Thursday, July 2, 2009

Bushfire submissions badly handled

When I visited the 2009 Bushfires Royal Commission submissions page today I noted some progress. After prodding the staff over the past month or so regarding the publication of submissions and related matters, I saw that my own - submitted way back on 15 May - was finally up there.

Though there has been some progress - 472 submissions appear to be up as of this writing, compared with 432 yesterday - where does that leave the balance of the 1300 or so received by the 18 May deadline according to telephone advice I received yesterday from one of the inquiry's solicitors?

There is also the curious fact that I was told yesterday that submissions were being published in order, and that mine came in in the high 700s, yet it is mysteriously there today, apparently ahead in the queue. The squeaky wheel, perhaps, but it raises questions about the transparency of the whole process.

Added to this is the fact that the published cover sheet for my submission failed to acknowledge the main topics I indicated in making my submission via the web. Concerned about this when I received initial email confirmation, I emailed the inquiry on the day of submission seeking an assurance that all the areas I had indicated would be included with my submission and considered accordingly. This email was acknowledged on 18 May, yet the submission as published only acknowledges climate change.

The other areas I had nominated on the inquiry's web submission form (all of which clearly relate to climate change) included:
Causes and circumstances of the bushfires
Policy, preparation and planning of governments, emergency services
Response to the bushfires

This is far from a trivial point, because the degree to which submissions relate to the terms of reference determines how they will be considered in the process - submissions that are not explicitly related to the terms are unlikely to feature in the inquiry's findings. Unfortunately, it doesn't stop there.

Apart from the lengthy delay in publication (2 July following 15 May submission), my light-weight PDF document had blown out to an inaccessible 3MB, all the live links to references within the document had been killed, and a blog address included in the submission was deleted, despite having no implications for my privacy. In fact, my submission was prepared in accordance with the guidelines in a way that should have allowed its almost instant publication.

The fact that the vast majority of submissions are unavailable - including any by major climate groups - at a time when the interim August recommendations are already being talked about in the media is symptomatic of the obscurity of public information surrounding this royal commission.

For those without the privileged access of the media, try finding a list of witnesses, or searching across the transcripts for mention of climate change. Try merely linking to individual submissions from the public - good luck.

With the interim report due on 17 August the only opportunity to influence the climate debate in the lead-up to Copenhagen, the lack of transparency and the general failure to acknowledge climate change policy as an instrument of bushfire prevention should concern us all.

Read more coverage about the 2009 Victorian bushfires

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