An appetite for revenge

BLACK Saturday was definitely not Christine Nixon’s finest hour. She didn’t keep track of events as they were unfolding. She didn’t check that her staff were looking after crucial responsibilities for warnings. And, as the state burned and 173 people died, she went home at 6pm despite knowing, she says, that “we were facing a disaster”.
According to her evidence this week at the Bushfires Royal Commission, the list of things Nixon did not hear of as they happened includes the fact that the Churchill fire threatened the Loy Yang fire station, that houses were lost near Drouin, and that elderly people had to be evacuated from a nursing home in Gippsland.
At one point she gleaned developments by wandering through the police emergency centre, looking over officers’ shoulders to see what was on their computer screens.
Lawyer for the commission Rachel Doyle, SC, said, “It sounds rather passive, Ms Nixon. Did you not say you needed to be brought up to speed, or ask someone whether they were prepared to walk you through maps showing where these fires were heading?”
Nixon said she thought people were carrying out their responsibilities effectively and she didn’t want to interrupt them because they were busy: “In hindsight, yes, I should have, but I didn’t.”
Nixon is now being flayed for having gone out to dinner while Victoria burned. There are calls for her scalp, even though it is unclear how she could be sacked as head of the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority when she committed her Black Saturday sins of omission in another role entirely.
Her quietly spoken, occasionally rattled evidence to the commission was, indeed, jaw-dropping. On Black Saturday, Nixon was not just the head of Victoria Police. Under the Emergency Management Act, she was deputy co-ordinator-in-chief of the state’s emergency response. She was also the state co-ordinator for Victoria’s disaster plan.
Reporters would not have left a newsroom knowing that a statewide disaster was unfolding. Doctors and nurses would not have left emergency rooms. But Nixon was happy to walk out and entrust the management of what would turn out to be a catastrophe to her senior officers. She had great confidence in them, she said, and she monitored the situation from home: “I wasn’t in the premises [of emergency headquarters] but clearly I was still in charge [of co-ordinating the emergency response].”
Clearly, she was not. She admits that police failed in their key duty to ensure that the need for warnings and evacuations was properly considered by the fire agencies.
She was partly undone by a flaw in the system of which she was unaware. Police no longer took seriously an awkwardly phrased guideline that said they should oversee warnings, the senior police officer at headquarters that day, Superintendent Rod Collins, had earlier told the commission. Bushfire warnings were left to fire agencies, and evacuations were thought impossible under the Stay or Go policy because it said individuals should make that choice. Nixon did not know that this was Collins’s view, she told the commission.
Nixon might have been “de-mob happy”; she had resigned and her tour of duty with Victoria Police was coming to an end, perhaps making her less hands-on than usual. It is also possible that “Nanna Nixon”, as some staff called her, was sometimes too supportive and uncritical of her officers. She said she checked with officers on Black Saturday as to whether they had the resources they needed; she did not mention firing hard questions at them. She failed her duty of oversight.
But sacking her now? Making Nixon responsible for loss of life that day, as some talkback callers have demanded?
Yes, she left when she shouldn’t have. Four hours before CFA chief Russell Rees, who also left when he shouldn’t have. And it was Rees’s emergency system, not hers, which carries the primary responsibility for the state’s flawed response that day. Police can be blamed only for not having picked up that the CFA’s warning system was a disaster.
Both agencies suffered from lack of focus on the bleeding obvious, and from the kind of dysfunctional diffusion of responsibility to which large organisations are prone, with everyone thinking someone else is looking after “it”. A critical task of the royal commission will be to ensure that, in future, all arses in emergency service hierarchies are clearly labelled for kicking.
Apportioning responsibility is crucial. Apportioning punishment — is that about justice, or the venting of anger? And why has Nixon attracted even more intense anger than Rees? Overnight, she has become a lightning rod for rage over the fires. Do we forgive father figures more easily than mother figures?
As someone who has sat in the commission through endless days of weaselly management-speak by officials desperate to cover their rears, I found Nixon’s openness a relief. While she refused to admit she should have stayed longer that night, she did readily confess to the failure to supervise warnings.
She was wrong to leave. It was an appalling lapse of judgment. But she is no longer in that role, and Rees is still in his.
Scapegoats help us feel better about bad events, but the disheartening truth is that no one person is culpable for what happened on Black Saturday. If Christine Nixon deserves to be made a human sacrifice, surely Russell Rees is ahead of her in the queue. And what of Minister Bob Cameron, the state’s chief emergency response co-ordinator, who spent the day in Bendigo and only arrived at emergency headquarters in the early evening? Did ministerial responsibility go up in smoke on Black Saturday, too?
And behind them are so many others: senior CFA officers who failed to ensure that incident control centres were properly staffed and equipped; the CFA officer who refused to issue warning messages over the Kilmore fire; the CFA information officers who overlooked an email with a warning to Kinglake; the DSE officer who issued a warning of a wind change for the Churchill fire that carried the wrong time; the electricity maintenance man who apparently failed to detect a fault on the pole that sparked the Kilmore fire; the government that years ago privatised the electricity industry, leading to a weaker maintenance regime; the mandarins who created the Stay or Go policy . . .
Let’s line them up and scalp the lot of them.
Do we all feel better now?