WHILE the nation has not been faced with a hung parliament since 1940, it has occurred at times throughout the states and territories in the decades since then. Some of the resulting marriages of convenience have been pragmatic and steady, and some poisonously volatile.
The seeds for the 1940 stand-off were sown the year before when prime minister Joseph Lyons died in office. His United Australia Party eventually elected Robert Menzies as leader, who became prime minister.
After his first election as leader, in September 1940, Mr Menzies’ UAP-Country Party coalition won 36 seats. This created a stand-off with the ALP, which had 32 seats, and the four members of Lang Labor, a breakaway group loyal to sacked NSW Labor premier Jack Lang. There were also two independents, Arthur Coles and Alexander Wilson, who came from seats traditionally non-Labor. They held the balance of power.
Mr Coles and Mr Wilson backed Mr Menzies but support for him as leader collapsed within his own party. He was forced to stand down as prime minister in August 1941 and he was replaced by the Country Party’s Arthur Fadden.
Mr Coles and Mr Wilson disliked this government and, in October 1941, they blocked the budget. This gave power to Labor’s John Curtin, who became prime minister and went on to romp home in the 1943 federal election.
Victoria faced a minority government in 1999, when the ALP’s Steve Bracks had to rely on three independents.
BERNIE Teague faced the media yesterday in the jaunty bow-tie that is his trademark. It didn’t quite go with the tears in his eyes.
In an emotional final press conference after their mammoth report on the Black Saturday fires, all three royal commissioners had suspiciously bright eyes and voices that occasionally caught on a jagged emotion. Many people touched by the bushfires found it was only when they paused from frantic activity that the reaction began to hit them. So too, it seems, with the commissioners.
They were asked if they would find it hard to let go of such an intense experience. Would they still pursue bushfire work in some other way?
Mr Teague, the inquiry’s chairman, smiled and said he was exhausted, but “I will, if Daylesford CFA will take me, volunteer to be part of Daylesford CFA, and I’ll take an interest in matters where people are minded to think I can help out”. Mr Teague has a weekender at Daylesford.
Commissioner Susan Pascoe would like to be involved in education, which is her professional background, so that “we keep in the foreground of people’s thinking both the loss of so many community members but also what might be done to prevent it happening on that scale again”.
They said many aspects of the work had moved them, including the pain of people in community consultations soon after the fires and the harrowing stories told by lay witnesses during the hearings.
Mr Teague, a former judge of the Supreme Court, said: “When you look at some of the photographs the police had to take, they were incredibly heart-wrenching. It goes back to my days as a judge when I would sit in my chambers and shut the doors when I wanted to read the victim impact statements because they were the things that hit me the most. When you come to photographs of small children, whatever the context, who died an unnatural death, it’s very disturbing.”
His voice trembled as he said: “You couldn’t help but feel that your heart had taken over from your mind.”
But Ms Pascoe said there was also much that was uplifting: “We have had the extraordinary privilege of listening to the raw experiences of people who have been through one of the most horrific experiences that life can dish up. By and large, those people responded with extraordinary courage . . . there are countless stories of putting the community ahead of themselves. [It has] certainly confirmed [a] deep vein of goodness.”
Commissioner Ron McLeod defended the inquiry’s controversial recommendation that the state replace its ageing power distribution network to prevent fires caused by electrical faults. The proposal would cost billions.
He said the commissioners were not ignorant of the money pressures on government “but essentially we were driven by a desire to make Victoria a safer place to live in . . . These man-made structures will not last forever and in our judgment, they continue to produce a very high threat in days of high fire danger.”
Ms Pascoe elaborated on the other controversial recommendation, for a government buyback of houses in extreme fire-risk areas. She agreed the inquiry had intended this to apply to “micro-sites” rather than whole towns: “They would be sites that are on ridgelines, often surrounded by gullies . . . particularly if they are within 100 metres of bush.”
She said the commission left it to the government to designate which areas should be targeted through township protection planning because, while certain known sites had been hit hard on Black Saturday, other places might also be at great risk on days with different conditions.
Asked whether they would stay to defend a house, given what they now know, Mr McLeod said: “How many people want to wager on their life? Because that’s what it really is, if one accepts that there’s a certain randomness in the way a bushfire can move over the landscape. In my view, it’s a fairly forlorn wager to hope that randomness will save you in a fire.”
But Mr Teague thought differently: “You’ve got to allow for the age factor, apart from any others, but I think perhaps if I had a swimming pool and wet blanket alongside, I might stay longer.”
Daylesford CFA captain Don Anderson allows for the age factor. Told yesterday that Mr Teague would put up his hand, he said: “Really? How old is he? We’re really looking for young blokes. I’ll have to have a talk with him, mate, but that’ll be fine, no worries.”
THE CFA was still reluctant to give home owners advice on the defendability of their homes, and its advice was inadequate, the final report of the Bushfires Royal Commission said.
It recommended people be warned that current building standards were designed only to provide protection from bushfire for 15-20 minutes, but many Black Saturday survivors had faced firefronts that lasted over an hour. “The standards also assume a home will be actively defended,” the report said.
It warned that the CFA’s advice focused on the immediate surrounds of a house but many of those who died were in areas of heavy forest or on the crests of hills “and in similar positions the commission considers would have been undefendable on 7 February, even if the properties themselves were relatively clear and well maintained”.
“These broader factors affect the ferocity of the approaching fire and whether the house could be subject to very heavy ember attack. Assessments of defendability should therefore consider the nature of the nearby undergrowth and fuel load.”
It said studies had suggested houses needed to be 100-140 metres from bushland but urgent research was needed to determine the best minimum setback.
It criticised the low number of individual site visits made to assess defendability, which it said possibly reflected “the CFA’s reluctance to date to provide such advice”.
After Black Saturday, the CFA Act was changed to give the agency protection against legal liability for offering such advice. But the commissioners said it might be necessary for the act to be amended again to make overseeing defendability advice one of the chief officer’s core responsibilities.
The government should evaluate the situation in two years and if there was no improvement, the issue should be mandated for the chief officer, the report said.
It also warned that CFA guidelines did not cover farm, commercial and industrial premises, which required separate expert advice.
A spokesman for the CFA yesterday said site visits were just one way it helped prepare the community, and that people were welcome to phone regional fire service officers to discuss the defendability of their property.
The CFA advises about defendability in community education materials and offers an online questionnaire.
Following the commission’s interim report, it revised its advice to warn that defending could mean death and is not an option for children, the elderly or others with vulnerabilities; that not all houses are defendable, and many more will be undefendable in extreme conditions; and that preparation must involve pumps, hoses and fittings designed for extreme conditions.
THE Bushfires Royal Commission final report was timid and failed to sheet home responsibility to government and bureaucrats for deadly policy failures, a bushfire expert said yesterday.
“Stay-or-go was the cause of mass deaths on Black Saturday because people . . . were encouraged to stay and fight and they did so and they died,” said Frank Campbell, a farmer and former Australian editor of International Wildfire magazine.
“The royal commission’s timidity and lack of clarity ensure that the culpable authorities, including the government, can fudge their response.
“The root causes of the disaster are not considered. That is, essentially, that a firestorm cannot be fought, so the policy that encouraged people to fight the firestorm was totally wrong. In fact, it’s absurd, because the fire authorities themselves changed their policies more than 10 years ago,” he said.
“They no longer fight severe bushfires head on; they merely contain them. But they expect householders to do something which they can’t do.”
He said he was disappointed that the commission had found the stay-or-go policy to be basically sound, given that “in the last 16 months the commission produced an absolute avalanche of evidence, which was incontrovertible, that the policy was certainly not sound”.
He said the report also failed to differentiate strongly enough between normal bushfires and firestorms: “There’s only one solution when a firestorm is on its way and that’s evacuation.”
But firestorms were not freakish rarities: “It’s totally wrong for Bob Cameron, the Emergency Services Minister, to say, as others have said repeatedly, that this was an unprecedented event. Every 20 years or so, [fires of such intensity] are going to happen. It has every 20 years or so since 1851.”
He called for a permanent independent body to monitor the state’s bushfire response, and for Neighbourhood Watch-type programs on high-risk days to look out for suspicious characters who might be arsonists.
In other responses to the report yesterday, bushfire expert David Packham praised the commission’s target for planned burning of an average of 5 per cent of public land each year, saying this would ease almost all the other questions associated with bushfires, including evacuations and buybacks.
Mr Packham is an adjunct senior research fellow in the school of geography and environmental science at Monash University. He said in 1961, Western Australia found itself in a similar situation to Victoria today, with disastrous fires that led to a royal commission that recommended planned burning. “It solved the problem. WA no longer has a bushfire threat that is likely to kill . . . and the forests are healthy.”
He said if Victoria did not get its fuels under control, it could suffer a worse catastrophe than Black Saturday.
THERE is nothing in the final report of the Bushfires Royal Commission to make John Brumby blanch, other than the astronomical size of the bill if the proposals are to become reality.
The inquiry did not eviscerate any of the emergency leaders who presided over Australia’s worst bushfire catastrophe. Former police chief Christine Nixon was found not to have lied. The pastings of fire agency chiefs Russell Rees (CFA) and Ewan Waller (DSE) about their lack of oversight of warnings and staffing were, if anything, softer this time than they had been in the interim report.
The government itself was not hung out to dry over the gaping holes in its stay or go policy. This was despite the fact that there was more than enough evidence to have justified a shot over its bows; researchers had been warning for more than 20 years that there were many circumstances — such as extreme days, or areas surrounded by dense forest — under which it was not safe for people to try to defend their homes. None of those caveats were included in the bushfire advice given to residents, and none of the witnesses from fire agencies or government departments explained why.
But the commissioners apparently decided that softly, softly would be more likely to catchee monkey — with the monkey being political acceptance of serious change on many fronts.
There is no doubt that commission chairman Bernard Teague kept his process at arm’s length from the government whose policies and agencies it was set up to scrutinise. He is a former Supreme Court justice, a species most properly prickly about its independence. In the third volume of the final report, he is at pains to emphasise this distance when he describes how the relationship between government and the inquiry was managed.
But there is a second reason why there is no need to speculate about views that might have been exchanged behind closed doors: those views were exchanged in full view of the public.
In the closing days of the commission’s hearings, a senior barrister for the government told the inquiry that harsh findings that named and blamed individuals would taint the commission’s work and make it less likely that its recommendations would be accepted.
Allan Myers, QC, said that findings about individuals created an air of controversy, and “sound recommendations which are tainted by controversy are less likely to be accepted by the community and by those who have to implement them”.
He said there was something “extraordinarily primitive” about picking out individuals and blaming them for the catastrophe: “It may be an instinctive human reaction, but it’s not one that finds any place in a royal commission, the function of which is to assist with the development of policies and organisational structures to deal with the problems of bushfires in this community.”
It may be that this won the commissioners over. After all, his point about the commissioners’ primary task was a fair one; the blaming of individuals, while it might provide comfort to those angered by their failings, would serve no practical purpose.
But it is also possible that they received a clear message from these comments, delivered on behalf of the government by the eloquent Mr Myers: “In the end, much good work and a great deal of hard work by counsel assisting will be compromised if their invitation to make these findings [about individuals] is accepted by the commission . . . it will adversely affect the acceptance of recommendations, however good and sound . . . it would not be wise to go down the path.”
Whatever the reason, the commissioners have not gone down that path. They have, however, provided the Premier with other headaches in the form of proposals for a buyback scheme, to encourage people in very high-risk bushfire areas to move and settle elsewhere, and the recommendation for wholesale replacement of the state’s ageing electrical system, which sparked five of the nine major fires that day.
The cost of the buyback scheme is unknowable and will depend on which areas would be targeted. But no specific areas are named, so it is unlikely to mean the emptying of whole country towns. Such a scheme would be manageable if it focused on “micro-zoning” of small, enormously high-risk areas.
In Kinglake, for example, there are roads along the top of mountain ridges that run into dense forest, and we know that fires run faster uphill and blaze more fiercely where there is dense fuel. Some gullies in mountain ash forests acted as funnels for fire on Black Saturday. These are places where human settlement should probably never have been allowed. Targeting houses in such areas would not be cheap, but if the program were focused, the costs could be contained.
This premier and his successors will have much more trouble wrestling with the fallout of electricity reform. Power company SPAusnet had estimated this could cost $7.5 billion in its distribution area alone, with power bills rising 20 per cent a year for 20 years to pay for it.
Add this to the tens of millions already spent on emergency systems, and the millions yet to come if refuges are built, as well as the increased cost to householders of building to bushfire-attack standards, and it is clear the post-fire landscape will be an expensive one for all Victorians.
But at the centre of this big picture stands one quiet but crucial recommendation: that the government appoint an independent monitor to assess implementation of recommendations and report to the Parliament and the people of Victoria by July 31, 2012.
We have had endless bushfire inquiries. Most of their findings were shelved. That must not happen this time, and the appointment of the monitor will be Mr Brumby’s way of telling us he agrees.