Canberra, Australia — When ACT CoronerMaria Doogan handed down the findings and recommendations from her inquest intothe 2003 bushfire disaster late last year, she took the unusual step ofascribing ultimate blame to the Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope.
Doogan alleged that because Stanhope hadbeen informed at a Cabinet briefing on January 16, 2003, that there was a reallikelihood of the fires reaching the edge of Canberra and had failed to heed thewarning he should be held to account for the conflagration on January 18 thatconsumed more than 500 homes and claimed four lives.
Reading between the lines, Doogan was arguing that Stanhope ought to do thehonourable thing and resign. The claim was buttressed by quotes from asubmission by former senior public servant Sir Peter Lawler regarding theWestminster convention of ministerial responsibility.
On Tuesday, Doogan received her comeuppance for this seeming impertinencewhen ACT Attorney-General Simon Corbell delivering the ACT Government’s officialresponse to the inquiry rebuked her for politicising the inquest.
Doogan had “crossed the line particularly when she made norecommendations [about the failures of Stanhope, the Cabinet and senioremergency services official], she simply made a number of comments”,Corbell said. “In the Government’s view [she was] venturing into thepolitical realm.”
As Opposition Leader Bill Stefaniak noted afterwards, the criticism had morethan a touch of hypocrisy about it.
The general expectation that the inquest would finally answer the question ofwhy the public was not warned (a matter not examined by the McLeod inquiry orthe House of Representatives select committee) guaranteed Doogan’s findingswould be closely scrutinised. But Stanhope’s decision to endorse ataxpayer-funded challenge by nine individuals seeking to disqualify Doogan onthe grounds of perceived bias, which succeeded in delaying proceedings by 10months, meant the inquest was politicised well before Doogan handed down herfindings.
It is possible that impatience at the Government’s heavy-handed attempt toabort the inquest (and public cynicism about the motives of Stanhope and Corbell)weighed heavily on Doogan’s mind during the delay, which stretched from Februaryto August 2005 when the full bench of the Supreme Court finally decided sheshould not be disqualified on the grounds of a reasonable apprehension of bias.
Under the terms of the inquiry, Doogan had powers to “make any findingand recommendations relevant to the fires and/or deaths, and under the CoronersAct, 1997, was also entitled to make findings or recommendations on mattersrelating to public health or safety or the administration of justice”.
The convention with coronial inquests is that they are more about factfinding than apportioning guilt.
Even so, adverse findings and criticism of certain actions or decisions arenot unusual. This being the case, Doogan would have been entitled to find thatStanhope, having been appraised by senior emergency services staff that therewas a real likelihood the fires would overrun Canberra and failed to heed thatwarning, should be criticised.
But it was a bridge too far for her to suggest that under the convention ofministerial responsibility Stanhope ought to resign.
Not only did Doogan gloss over the fact that the convention is more or lessmoribund, if indeed it was ever closely followed either here or in Britain, butshe also failed to establish conclusively that Stanhope, or any other ministerat the relevant time, had acted incompetently or being guilty of mismanagement.
Indeed, her argument that Chief Fire Control Officer Peter Lucas-Smith andEmergency Service Bureau executive director Mike Castle recognised thepossibility, and the likelihood, of the fires reaching Canberra is weakened bytheir insistence that they talked to cabinet not about the fire entering thesuburbs but the likelihood of its breaching containment lines at theMurrumbidgee River, and of its being contained before it reached the suburbs.
In the event, the weather conditions were deteriorating (even before the16th) until, by the 18th, they were close to perfect for a firestorm high winds,high temperatures, drought conditions and extremely low humidity. No one couldhave predicted or stopped the firestorm, though the authorities were guilty ofnot appreciating the dangers and of not responding more quickly.
Doogan’s controversial raising of the issue of ministerial responsibility hasenabled Corbell to duck some of her 73 recommendations, including one that wouldhave granted statutory independence to the ACT Emergency Services Authority.
Aside from Canberrans’ understandable need to know about the lack of anywarning, the chief hope was that the inquests would enable authorities to learnfrom their mistakes. It is regrettable that these hopes have been somewhatdashed because of petty politicking.