Australia — Retiring fire chief Russell Rees has admitted to Black Saturday failures, but only after his taxpayer-funded lawyer criticised the Victorian bushfires royal commission for making him a “sacrificial lamb”.
Mr Rees, who will leave the Country Fire Authority (CFA) in June, appeared bent on clearing his name on Wednesday when he was called for a fourth and final appearance at the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission.
Before he uttered a word in the witness box, his high-profile legal team accused lawyers for the commission of unfairly targeting Mr Rees during his previous appearances as they probe the deaths of 173 people.
Barrister Julian Burnside QC made the rare move of accusing the commission of unfairly hounding Mr Rees, who he said had been questioned in a “largely hostile” manner.
“Mr Rees has been singled out as the sacrificial lamb, perhaps on the idea that the public needs to see a scalp taken as a result of this proceeding,” Mr Burnside said.
The assertion provoked Commissioner Bernard Teague to criticise the “tedious” speech, which he said sounded more like it was designed for a jury than a royal commission.
Mr Rees was then questioned for more than an hour, admitting to problems with issuing community fire warnings, including the lack of important wind change warnings for the Kilmore East and Murrindindi fires, which were written but never sent.
“We fell down in this area, and we deeply regret the fact that it happened,” Mr Rees said.
“But the expectation was that warnings would be flowing up from the incident control centres in relation to those high-risk environments.”
Counsel assisting the commission Jack Rush QC questioned why Mr Rees didn’t double-check that warnings had been sent, which he could have done by checking the CFA website.
Mr Rees blamed the mistakes on the “flawed design” of the CFA’s structure. He frequently mentioned that the CFA’s failures were also those of the state’s Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE).
His lawyer pointed out that DSE chief Ewan Waller had been questioned in a “substantially friendly” manner compared with Mr Rees, who has already given 480 pages of testimony compared to Mr Waller’s 220 pages.
“The distinction between the treatment of the two is most striking,” he said.
Under questioning, Mr Rees admitted the majority of the Black Saturday bushfires had been CFA-controlled.
While he was quick to share the blame among the CFA and DSE, he wasn’t in the mood to name any scapegoats.
“I believe it’s wrong to single out individuals for personal failings,” he said.
“If I was to go out and say, ‘You over there did wrong, and you over there should be disciplined or sacked or whatever’, I don’t believe that’s conducive to the long-term future of our organisation.”
The commission has recalled several senior officials in recent weeks.
Emergency Services Minister Bob Cameron, the person ultimately responsible on Black Saturday, will make his first appearance on Friday.
The hearings will continue until the end of May and a final report into the bushfire disaster is expected by July.