Baillieu may struggle to keep bushfire promises

Baillieu may struggle to keep bushfire promises

04 August 2010

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Australia — Long before the Bushfires Royal Commission concluded its 18 month investigation into the Black Saturday and Gippsland blazes, the State Opposition pledged to implement all of its recommendations.

It appointed one of its best performers, the articulate National Party leader Peter Ryan, as the Shadow Minister for Bushfire Response.

The strategy was to highlight the Coalition’s willingness to act on bushfire policy in power, while accusing the Labor Government of prolonged inaction.

Committing yourself to unseen, uncosted and potentially unpopular policies in the lead-up to an election isn’t part of the political orthodoxy. It’s a big risk. As such, the Coalition’s hardheads must have been particularly anxious as the Commission’s final report was handed down on Saturday.

The report contained 67 recommendations. The vast majority are uncontroversial changes to the internal workings of the state’s various emergency agencies, and have already been given in principle supported by the government.

But some are more contentious; including a voluntary property buyback scheme for homeowners in high-risk areas, a move to upgrade or replace some overhead powerlines and a new property tax to fund the fire services.

For better or worse, these curveballs are now Coalition policy.

Estimates put the cost of implementing these measures in the tens of billions of dollars. Some, like the buyback scheme, may also carry substantial social costs. Government sources are privately amazed at the Coalition’s gall.

All eyes are now on the government’s ‘listening tour’, as ministers fan out across the state to consult on the Commission’s more controversial recommendations.

The Premier John Brumby says he still has an “open mind” on the remaining recommendations, and “isn’t ruling anything in, or out”. This means he has the freedom to either accept or reject the recommendations, depending the community’s mood, his political will and the health of the Treasury coffers.

The Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu has no such freedom. By his own design, he has zero wriggle-room.

With the state election now just over 100 days away, attention will soon turn to how an incoming Coalition Government would fund its new and extensive bushfire policies, and over what timeline they would be implemented.

Mr Baillieu may have found a way of stealing John Brumby’s self-proclaimed ‘action man’ status, if he can convince voters that only he can be trusted to make Victoria fire safe.

But he may also have made promises he can’t keep, making him vulnerable to Labor attacks that he’s a ‘policy flip flopper’ who doesn’t understand money.

Much hinges on the extent to which both leaders are willing to make bushfire policy an election battleground. The early indications aren’t great. Just days ago the Emergency Services Minister Bob Cameron accused Mr Baillieu of “spreading lies” and engaging in “gutter politics”, because he’d questioned the government’s response to the Bushfire Royal Commission’s interim report.

Only time will tell if the Opposition’s gamble will pay dividends.

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