MICHAEL EBURN AND STEPHEN DOVERS: What sort of inquiry should come after these fires?

Jan 7, 2020

Disasters are always followed by inquiries. Since 2009, there have been over 140 such inquiries across Australia, of varied types and processes of operating.

After the current bushfires, what sort of inquiry would best serve the constructive purpose of improving future capacities, and not creating unconstructive division?

We know that we need to plan before a fire: now some will be planning for the inevitable inquiries that come after. Recent research gives some guidance, where we have identified a wide choice of inquiry types with at times a narrower than desirable focus.

In a review of post-fire litigation and inquiries we concluded that ‘what volunteers and others are, or should be, concerned about is not liability but the time, cost and inconvenience of responding to more and more complex post-event inquiries coupled with the fear of personal attribution of blame’. Learning from events without sacrificing the good will of responders and subjecting people to further trauma is essential. Elsewhere we have argued that:

· Royal commissions and special inquiries are ‘omnibus’ in nature, addressing multiple and diverse issues. These inquiries stretch the capacities of commissioners and staff and make the reports long and cumbersome.

· Rather than appoint a commissioner or commissioners to review all aspects of an event, consideration should be given to establishing an independent inquiry panel, supported by specialist panels to investigate more specific, identified issues.

· Inquiries traditionally focus on one event in one jurisdiction, addressing specific terms of reference, limiting the applicability of developing lessons. In the current situation, and the debate around long-term nationally coordinated approaches, a wider scope across jurisdictions would be justified.

· The overarching inquiry panel could undertake a rapid assessment calling on the community, experts and agencies. Such a broad survey, listening and issue-identification process would see referral of specific matters to specialist panels to undertake a detailed investigation.

We suggest that what is required and what is not required are:

1. There will be multiple issues but what should be avoided is multiple inquiries. Those affected by the disaster should not be asked to give evidence in a federal and various state reviews. There is no reason an inquiry panel could not be appointed by the federal and state governments collaboratively to conduct a single review, also improving the scope for learning lessons.

2. The review needs to be independent and not a parliamentary inquiry, which would not be sufficiently capable to review material and may become embroiled in partisan politics.

3. Nor should the review be led by lawyers. Despite claims that quasi-judicial inquiries will not revert to adversarial proceedings, they generally do. Lawyers are familiar with the art of examination and cross-examination and they necessarily represent the interests of the party that engages them. That suits testing allegations but not hearing experiences and distilling lessons.

4. At least three specialist panels could be established:

a) Much is already known about the changing nature of the Australian climate, the impact of weather, hazard reduction activities on fire intensity and fire behaviour. A science panel would conduct a meta-analysis of current knowledge coupled with a review of these fires to identify new knowledge or areas for research.

b) A governance panel would review the response of the agencies and governments. That panel may need to meet ‘in camera’ to allow public servants to give frank and fearless advice to governments about what helps and what hinders a response. However, there would be a public report on the outcome and recommendations.

c) An operational panel would deal with what is the main focus of most inquiries: issues around communication and response by emergency services and other state organisations. It is likely that, even with our recommended broader inquiry, agencies will as they always do undertake internal reviews of their own procedures, and that common issues would be dealt with via the peak body the Australasian Council of Fire and Emergency Authorities.

6. Apart from specialist panels, any review needs to listen to stories, not call witnesses to ‘give evidence’. Our research suggests that looking to restorative practices may provide a better way to let people tell their stories and to avoid the secondary harm that comes with formal. Traditional inquiries are led by a Commissioner who distils evidence and hands down findings that represent the official ‘truth’. There is, however, no single truth rather there are many experiences and perspectives across varied fire events, landscapes and communities. Hold town hall meetings and allow people to talk and share their experiences, and where stories conflict we can allow disagreement to stand rather than ‘test’ the evidence to see who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong’.

In any fire event, no-one sets out to make a ‘bad’ decision, but some decisions will be better than others. Sharing experiences allows us to benefit from good and less good outcomes from our decisions without fear and blame.

The listening exercise should be held at local and regional levels, such as with those in Incident Management teams and councils. These exercises need to be facilitated by experienced community leaders, not lawyers, and ensuing reports can distil and convey experiences, rather than ‘discover the truth’. These can be fed back up to the inquiry panel to identify common themes and lessons without the need to isolate those involved.

The range of issues explored must be broad. A review of the recommendations of major inquiries found an overwhelming focus on state emergency service organisations, and a lack of attention to other, important aspects such as individual, household and community roles, private land management, whole-of-government strategies, volunteers and the private sector.

The current emergency has been described as ‘unprecedented’, so perhaps an unprecedented approach to learning lessons is needed. It is time to think beyond the adversarial Royal Commission approach, and similar formats, to learning from events in new and effective ways.

Dr Michael Eburn and Emeritus Professor Steve Dovers are with the Australian National University, and associated with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre. Aspects of their research were undertaken in collaboration with the strategic advice firm Aither, including that which underpinned a recently released data base of disaster inquiries recommendations ().

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