Softly, softly approach

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.