Australia — The Black Saturday bushfires royal commission, which sits for the first time today, will initially focus on the lack of warnings to communities of approaching firestorms and the Brumby Government’s “stay or go” policy.
But the commission, which will have only four months to produce an interim report, has already come under criticism for refusing permission for scores of survivors and the families of victims to appear before it.
Individuals applying for leave to appear at the hearings have been refused permission, and told instead to lodge written submissions to the inquiry.
Relatives of a couple and their two children killed on Black Saturday have complained to Kevin Rudd of being denied permission to address the royal commission.
The Prime Minister’s office raised the family’s concerns with Victorian Premier John Brumby, who referred the complaint to the commission.
Federal Liberal MP Fran Bailey, whose electorate of McEwen covers many of the devastated communities northeast of Melbourne, said the commission’s refusal to allow survivors to appear was a “slap in the face” for those most affected by the bushfires.
“I think there will be bitter disappointment and anger at this decision, and rightly so,” she said. “From the start the communities were promised the royal commission would be very open and very transparent. Now that promise has been broken.”
The commission says leave to appear at hearings “may be granted to a person or organisation whose conduct is to be scrutinised or questioned as a consequence of evidence led before the royal commission”.
“It is unlikely a person whose conduct is not under potential scrutiny would be granted leave to appear before the royal commission,” it says.
Residents of townships devastated by the Black Saturday fires, which killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2000 homes, have been provided with direct access to the three royal commissioners during informal community consultations over the past four weeks.
But those attending the consultations were told their comments would not be treated as evidence, and that they had to make formal submissions to the inquiry by May 18 if they wanted to have input into the inquiry.
Today’s hearing will include applications to appear that have not already been rejected in writing by the commission, which is headed by retired Victorian Supreme Court judge Bernard Teague.
Lawyers have been told the first witnesses to be questioned at the commission will be senior emergency services personnel, who will be asked about the spread of the fires, warnings given to the public, and the “stay or go” policy.
Lack of warnings has been repeatedly raised during the commission’s community consultations. Notes of the consultations just released by the commission indicate public warnings of approaching fire fronts were inadequate, with repeated complaints that the Country Fire Authority’s bushfire-alert website and the ABC emergency radio broadcasts were “not consistent or adequate”.
Concerns were also raised that the implications of the “stay or go” policy, where residents were encouraged to stay and defend their properties if they were properly prepared, were not fully explained.
Residents at Strathewen, where 27 people died, said the “stay or go” policy should have made it clear that “even good fire plans and good preparation will not guarantee survival”.