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Battle weary: Armed forces feel the pinch as nation faces yet another natural disaster

As Australians battle yet another natural disaster, this time in the far north, a federal parliamentary committee is examining the nation’s preparedness, response and recovery in such events.

Mar 14, 2023, updated Mar 14, 2023
 Residents of Burketown in Queensland are facing an anxious wait as water inundates their town, with flooding expected to peak.(AAP Image/Supplied by Marc Adamson)

Residents of Burketown in Queensland are facing an anxious wait as water inundates their town, with flooding expected to peak.(AAP Image/Supplied by Marc Adamson)

But the Australian Defence Force – usually tasked with response and recovery in natural disasters – warns its workforce cannot meet the increasing demand for support.

Floodwaters are slowly receding in remote towns and cattle stations in Queensland’s northwest, battered with record-breaking rain, but the emergency has shifted south to Urandangi, near the Northern Territory border.

Earlier this month, the regional NSW town of Lismore marked one year since devastating floods claimed five lives and more than 3000 homes.

The Black Summer bushfires of 2019 and 2020 roared across much of the nation, with the environmental and emotional toll still being felt.

Australian Defence Force personnel are often called in by the federal government to assist as part of the response to such disasters.

But a defence submission to the committee details how its commitment has created workforce pressures on its permanent and reserve ADF capacity.

The submission says the ADF has also had to reprioritise its workforce to meet government directions during natural disasters which reduces its capacity to train, maintain and sustain workforce levels for defence purposes.

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“The use of both full-time and part-time defence personnel to support the Australian community since 2019 has been at an unprecedented scale, duration and frequency,” the submission said.

“Since 2019 over 35,100 ADF personnel have deployed in domestic disaster relief operations, some multiple times.”

The submission recommends the government establish a scalable, deployable “civil contingency workforce” as an alternative to the ADF that would support national disaster response and recovery.

Defence representatives will give evidence to the committee along with the National Emergency Management Agency, CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology.

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