Feeling the heat

Feeling the heat

25 July 2010

published by www.theage.com.au

Australia — Almost a year ago, when the Bushfires Royal Commission tabled its interim report, Premier John Brumby quickly agreed to do everything it said. Nothing less, he clearly concluded, would give people comfort in the lead-up to the 2010 fire season.

But in the 11 months since, the attitude in Spring Street towards the commission has cooled and hardened. And now it appears the Premier is preparing to do something entirely more tricky with its final report.

The final judgment of commissioners Bernard Teague, Ron McLeod and Susan Pascoe will be a mighty tome and it will hit Brumby’s desk on Saturday morning. He’s already said he won’t make any announcements about his response for two or even three weeks because he wants to think about it.

This is an entirely responsible position. No sensible government would agree to adopt every recommendation of an advisory body without first considering them. Governments bear executive responsibility and this cannot be outsourced to anyone else, no matter how eminent, thoughtful or well-informed they might be. If people do not like the response, they can turf the government out at the next election.

But Brumby faces the next election in November and he strongly suspects that the commission will make recommendations that he will not agree with or does not want to fund. Among them are likely to be an expensive system of evacuation from bushfire-prone areas and a network of government-funded fire refuges.

He also fears that government agencies and individuals close to his administration will come under strong criticism.

All his actions last week, and the words of government lawyers in the commission, suggest that he will reject some of these recommendations and findings.

But Brumby also fears that the community, led by a re-energised opposition, will punish him for it – for ignoring the considered judgments of a commission that he founded, and which has cost $40 million and 18 months. Ignoring its findings, his critics will say, mean he is burying his head in the sand, failing to honour the 173 who died by making changes, however inconvenient or expensive, that might prevent such tragedies in the future.

Faced with this difficult political position, it appears Brumby is preparing to duck for cover. Rather than take responsibility for the recommendations he intends to reject, he is gearing up to ask others to reject them for him.

Last week he announced that, in the three weeks after the report comes down, he will consult with ”bushfire-affected communities, and all of the different groups and organisations that are affected by the recommendations. They’ll be health groups, they’ll be community groups, they’ll be bushfire affected areas, they’ll be firefighters, they’ll be ambulance officers … to give those people the chance to have a say about the specific recommendations,” he told 3AW’s Neil Mitchell.

”So everyone will get a say, and I guess some people would say, ‘Gee, the commission’s gone through a long process’, and they have, but not everybody has had a say before the commission.” The commission had a tight time-frame but it ran a hugely comprehensive process.

It heard 434 witnesses, generated 20,500 pages of transcripts. It conducted 26 community consultations, took 1700 submissions and saw 1000 exhibits. It may not have talked to ”everybody” but if this does not constitute, in Brumby’s words, a ”pretty full community response”, it’s not clear how a two-week, quick and nasty government-run consultation process will do better.

The Brumby media unit, of course, has form in this regard. Media adviser Peta Duke was sacked from Justin Madden’s office for proposing just such a sham community consultation over the Hotel Windsor redevelopment. The words in her email got her sacked. ”Strategy at this stage is to release [the report] for public comment as this affects the entire community and then use those responses as reason to halt it as we have listened to community views.”

Madden’s line at the time was that this was a ”speculative” email and not a plan. Well, it appears that, in the context of the bushfires, it’s now a plan. But it’s not one that will endear Brumby to the commissioners.

Relations between the government and the commission deteriorated quickly from the moment Jack Rush, QC, stood to his feet in May last year and started pinning then CFA chief Russell Rees – whom Brumby had just enthusiastically re-endorsed – for his failings on the day. It went further downhill as more bureaucratic bungling, ignorance, policy culpability, underinvestment and leadership failings were exposed.

This is a familiar story with royal commissions. They are infamous for going into areas that end up embarrassing governments. But for a Premier with a tendency to try to control every aspect of his political environment, this is an uncomfortable position. For such a Premier to be facing an election less than four months later, it’s a nightmare.

Without doubt, his community consultation will unearth people or groups in the community who disagree with aspects of the commission’s recommendations. Evacuation? ”I don’t want to be forced out of my home”. Refuges? ”But what if they burn down with everyone inside?” Prescribed burning? ”Koalas will die.”

There is no doubt that, if he wanted to, Brumby could, to paraphrase Peta Duke, use those responses as a reason to reject the commission’s findings. But if he does, his tactics should be exposed. It will amount to him using the people most directly and tragically affected by the bushfires as a human shield to protect him from the political consequences of his decisions. This would be unconscionable.

And whatever patina of protection it gave him would be thin.

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