Six ideas, four minutes

“Be provocative”, they said. “How can we bring all this together and make it stick?”, were the riding instructions. The more I thought about it walking Sydney streets early morning, the more the ideas came. How can I fit watching this sector change, develop, transform over 25 years into 4 minutes? How could I link both what happens locally with what I see nationally? As Harry Manx effortlessly does, marrying the Mississippi mud, with the celestial Himalayan air in his sublime blues. This, was going to be a challenge. I would need to talk fast, not one of my strong suits.

I was fortunate to be preceded by Linda Scott, the chair of the Australian Local Government Association, and Nina Keath from City of Onkaparinga in SA, both passionate in outlining the challenges and the successes that local government face.

I started with the local. Communities self organise everyday of the week. We tend to forget this because we are looking through an emergency management lens, which immediately takes outside what is happening in communities. They put football and netball teams on the part week in, week out, organise school fetes, run community groups, worship, take land and coastcare action. Almost all are self-organised with minimal support. Support and guidance does come from a local entity, it might a netball league, or the neighbourhood house, or the council community engagement department. Natalie Egleton from FRRR on the first day highlighted the critical role the local community sector play. We should learn to tap into this and support this more. A good use of the $4.8Billion in the Emergency Response Fund would be to fund the hyperlocal work, at neighbourhood houses and progress associations, and community health with long term, predictable and sustainable funds. Maybe the NRRA’s Recovery Support Officers could become Resilience Support Officers. Take some of the administrative burden away of organising. Be able to give people good practice guidance. Work to embed this in everyday activities.

Embedding disaster risk reduction needs to be everyone’s business. It needs to be spoken about at board meetings, and committee of management meetings, and school council meetings. I tried to have a conversation about bushfire risk at our inner city school council, and was dismissed until I pointed out where most of our families holidayed, in high fire risk areas. I see many people working in emergency management using the GAICD post nominals. We’re savvy about governance, then use this avenue. Activities relating to DRR need to become part of reporting season. Imagine if breathless analysts were able to report on our progress towards reducing disaster risk as well as profits etc. Of course, to do that we need to have an agreed set of indicators, that we all use. Time to dust off the MERL framework.

Sector coordination and leadership is critical, there are many of us doing work in the community-based resilience space, focussing on the same places; us, Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal, Minderoo, Fire to Flourish, local governments, state governments. I always say to new staff before you start something new, pick up the phone to see if we have done it before, whether it worked, and whether it could be done better. Kwoledge A bolstered AIDR Knowledge Hub would definitely help with this. Bringing all parties together for a common purpose and language will be important. Not only to we need to focus on place, but also people: disasters also impact communities of interest.

Lets blow up the existing disaster risk governance arrangements. The Australian New Zealand Emergency Management Committee is not fit for purpose. A group of government officials talking about shared responsibility but not sharing responsibility. Other voices need input; the community sector; the private sector, research sector, technical experts, people with lived experience, those people more at risk. New governance has to prioritise those voices that stand to lose the most and have the least capacity to move out of harms way and lead good lives. There needs to be a high level technical advisory committee.

Maybe its time for Chief Resilience Officers in each state and territory or some similar focal position. We have Chief Health Officers, Chief Fire Officers, positions that are reliant on a degree of expertise. Michael Berkowitz from Resilient Cities Catalyst indicated that this was an emerging phenomena in the US. Linda Scott, on  my panel respectfully disagreed, saying we didn’t need more chiefs, that the efforts needed to be local. I agree that the word chief is often a concern, but my thinking is more along the lines of the Chief Health Officer, a role that is a technical expert as well as a program manager. I see this as a way of bringing expertise and experience together to guide good practice, as well as being accountable for progress in each state. Perhaps there needs to be a National Resilience Officer. This is something that we proposed through the Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience in the first White Paper on disaster resilience, someone to take a national view, and report annually on progress. The always fabulous Jimmy Scott from Queensland Reconstruction Authority asked what sort of skill set would you draw upon for such a position, which is a great question as CHOs and CFOs draw upon distinct disciplines. Perhaps this is Geography’s time to rise, as geographers see a lot of different disciplines through the lens of place.

Finally we get to the contested term “resilience” which again Natalie Egleton highlighted was problematic, as it can be loaded with intent. Most people I spoke with agree its problematic, and been used loosely, but is there a better term. Perhaps we should be talking about wellbeing. Lisa Gibbs led a paper on using community wellbeing as a framework as an alternative to resilience. We have used wellbeing as a covering term for one of our disaster resilience capacities, New Zealand has a wellbeing budget, which Australia is now considering. The Canterbury District Health Board undertook community wellbeing surveys, and All Right used the New Economics Foundation’s Five Ways to Wellbeing to ground their public health campaign. We can use Quality of Life Measures, of which these are rigorous and tested to measure positive outcomes, rather than losses.

I have been ready Jimin and Bundjalung woman, Professor Judy Atkinson’s Trauma Trails: Recreating Song Lines, which is about intergenerational trauma in Indigenous Australia. A powerful and confronting book. She outlines one concept of wellbeing; that of Punyu (from the language of Ngaringman in the Norther Territory), where Punya encompasses person and country and is being:

  • Strong
  • Happy
  • Knowledgeable
  • Socially responsible
  • Beautiful
  • Clean
  • Safe (in the sense of being within lore, and the sense of people cared for)

“When people and country are Punyu, the flow of energy keeps both strong, healthy and fruitful. Punya and being well connect People, Place and Lore into a whole” . The oldest living culture continues to gift us with ways to perhaps look differently.

These aren’t radical, storm the barricades ideas. Some of them are frankly boring. You can’t highlight them in a social media post, or cut a ribbon in front of them. But if we want disasters to become a bump in the road and not a crash, as I mentioned the other day, lets get a good solid foundation, off which we can improvise and connect the ground with the sky.


One thought on “Six ideas, four minutes

  1. John as usual you cause me to pause and reflect which is always good.
    Re Chief Resilience Officer … I agree that positions like this are an important step. Particularly since such positions both as national and state level would be inside the tent of policy and strategy of governments.
    Re Geography. Yes an interesting one there. With my (ongoing!) research connected to Year 5/6 geography I am now frequenting some of the place that geographers reside. And generally it is a very pleasant place indeed.
    Many geographers though are perplexed and somewhat agitated about the changes in the recent Australian Curriculum 9.0 that appears to relegate or remove references to elements such as place. I think there will be some lobbying of the new federal Education Minister on this one soon.


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