Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bushfires demand answers to tough questions

The 2009 Victorian bushfires have been a horrendous tragedy, taking at least 210 lives, injuring many other people, and destroying property, wildlife and vast areas of our beautiful bushland. Yet there is a further danger in the aftermath of the fires that an unflinching look at their causes and the government's response will be hampered by false charges of political opportunism. It is easy to make such charges as an emotive tactic to evade the hard questions, at the potential cost of future bushfire prevention.

Yesterday, The Age ran an online story by David Rood and Paul Austin in which the Victorian Emergency Services Minister, Bob Cameron, criticised the Opposition regarding its allegation that the government failed to do enough with the early warnings it received about extreme fire conditions.

In advance of any public hearings of the royal commission, the same report included a seemingly supportive comment by the chair of the bushfires inquiry, Bernard Teague, about the government's warnings. My letter in response to the article is published in today's print and online editions (see 'Tough questions on a horrific day'):
It seems a bit rich for Emergency Services Minister Bob Cameron to tell the Opposition to 'get out of the way of the royal commission' regarding its public comments on bushfire warnings when we have the head of the commission, Bernard Teague, seemingly cheerleading those warnings in advance of any public hearings.

In what context did Mr Teague describe the warnings as 'impressive'? Surely it would be more appropriate to await all the evidence before issuing such pronouncements?

No fan of the Victorian Opposition, I nevertheless defend its right to test the Government's actions before and during the fires. Let the Government answer tough questions about whether it did enough with the early warnings it clearly received.

That the media is reporting that government departments will have joint legal representation during the commission is also a worrying sign that the Government is trying to stage-manage the findings at the possible expense of future fire prevention.

Did the Victorian Government do enough? Let the royal commission decide, but let it do so upon a searching examination of the facts and the free testimony of all witnesses, including those from the various government departments involved.

One thing seems clear, comments by the Premier of an expected 'ugly day' are quite possibly even less effective than the vague text messages sent out indiscriminately to Victorians when the worst of the fires had passed.

If you'd like to ask the chair of the royal commission about his comment regarding the warnings, you can send the commission an email. In accordance with the comments policy of this blog, Commissioner Teague is also most welcome to respond directly here.

More coverage of the 2009 Victorian bushfires.

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Comments are most welcome on any of the posts at Northcote Independent. I encourage feedback - positive or negative. Feel free to disagree, but remember that posts are moderated to ensure they are on the topic and in the spirit of open debate, as outlined in my editorial policy.