Black Saturday five years on: Where the key players are now

Black Saturday five years on: Where the key players are now

30 January 2014

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Australia — WE look at where the key figures who emerged from the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission are now.

John Brumby, Premier

John Brumby was not personally criticised by the royal commission but his Government agencies were strongly criticised for top-level leadership failings and a lack of co-ordination.

Mr Brumby faced some criticism from the public for not immediately signing up to the 67 recommendations made by the bushfire royal commission.

He retired from politics the month after losing the November 2010 election to the Ted Baillieu-led Coalition.

He now holds a number of commercial directorships, had led several Government reviews, and is a Vice-Chancellor’s Professorial Fellow at both Monash and Melbourne universities.

Christine Nixon, Chief Commissioner of Police

Christine Nixon was the most heavily criticised of all the Black Saturday leaders. She left the command centre at the height of crisis, delegating to other officers, and had to be recalled to give evidence after she failed to tell the commission she had gone out to dinner with her husband and friends that night.

Ms Nixon had previously announced her intention to retire from Victoria Police by March 2009, but her retirement was brought forward at the request of Mr Brumby, who asked her to run the Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority.

Ms Nixon’s leadership was later criticised by the royal commission, and Mr Brumby said she had made an “error of judgment” by leaving the command centre.

She resigned from the bushfire authority in 2010, and later published her memoirs. She now runs workshops, and is a public speaker and consultant on leadership, corruption prevention and women in leadership.

Russell Rees, Country Fire Authority chief officer

Russell Rees, along with the other emergency service senior leaders, was criticised for delegating responsibility and “remaining operationally removed”.

He resigned from the CFA in April 2010, six months into a two-year contract. His resignation came before the handing down of the final report, but after he was strongly criticised in the interim report.

He went on to become a risk adviser to the Municipal Association of Victoria and is now the executive director of Regional Monitoring and Support at the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.

Jack Rush, counsel assisting the royal commission

Jack Rush, a hard-nosed barrister and Queen’s Counsel, led the criticism of senior officers charged with responding to the Black Saturday fires, and he was dogged in his pursuit, particularly of Ms Nixon and Mr Rees.

Mr Rush continued to work at the bar, and last year was appointed by the Essendon Football Club to lead its legal response to the sports supplements scandal.

In November last year he was appointed as a judge to the Supreme Court of Victoria.

Ewan Waller, Department of Sustainability and Environment’s chief fire officer

Ewan Waller was the last of the Black Saturday leaders still standing when he announced his decision to retire when his contract expired in November 2012.

Like all the leaders on that day, he was criticised by the commission for delegating tasks down the chain of command, and for the handling of warnings and planning.

He later apologised to the Victorian public.

He is now a director of Glenloch Management Services, a consultancy which advises on land management, including forest and fire management.

Bruce Esplin, Emergency Services Commissioner

Bruce Esplin was among the leaders criticised by the royal commission for failing to declare a state of disaster. He announced after the release of the commission report that he was considering his future, but several days later said he would stay on in the role.

On November 29, 2010, when it seemed likely that the Brumby-led Labor Government had lost the previous weekend’s election, Mr Esplin announced his intention to retire.

He now runs Bruce Esplin Pty Ltd, consulting on crisis management and leadership and strategic planning. He also has a photography and sculpture business.

Kevin Tolhurst, senior lecturer on fire ecology and management at the University of Melbourne

Associate Professor Kevin Tolhurst was in the emergency centre on Black Saturday, and with his team of experts, accurately predicted the fires would sweep through Kinglake, Marysville and Strathewen.

However, he and his team were marginalised by the senior leaders, situated in a back room, and his warnings not passed on quickly.

He later gave damning evidence at the royal commission, which embarrassed the emergency response leadership.

Associate Professor Tolhurst has continued to raise concerns about Government planning policies and how they impact on fire safety.

He remains in his position at the University of Melbourne.

Bob Cameron, Minister for Police and Emergency Services

Bob Cameron was found by the royal commission to have “largely discharged his responsibilities” on Black Saturday. However the commission questioned his failure to discuss with the premier the option of declaring a state of disaster.

Mr Cameron announced in October 2010 that he would not contest the November 2010 election.

He now works as an injury compensation lawyer at the Bendigo firm Petersen, Westbrook Cameron Lawyers, where he first worked in the 80s before entering Parliament in 1996.

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