Prime Minister Scott Morrison has proposed a Royal Commission into the recent bushfire disaster to Cabinet, with the former defence force chief, Mark Binsin, being put forward by Scott Morrison to lead the commission. The bushfire disaster has caused significant devastation across the nation, with numerous deaths and more than 2000 homes being destroyed, in addition to the broader social, economic and environmental impacts.
A Royal Commission into the recent bushfire events has the potential to positively change and refine approaches to bushfire mitigation, management and response, as the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission did. However, the terms of reference will need to be appropriately focused to maximise the benefit of the inquiry.
Scott Morrison has written to the states and territories, calling for feedback in drafting the terms of reference on a proposed bushfire Royal Commission, with a particular focus on the scope and ability of the Federal Government to respond and intervene in traditionally State allocated responsibilities, such as bushfire catastrophes. The process is deeply political and will play out against a backdrop of philosophical and policy divisions within the Federal Government about the extent and impact of climate change. It also comes in conjunction with a clear shift in Australian public sentiment over recent weeks, with significantly more vocal and extensive calls for meaningful government action on climate change, most relevantly to support steps to achieve a rapid reduction of carbon emissions.
The Western Australian Government has already expressed its opposition to a Royal Commission, and instead supports an alternate investigation that does not require the same lengthy and costly processes. The Victorian Government has already announced a separate inquiry, focusing on the preparedness and firefighting methods and efforts, with a second inquiry into the relief and recovery from bushfire impacts due for completion and publication in 2021. New South Wales has also announced a six-month independent inquiry into the bushfires, which is due to commence shortly. It remains to be seen whether the Federal Government proposal to establish a Royal Commission will obtain support from the various State and Territory governments, a number of whom have already committed to going it alone with their own inquiries.
This is not the first time that Australia has launched a public inquiry into a natural disaster, with more than fifteen bushfire related inquiries occurring in the past twenty years. In 2009, the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission was announced in order to examine the strategies and inadequacies of the circumstances surrounding the Black Saturday bushfires. This Royal Commission was given very broad terms of reference, as well as including an investigation into the significance of climate-change related issues.
The Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission into the 2009 bushfires saw appearances from 30 interested parties, including government agencies, power companies, unions and industry associations. That Commission sat for 155 days, and heard from 434 witnesses, with the Victorian Government budgeting $40 million for its own costs of the Commission, including the legal fees for counsel-assisting.
Whilst lessons have been learnt from the 2009 Royal Commission, particularly in relation to emergency planning and response, the recent bushfire events have raised a series of new challenges. Whilst the specific terms of reference for the Morrison Government's proposed Royal Commission are yet to be confirmed, and it will necessarily cover some similar topics as the 2009 Royal Commission, it is likely to have less focus on causation and greater emphasis on:
the humanitarian response;
the blurred line between federal and state responsibilities;
the important role to be played by insurance and the insurance sector in promoting an increase in community resilience, both pre and post bushfire events; and
the role of climate change in relation to these bushfires and future natural catastrophes.