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A royal commission for the land

  • 20 January 2020


In the aftermath of the worst of the bushfires, earlier this month the Prime Minister announced his intention to take to Cabinet a proposal to set up a royal commission into the bushfire disaster. The proposal has received a mixed response. 

The firefighters union points out that there are plenty of recommendations already from past inquiries that have not yet been adopted. Specialist in bushfire ecology, Kevin Tolhurst, similarly argues that another royal commission will only 'reiterate what we have known for decades'. The Victorian government has, perhaps unsurprisingly, announced its own investigation into the fires — a two-year, standing inquiry — and New South Wales has mooted its own response also.

A significant point of contention surrounding the proposal for a royal commission seems to be the Prime Minister's focus on state management of fuel loads, with attendant questions of hazard reduction. These questions have circulated in social media as a touchstone in public discourse, prompting the Commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service, Shane Fitzsimmons, to publicly discount hazard reduction as a panacea. Despite statements by the experts, we remain overrun with definitive but unsubstantiated 'solutions' including reining in 'greenies' and logging in national parks to minimise fire risk into the future.

As this months-long disaster has unfolded, everyone has become an expert even as we seem to ignore the scientific evidence that has been staring us in the face. In light of the extensive work already undertaken in analysing fire management in a deteriorating climate, the real question to be answered seems to concern not the bushfires themselves but rather the capacity of our system of governance to step outside its silos — state vs commonwealth; state vs state; political factions; urban vs rural; economy vs environment; Australia vs the world. 

Apart from bringing the reality of climate change starkly into focus, the bushfire disaster has revealed the limits of our contemporary systems of governance. First, bushfires know no boundaries. Not only the blaze but also the smoke it has generated have penetrated the national consciousness.

Secondly, harms lie not only in the immediate aftermath of a fire. There may be a clean-up and even rebuilding, but the effects will persist environmentally, economically and socially, across all government portfolios. Thirdly, should we rebuild, the threat remains. Unlike previous natural disasters the evidence suggests that we are now in a spiral. This is no linear movement through time, of management, disaster and rebuilding. We