The Commonwealth Government's powers, responsibilities and wealth ensured it would always play a role in assisting state governments to respond to major local disasters. From the very beginning, responsibility for things like quarantine, navigation and defence also had an implied element to them of disaster prevention and investigation. The certainty of a national role in both mitigation and response increased during the 20th century as factors such as referendums, High Court rulings and speed of communications meant local disasters were known of and felt nationally. The very structure of the Australian political system encouraged this too, with members of the House of Representatives strongly identified with geographically defined electorates, and senators with particular states.
Tasmanians have suffered in national disasters – wars, the influenza epidemic of 1919 and the Depression of the 1930s among others. The state has also experienced more than its share of local disasters which resonated nationally. Not all are covered in this chapter. Two relatively recent events, the Port Arthur shootings in April 1996 and the Beaconsfield mine collapse in April 2006, resulted in large quantities of Commonwealth records being generated, but are not included here because the records have not yet reached the open period.
Finally, 'disasters' is a relative term and my selection in no way implies a body count criterion. The intent of this chapter, as with the others, is to be illustrative and encouraging, not to attempt a definitive and exhaustive listing. What is covered has been divided into three sections. The first addresses a number of local disasters which elicited Commonwealth interest and response, and the final two address very high profile tragedies: the fires which engulfed much of Tasmania in the summer of 1966–67 and the Tasman Bridge collapse of January 1975.