Australia — SPECIAL legislation handing sweeping new powers to Victoria Police’s chief commissioner will be rushed through parliament in time for the third fire season since the Black Saturday disaster.
The Baillieu government will this week introduce a package of measures designed to clear up anomalies exposed by the bushfire royal commission.
The legislation will strip the title of disaster co-ordinator in chief from the police and emergency services minister of the day and hand it and its powers to the chief commissioner.
The legislative package will enable other agencies such as the Country Fire Authority to perform the control functions normally undertaken by the State Emergency Service.
The laws, almost certain to pass the parliament, are in response to the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, which killed 173 people and left thousands homeless, and last summer’s $2 billion flood disaster.
There was considerable confusion on Black Saturday over who was running the disaster response, with both the emergency services minister and the police chief absent from the Melbourne emergency response base for parts of the day.
Bob Cameron, then the Labor minister, was in his country electorate that day, and Christine Nixon, then the commissioner, went out for dinner at the height of the disaster — an absence that earned her strong criticism.
The decision to strip ministerial powers is part of the effort to create a clearer line of authority during a major disaster.
Victorian Police and Emergency Services Minister Peter Ryan yesterday undertook to have the legislation passed before the end of the year, defending the time it has taken for the package to be introduced.
Mr Ryan was speaking at the launch of his government’s green paper into emergency services management in Victoria.
“There is a need for change,” Mr Ryan said. “I think the events of the bushfires demonstrated that, and again the floods demonstrated that.
“There is a mood for change.”
The green paper contains 32 recommendations, including establishing an umbrella body for all emergency services organisations and one oversight board that reports to the police and the minister.
This recommendation appears likely to be followed up in the white paper, due next year.
An inquiry into the floods found the SES had been overwhelmed by the size of the disaster.
The decision to announce a green paper reflects a concern within government that more needs to be done to follow up from the Black Saturday fire disaster.
As reported in The Australian yesterday, the green paper emphasises the need for individuals to take responsibility for their needs during a disaster.
Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley said Victoria had moved forward since the fire and the royal commission.
“Some of the easy changes have occurred, and some of the more difficult are coming,” he said.
Mr Lapsley said 180 places of last resort had been identified where fire-stricken communities could gather in the event of any repeat disaster.