Five years after the Black Saturday bushfires that devastated Victoria, the state government is yet to act on recommendations designed to protect lives in schools, hospitals and aged care facilities.
The important changes — which were due to be implemented in 2012 but have yet to be passed through Victorian Parliament — were left out of bushfire reforms announced by Planning Minister Matthew Guy in May.
The United Firefighters Union, which has been critical of both the royal commission and the implementation program, told Crikey the government’s response had been “disgraceful”. “It’s purely a matter of cost. The government is short-changing Victorians. How can you put a price on ensuring the lessons from the past are not repeated?” secretary Peter Marshall asked.
The Bushfires Royal Commission was established in 2009 to investigate the extreme fires that killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2000 homes. The commission was entrusted with the task of investigating the causes of the disaster, as well as producing guidelines to ensure the horror would never be repeated.
The report was critical of those leading the emergency services response and lamented the lack of co-ordination between the departments. Unsurprisingly, some heads rolled: then-police commissioner Christine Nixon stood down after famously leaving the emergency command centre at 6pm to have dinner.
According to the Bushfires Royal Commission Implementation Monitor’s (BRCIM) latest report, released in July, 11 of the 67 recommendations handed down by the commission in 2010 have not been implemented, and 21 individual actions are “ongoing”. The report is largely positive in its assessment of the implementation program, but it has serious concerns about the state government’s management of actions related to non-residential structures that were due in March 2012.
The commission recommended the state government apply bushfire construction provisions to “class 9 vulnerable use” buildings, such as schools, childcare centres, hospitals and aged care facilities. The BRCIM’s report says the commission is satisfied with the progress of other delayed actions, but those relating to these buildings are “well overdue, and the BRCIM has received no evidence of progress of this action during 2013-14”.
“Nothing has happened since then, but the state government insists it is not backing away from its pledge.”
The proposed changes require amendments to Victoria’s Building Regulations Act (2006) to ensure class 9 structures are subject to bushfire performance requirements. A separate but linked action requires the creation of guidelines for retrofitting existing class 9 structures with performance enhancements. Crikey understands the enhancements would include features such as fireproof insulation.
The necessary legislation was drafted in 2012, but it failed to progress further because of the requirement for a regulatory impact statement (RIS). While in 2012 the BRCIM was satisfied that “the state has made every possible effort to expeditiously proceed with the amendment”, it rapidly lost patience.
The RIS was delayed further due to a lack of data, but was finally released for consultation in August 2012. Progress stalled again, and the BRCIM took a dim view of the delays in its 2013 report:
“At the time of writing this report, the action was 15 months overdue. As the proposed amendments have been drafted, the BRCIM urges the State to finalise this action as a matter of priority.”
Earlier this year Planning Minister Matthew Guy announced bushfire regulation reforms that included an amendment to the act enforcing minimum requirements for all new buildings in bushfire-prone areas. But the actions required for class 9 structures were ignored, and the package was announced after the BRCIM received final evidence for its 2014 report. As a result, the BRCIM was not able to properly assess the changes nor comment on their effectiveness.
Nothing has happened since then, but the state government insists it is not backing away from its pledge. “The Napthine Government remains absolutely committed to implementing all 67 recommendations of the Royal Commission, and we have never wavered on this promise,” the government said in a statement in August.
Victoria is tipped to endure another above-average bushfire season, with Emergency Management Victoria claiming it could be worse than last year’s, when more than 460,000 hectares of land were burned.
Matthew Guy and Minister for Bushfire Response Kim Wells were both contacted by Crikey. Neither responded before deadline.