State plays with fire

second-manne-thumbProfessor Robert Manne

Originally published in The Age on 9 July, 2009

After two months of hearings, the Bushfires Royal Commission has adjourned to prepare its interim recommendations for Victoria's next bushfire season. Before the adjournment, counsel assisting the commission presented an important submission that can be summarised like this:

Around 1995, Victoria embarked on a unique fire policy experiment, known as "stay or go". Citizens in bushfire-prone regions were asked either to prepare to stay and defend their properties or leave early on acute fire-danger days. The policy assumed that at the time of bushfire it was safer to be in a building than on the road. Because of this assumption, fire authorities were opposed to refuges, warning sirens, and evacuation at time of fire.

On February 7, this bold experiment failed. Of the 173 who died, 113 were inside a house; 11 were in a car. Counsel assisting drew the obvious conclusion. Bushfire policy had to be radically revised. They recommended the creation of refuges; the return of warning sirens; new policies for the evacuation of areas under threat. In their view, if there had been an evacuation policy in place on February 7, it would have been relatively easy to save the people of Marysville and Kinglake.

Counsel assisting were highly critical of the performance of the fire authorities on February 7 and especially of the Chief Fire Officer, Russell Rees. Testimony showed that the Kilmore Incident Control Centre was hopelessly ill-prepared. At time of peril, there was an apparent breakdown in communications between the Kilmore and Kangaroo Ground ICCs. Threat warnings to the region north of Melbourne should have been issued by 3pm. The warnings issued were inaccurate, vague and far too late.

Rees, the submission continued, had not followed the progress of the fires closely. He had not used fire-behaviour experts. He had not taken any responsibility for warnings. The conclusion was harsh: "The 'co-ordination' role adopted by Rees on February 7 was divorced from fundamental aspects of the responsibilities of the chief officer, namely (i) the oversight of fire prediction; (ii) the provision of warning information to communities, and (iii) the protection of life."

Lawyers representing the state rejected much of this. They absolutely refused to countenance the idea of establishing refuges for the 2009-10 fire season. They expressed misgivings about the use of sirens. Would they not make people "complacent"? They refused to support the idea of evacuations. Our roads could not cope. They not only denied that warnings had been inadequate. They even claimed, somewhat strangely, that if afternoon threat warnings had been issued, they would have placed the people of Strathewen, Kinglake and Marysville "at heightened risk".

Lawyers representing the state urged the commission not to draw any conclusions of "fact" concerning the performance of CFA leaders. It was too early for that. Although counsel assisting had nothing but praise for the volunteer firefighters, lawyers for the state argued that any criticism of the CFA public servants would jeopardise the recruitment and retention of volunteers.

The meaning was clear. If lawyers representing the state had their way, in the coming fire season, there would be very little policy change. All those who led the CFA on February 7 would remain in their posts.

It cannot be emphasised too strongly that counsel for the state at the commission do not merely represent the fire authorities. They also represent the Victorian Government. In the creation of this commission, the unwillingness of the Brumby Government to distinguish between its own interests and those of the fire authorities is the gravest flaw.

It is one thing for the fire authorities to employ lawyers to try to justify their performance. It is another thing altogether for the Government to offer the fire authorities unambiguous support. The responsibility of the Government is not to defend the fire authorities. Its responsibility is to discover the truth about February 7.

Last Friday the consequence of the failure of the Government to separate its interests from those of the fire authorities was starkly revealed. One of the key questions before the commission is whether fire refuges need to be re-established.

Brumby announced that in the next fire season his Government would not create fire refuges but "neighbourhood safer places" instead. Counsel assisting were justifiably outraged. Here was an obvious attempt to pre-empt the commission's recommendations. The safer places idea had never even been raised, let alone tested, at its hearings.

Another key question before the commission is the performance of the CFA and Russell Rees. In advance of the commission's findings, in contradiction of two astonishing months of testimony, Brumby flatly informed the public: "I do not believe we could have asked for more from Russell Rees or the whole team." I have analysed the work of several royal commissions. I have, however, never seen a more blatant example of attempted political interference than what occurred last Friday. This is a not a minor matter. In our constitutional system, a royal commission is our most powerful investigative tool. Royal commissions are established and financed by governments. Governments are not obliged to accept their findings. But they are obliged to show a scrupulous respect for their independence until their findings are released.

There is, however, another pressing reason to deplore the Premier's obvious attempt to influence the outcome of the commission. The commission is now examining fundamental questions of community safety. In the coming summer, the findings of the commission will have the potential either to protect or place at risk hundreds or even thousands of Victorians' lives. Surely it does not need to be pointed out that it is in the public interest that it comes to its conclusions free from political pressure of any kind.