PM flags law changes to deal with bushfires in response to 'clear community expectation'

The prime minister has used his National Press Club address to lay out a national approach to dealing with disasters such as bushfires.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison delivers a speech at the National Press Club in Canberra, Wednesday, January 29, 2020. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING

Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Source: AAP

Scott Morrison has flagged new powers to allow a "national state of emergency" to be declared in crises such as the current bushfires.

The prime minister used a speech to the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday to lay out areas of practical action the federal government can take to deal with emergencies.

Mr Morrison says he does not want to take over police, fire, ambulance and medical services from the states.

"The incredible skill and bravery of our state fire services have saved so many lives over this summer," he said.

Australia was hit hard by bushfires in 2019.
Source: Getty Images

But he said there was a "clear community expectation" the government should be able to respond to national emergencies and disasters.

He said the bushfires have tested the limits of how the federal government interacts with the states, which in the past has required a request for assistance from premiers.

The prime minister defended his government's response time to the disaster, saying he reflected daily on how he could better serve the country.

"The one thing I don't want any Australian to feel like when they go through a situation like that is that they are alone and they are isolated," Mr Morrison said.

In order to clear up issues such as when defence forces can be used, the government will examine three steps:

* Constitutional and legal change allowing the declaration of a national state of emergency and the Commonwealth to take action on its own initiative, including the deployment of the ADF;

* examining the legal interface with the states and territories on responsibilities when it comes to preparation for, and the response to, natural disasters and emergencies of national scale;

* an enhanced "national accountability" for natural disaster risk management, resilience and preparedness, including setting targets, reporting on key actions and national standards.

The defence force involvement in supporting bushfire efforts was bolstered from 900 personnel in December to over 6500 in January, with the federal government acting without a request from the states but with the approval of Governor-General David Hurley.

It was the largest domestic ADF operation ever seen in Australia, with more than 13 fixed-wing aircraft, 20 rotary-wing platforms and three naval vessels involved.

Mr Morrison also repeated his support for a royal commission, which - if backed by the premiers and chief ministers - will have the initial task of auditing previous inquiry recommendations.

Federal parliament will resume next week with a day of reflection on the bushfires scheduled for 4 February.

Published 29 January 2020 at 6:06pm, updated 29 January 2020 at 6:48pm