Victoria announces inquiry into bushfire crisis as Morrison flags royal commission

14 January 2020

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AUSTRALIA – The Victorian government has announced a two-year inquiry into the bushfire crisis, ahead of the mooted federal royal commission which has met resistance from some states.

On Tuesday the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, announced the inspector-general of emergency management, Tony Pearce, will receive $2.55m for extra staff to review recent bushfires in the state, including in the Gippsland region and the dramatic evacuation of Mallacoota.

The inquiry will report by mid 2020 on preparedness and firefighting efforts – ahead of the next fire season – with a second report on relief and recovery due in 2021.

The intervention comes as Melbourne suffers from very poor to hazardous smoke conditions – at one point overnight reaching the worst air quality in the world.

On Sunday Scott Morrison said that a national inquiry – most likely a royal commission – would be “necessary” to examine the bushfires and he intended to take a proposal to cabinet for endorsement in coming weeks after agreement with the states.

The Western Australian government has dissented from the call for a royal commission.

On Monday the WA emergency services minister Francis Logan said: “I would prefer – given the royal commissions that are under way at the moment and it takes a huge amount of time in doing royal commissions … I’d prefer personally to see a thorough investigation, not necessarily a royal commission into it.”

The New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has already announced that state will hold a separate inquiry.

Andrews told reporters in Melbourne that Morrison was “still working through the type of inquiry he prefers” and a proposal was yet to go to cabinet.

“It is unclear to me – and that’s not a criticism it just isn’t settled yet – whether this would be an inquiry into how the national effort can be as best coordinated as possible or whether it is an inquiry into the event more broadly,” he said.

Andrews said he had told Morrison about Victoria’s plans and Morrison had given a commitment to consult on the terms and scope of a national inquiry.

Andrews praised Pearce, who he said had the “experience, the understanding and the status in our emergency services system” to conduct the Victorian state inquiry.

Later on Tuesday Morrison told reporters in Canberra that a national inquiry had never been intended to replace state inquiries and any suggestion they were in conflict was “false”.

Morrison clarified that a national inquiry would examine the preparation and response to bushfires, the scope of federal power including when it can initiate defence force action rather than simply respond to state requests, and “resilience and adaptation” to climate change.

Bernard Teague, a retired Victorian supreme court judge who conducted the Black Saturday royal commission, said a national royal commission would be ideal if the federal and state governments could agree about the terms of reference and who would conduct it.

“If that’s not possible … then it may be scaled down to have appropriate inquiries in the relevant jurisdictions,” he told Radio National.

Teague said the hurdles to setting up a royal commission in the right way were “substantial” and it was therefore “not particularly likely”.

Teague said it is clear climate change has a major impact on bushfires but an inquiry could consider “taking more appropriate action into the future” to combat it.

The business community will meet in Canberra on Tuesday and is expected to push for the extension of recovery grants to those directly affected by bushfires in Victoria as well as government support for “exceptional circumstances” faced by businesses indirectly affected by the national crisis, to be paid for from a $2bn federal recovery fund.

The Victorian emergency services minister, Lisa Neville, announced further measures to assist in the cleanup in the state, where 353 residential properties have been damaged by the fires, including the suspension of the landfill levy.

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