16 Apr 2020

New agency to drive disaster preparedness and recovery in NSW

By Nick Thomas and Emma Whitney

The new agency will focus on developing and implementing systems to avoid disasters where possible, and to deal with the critical steps before and after those disasters which do occur

New South Wales will soon have a new government agency to drive policy and actions to prevent, prepare for and recover from crises which affect the State.

The Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has announced the creation of Resilience NSW, in response to the recent series of disasters in this State, including the current COVID-19 pandemic, an extraordinary drought (which is continuing in many parts of the State), an unprecedented summer of bushfires and an episode of flooding rains.

Resilience NSW will be led by Shane Fitzsimmons, who navigated the State, to great acclaim, through the 2019-2020 extended bushfire season, as Commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service.

Commissioner Fitzsimmons has described the agency’s role this way:

“Resilience NSW will lead the whole-of-government prevention, preparedness and recovery effort. It will oversee and coordinate emergency management policy, service delivery and all aspects of disaster recovery at a state, national and international level.”

From 1 May 2020, Resilience NSW will be a public service agency related to the Department of Premier and Cabinet, and it will have functions and powers under:

  • the State Emergency and Rescue Management Act 1989: this will give the Head of Resilience NSW broad powers to co-ordinate government action in relation to “emergencies due to an actual or imminent occurrence” (such as fire, flood, storm, earthquake, explosion, terrorist act, accident, epidemic or warlike action) which give rise to any of several kinds of threat or harm; and
  • the Community Welfare Act 1987: this will give the Head of Resilience NSW powers to administer welfare assistance for disaster relief and for various programs more broadly.

It seems that the focus of the new agency will not be limited to managing crises in their acute stage, but instead will include developing and implementing systems to avoid disasters where possible and to deal with the critical steps before and after those disasters which do occur.

Resilience NSW will have its work cut out for it. There is extensive work underway throughout NSW to restore buildings, infrastructure, and other natural and constructed assets which were ravaged by the fire season. And until the COVID-19 crisis, there was considerable work underway to restore communities and economies which had been hit hard by the fires. Even now, there is an enormous need for high level planning on how to resurrect the State economy from its COVID-19 malaise.

As we come to terms with what the new (ab)normal looks like, and we consider what the next crisis might be, forward planning is essential.

New South Wales is not the first State to announce a central agency to co-ordinate this work. Victoria established Emergency Management Victoria after the Black Saturday bushfire tragedy in 2014, which has a wide emergency planning, response and recovery remit, and also has Bushfire Recovery Victoria which is a permanent bushfire agency. There is therefore scope to learn from the Victorian experience, as well as the experience of emergency planning and recovery under existing NSW laws.

Resilience NSW provides a welcome opportunity to provide more predictability to government agencies, businesses, communities and other stakeholders in dealing with the seemingly unpredictable.

However, as we have suggested in another recent Insights article, government agencies and businesses will need to consider their own resilience in areas such as asset and service selection, procurement, development and management, supply chains and labour, as they come to terms with the risk and impact of disasters on their own organisations.

We look forward to reviewing and responding to more details about Resilience NSW.

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Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this communication. Persons listed may not be admitted in all States and Territories.