Do we need a bushfire royal commission?
16 Jan 2020|

The prime minister has announced that the cabinet will consider a royal commission into aspects of the ongoing fire disaster once the bushfires are under control. Some form of national review seems inevitable, given the fatalities, the severity of the blazes, the vast area of land burned, and the loss of biodiversity, homes and infrastructure.

It’s unclear whether a royal commission would replace a previously planned bushfire inquiry. The minister for natural disasters and emergency management, David Littleproud, announced on 5 December 2019 that the House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy would conduct an inquiry into the ‘efficacy of past and current vegetation and land management policy, practice and legislation and their effect on the intensity and frequency of bushfires and subsequent risk to property, life and the environment’.

The royal commission proposal has its critics. Some have voiced scepticism about the political motivations behind it and suggested that businesses (and the public) would prefer governments to make decisions and act rather than ‘hide’ behind yet another inquiry. Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons has questioned the need for one, noting both that disaster response has been one of the most reviewed issues in the history of Australian governance and that defining the scope for an inquiry is a highly complex task.

A 2017 review by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre lists 55 major bushfire and disaster inquiries in Australia since 2009 that produced a total of 1,336 recommendations. The study suggested that many of the same themes and points for improvement appeared consistently across those reviews.

ASPI noted this well-trodden path of post-event reviews in a 2014 report, Working as one: a road map to disaster resilience for Australia. That work also detailed several common themes occurring in post-event reviews in Australia and overseas.

In New South Wales, Premier Gladys Berejiklian has announced her intention to hold a formal review (not necessarily a royal commission) into all aspects of the fire season in that state.

Premier Daniel Andrews has tasked Victoria’s Inspector-General for Emergency Management (IGEM) with leading an inquiry into preparedness for and response to the fires and to review relief and recovery efforts.

The Office of the IGEM was established as a part of a range of emergency management reforms within the Victorian government following the 2009 Black Saturday royal commission. The IGEM oversees the state’s assurance framework for emergency management, which seeks to ensure continuous improvement and promotes a coordinated, sector-wide approach to providing assurance in three core areas: that the system is working as intended; that the system is working as intended but there are opportunities for improvement; or the system is not working as intended and there are opportunities for improvement.

Queensland followed Victoria’s lead and established its own Inspector-General Emergency Management in 2014.

Emergency response might be considered a simple concept. When the bells go, the lights and sirens are turned on and emergency personnel respond. For events at single or a few locations, that image might be valid, but for large-scale multi-site events it isn’t.

In larger events, there’s a greater emphasis on wide-area tactics, on the strategic placement of resources and on coordinating efforts across increasingly chaotic and dangerous settings. Large complex emergencies entail multi-institutional responses over long periods. Emergency management is a much more complex task than emergency response.

How should the nation handle the many post-fire-season reviews currently on the table? Four issues come to mind.

First, care needs to be taken to prevent the multiple reviews from tripping over themselves, wasting resources and diffusing bipartisan support for examining the effectiveness of the ‘national’ emergency management response.

Second, it’s critical to ensure that the right voices are heard in the reviews. In addition to first-response agencies and state and local governments, affected communities need to be deeply involved. Community engagement is very important because national resilience begins at the local level.

Institutions such the Insurance Council of Australia, the Australian Sustainable Finance Initiative and the Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience and Safer Communities, as well as scientific and technical bodies, are central in planning for longer term recovery. Participants in the series of roundtable meetings convened by the government with business leaders and scientific research groups this week have recognised this fact.

Third, we must fully understand how hard it is to enhance resilience at the whole-of-nation level. Bushfires have many ongoing and cascading impacts on people, ecosystems, infrastructure and local and regional economies, and recovery from those impacts will take a long time. A fact-finding royal commission might not be the best way to explore these complex issues.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, we must ensure that the reviews don’t rediscover the same lessons and directives that we’ve already learned over many years in previous investigations into emergencies and crises.

Great national benefit can be gained from the various reviews, including options for more proactive federal government activity and support during disasters.

However, we need to ensure that the inquiries’ terms of reference reflect the fact that there are different contexts for local, state and national responses which, if aligned, can enhance national resilience.

It may be that Australia needs a federal-level assurance framework for disaster resilience and an independent inspector-general to coordinate ‘lessons remembered’. That would certainly be better than repeatedly rediscovering things that we’ve all forgotten we already knew.