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Army Reserve-style emergency force needed for disaster response, says Peter Cosgrove

“If you put a solution in place with these inter-dependencies between state and federal governments, it won’t work smoothly and in a timely way,” he said. “That’s what we’ve seen in every disaster, and that’s what we’re seeing in NSW.”

Mr Shoebridge wants to see a new, semi-civilian capability developed within the ADF structure that could also help Australia’s neighbours. “The institution to build upon … that you can deploy as circumstances dictate, the only system that looks like that is the ADF,” he said.

Members of the ADF help locals to clear their flood-damaged homes in Broadwater in the Northern Rivers.

Members of the ADF help locals to clear their flood-damaged homes in Broadwater in the Northern Rivers.Credit:Janie Barrett

Another former Defence Force chief, Admiral Chris Barrie, also said reliance on the army was no substitute for rigorous climate change action and a nationally coordinated, civilian-led government response.

He reiterated his call for young Australians to be obligated to perform either community or military service. “My scheme was all young Australians up to the age of 26 had an obligation to accrue 1000 points of service for the country,” he said.

Professor John Blaxland, a former intelligence officer and military historian at the Australian National University, backed Admiral Barrie’s idea and said the ADF had been “stretched thin” by responding to consecutive emergencies. He said a new model was needed.

“The ADF has a degree of spare capacity for responding to crises. But if you constantly use it for that, you will erode its ability to do its principal function, which is to fight in defence of the nation,” he said. “We’ve got a Defence Force that is now actually seriously strained.”

Members of the ADF join community volunteers to clear the house of elderly couple, Gail and Bill Ferrier, in Woodburn in the Northern Rivers region of NSW.

Members of the ADF join community volunteers to clear the house of elderly couple, Gail and Bill Ferrier, in Woodburn in the Northern Rivers region of NSW.Credit:Janie Barrett

He said a voluntary national and community service scheme could be established through an agreement between the states, territories and federal government, incentivising young people to join state emergency services and defence forces.

The debate comes as a major research project by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) said the traditional model of volunteering, which underpins organisations such as the State Emergency Service, is declining.

In one State Emergency Service, the annual turnover rate was between 20 and 25 per cent.

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The shift is due to the changing nature of paid work, lifestyles and values, and the social impact of technology, the report said. There is more competition for volunteers’ time, growing levels of volunteer burnout, and many existing volunteers are older.

More people choose to help communities outside traditional volunteer structures – as they have in during the Northern Rivers floods – but informal and spontaneous responses were poorly integrated with the formal emergency management system.

“There is a rise in new … styles of volunteering that are more diverse, fluid, episodic and digitally enabled,” said the report, Enabling Sustainable Emergency Volunteering, which was released in August last year.

On Tuesday, Defence Minister Peter Dutton said he was willing to consider new capabilities for the Defence Force. “If there’s an enduring role for defence to play which they may not have played in the past, we can look at that,” he told ABC radio.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison pledged to expand ADF ranks to 80,000 permanent personnel by 2040 – and 30 per cent increase at a cost of $38 billion.

The 2020 Royal Commission into Natural Disaster Arrangements, held after the Black Summer fires, found there was a public perception the ADF was always readily available to be deployed in a crisis and concluded that: “This is not, in fact, the case. Nor is it a reasonable expectation of the ADF.”

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