Today’s question is a bit of an odd one.
I am a volunteer in the NSW rural fire service, captain of a brigade. Many firefighters and landowners, often one in the same in the bush, have said to me that they believe that the Army /Military should have been called in a lot earlier than they were. I agree with them.
The NSW government has announced an Independent Bushfire Inquiry – see https://www.nsw.gov.au/improving-nsw/projects-and-initiatives/nsw-independent-bushfire-inquiry/
When you look at the terms of reference to the NSW enquiry (https://www.nsw.gov.au/improving-nsw/projects-and-initiatives/make-a-submission-to-the-bushfire-inquiry/nsw-independent-bushfire-inquiry-terms-of-reference/), items 3,8 and especially 9, many say to me “Here is a chance to change things and get the army in sooner” I agree with them.
The concern among fire fighters and especially me is that If I/we make a submission to the inquiry the RFS will kick our butts for badmouthing the RFS. Can the RFS kick our butts if we make a submission?
If by ‘kick our butts’ it means ‘take disciplinary action’ the answer has to be ‘no’. The RFS can only ‘kick butts’ if there is a breach of the code of conduct. The inquiry says (emphasis added) ‘The Inquiry welcomes submissions from bushfire-affected residents, emergency and support personnel, organisations and the general public.’
There is nothing in the code of conduct that would stop a person making a good faith submission, reporting on what they observed and their opinions. But there are limits. For example the code says:
The NSW RFS is strongly committed to providing and maintaining a respectful and inclusive workplace, where all members are treated with dignity, courtesy and respect at all times…
If you make a submission saying that a senior officer made decisions in bad faith, out of malice or make a personal gain you are a) probably wrong and b) at risk of getting your ‘butt kicked’. Most times that people try to assign motivation (he did it because he had a private interest, or he did not like me or some such) it is based on false reasoning. The implied reasoning is:
- I know the truth
- This is what I know
- If another person does not (or did not) share my view he or she must have had an improper motive because there can be no other explanation given what I know is true.
But of course the other person has a different perspective, different information, different obligations, a different world view. So limit submissions to what you personally observed or can establish and don’t malign others.
Remember too that the NSW RFS cannot ‘call in the army’. The NSW Government can ask the Commonwealth for that assistance. There are Constitutional issues in the use of the ADF. You can make submissions on what ‘should be’ but don’t confuse what ‘should be’ done next time with what was possible at the time. The point of an inquiry is to make recommendations to make necessary changes to allow what ‘should be’ in the future.
So write the submission carefully, formally without making personal criticism. If you do that, the RFS cannot stop members making a submission to a NSW Government inquiry that is specifically calling for those submissions nor ‘kick butts’ for a submission that the member are made in accordance with the 3.3 Ethical Decision Making principles. It can be quite ethical, and in the best interests of the RFS to make a submission that says ‘this is what happened – we think it would have been better if this had happened instead’ but not ‘this is what happened and it happened because this person is an idiot, or corrupt, or wouldn’t listen to my sensible suggestion’.
Of course I cannot comment on how others may react or perceive you if you make submissions that are critical of them or their decision making or who think your submissions are incorrect or inappropriate.
Is the ability for volunteers to make submissions something unique to this inquiry or has this always been the case? My reason for asking is that in the past I have been told by a senior RFS staff member that volunteers were not allowed to make a submission to an coronal inquiry and that my only option was to make use of the internal after action review process.
A coroner’s inquest (into a death) or inquiry (into a fire) is a very different type of inquiry. Only those given leave by the Coroner can appear and make submissions
I’d like to phrase the “same” question a different way. What process is used upon receipt of submission to the NSW Independent Bushfire’s enquiry? How many people see the submission? Who can access a submission at any stage? What security is used? Is any “legal” protection offered for submission confidentiality? If an individual is abused and or sidelined because of information in their submission is there a simple means within the system to prove that? What legal redress is available?
As for the process used by the inquiry you need to direct those questions to the Inquiry. The website does not give answers to those questions nor it is clear under what legal authority the Inquiry is operating so I can’t refer to any overriding or generic legislation that would govern its processes. As an independent inquiry one could not say, with certainty, whether protections such as Parliamentary privilege apply. It follows that I cannot answer any of those questions.
One can be sure that if ‘an individual is abused and or sidelined because of information in their submission’ there will be no ‘simple means within the system to prove that’. What legal redress is available will depend on who does what to whom, in what circumstances and what evidence there is that it was motivated by malice.
I note that it is pretty unsatisfactory. The National Royal Commission in National Natural Disaster Arrangements is a Royal Commission so we know its processes are governed by the Royal Commissions Act 1902 (Cth). It is interesting to note that the states of Victoria, Tasmania, New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland have all issued ‘Letters Patent’ appointing the same Commissioners to hold inquiries with the same terms of reference (see https://naturaldisaster.royalcommission.gov.au/document-library?text=&f%5B0%5D=field_publication_type%3A836) , so this is truly a national, not just a Commonwealth, inquiry. It also means that provisions of State Acts in particular the Inquiries Act 2014 (Vic); the Commissions of Inquiry Act 1995 (Tas); the Royal Commissions Act 1923 (NSW); the Royal Commissions Act 1917 (SA) and the Commissions of Inquiry Act 1950 (Qld) are applicable. If one was concerned about privilege of communication, then s 17 of the NSW Act is to apply which provides that evidence given to the Commission cannot be used in civil or criminal proceedings against the witness. There is no specific provision penalising anyone who takes punitive action against a witness save that it may be contempt of the Commission (s 18A).