The Prime Minister has already flagged that he is considering a ‘Royal Commission’ to investigate … something to do with the current fires; see Rosie Lewis, ‘Scott Morrison considers bushfires royal commission‘ The Australian (6 January 2020); see also ‘Call for Royal Commission into Australia’s bushfires as government urged to tackle ‘root cause’‘ SBS News (Online) (1 January 2020).
For many years now my colleague Steve Dovers and I have been working on identifying the value (if any) of post event inquiries and of reducing the harm they cause, particularly to first responders.
Our thoughts on how to approach the inevitable inquiry, to try to make it restorative rather than destructive, can be found on the blog ‘Pearls and Irritations’. You can read it here:
Michael Eburn and Stephen Dovers ‘What sort of inquiry should come after these fires?‘ John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations (7 January 2020).
Back in 2013, when conducting Review of the Fire and Emergency Services Act 2005 [SA], the Hon. Paul Holloway said (at pp 37-38):
Associate Professor Eburn, and Professor Stephen Dovers of the Australian National University have also made an important contribution to the debate on the assessment of emergency service response to major disasters.
They point out that following major events in Australia there has been at least 34 inquiries into bushfires and bushfire management and at least another 14 inquiries into floods, storms, other natural hazards and reviewing emergency management arrangements.
For reasons of brevity, a collection of salient points from their extensive studies is included below:
Australian emergency management policy suffers from a lack of clear objectives or measures of success. This absence means that agencies, governments and citizens cannot identify whether or not policy objectives are being met and whether the emergency services are succeeding in their tasks or not. Emergency Services and governments cannot predict whether the community will see the outcome as success or failure. The situation is further complicated if there is an opportunity to use a tragedy for political advantage.
Goals such as ‘the preservation of life’ are aspirational but not always achievable. It is of fundamental importance that governments explain that emergency management involves balancing competing demands. Governments and communities have to accept that some outcomes are the result of political choices made long before and fire, flood or storm impacted. Further to describe something as ‘political’ is not to suggest that it was inappropriate or made for improper motives; ‘political’ choices are, in the end, the means by which competing values are balanced within the constraints of available resources.
Governments are elected by property owners, but responsible for both ecological preservation and fire management and have to consider the balance between these competing demands. Inquiries do not and cannot consider the budget implications of their recommendation although this is something governments must do.
Strategic Policy is being driven by the litigation blame game so agencies are focussing on ‘what will we be blamed for?’ and ‘who will be blamed?’ rather than how do we improve community safety.
The desire of Commissioners and Coroners to find recommendations to ensure that future tragedies will not occur is understandable, but it implies that they will be able to find the ‘weak link’ that caused the agencies to deviate from their normal, efficient, adequate response and this ‘weak link’ converted what should have been an emergency into a disaster. With that view, the disaster represents, by definition, and always, a failure of the government and the emergency services. The inference is that if we can identify the weakness we can fix it and it won’t happen again.
Disasters are a product of the environment and human choices rather than a failure by government, emergency services, land managers or individuals. Post-event inquiries and processes should be rethought within the frame of lesson-learning rather than seeking fault.
The objective is not that the response was perfect, but that the response went ‘reasonably well under the circumstances’ remembering that ‘excellence is not to be equated with absolute perfection’. (A Schapel, Wangary Enquiry 2007). A review should look to see what went well, so that policy can be developed to do more of the ‘good’, rather than less of the ‘bad’.
A policy and legal reform task could be to establish a ‘lessons learnt’ centre or process with a statutory basis that sufficiently balanced the community’s interests in ensuring that true lessons, including lessons of error or neglect are identified, whilst also protecting members of the emergency services. Processes need to be developed for emergency services such as those used in aviation and medicine, to facilitate open and honest disclosure of errors. An investigation into the conduct of these types of enquiries that maintain public and industry confidence may lead to valuable insights.
The challenge is to enact laws to establish a ‘lessons learned’ centre or process that sufficiently balances the community’s interests in ensuring that true lessons, including the lessons of error or neglect are identified, whilst also protecting members of the emergency services.
No country can resource any emergency service sufficiently to control or combat all hazards, or manage the community response, to prevent all death or destruction. An incident doesn’t become a catastrophe because the emergency services are overwhelmed; rather they are overwhelmed because they are facing a catastrophic event.
When judging major incidents in the future, consideration be given to Eburn and Dover’s proposal to establish processes with a statutory basis that sufficiently balance the community’s interests in ensuring that true lessons, including lessons of error or neglect, are identified, whilst also protecting members of the emergency services. Processes need to be developed for emergency services such as those used in aviation and medicine, to facilitate open and honest disclosure of errors.
Reforming how events are reviewed could be a task for the just announced national Bushfire Recovery Agency.
For other related publications see:
- Eburn, M., Restorative inquiries and natural disasters – symposium report (Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, 2019)
- ‘Cole, L., Dovers, S., Gough, M and Eburn, M, ‘Can major post-event inquiries and reviews contribute to lessons management?‘ (2018) 33(2) Australian Journal of Emergency Management 34-39.
- Eburn, M. and Dovers, S., Learning For Emergency Services: Looking for a new approach (Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, 2017)
- Eburn, M and Dovers, S ‘Reviewing high-risk and high-consequence decisions: finding a safer way’ (2017) 32(4) Australian Journal of Emergency Management 26-29.
- Eburn, M. and Dovers, S., ‘Learning lessons from disasters: alternatives to Royal Commissions and other quasi-judicial inquiries‘, (2015) 74(4) Australian Journal of Public Administration 495–508
- Eburn, M., Hudson, D., Cha, I and Dovers, S., ‘Learning from Adversity: What has 75 years of Bushfire Inquiries Taught us?’ (Paper presented at the 2014 AFAC annual conference; Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, 2015)
- Eburn, M. and Dovers, S., ‘Australian wildfire litigation’ (2012) 21(5) International Journal of Wildland Fire 488-497.
- Eburn, M. and Jackman, B., ‘Mainstreaming fire and emergency management into law’ (2011) 28(2) Environmental and Planning Law Journal 59-76.
To see what has come out of earlier inquiries, search the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC’s Disaster Inquiries: Data Discovery Resource.