Leaders seek to spin their way forward

THEY were lined up like war-time generals, but the theme of yesterday’s State Government press conference was more like “Don’t mention the war” — in this case, don’t mention the failures of policies or our emergency systems on Black Saturday.
An historian will one day count the number of times the Premier and CFA chief officer Russell Rees mentioned the key phrase “going forward”. Don’t look back, was the message; look instead at what we are doing for you now.
Whenever the line-up was asked whether anyone would take responsibility for the mistakes that contributed to loss of life that day, the answer was to point out the sheer number of fires (more than 600), or to point out what would have happened if some of the fires that were contained had not been.
The Premier was asked whether the Government and its agencies, in trying to shield themselves from legal liability, had left Victorians exposed to danger.
The commission had heard that the CFA drummed into its volunteers never to tell anyone if their house was defendable or not, partly for fear it could be sued if their assessment proved wrong.
Councils had abandoned refuges for the same reason. Was protecting themselves more important than protecting Victorians?
Mr Brumby said: “I wouldn’t accept that.”
The language of the commission’s report makes it easier for politicians to spin the response to it. It is focused on system failures, which it describes in neutral, non-condemnatory tones. It singles out no individual for blame and shame.
It does not even say that Mr Rees, who it criticises for errors on the day, failed to meet his responsibility, saying only that it was difficult to understand how he lived up to them.
It manages to cast grave doubt on his performance while sliding gracefully away from any direct condemnation of it.
The CFA chief is not yet out of the woods. The commissioners also said they had not yet got to the bottom of several CFA problems that they hope to revisit in future hearings.
These include the inadequacies in incident control centres over the Kilmore fire, and the fact that Mr Rees was out of the loop regarding warnings and predictions.
The report pointed out its findings on this were preliminary because the evidence was not complete.
But even the recommendations the report does contain are valuable. If all the changes it suggests had been in place on Black Saturday — particularly the clear responsibility for warnings, and better equipping of control centres with senior staff and hardware — the devastation of the Kilmore fire might have been largely limited to houses rather than human beings.
First published in The Age.