typically considers that ‘$1 invested in risk reduction can save up to $15 in the aftermath of a disaster’.[28]

Australia is an ASEAN partner nation and cooperated with the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Centre) to conduct the 2018 East Asia Summit International Disaster Assistance Workshop series. Australian participation in this multinational workshop series included all levels of government and a number of non-government stakeholders, to test a plausible scenario that exhausted Australia’s response capabilities and resources and prompted a call for international assistance. The outcome of this workshop series is to inform the next iteration of Australia’s Catastrophic Disaster Planning Capability Roadmap, which ‘will support the development of guidelines on requesting and managing international assistance in support of existing systems, and will support a better understanding of how domestic arrangements can be repurposed’.[29]

Links to other key resources

[1].   This quick guide does not encompass emergency pest and disease response arrangements.

[2].   Adapted from Australian Government, National disaster risk reduction framework, Department of Home Affairs (DoHA), Canberra, 2018, p. 21. The Framework lists ‘examples of sectors with a role to play in reducing disaster risk’, including: insurance; finance and investment; agriculture; energy; health; and community services (see p. 20).

[3].   Ibid.

[4].   Emergencies Act 2004 (ACT); State Emergency and Rescue Management Act 1989 (NSW); Emergency Management Act 2013 (NT); State Transport Act 1938 (Qld) and the Public Safety Preservation Act 1986 (Qld); Emergency Management Act 2004 (SA); Emergency Management Act 2006 (Tas); Emergency Management Act 1986 (Vic) and the Emergency Management Act 2013 (Vic)(NB: there are a range of specific states of emergency covered by other legislation in Victoria); Emergency Management Act 2005 (WA).

[5].   Australian Government, National disaster risk reduction framework, op. cit., p. 16. This figure mirrors a 2017 estimate published by the Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience and Safer Communities (ABRDRSC) and Deloitte Access Economics, which placed the average total economic cost at $18.2 billion per year over the ten years to 2016: ABRDRSC and Deloitte Access Economics, Building resilience to natural disasters in our states and territories, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, Sydney, 2017, p. 7.

[6].   ABRDRSC and Deloitte Access Economics, Building resilience to natural disasters in our states and territories, op. cit.

[7].   Commonwealth funding under the National Disaster Resilience Program was matched by state and territory governments under the National Partnership on natural disaster resilience through to 2018–19. Commonwealth funding for this National Partnership was not allocated in the 2019–20 Budget forward estimates: see Australian Government, Federal financial relations: budget paper no. 3: 2019–20, p. 61.

[8].   Commonwealth assistance to local governments through Financial Assistance Grants is a general purpose expense provided for in the Budget under the ‘General purpose inter-government transactions’ sub-function, for which half of the expected 2019–20 allocation was ‘brought forward to enable the immediate use of these funds in 2018–19, particularly in areas affected by severe or unexpected weather events’: Australian Government, Budget strategy and outlook: budget paper no. 1: 2019–20, p. 5-43. The DRFA do not apply to these general purpose expenditures.

[9].   Australian Government, Budget measures: budget paper no. 2: 2019–20, p. 19 (North Queensland Flood Recovery Package—tax treatment of qualifying grants); S Robert (Assistant Treasurer), Coalition supporting the recovery from the Queensland floods, media release, 4 April 2019. See also Australian Taxation Office (ATO), ‘Australian disaster relief funds and tax deductible gifts’, ATO website, last modified 12 October 2016.

[10].   Australian Government, Budget measures: budget paper no. 2: 2019–20, op. cit., p. 8.

[11].   Australian Government, Budget strategy and outlook: budget paper no. 1: 2019–20, op. cit., pp. 6-19–6-20.

[12].   Clauses D42 and D43 of Schedule D to the Intergovernmental Agreement on Federal Financial Relations. The National Disaster Recovery and Relief Arrangements (NDRRA) was the long-standing title of successive ministerial Determinations from 2012, but changed to a new title under the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements (DRFA) when the new Determination came into effect in November 2018.

[13].   See, for example, Australian Government, Budget measures: budget paper no. 2: 2019–20, op. cit., pp. 111–12 (Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements—funding for Northern Queensland floods measure; associated with the North Queensland Flood Recovery Package (pp. 62–63)).

[14].   Australian Government and Government of Western Australia, Disaster recovery funding arrangements Western Australia 2018, Department of Fire and Emergency Services (Western Australia), p. 19. Refer to DoHA, Disaster recovery funding arrangements 2018, DoHA factsheet, n.d., or Clause 4 (pp. 15–23) of the DRFA for more detail.

[15].   DoHA, Disaster recovery funding arrangements 2018, op. cit.

[16].   Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, Answers to Questions on Notice, Home Affairs Portfolio, Additional Budget Estimates 2018–19, Question AE19/171, 29 March 2019.

[17].   Ibid.

[18].   A ‘major disaster’ is defined under the Social Security Act 1991 (Cth): section 36 relates to the Disaster Recovery Payment; whereas section 36A Part 2.23B relates to the Disaster Recovery Allowance. The definition of ‘adversely affected’, and the circumstances to which it applies, are subject to ministerial determination in each instance that the responsible minister determines that an event is a major disaster for the purposes of the Disaster Recovery Payment: see Australian Government, Social security guide, Department of Social Services, Version 1.254, released 6 May 2019: Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment (AGDRP)—Description and Disaster Recovery Allowance (DRA)—Description.

[19].   The Australian Defence Force (ADF) may provide assets under Defence Assistance to the Civil Community arrangements: see Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), Emergency defence assistance to the civil community, Audit report, 24, 2013–14, ANAO, Canberra, 2014. The ADF can also provide support overseas in times of international humanitarian crisis: Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), ‘Humanitarian support’, RAAF website, n.d.

[20].   DoHA, Annual report 2017–18, p. 91. The Crisis Coordination Centre also facilitates Australian Government Crisis Committee and National Crisis Committee meetings.

[21].   These plans do not appear to be publicly available. Other plans canvass the reception of Australian citizens and foreign nationals evacuated from overseas; coordination between government and industry stakeholders in the event of an actual or imminent aviation disaster; and risk mitigation for space debris re-entering the atmosphere that may impact Australia: for further information, see DoHA, ‘Emergency response plans’, archived DoHA webpage, n.d.

[22].   For example, the Crisis Coordination Centre is also responsible for managing the National Security Hotline. DoHA, ‘About emergency management’, DoHA website, last updated 23 November 2018.

[23].   The Commonwealth developed these provisions through the Defence Amendment (Call Out of the Australian Defence Force) Act 2018 in response to a special counter-terrorism meeting of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in October 2017: see COAG, Communiqué, Special meeting of the COAG on counter-terrorism, Canberra, 5 October 2017 and COAG, Communiqué, COAG meeting, Adelaide, 12 December 2018.

[24].   J Bishop (Minister for Foreign Affairs) and A Taylor (Minister for Law Enforcement and Cyber Security), Australia hosts disaster risk reduction conference, media release, 6 July 2018.

[25].   Ulaanbaatar Declaration, Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, 6 July 2018, clause 10, p. 2 (referring to Target E of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction).

[26].   United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), Brisbane to host the 2020 Asia–Pacific Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, media release, 5 April 2019.

[27]. Actual expenditure under the Humanitarian and Disaster Response program reached $492.2 million in 2017–18: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Australia’s international development assistance, official sector statistical summary 2016–17, DFAT, Canberra, May 2018, p. 26; DFAT, Australia’s Official Development Assistance, statistical summary, 2017–18, DFAT, Canberra, December 2018, p. 38.

[28].   DFAT, Australian aid budget summary 2018–19, DFAT, Canberra, May 2018, p. 2; DFAT, Australian aid budget summary 2019–20, DFAT, Canberra, April 2019, p. 1. For an overview of Australia’s aid spending, see A Clare, Official Development Assistance (ODA): a quick guide, Research paper series 2018–19, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 30 April 2019.

[29].   East Asia Summit Disaster Management Initiative, 2018 East Asia Summit international disaster assistance workshop outcomes report, p. 26.


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