Today’s correspondent says
I recently read how Mick Keelty recommended a federal body loosely based upon the NZ model set up after their earthquakes. I see people claiming that it would be unconstitutional because of state rights, is that correct?
I’m not sure where that recommendation was made or what was said. The Sydney Morning Herald (‘People are looking for someone to blame and right now the PM’s in their sights’ (2 January 2020) reports:
Former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty was tasked by the federal government to look at water and drought. He put an idea to government as early as September, proposing a national body to deal with disaster response. Keelty wanted it modelled on the New Zealand Earthquake Commission, which joins up all levels of government, defence and private contractors to reduce response times when a crisis hits.
I’m not sure about that description of the Earthquake Commission. According to its website it provides insurance, research and education. It is not a response agency.
The Commonwealth has the power to make laws with respect to insurance (Australian Constitution s 51(xiv)) and the Commonwealth is extensively involved in funding research (Victoria v Commonwealth  HCA 52).
I cannot see any constitutional barrier to the Commonwealth establishing ‘a national body to deal with disaster response … modelled on the New Zealand Earthquake Commission’ as described on the Commission’s website but I cannot see how that organisation is a ‘disaster response’ organisation or how it ‘joins up all levels of government, defence and private contractors to reduce response times when a crisis hits’.
It seems to me that he may have intended or been referring to New Zealand’s National Emergency Management Agency. There are indeed limits on what the Commonwealth could do in this area. The website says:
The National Emergency Management Agency will work across central government and with local government, emergency services, communities, iwi, lifeline utilities and business to create an emergency management system that is ready and able to provide an effective and integrated response to, and recovery from, emergencies.
Emergency Management Australia is part of the Commonwealth government although it does not have a statutory basis. EMA works to manage the Commonwealth’s response subject to those limitations (see What is a ‘national emergency’? (December 25, 2019)). The role of EMA could be put into legislation as could details of how and when the Commonwealth will respond (see Andrew Gissing and I, ‘Australia needs a national crisis plan, and not just for bushfires’ The Conversation (13 December 2019)). It would not look like the New Zealand Act because Australia does have states.
For further discussion see my article: ‘Responding to catastrophic natural disasters and the need for Commonwealth legislation’ (2011) 10(3) Canberra Law Review 81-102.