The government responded to Defence’s request by deploying 23 reserves to help respond to bushfires in Queensland between November 28 and December 7. Later as the bushfire situation worsened, about 6500 ADF personnel provided support to bushfire operations. These included about 3000 reservists.
In a sign Defence knew there was an increasing possibility that the wide-scale compulsory callout powers of reserves would be relied upon for the first time in history, Mr Campbell authorised a briefing to Defence Minister Linda Reynolds on October 24 saying he was prepared to provide more support to respond to natural disasters.
“Defence is presently working to develop options for enhanced integration of the ADF reserve workforce in response to natural disasters,” the briefing read.
“I will be submitting further advice to you on this subject in the near future.”
In the same briefing, Defence said climate change was “increasing the number of natural disasters” , but pointed out the definition of the timeframe for the high-risk weather season remained unchanged by Emergency Management Australia.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds “noted” the briefing on November 11 but added: “Events have overtaken briefing”. By that date, bushfires were already raging in NSW and Queensland.
Defence said in another briefing it was working with the Department of Home Affairs to allow the government to call out a small number of reserves every year “to normalise and practise the ‘Call Out’ arrangements, which, to date, have never been used”.
In a letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison dated November 18, Senator Reynolds said that to mitigate the possibility of deployment of reserves not progressing smoothly, Mr Campbell had proposed to conduct a callout of “not more than 30” reservists for seven to 10 days, and “could usefully occur annually”.
“In doing so, it would provide assurance of a system that may one day be required at significant scale, with little or no notice, as well as strengthening the integration of the full-time and part-time elements of the ADF and the preparedness culture required throughout the force to be an effective instrument of last resort for the nation,” Senator Reynolds wrote.
She also wrote to the Governor-General requesting to enact the “annual arrangement” and roll out the “first iteration as soon as possible”.
After the 23 reserves had finished their service in Queensland, Defence said in a briefing to Senator Reynolds, dated December 18, that despite “intensive planning and preparation” the callout “induced minor difficulties when enacted”.
Defence said questions were raised about the different pay rates for volunteer “called for” reserves and their comrades who had been “called out”.
“Future messaging should address the collective benefit to the nation of a compulsory Call Out of Reserves when responding to large-scale emergencies of national significance and prolonged periods of civil emergency or disaster,” the briefing said.
After thousands of residents and holidaymakers were left stranded by bushfires in Victoria’s East Gippsland and on the NSW south coast on New Year’s Eve, a compulsory callout order was made, with navy vessels and thousands of reserves and permanent Defence personnel dispatched.
In a statement, Defence said it now intended to conduct callout activities every year.
Defence said Australia experienced “an unprecedented fire season” that required “a large-scale nationwide disaster response”.
They said it was “capturing and analysing observations and lessons” from the bushfire assistance operation to ensure it is “optimised to support” the community in large-scale responses if required in the future.
Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.