Bushfire inquiry demands full story

Bushfire inquiry demands full story

11 March 2009

published by www.geelongadvertiser.com.au

Australia —  It’s a real concern that we might not get the full story when the Bushfire Royal Commission begins its hearings. The limitations put on legal representation means the state departments and agencies involved will be represented by just the one legal team.

It would seem logical and fair that with a tragedy of this magnitude every agency and every department should have its own representation. It’s disappointing that Premier John Brumby has pointed to a possible financial blow-out in the commission’s budget as one of the reasons for the rationalisation of representation.

There should obviously be a co-ordinated government perspective on the bushfires but that should only be a part of the inquiry. The inquiry needs to know the areas of responsibility, the chains of command, the boundaries both in principle and in practice and responsibility for tactics in every emergency service involved. How are crews rotated, when are they rested, who closes the roads, who reopens them?

It will be almost impossible to have every vital question answered if there is a joint government department/agency approach.

It would be a damning indictment on those concerned if the commission became a political football but there is the potential for there being a perception of problems being glossed over. Separate departments can apply to be independently represented if they think their views and those of the Government diverge but there is no guarantee such an application would be successful. The Attorney General would decide, but perhaps that decision is best left to the commission.

It is to be hoped the commission hearings are positive and constructive but if there is any chance of conflict there has to be separate representation.

Already it seems that the bipartisan approach to the fires is starting to crumblec with the Opposition pointing the finger over warnings given before February 7. The apportioning of blame is the role of the Bushfires Royal Commission; any suggestions of inefficiencies or failures of duty should be left to that forum.

More than 200 people died in the horrific fires. The least we can do for their families is to ensure the inquiry is as wide-ranging as possible and that all agencies involved _ before, during and after _ have their say and can be legally represented.

If that means a longer hearing, then so be it. It is well within the commission chairman’s responsibility to provide an interim report which could have important ramifications for the 2009-2010 summer but his over-arching responsibility is to provide as thorough and accurate a report as possible to safeguard against another such tragedy.

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