The bushfires royal commission shows buck-passing and blame-shifting will no longer fly

The greater the number of bystanders around, the less likely the people present are to offer help.

To guard against so-called bystander syndrome, first aid instructors will tell you to single out people in the crowd and give them very specific jobs. You there in the yellow shirt, call Triple-0! You in the flowered dress, go wave down that police car!

This is exactly what the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements is doing, in its report handed down on Friday

The royal commissioners say they made a deliberate decision not to point fingers or attribute fault, which will inevitably disappoint some. When tragedy of this magnitude strikes, it’s almost comforting to be able to lay the blame at somebody’s feet.

But in a way they are pointing fingers – at different tiers of government. Locking eyes with them in the crowd and telling them very clearly: “this is your job now, go and do it”.

The bushfires sparked a wave of buck-passing that never really subsided as we moved into the coronavirus crisis.

From Prime Minister Scott Morrison telling 2GB listeners, “I don’t hold a hose, mate” to ducking responsibility for aged care and quarantine during the COVID outbreaks, if 2020 had a tagline it would be, “not my job”.

Like the line-marker who paints a new centre strip straight over roadkill, the federal government – when faced with four states burning at the one time – almost embraced its constraints.

For weeks, Morrison told reports the fire response was the responsibility of the states.

On December 29, he stood up at the NSW Rural Fire Service headquarters and said he was “taking the lead” from those fighting the fires.

Less than five days later he was issuing a call-out order for the Australian Defence Force – without telling the NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner. So much for the devolution of responsibility.

At some point, someone has got to drag the kangaroo off the road. But what this report signals is that buck passing and blame shifting will no longer fly.

National natural disasters require a national response – made by the nation’s most senior ministers – by those clearly accountable to the Australian public.

Royal commission chair Mark Binskin said it best: “The national natural disaster arrangements Australians deserve require unity, not just of commitment or purpose, but of action. Only then can Australians have confidence that the arrangements are the best they can be.”

It remains to be seen what will come of their findings though.

While Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud said the cabinet could sign off on the 14 recommendations targeted at the Commonwealth, there are still 64 that require joint or state action. That’s a fair few cracks to slip between.

There have been more than 240 bushfire inquiries in the past, with thousands of recommendations – many of which were left on the shelf to gather dust.

But the royal commission was blunt about what will happen if governments continue to shirk responsibility.

“National natural disaster arrangements are a shared responsibility. Failure by governments to act on our recommendations will shift risk to others.”

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