victorian bushfires 2009 royal commission
Former CFA chief officer Russell Rees gives evidence at the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission (Image: AAP/Paul Rovere)

The decision to launch another royal commission into the devastating bushfire season has not come without controversy. It will be expensive and time-consuming, and critics have asked if it will achieve anything new. 

It will also be the 58th parliamentary inquiry into bushfires in 80 years — nationally, we’re averaging one inquiry every 14 months. 

Crikey takes a look through history to see what — if anything — is different about this one. 

Federal approach the only novel aspect

For the first time, this bushfire royal commission will be held at a federal level, formalising the national input into emergency management, which is largely a state-based issue. 

This decision has been criticised by many, with Victorian Premier Dan Andrews openly questioning what a federal event could bring to the table. Others have expressed concerns the federal government is expanding its powers.

The uniqueness ends there; just like the 2009 inquiry into Victoria’s Black Saturday, this inquiry will feature commissioners from the defence force and former judges, with only one woman. 

Controlled burning a recurring theme

Recommendations from the very first bushfire inquiry in 1939, which examined Victoria’s summer bushfires — one of the worst in Australia’s recorded history — still haven’t been implemented 80 years later. 

Kevin Tolhurst, an honorary associate professor in fire and ecology management, says even back then we knew prescribed burning efforts had been inadequate, and there were recommendations calling for an increase. 

“We’ve never achieved a level of prescribed burning that would have a measurable effect,” he told Crikey.

Bushfire inquiries into fires across Western Australia in 1961, the eastern seaboard fires in 1994, the Mount Kuring-gai out-of-control hazard-reduction burn in 2000, and a fire across the ACT in 2003 all recommend increased or improved burning planning processes.

The Black Saturday inquiry called for roughly quadruple the amount of controlled burning.

“The fact that it keeps coming up means it hasn’t been addressed,” Tolhurst said. 

Climate change addressed — hardly 

The terms of reference for this royal commission will include climate change, which is again fairly novel.

The terms state:

The changing global climate carries risks for the Australian environment and Australia’s ability to prevent, mitigate, and respond to bushfires and other natural disasters … Australia as a nation must take action … to address the consequences of longer, hotter, drier seasons and severe weather events.

But that’s about all the attention the topic will get.

According to Tolhurst, climate change “is not going to be looked at. The terms of reference say yes, we accept the climate is changing … it’s mentioned, but there’s no attention to addressing how to reduce climate change.”

It was a similar instance in 2009, where climate change was discussed during the commission for around two hours, though commissioner Bernard Teague later said the topic had been “small beer” for his inquiry because there were no scientists to argue against it. 

Not all doom and gloom

Previous inquiries, including the ones into Tasmania’s Black Tuesday in 1967, WA’s fires in 1961, South Australia and Victoria’s Ash Wednesday in 1983, and the 2000 Mount Kuring-Gai bushfire all made reference to the importance of strengthening the coordination of resources and communication.

An inquiry in Victoria in 1944 led to the establishment of the Country Fire Authority, while NSW inquiries across the ’90s prompted the Rural Fire Service to be formed. 

Evacuation procedures have changed, too, with greater emphasis on getting out early over staying and protecting property. 

But whether it’s a necessary inquiry is still up for debate. Multiple experts have called on governments to implement outstanding recommendations from decades of inquiries, specifically fuel reduction, planning and development issues, and standardised bushfire warnings across states.

In fact, in 2012 a policy on national fire management plan was produced — but still hasn’t been implemented.

“We need to be acting rather than just producing another piece of paper saying what we should be doing,” Tolhurst said.

Peter Fray

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