Nixon’s public humiliation

THE credibility of former police chief Christine Nixon has been battered by admissions she had no contact with emergency services for almost three critical hours on Black Saturday, and that she misled the Bushfires Royal Commission.
In a gruelling 75-minute return to the commission yesterday, Ms Nixon was accused by counsel of deliberately concealing the fact that she went out to dinner on the night of Black Saturday as the disaster was unfolding.
She was also forced to concede that phone records showed she was not in touch with any of the key emergency services people for three hours on the night of February 7 last year, including while she was at dinner.
But Premier John Brumby last night continued to stand by her, rejecting fresh calls for her sacking as head of the bushfire reconstruction authority.
In her initial appearance at the commission last week, Ms Nixon testified that on the night of Black Saturday she had gone home “had a meal and then I went backwards and forwards”.
It was later revealed in the media that she had dined at a North Melbourne hotel with her husband and two friends.
Yesterday Ms Nixon strongly denied that her failure to mention the hotel was a deliberate attempt to avoid public embarrassment. She said she had thought the dinner irrelevant to the commission’s inquiries.
She also denied deliberately misleading the commission on other issues over which she said she was inadvertently in error.
It was revealed that:
■Phone records contradicted a claim in her witness statement that she kept into touch throughout the day with her deputy, Assistant Commissioner Kieran Walshe
■She spoke to Police Minister Bob Cameron twice that day. She told the commission last week she had not spoken to him at all.
■There were no text messages or calls sent or received by her phone from 6pm, when she left the fire emergency headquarters, until 8.46pm. This was a critical few hours in which police first learned that up to 40 people had been killed in the fires.
Ms Nixon’s phone records, received by the commission yesterday, showed no calls between herself and Mr Walshe that day until a conference call at 8.46pm to discuss a media conference at which he would confirm several deaths.
Under scathing cross-examination by Rachel Doyle, SC, Ms Nixon said: “I didn’t intend to mislead anybody.
“I didn’t do a good enough job in preparing this statement [to the commission] and I have to say I have taken a very significant amount of heat since then for that. But that doesn’t mean that I was trying to be misleading . . . It just means I should have paid more attention.”
Ms Nixon said errors regarding Mr Walshe resulted from her just assuming she had spoken to him: “That had been my practice [during previous fires] to pick up the phone . . . I assumed, until you showed me the records, that that had been the case.”
Ms Nixon said it had been difficult to write her statement to the commission as she had never written an account of her movements that day, and she was trying to recall from memory matters now 14 months old.
Ms Nixon admitted that she received no information at all about the fires between 6pm and 8.45pm. This was despite the fact that the assistant commissioner at emergency headquarters, Steve Fontana, had received information at 8.30pm and 8.43pm that there were credible reports of up to 40 deaths at Narbethong, Arthur’s Creek, and Yarra Glen.
Ms Nixon said she had not told Mr Cameron, Mr Walshe or Mr Fontana that she was going out for dinner.
Ms Doyle said: “When you did a media interview on 3AW last week, you told Mr Mitchell that you had dinner for an hour and ‘people knew where I was’. Who knew where you were?”
Ms Nixon: “I certainly knew where I was and I didn’t see any point in telling anybody. What I mean by that was . . . they knew that they could contact me.”
Ms Doyle: “When you heard nothing, the whole time you were out at dinner, did you assume that no news is good news?”
Ms Nixon: “No, I didn’t.”
Ms Doyle repeatedly suggested to Ms Nixon that she “deliberately omitted” reference to the meal being at a pub because “you knew that to do otherwise would reveal you were not able to monitor the situation, as your statement suggests”.
Ms Nixon replied repeatedly that she had put good people and good processes in place. “It was not my job to swoop in and take control. When you have good people who are more skilled in emergency management than I am you let those people do the job.” But she admitted that, in hindsight, she should have stayed at headquarters longer. “That would have given comfort to a great many people.”
She admitted she should not have said in her statement that she treated Black Saturday as “an active working day” after receiving a text message from Mr Fontana at 6am.
Asked how that description fitted with having two private appointments that day, she said: “When I look back on that statement, that language is probably not appropriate.”
But Ms Nixon fiercely denied that she had her telephone off for the three hours in which she was not contacted: “The idea that I would have turned my phone off when I knew it was a difficult situation and I knew people might need me to do something . . . I find abhorrent.”
Former premier Jeff Kennett said Ms Nixon’s should be sacked “more so than ever” for betraying trust of the public and deserting her post. And Opposition leader Ted Baillieu said yesterday’s evidence confirmed her position was untenable.
But Mr Brumby said: “Christine has admitted she made mistakes on Black Saturday. She has corrected the record on her evidence.
“I believe she is the best person to continue the work she has begun rebuilding with the bushfire affected communities.”
6am Text from assistant Commissioner Stephen Fontana saying Bunyip fire had broken containment lines.
9.30-11am Personal appointment.
11am Husband drives her to state emergency response centre, where she is briefed on fires.
12 noon AC Fontana says he briefed Nixon in person. Nixon can’t remember if it was by phone or in person; her statement says it was by phone at 11.40am.
12.20 Nixon is contacted by Superintendent Rod Collins, who is in emergency headquarters and they talk for 3 minutes 29 seconds.
12.26pm Call from AC Fontana (although both in the same building at the emergency centre).
12.54pm Several texts from AC Fontana over the next hour, ending at 1.43pm.
Nixon last week said she received no updates on the fires while she was in her office from 1.30 to 3pm.
3.34pm Phone call from ‘Unknown’: Nixon said this was a retired deputy commissioner in the NSW police.
4pm Minister Bob Cameron calls her. Nixon had no recollection of this when she gave evidence last week. She said they had not called each other at all that day.
Around 5pm Nixon is briefed by fire chiefs Russell Rees and Ewan Waller.
5.55pm Nixon calls Cameron.
There is no more activity on her phone for three hours, until 9pm.
By 8.40pm AC Fontana knew deaths would number at least 40.
6pm AC Fontana drops Nixon off in North Melbourne.
7pm-8.20pm Dinner with husband, her personal assistant and AC Bernice Masterson at the Metropolitan Hotel, North Melbourne. Drank a soda, lime and bitters.
8.46pm Nixon receives conference call from police Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe, AC Fontana and media adviser Nicole McKechnie lasting 8 minutes 22 seconds.
9.30pm DC Kieran Walshe gives media conference about 14 deaths.
9.43pm Nixon receives text from Fontana.
9.53pm Nixon calls Cameron about press conference.
Receives text from NSW police agreeing to a request she made for help with disaster victim identification.
10.47pm Nixon texts AC Fontana to tell him NSW would help with victim identification.
10.48pm Fontana calls her.
Call from Victoria Police HQ 11.52pm Another text from Fontana.
11.54pm Nixon texts her driver to make arrangements to visit fireaffected areas the next day.
Ms Nixon said there was no contact between herself and Premier John Brumby.
The only contact she had with DC Walshe, her deputy, regarding emergencies, was in the conference call with the media adviser.
In her statement last week she said she spoke to him throughout the day.