Negotiating risk and responsibility through law, policy and planning

Dr Blythe McLennan, Dr Jessica K Weir, Dr Michael Eburn, Professor John Handmer, Professor Barbara J Norman, Professor Stephen Dovers

Peer-reviewed Article



The 2011 National Strategy for Disaster Resilience (COAG 2011) sets the context for natural disaster management as a ‘shared responsibility’ of all sectors of government and society, as part of building a more comprehensive approach to emergency management. However, it remains difficult to change relationships and practices to share responsibility, either between emergency management agencies and other government sectors, or between governments and at-risk communities. This paper reports on the research of three independent but complementary projects established through the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre to identify the legal, policy and planning structures and processes that could enhance integration of emergency management imperatives across public policy sectors, agencies and portfolios. This article distils and summarises some key conclusions regarding a central, yet seriously under-acknowledged facet, of developing public policy for natural hazard risk in Australia: the political and social negotiation of risk and responsibility. This is an overview paper and many of the issues raised require further exploration.



Nationally and internationally, the development of comprehensive emergency management policy and practice is focusing attention on both the need for a whole-of-society approach and for inclusion of all aspects of risk management, of which the initial emergency response is one aspect (Handmer & Dovers 2013, EMA 2004b). This has concentrated research attention on the policy and governance challenges of bringing the possibility of future risk events into the present. At the same time, the expansion of climate change exacerbates disasters and is underscoring the importance of this work (see, for example Hughes & Steffen 2013, IPCC 2012, Gurran, Norman & Hamin 2012, Norman et al. 2013).

In Australia, primary statutory responsibility to manage natural hazard risk rests firmly with state fire and emergency services organisations, with federal government support and national scale co-ordination. However it does not automatically follow that emergency services organisations in Australia can and should solely bear this responsibility on behalf of the rest of government and society. That emergency management is inherently a collective undertaking involving a range of parties acting in co-ordination to achieve a mutual goal has been a central tenant in formal arrangements, if not in practice, since the ‘all hazards, all agency’ focus of the Comprehensive Emergency Management model adopted in the late 1980s (see EMA 2004a). While the focus of the Comprehensive model was firmly on the players in the emergency management sector, subsequent policy developments have expanded the range of both government and non-government parties with recognised responsibilities to manage and respond to natural hazard risk in a co-ordinated way. In particular, the addition of a more overtly risk-based management approach from the 1990s put greater emphasis on the responsibilities of the exposed people and communities to reduce risk (Kanowski, Whelan & Ellis 2005, Elsworth et al. 2009). While the more recent and widely supported shift towards a ‘whole-of-nation, resilience-based’ strategy (McLennan & Handmer 2013a, COAG 2011) positions disaster management as a shared responsibility of government and society.

These policy developments comprise important steps in ongoing attempts to confront the complex, interdependent and multi-faceted challenges of managing natural hazard risk in modern Australia. They address the reality that managing natural hazard risk is beyond both the control of any single policy sector, or the collective public institutions of government.

Yet despite the growing emphasis on ‘shared responsibility’ in disaster and emergency management policy rhetoric, it is difficult to change actual relationships and practices to share responsibility; either between emergency management and other government sectors (e.g. ‘mainstreaming’ policy across sectors, see Eburn & Jackman 2011) or between governments and at-risk communities.

A photo of a hand-painted thank-you sign in front of a group of roadside mailboxes, which reads ‘Massive thanks to all the firefighters who saved our home’. In the background the bush is burnt.

Image: Jessica Weir

A thank you sign outside properties after the Sand Hills Fire, New South Wales, January 2013.

It was in this context that a three-year research program (the ‘Mainstreaming program‘) was established through the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre in mid 2009. The Mainstreaming program identified legal, policy and planning structures and processes that could enhance integration of emergency management imperatives across public policy sectors, agencies and portfolios. The program comprised three independent but complementary projects:

  • The Law and Policy project (Australian National University) asked how law impacts on the responsibilities of the emergency management sector and, in particular, state emergency services organisations.
  • The Planning project (University of Canberra) exposed bushfire-aware planning issues encountered by planners and fire authorities that have responsibilities for managing bushfire risk in different jurisdictions and landscapes.
  • The Sharing Responsibility project (RMIT University) critically examined the idea and practice of sharing responsibility between governments and communities to manage disaster risk.

The research undertaken independently in each of the three projects is reported elsewhere.1 This article distils and summarises three key program conclusions about political and social negotiation on risk and responsibility. It focuses on negotiating expectations of success, negotiating multiple values in planning, and negotiating citizen-State relationships.

Negotiating expectations of success

The Law and Policy project revealed the importance of negotiating expectations of success in emergency management. In the paper, How chief officers view success in fire policy and management (page 16), Eburn and Dovers argue that establishing shared responsibility for emergency management imperatives requires a negotiated understanding between a broad range of parties about what it is they wish to achieve, and who will do what. The National Strategy for Disaster Resilience (NSDR) (COAG 2011) identifies the ideals of developing resilient communities and shared responsibility but gives no indication of what measures identify when a sufficient level of disaster resilience has been achieved.

If governments, communities and individuals are going to negotiate on issues of responsibility for risk management they need to understand what they can reasonably expect from each other, what they are trying to achieve, and how they will identify whether or not their objectives have been achieved. In the context of emergency management the desired objectives may seem obvious, for example that there are no fatal fires, or floods, or no damage to property or the environment, but those objectives are unrealistic not least when considering the costs that would be incurred trying to achieve a zero fatality approach to fire and flood risk. Another objective may be to ‘minimise’ the loss of life but that implies some loss is tolerable provided it is the minimum achievable in the circumstances.

Notwithstanding this, governments and emergency services organisations are subject to critical review after many events, not just catastrophic tragedies, but have difficulty explaining their response or whether or not, in all the circumstances, the outcomes should be judged as effective or not. As one senior emergency services officer responded in a survey conducted as part of the Law and Policy project: ‘we’ll be judged by the post incident conversation; governments and emergency services organisations have to try to anticipate what that conversation will be’ (Eburn & Dovers 2013). In essence agencies are judged in hindsight by whether or not an outcome is ‘acceptable’ rather than by the question of whether or not they achieved the objectives set for them by the government, on behalf of the community.

To develop useful measures of success, stakeholders need to identify the reality of emergency management policy which includes recognition that safety cannot be guaranteed. Governments and communities have to accept that some outcomes are the result of political choices about land-use planning, resource allocation and priorities, made long before any fire, flood or storm impacted. A more open discussion of reasonable expectations is needed, leading to a better shared understanding, informing revised expectations expressed in policy documents and legislative goals. Stated goals can be the basis of communication to inform understanding of ‘shared responsibility’, and be reference points for assessment in the inevitable post-event inquiries in future.

A photo of a highway running through rural properties among burnt bushland.

Image: Jessica Weir

Kings Highway between Bungendore and Braidwood, New South Wales, January 2013.

Negotiating multiple values in planning

The Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission found that urban and regional planning is a key activity for reducing bushfire risk. This is also included in the NSDR as part of building community resilience and shared responsibility (Teague, McLeod & Pascoe 2010, COAG 2011). Planning that takes bushfire-awareness into account can reduce the risk posed to lives, homes, infrastructure and other values, as well as reducing the risk faced by emergency response crews protecting these during a bushfire event (Kelly 2010, Buxton et al. 2011, Hughes & Mercer 2009). In state and territory regional planning there are strategic decisions concerning where development will occur, and what sort of development it will be. At the local level the focus is on implementing and enforcing planning regulations and building standards. Much planning for bushfire risk is based on zoning areas as high risk, and then prescribing treatments for those areas arising out of the emphasis on risk management that developed in the 1990s.

By undertaking such planning roles, planners working for local authorities are taking responsibility for their share of bushfire risk, however they do so by negotiating their other responsibilities to the diverse environmental, economic and social values prioritised by governments and communities. Compromise can occur as part of this, although planners can look to risk mitigation measures to help negotiate priorities. For example, planners in Canberra continue to emulate the leafy ‘bush capital’ planning heritage, with the increase in bushfire risk countered in part by larger fuel reduction zones. The effectiveness of such measures depends on the scale of the bushfire event, and planning treatments are challenged by the uncertain and dynamic risk context. Vegetation growth, growing urban complexity, economic development, new research findings, climate change and policy change are constantly reshaping the risk landscape. In the Northern Territory, invasive African fire weed is creating a new high intensity fire landscape.

Planners must be responsive to, and are sometimes captive of, how bushfire risk is perceived and valued in society and by those in power. If bushfire risk is not considered as important as other interests and agendas, it is difficult to include it in the strategic plan and urban design, as well as to enforce it. The implementation of many regulations, such as slashing and burning to reduce fuel loads in bushfire risk landscapes, relies on whether individuals in the private and public sector are informed, accept and share responsibility for this risk. Being attuned to risk perceptions held, or not, in society is important for local, state and federal politicians who rely on their constituents for re-election, with the planners reliant on politicians to make important planning decisions. Planning is often depicted as a purely technical profession, but it can be enlisted to meet the ambitions of those with money and power rather than the priorities of civil society (Gleeson 2012, p. 245).

Bushfire risk is now a compulsory inclusion in planning in Victoria, and planners and fire authorities are seeing a strong sense of shared commitment across and within agencies to reduce bushfire risk, as well as innovative ways to address bushfire risk on particular sites (Weir 2013). In the focus group research, the planners and fire authorities discussed how energy and ingenuity was being invested in finding options that match bushfire risk mitigation with other values in society, such as biodiversity conservation (see also Paterson 2007). They also reported on how their efforts are revealing where the contribution of planning starts and ends. By delineating the contribution of planning, the Victorian experience highlights how shared responsibility needs to go much further than relying on one sector and is, as the NSDR says, a collective responsibility.

A photo of a home in the middle of very heavy bushland and vegetation.

Image: Jessica Weir

House surrounded by vegetation, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria.

Negotiating citizen-State relationships

There appears to be wide support for the vision of citizens and the State (communities and government) sharing responsibility for disaster and emergency management. Yet despite this support, there is also considerable confusion and divergent views among stakeholders (e.g. agencies, political advisors, formal and informal volunteers, civil society groups) about what this entails and the kinds of citizen-State relationships that best enable it. High level policy statements like the NSDR do not—and cannot—provide sufficient actionable guidance for the many different phases, levels and settings where risk management activities take place.

Crucially, sharing responsibility for emergency management between citizens and the State is a central issue of modern risk governance. The legitimacy and effectiveness of public institutions that manage complex risks are being challenged in a globalised and dynamic world (McLennan & Handmer 2013a, section 2.1.3). In Australia, as in other modern democratic political systems, a dominant policy response to this challenge across a range of sectors has been to emphasise the need for greater citizen responsibility and community resilience. This same shift is evident in Australian emergency management. At the same time, many public institutions have become increasingly risk averse in the face of rising criticism, legal proceedings and public enquiries, and their limited capacity to control complex risks.

A central conclusion of the Sharing Responsibility project (derived from a joint Australian and international research focus) is that enabling more legitimate and effective responsibility-sharing between citizens and the State in Australian disaster management requires a fundamental shift towards more inclusive governance arrangements. It is through such arrangements that government and non-government actors can establish relationships and processes to negotiate shared risks and responsibilities:

‘Inclusive governance is based on the assumption that all stakeholders have something to contribute to the process of risk governance and that mutual communication and exchange of ideas, assessments and evaluations improve the final decisions rather than impeding the decision-making process or compromising the quality of scientific input and the legitimacy of legal requirements ... As the term governance implies, collectively binding decisions cannot be confined to governments. Rather it involves the four central actors in modern plural societies: governments, economic players, scientists and civil society organizations.’

(Renn & Schweizer 2009, p. 175).

Thus there is a need in Australian disaster management to develop more inclusive governance arrangements at a range of levels that involve broader social participation throughout the whole policy and management process — from agenda-setting through to implementation and evaluation (see for example Aguilar & Montiel 2011). It is important to emphasise that this social participation is not community engagement by another name. Community engagement is a part of implementing a solution to a problem as it is framed (e.g. recognised and defined) by a government agency or network. By contrast, inclusive governance involves non-government actors in framing the problems and shaping the solutions as well as in implementing them (Renn & Schweizer 2009). Thus there is an underlying assumption inherent in inclusive governance styles ‘that governments today cannot remain as firmly in control of policy processes as in the past and, at the same time, take a more “enabling” role’ (Edwards 2002, p. 58). Instead, policy processes and outcomes are recognised as involving active negotiation with non-government actors, including those from civil society. This is well-aligned with the NSDR’s focus on government’s role to enable rather than direct community resilience (McLennan et al. 2012, McLennan & Handmer 2013b).

A photo of people swimming in and walking along a small beach in an ocean inlet. There are homes on the far side of the beach, which are partially concealed by trees.

Image: Jessica Weir

The bushfire season coincides with summer holidays. Mossy Point, New South Wales.

Inclusive governance is very challenging to current thinking and practice in emergency management. Existing and emerging governance arrangements in this sector are still very government-centric, despite an emerging ‘community empowerment’ rhetoric. For example, the agenda for developing more networked and collaborative governance arrangements laid out in the Victorian Government Emergency Management Reform white paper notably refers only to government actors and networks (Victorian Government 2012). Yet there is also implicit but firm support for developing more inclusive governance frameworks within the NSDR’s vision of shared responsibility and disaster resilience, and among both government and non-government Australian disaster management stakeholders (see McLennan et al. 2012, McLennan et al. 2013, McLennan & Handmer 2013b).

Developing more inclusive governance frameworks is not, of course, a magic bullet for achieving more legitimate and effective responsibility-sharing between citizens and the State in disaster management. As was clearly identified by government speakers in two stakeholder workshops held as part of the Sharing Responsibility project, increasing social participation in disaster policy processes presents significant responsibility-sharing challenges of its own, most notably to government accountability (see also Edwards 2002, Levidow 2007, Walker, Tweed & Whittle 2013). However, these speakers clearly positioned such challenges as issues to be actively wrestled with in order to enable resilience-based disaster management.

A photo of a partly fire-damaged emergency services sign, which reads ‘report all fires, 000’.

Image: Jessica Weir

Burnt emergency services sign, Kings Highway, New South Wales, January 2013.


These three projects highlight the different dimensions and complexity of the negotiation of risk and responsibility within sectors and levels of government, between governments and citizens, and between stakeholders. The focus on policy and governance reported on here has been a recent one for Australian emergency management and one where research and practitioner interests have been sharpened and co-ordinated. Globally there has been a dearth of attention to the strategic policy and institutional dimensions within which emergency management operates (Handmer & Dovers 2013). The issues and questions raised here demand ongoing investigation and discussion, and this is planned to occur in more of an all-hazards context under the auspices of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre. Broadening the debate around emergency management will challenge traditional approaches and organisations, but conversely offers opportunities for emergency management to become genuinely mainstream and a task shared across society.


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About the authors

Dr Blythe McLennan is a human geographer and Research Fellow at RMIT University Centre for Risk and Community Safety in Melbourne. She is with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre and her research project is about non-traditional volunteers.

Dr Jessica K Weir is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society, University of Western Sydney and a Visiting Fellow with the Fenner School of Environment and Society, ANU. She was part of the University of Canberra bushfire research project from mid-2012 to late 2013. Jessica researches the socio-cultural aspects of land use and environmental issues.

Dr Michael Eburn is a barrister, Associate Professor at the ANU College of Law, Visiting Fellow at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, ANU, and an affiliate with the Disaster and Development Network, University of Northumbria, UK. His research interests are the law and its application to emergency services and emergency response. 

Professor John Handmer has training in geography, economics and law. He leads the RMIT Centre for Risk and Community Safety, is Convener of the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility Emergency Management Network, Principle Scientific Advisor for the Bushfire CRC, and was a convenor for the UN-IPCC 2012 report on extremes and managing disasters. He works on the social and economic aspects of emergency management.

Professor Steve Dovers is Director, Fenner School of Environment and Society, ANU. His research interests cross the policy and institutional dimensions of multiple policy sectors and issues including water, urban management, climate adaptation, and disasters.

Professor Barbara J Norman is Foundation Chair of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Canberra, Director of Canberra Urban and Regional Futures and an Adjunct Professor at ANU. She is a Life Fellow and honorary member of the Royal Town Planning Institute, UK. Her research and teaching interests include urban and regional planning, sustainable coastal planning, climate change adaptation and urban governance.

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