South Australia’s Response to Bushfires – A Political Analysis

The Black Saturday bushfires caused great devastation in South Australia. This triggered community response, donations, Government inquiries (including a Royal Commission), and recommendations from many groups.

The State Bushfire Coordination Committee has divided the State into 9 Bushfire Management Areas with a Bushfire Management Plan prepared for each BMA. Minutes of SBCC meetings are available here.

What happened?

Fires ravaged South Australia over the summer of 2021-22, with more than 1180 homes and non-residential buildings destroyed or badly damaged. They caused significant impacts across Yorketown, Adelaide Hills, Kangaroo Island and key industries including tourism, primary production and viticulture. Three people died. The fires were described as ‘the worst on record’, with hot weather and a lack of humidity contributing to the rapid spread of the bushfires.

In the early days of the Black Summer bushfires, Regional One’s Level 2 Incident Management Team (IMT) was activated to support firefighters on the ground. A strike team and specialised heavy machinery was deployed, working overnight to halt the rate of spread and create mineral earth breaks on fire fronts.

The IMT was a collaboration between the CFS, ForestrySA and National Parks SA, and representatives from emergency services agencies, local government and power companies were involved. In addition, community members joined IMT meetings to contribute their experience and knowledge of the region.

Hill’s team took a boots-on-the-ground approach and visited communities, neighbourhoods and tourism operators to understand the region and how best to communicate. They realised that they could make impactful connections by sharing clear, empathetic and transparent messaging while also highlighting how community members can meaningfully support relief efforts.

Working Groups were established by the Taskforce to address specific themes, allowing the engagement of experts and stakeholders from within and beyond the Taskforce. The Working Groups produced detailed recommendations, which the Taskforce considered and agreed on.

The State Government is providing a range of recovery measures for affected communities. This includes a Community Recovery Fund, which is supporting community-based initiatives in the five local government areas of Mount Barker, Murray Bridge, Coorong, Kingston and Kangaroo Island. In addition, a Disaster Recovery Grant is available to help primary producers and small businesses recover from the effects of the bushfires. More information about this grant is available on the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements page. The Australian government is also assisting with recovery through the Commonwealth’s Rural Assistance Program. It has provided $10 million for the Commonwealth’s NRM programs to support community-based activities and to assist with restoration of impacted areas.

What is the Government’s response?

The Government is working hard to help people affected by the bushfires. There are many ways they can get support including free counselling, support services and income supports. For more information, visit the Government’s website. If you are experiencing emotional distress, the National Disaster Emotional Support Line is open from 6pm – 11pm AEST (excluding public holidays). You can call 1800 878 188 to talk to someone or use the online chat function on their website. The Government has also set up a number of Recovery Hubs across South Australia to provide practical assistance and financial support for people who have been impacted by the bushfires. They will be located at local councils, churches and community centres. If you are experiencing trauma, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

A range of tax relief measures are available to assist people who have been impacted by the recent bushfires in South Australia. This includes relief of stamp duty for the purchase of replacement vehicles. This is available until 1 April 2022.

To help communities rebuild, the Government has activated a Community Recovery Fund. This will provide a fund for targeted community projects and support for volunteer participation. The fund will support a wide range of communities in the Adelaide Hills, Mount Barker, Coorong, Kangaroo Island and Mid Murray regions. The Government has also increased funding for recovery efforts in rural communities. It is providing grants of up to $75,000 for agricultural producers and up to $50,000 for small businesses in the Mount Barker, Coorong, Kangaroo island and Mid Murray regions.

South Australia is one of the least densely populated states in Australia. It has a varied landscape with desert, mountain ranges and a coastline of more than 3,700 km. The State’s climate is dominated by a strong, hot dry southwesterly wind and frequent high-intensity bushfires.

The State operates under the British Westminster system of Parliamentary Government with a Governor-General and Cabinet led by the Premier. The Government is formed by the party or grouping that has a majority in the state’s House of Assembly, or by a coalition. The State’s executive power is exercised by the Ministers, who are appointed by the Governor-General on the advice of the Premier.

What is the community’s response?

The Community has responded in a number of ways to assist those affected by the Bushfires. This includes fundraising for those who have been displaced and supporting the families of those who have lost their homes and other possessions. It is also responding to the need for longer term mental health support.

The community has been able to use social media to share information and provide assistance. This includes providing food, water and other supplies to people stranded in their homes or unable to access their properties. It has also provided emotional support and donated money to help those impacted by the fires. Some communities have established community help centres, and others have organised fundraising activities for those who have been left homeless or with significant damage to their property.

In some areas, residents have resisted government efforts to close roads and restrict access to their properties. Many have described driving around or circumventing roadblocks to get to their properties, using back roads, tracks and gates through private land. The interviews reveal that the drivers for this behaviour were primarily to protect houses, to find or rescue animals and to re-stock and feed livestock.

Interviews have highlighted the difficulties many people faced in trying to recover from the damage caused by the bushfires. A key issue is how to rebuild a house and outbuildings that match their bushfire action plans. If the family plan is to ‘leave early’, normal building compliance levels are sufficient, but if the plan is to ‘stay and defend’, a best-practice build that incorporates in-built fire fighting capacity will be required.

A further challenge is the complexity of assessing the effects of a bushfire on a farm and its produce. Farmers are often reliant on an integrated system of pest and disease monitoring, soil health, cropping and livestock management. This information must be accessed, analysed and applied quickly, as conditions change rapidly.

Despite these challenges, the interviewees interviewed in this study overwhelmingly reported feeling supported by their community during the recovery process. This was evidenced by the high percentage who indicated that they had received assistance from their local community, friends and neighbours. This support was crucial for assisting their recovery.

What is the media’s response?

South Australia has a diverse media scene, with a wide range of newspapers and magazines published across the state. A press association based in Adelaide manages production and distribution of the main daily paper, the Advertiser, as well as several weekly titles with a wide circulation. Local television and radio stations operate in larger towns and many smaller communities. The national broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, set up a message board where people could offer and request help in dealing with the bushfires. There was also a proliferation of websites offering information and advice, often managed by volunteer organisations.

The South Australian government is a parliamentary system of responsible Cabinet Government, headed by the Premier. The state is divided into several Electoral Divisions, each governed by a single member of the House of Assembly. The majority of seats in the House are contested by parties or groups representing regional interests. The Australian Labor Party holds the most seats, followed by the Liberal Party.

A key function of the state government is to administer state-wide public services, including education, health care and hospitals, police and prisons, housing and roads. It also provides a large share of its revenue, through general taxation and specific-purpose financial grants. The Commonwealth (federal) government has substantial de jure control over defense, foreign affairs, trade and economic policy, welfare payments, immigration and shipping.

The state’s judiciary includes the highest court, the Supreme Court; the District Court, which hears the most serious civil and criminal cases; and a number of Magistrates courts that deal with less-serious matters. There are also several tribunals that hear consumer disputes and some professional and occupational licensing matters.

This study explores the extent to which equity was a core concern of HiAP work and how this changed over time. It draws on institutional theory to build understanding of the dynamics that shape and constrain a government’s ability to consider and prioritise policy ideas related to equity. As a meta-institution, the dominant neo-liberal economic policy agenda shut down the small policy space that was available for equity and underpinned and constrained policy thinking and priority setting [44]. It appears that a neo-liberal perspective implicitly suggests that if the economy is well run, then social and environmental concerns will ‘trickle down’ to benefit everyone.