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Government responsibility for bushfire tragedy

By Richard Mulgan - posted Tuesday, 24 February 2009

How much responsibility do governments have for the disastrous loss of life and property on Black Saturday February 7? The answer is unclear and likely to remain so. Too many human elements are involved, including the warped motives of arsonists and the unco-ordinated actions of individual residents and property-holders, to reach any definitive conclusions about who was responsible for what.

But some conclusions have become quickly apparent. First, the strong likelihood that a mega firestorm could result from such extreme climatic conditions was both predictable and actually predicted in the days leading up to the fires. If people were taken by surprise, the reason does not lie not in the supposed, and comforting, unpredictability of nature but in a more worrying, and culpable, failure of human communication.

Responsibility for this failure must lie, in large measure, with the public authorities tasked with informing their communities of imminent threats to life and property.


Second, whatever the rights and wrongs of fuel reduction in forests and around properties, the fact that governments have discouraged controlled burning and the removal of trees near houses must have contributed to the severity of the fires and to the loss of life.

Here the responsibility lies with all levels of government, with the federal and state governments for the management of forests and with local governments for the regulations governing individual properties. These policies all require a difficult balance between competing values, including the protection of a green environment and the safety of those who choose to live in or near forests. But where that balance is struck is a political decision for which elected governments must take responsibility.

Now is not the time for blame, we are told. But if blame is put on hold, so too is responsibility and admission of failure. Our system of government requires our political leaders to take responsibility for the collective failures of the governments they lead. We do not expect them to take personal blame for everything that goes wrong, still less to have all the answers at their fingertips. But we have a right to hear them accept that the policies of their government have failed (as they clearly have), to express collective regret on the part of the governments they lead, and to promise future improvements. So far, however, there has been no clear admission of responsibility.

We have been told that existing policies have served us well in the past and may need to be revised for the future. But what we need to hear is that existing policies actually failed us on Black Saturday. Official statements that effective plans were drawn up have an air of Sir Humphrey-lie unreality. How can plans have been effective if they failed to work?

Premier John Brumby’s appointment of a Royal Commission to investigate all aspects of the fires is a necessary process in discovering the truth in all its complexity. But it should not be allowed to deflect all public discussion of policy or to shield ministers from legitimate questioning about what went wrong. If the Commission is used to distance ministers from responsibility, it will deprive the public of their best chance of imposing the necessary changes. Only if ministers own all aspects of the policy, including its spectacular failure this month, will their political opponents have incentives to exploit their vulnerability.

Without effective political articulation as part of the cut and thrust of party politics, policy recommendations will simply gather dust until the next time the authorities are overwhelmed.


When single individuals suffer from major government incompetence - when a pregnant mother miscarries in a hospital toilet or an Australian citizen is wrongly deported - political oppositions and angry critics are all over the responsible ministers who are then forced into implementing remedies. But when tragedies occur on a mass scale, the only legitimate public emotions seem to be compassion for those affected and admiration for those who come to their aid.

Politics is muted as Prime Ministers and Premiers lead the nation in mourning, as if they were solely spectators in a tragedy to which they have contributed.

By all means, communities should unite in common grief for those who have lost their lives and property and in gratitude to the outstanding efforts of emergency workers and other helpers. But we should not be asked to suppress all anger at the outcome or to blunt our immediate demand for answers. Unless public anger continues, albeit channeled by rational concern for expert evidence as it emerges, we will have failed both the past and the future.

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First published in The Canberra Times on February 20, 2009.

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About the Author

Richard Mulgan is author of Holding Power to Account (Palgrave Macmillan 2003) and a former professor in the Crawford School of Economics and Government at the ANU.

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