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Friday Analysis: Good luck with the Royal Commission

So, there is to be a Royal Commission in the summer’s exhausting bushfire. That’s got to be a good thing, right? There is so much to be explored by the Royal Commission which, as the Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised in January, will be quick. Not a long-winded, strung-out junket which, in the end, delivers possibly pre-determined outcomes about an issue most people have forgotten about. Source: Bruce Mitchell

Mr Morrison seems keen to iron out the problems that were encountered when he sought to insert the Australian defence forces into the firefight.

Good luck with that. State Governments have, probably since Federation, traditionally fought hard to retain governance over everything that happens on their patch, and hand over authority to a Federal Government only under extreme duress.

It is vital that in circumstances of extreme catastrophe the Federal Government have a major say in management and in recovery. As Mr Morrison put it, Australia entered a “constitutional grey zone” by directly initiating defence force deployments.

There were murmurs of dissent from a couple of State Premiers, but the army went in anyway and did a sterling job. Kangaroo Island, where the SA Premier Marshall seemed quite happy with the assistance provided, is a case in point where the ADF personnel put in a fantastic effort which great results.

The ADF has manpower, communication skills, logistical skills, transport skills… the list goes on. They must be used, but used wisely and some might argue sparingly, in cases of extreme national emergency.

The Australian Forest Products Association has applauded the inclusion of hazard reduction as one of the commission’s priorities and will no doubt be focusing on that issue, and the role the forestry industries have in carrying that out as part of a forestry management package.

The conservation lobby has, as would be expected, latched onto the climate change elements of the Royal Commission.

The Australian Conservation Foundation says this part of the inquiry must be taken seriously.

The foundation says we have a window of opportunity to not simply adapt, “but to reduce, the impacts of climate change on future bushfire seasons and the threat it represents to life, property and our natural world”.

Both organisations are hoping to reach similar outcomes, but it is doubtful they will want to spend a lot of time together on the means to achieve them.

The Royal Commission must not get side-tracked into a climate policy debate. Rather, any climate debate must be part of the wider discussion of the Royal Commission’s Terms of Reference.  It will need to focus on its title; National Natural Disaster Arrangements.

There have been 57 formal public inquiries, reviews and royal commissions related to bushfires and fire management since 1939.

That is more than one inquiry every two years in the past 80 years, according to Kevin Tolhurst Associate Professor, Fire Ecology and Management, University of Melbourne.

His argument is, do we need yet another?

Rather than using time and resources on inquiry No. 58, he says we should instead commit to fully implement the recommendations of all the previous inquiries, reviews and royal commissions we have already held. Another royal commission will only reiterate what we have known for decades.

He has a point, but each fire is different. Each fire requires different strategies, different approaches and different management to ensure the outcomes are different.

Bushfire strategy and hazard reduction debate of course came into sharp focus at the coal face this week.

In Queensland an independent review of the September 2019 bushfires found that, among other things, the Queensland Government is well-placed in implementing the recommendations from the 2018 Queensland Bushfires Review.

Minister for Fire and Emergency Services Craig Crawford said pre-season mitigation burns helped save Stanthorpe.

“What this report shows us is targeted burns around community assets are highly-effective,” Mr Crawford said.

It seems Queenslanders have a State Government which is prepared to listen and act on bushfire reviews, and fully support targeted burns and recognise the benefits.

Victoria, on the other hand, doesn’t.

The Nationals believe there is serious ongoing concern over the lack of fuel reduction undertaken by the State Government there and have pointed out repeatedly that in 2014/2015 $50 million was spent on direct fire management activities. Last year only $18 million was spent on direct fire management activities.

That’s probably something for the Royal Commission to think about.