Australia — Lawyers representing hundreds of victims of the Victorian bushfires have been shut out of the Royal Commission into the tragedy, despite promises from Premier John Brumby of an open inquiry.
Leave to Appear applications from legal teams and several residents have been rejected.
The Commission’s legal counsel says only those who may come under scrutiny are being given the right to be represented.
Barrister Tim Tobin QC, who is representing more than 500 bushfire victims, says it goes against the promise of an open inquiry.
“We’ve had many many inquiries into fires in Victoria. Those inquiries have always involved the voice of the victims and we say that in this particular case there’s absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t again involve the voice of the victim and in fact we say even more so,” he said.
It is being reported that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has sought to clarify the situation with the Premier’s office on behalf of at least one bushfire victim.
Federal Liberal MP Fran Bailey, whose McEwen electorate covers many fire-affected towns, says the exclusion of some residents and their lawyers is unacceptable.
“From day one they were told that this was to be a very open and transparent process and now they find out that they are being denied access to go and appear before the commission set up to investigate why their lives have been so terribly affected,” she said.
She says residents have the right to be represented.
“We’ve never had a disaster of this magnitude before in our country and these people who have been so terribly affected, their lives so terribly affected by this surely have got a right to appear,” she said.
The Victorian Association of Forest Industries says it is “dumbfounded” that it cannot appear before the commission and CEO Philip Dalidakis has called for an explanation.
“Even putting aside the devastating impact these fires have had on our industry and the passionate and proud communities it is comprised of, the Royal Commissioner’s decision not to grant our industry leave to appear simply makes no practical sense,” he said in a statement.
“A sustainable and well managed forest industry is one of the state’s best weapons in the defence against bushfire through maintenance of fire tracks, reduction of fuel loads, provision of fire fighting vehicles and skilled local volunteers.”
“Victorians expect and deserve an exhaustive review in the wake of this great tragedy. Denying our industry an opportunity to contribute our expertise in appearing before them raises questions about whether the Royal Commission will give appropriate consideration to important policy issues such as land management and potentially erode the public and industry’s confidence in any of its findings.”
Meanwhile, several Victorian communities are paying tribute today to firefighters and emergency services volunteers for their work during the bushfires.
Whittlesea is hosting a fun day at the town’s showgrounds in honour of firefighters and volunteers.
Fire crews in the Cardinia Shire are being presented with medals and a new support vehicle that has been bought from donations.
Mayor of Knox David Cooper says firefighters and emergency workers are being awarded the Freedom of the City.
“It’s certainly a thank you, a sign of appreciation from the residents of Knox,” he said.
“The Freedom of the City is the highest honour a civic authority can give any group or individual.”
The Victorian Racing Industry raised more than $1.3 million for Victoria’s volunteer firefighters during Super Saturday at Flemington.
The figure includes $1 million from Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley Racing operation.
Almost $170,000 was donated by jockeys and trainers from their prize money.
Andrew Ford from Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria says the money will be useful in several areas.
“Volunteer leadership development programs, working with employers – we really want to look at programs that can strengthen that volunteer/employer relationship,” he said.
“Without the support of employers, many volunteers wouldn’t be able to give the contribution they do to Victorian communities,” he said.