‘I thought Nixon was on duty’

VICTORIA Police senior command was in disarray on Black Saturday, with Christine Nixon’s deputy yesterday telling the Bushfires Royal Commission that he believed she was formally on duty on that day.
Deputy commissioner Kieran Walshe also yesterday became the second senior officer forced to correct mistakes in earlier evidence. He admitted errors about his contact with Ms Nixon on the day and over the time he left home to go to police headquarters that evening.
Mr Walshe said he spoke to Ms Nixon on the Thursday before the fires, and it was arranged that she would be on duty and he would be on standby. “I had understood she was on duty from shortly before 1pm,” he said in a witness statement. “It is my belief that we did discuss what we would do on the weekend, because I did tell [an assistant commissioner] that I would be on standby at home on the Saturday.”
This appears to contradict Ms Nixon, who initially said in a statement to the commission that she “prepared for an active day”, but later said she was not rostered on. She spent parts of Black Saturday having a haircut, being interviewed by a biographer and going out to dinner.
Asked whether she had treated the day as if she had been on duty, she said it was not her job to swoop in and take control when she had officers such as Mr Walshe who were more experienced in emergency management.
“We always had the view that any of us were available 24 hours a day and that we could either come in ourselves if we saw it was necessary or, in fact, be called in if we thought that was appropriate,” she told the commission. “That was probably the model that was put in place.”
Mr Walshe said that he did not know why Ms Nixon had told the commission that she felt able to leave emergency headquarters at 6 pm on Black Saturday partly because she knew Mr Walshe was coming in at around 7pm.
Mr Walshe said he had not spoken to her, and he had intended to go straight to police headquarters, not the emergency centre: “I could only assume that it was her belief that when I came in that I would have gone to [emergency headquarters]. I had no conversation with her at any time.”
Mr Walshe agreed under questioning by counsel assisting the commission, Melinda Richards, that telephone records showed he had been wrong to testify last year that he had been in touch with Ms Nixon throughout the day: “That was my honest belief at the time. Certainly, having the ability to do some forensic sort of examination of the telephone records, it is quite clear that I did not do that.”
Ms Nixon was forced to correct evidence that she spoke to Mr Walshe during the day, in which 173 people were killed.
Mr Walshe said he spoke to Ms Nixon for the first time that day in a conference call at 9.45 pm to discuss a media briefing.
He had previously told the commission that he left home about 7pm to go to police headquarters. He admitted yesterday that this was closer to 8pm because he was delayed making personal phone calls.
He said he had been trying to assist his son-in-law contact relatives who lived in Strathewen. “He was quite concerned about their welfare, as was I, as was my daughter. I was endeavouring to assist him as best I could, so I made some phone calls.” Mr Walshe also rang his sister at Maiden Gully about her welfare.
Ms Richards asked: “It is apparent, is it not, that [Ms Nixon] was not actively carrying out the role of deputy coordinator of emergency response on that evening and neither were you?”
Mr Walshe disagreed, saying Ms Nixon had to be satisfied only that arrangements were in place and were working.
The commission was also shown an email by a police sergeant, Darren Dew, who said a police unit charged with helping provide resources, the State Emergency Response Co-ordination Centre, was closed at midnight “when the fire was still out of control and massive evacuations were taking place”. He said he could not believe the centre had been closed.
He said that, at the time it was closed: “The fire was still out of control on several fronts. There were two death tolls on the board, Confirmed 6 and Unconfirmed 76. At that stage they knew that Kinglake had disappeared . . . Common sense would dictate that hundreds of people would have been evacuated or displaced.”
Mr Walshe said the SERCC had not been closed and two officers had handled requests for resources overnight.