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Natural hazard risk past tipping point, royal commission told

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The escalating risk from natural hazards anticipated for years in Australia is now manifest and is outstripping the nation’s preparedness to manage the fallout, a Royal Commission hearing was told last week.

The hearing heard Australia faces more frequent and intense disasters due to climate change and now is the time to make policy changes.

“We've now surpassed the tipping point,” Mark Crosweller, former head of the National Resilience Taskforce, told the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements.

“The hazard and risk base had been anticipated in this way for a number of years. It's now manifest … more intensive, more frequent.”

IAG EM of Natural Perils Mark Leplastrier and meteorology specialist Bruce Buckley also appeared at a hearing last week, and closing submissions were made on Friday by Commissioner Mark Binskin and senior counsel assisting Dominique Hogan-Doran.

The final report from the royal commission, which has held 35 days of hearings over four months, is due on October 28 and is expected to detail recommendations relating to national co-ordination, decision-making and accountability.

Mr Crossweller says Australia is “a long way behind on recovery capacity and capability”.

“Our anticipatory capacity in that space is nowhere near where it needs to be,” he said. “We need to anticipate loss.

“On the recovery framework alone, I think so much more could be done in public policy to anticipate these events sensibly … and do something about it. Likewise with resilience.”

Culturally, resilience was viewed as a problem for emergency management, yet that field did not have “the reach” across government, Treasury, the Prime Minister and cabinet to influence best practice, he said.

“It just simply doesn't have it, and nor should it. As a function it's probably not appropriate, but resilience has a role and I think therefore structurally there does need to be some amendments.”

Mr Crosweller says efforts are under way to improve access to natural hazard data. “It needs an enormous amount of work to improve the knowledge base,” he said, citing examples of local governments making planning decisions on 1950s flood data during his tenure.

“If you try and get a national bushfire risk map it doesn't exist at the moment,” Mr Crosweller said. “If we wanted to get a comprehensive understanding of the flood plains of Australia, well there's some data on that, of course, but is it contemporary? Probably not.”

Dr Buckley told the hearing there had been a marked increase in large and giant hailstorms in some areas over the past 20 years, including parts of Sydney, north of Newcastle and near Wollongong.

“The evidence…was actually quite consistent and somewhat alarming because it showed that what we thought could be occurring was occurring,” he said. “It was actually occurring at a faster and more substantial rate than we had anticipated.

“If you get a giant hail event over a motor vehicle it will destroy that vehicle. It will be a writeoff.”

The IAG team has identified “connected extremes,” and Dr Buckley says there is a high prospect of a major tropical cyclone being coupled with the pandemic next summer in Australia.