A royal commission for the land



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. 

Rural Fire Service firefighters views a flank of a fire on 11 January 2020 in Tumburumba, NSW. (Photo by Sam Mooy/Getty Images)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 are now in a dynamic and evolving environment that requires visionary, systems thinking. We are just as likely to see another inferno before the results of the current crop of inquiries are in.

For our society to function responsively to what is now a dynamically changing context, we urgently need differently oriented governance. This will, no doubt, be unpalatable for some — both in government and in the general public. But without re-setting how we are governed, our land and our society will suffer further destruction.


"In none of the activity so far do I see evidence of a shift in thinking about institutions of government themselves."


To achieve the shift required demands that those currently in power stop trying to blame and scapegoat but also that they accept the part that they have played in the disaster. While there are questions about why the Prime Minister failed to meet with the former fire chiefs about the risk and about why the NSW government slashed the budget of Parks and Wildlife, I wonder if delving into these matters is now a waste of resources that could be better deployed in mapping out the design of better governance.

Whether a royal commission can deliver recommendations to support what we need is open to question. Once created by the issue of letters patent, a royal commission has extensive legislative powers to call witnesses and to examine whatever it sees within its purview. While a royal commission undoubtedly serves a political function, being a tool deployed at the absolute discretion of the government, it is also independent and therefore capable of providing a dispassionate report concerning the issues before it.

In addition, a royal commission can serve a therapeutic role. Although the firefighters' union has said that it is traumatic for witnesses to relive their experiences before a royal commission, it is also the opportunity for those affected to air their stories publicly. This is a type of vindication that can assist in healing.

However, as I read about reports of experts in numerous relevant fields, I feel that our systems of governance should already have the capacity to take account of this wealth of knowledge and experience. Indeed, various ministers are already holding round tables of experts to gather intelligence, presumably to collate into policy action. No doubt state-based inquiries will hear the experiences of those affected by bushfires locally and all of this information can be shared when COAG meets later this year.

Yet I harbour fears that despite current efforts, we will return to governance as usual — within the silos our governmental and political context demands. In none of the activity so far do I see evidence of a shift in thinking about institutions of government themselves. 

And I hold one further fear. Although we have heard from wildlife carers and ecologists, we are missing the voice of the land itself. Despite the widespread destruction of landscape and the life within it, the land remains nothing more than a resource at our disposal — tourist dollars, timber, agriculture and so on. Even wildlife is the property of government. Who speaks for the land on its own account?

Imagine instead a governance system that acknowledges the foundations of our life, and accounts to that environment in its decision-making. Could a royal commission consider such a recommendation? This would signal the kind of change that we need and might truly start to address the challenge we face.



Kate GallowayKate Galloway is a legal academic with an interest in social justice. She is presently associate professor of law at Griffith Law School.

Main image: Rural Fire Service firefighters views a flank of a fire on 11 January 2020 in Tumburumba, NSW. (Photo by Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Kate Galloway, climate change, bushfires



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thank you for this wise advice, I could relate such call (who speak for the land?) to the legendary Dr Seuss character the Lorax
Pierre | 20 January 2020

Thanks for the article. In this post-event period it's necessary to debrief to assess the incident; root cause analysis, ICAM, response capabilities; a commission is an expensive way to evaluate the fantastic response of professional and volunteers but will focus higher up the chain on those who led; the PM Morrison has already delineated his role that he "doesn't hold a hose" which was a step back from the daggy dad, Joe average persona we were led to accept. Some (few) volunteer hose-holders have been permitted to claim lost earnings and expenses but the majority of rural crews expected to step up not just for these fires but for the hazard removal and fire management throughout the year are unrecognized other than the brief period of "yay team" after a significant event. They serve their community and state and we rely heavily on their good will and altruism; the compensation package helped some but perhaps emergency services volunteers deserve a pension fund? The one-off payment seems sufficient gratitude but the students, unemployed and retired members who contribute got nothing. The land will speak for itself; the fires are an oration of declared dissatisfaction with how we've neglected it.
Ray | 20 January 2020

Thanks Kate for an excellent article. You say, "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." I encourage readers to read the Reports on the Climate Council website and also accept the findings of the great majority of climate scientists. What a pity so many politicians don't! I particularly fear for future generations. We now see what 1 degree of warming will do. What will 3 degrees of warming do, because that's where we're heading, unless we act much more quickly to mitigate climate change?
Grant Allen | 20 January 2020

”Who speaks for the land on its own account?” Australia isn't New Zealand. Sponsoring an extra-cultural quasi-religion is not a function of the Western State. ‘Land’ cannot feel pain. Therefore, it has no moral rights, and therefore, in consequence, no legal personality to protect those rights. No prophetic voices need to speak for it. Prophetic voices speak for people, living and yet to live, whose interests may be affected if the physical character of the land changes. A polluted river doesn’t suffer. But people who rely on it for uses of their own do if the water becomes unusable. People are protected by relevant enforceable standards which are properly policed, not by a shamanistic legal fiction seeking to channel a non-existent personality. Land is an inanimate stock from which human beneficiaries draw a flow of sustenance. That is the only reason why it needs to be looked after. However, if you want to find some religious support for this in Western culture, you could infer from Genesis that Land and all other forms of Capital – somewhat like the Sabbath - is made for Man as steward.
roy chen yee | 20 January 2020

I like your penultimate paragraph, Kate. If 'land' has legal standing, and there are precedents, then perspectives must change. Our environment's value is intrinsic, not purely a resource for us to plunder as we have been doing. We have been given stewardship of the land but that does not infer rights but rather infers responsibility. Time for mankind to realise: our health and wellbeing depends on the health and wellbeing of our environment.
Pam | 21 January 2020

Oh Kate... As you so eloquently say, the land (and its ecology) is the foundation of our life without which, we perish. I share your fear that the great swaggering god governance has neither eyes to see nor ears to hear, with or without a Royal Commission. Nero, as we know, had the same problem. Perhaps we need more scientists and on the ground people like fire and rescue workers to enter politics. The experts certainly have not been listened to under our current system of arrogant governance. PS. I find it a touch disturbing that one commentator has chosen to interpret your use of the word "land" so literally.
Henri | 22 January 2020

Roy, The earth, together with much or most of its animal and vegetable life that still exists today, was evolving and flourishing for hundreds of millions of years before the Genesis figures with their divine 'dominion' arrived on the scene. That the earth can happily do without human presence or 'stewardship.' The modern record shows that the late-on-the-scene human 'stewardship' has not lived up to its own self-justification. Maybe we would do well to take notice of Thomas Berry's ideas on the Earth having its own kind of memory, proven ability to get along just fine without human beings and even to heal itself of the damage caused by the 'stewards' after they have rendered themselves extinct.
David TIMBS | 22 January 2020

Thanks Kate. From Laudato Si' #2 This sister now cries out to us because of this harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. #5: Saint John Paul II became increasingly concerned about this issue. In his first Encyclical he warned that human beings frequently seem “to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption”.[4] Subsequently, he would call for a global ecological conversion.[5] At the same time, he noted that little effort had been made to “safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic human ecology”.[6] The destruction of the human environment is extremely serious, not only because God has entrusted the world to us men and women, but because human life is itself a gift which must be defended from various forms of debasement. Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in “lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies”.[7] From Emeritus Pope Benedict xvi: In short, this is a first criterion to learn: that being itself, our earth, speaks to us and we must listen if we want to survive and to decipher this message of the earth. http://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2007/july/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20070724_clero-cadore.html
Anne Lanyon | 22 January 2020

Kate , a thought provoking article. However you mention governments both State & federal but surely the care of the land begins with each one of us. Do we as individuals adopt best practice to tend what ultimately is on loan to us. The expectation is that it is someone else’s role to protect us when in fact each one of us has to take charge of our future & be responsible for how we treat our land. .
She Swift | 22 January 2020

I believe that if we listen to our First Nations peoples we would learn to love, even revere the land as a living entity. Thank you Kate for such a thought provoking article.
.margaret Lamb | 22 January 2020

Thank you. For a lot of pro- Morrison government commentators, the fires are an opportunity to access the commercial potential of untapped resources in national parks - whether it be timber, coal or minerals, surface or subsurface water catchment resources, easements for privately owned profitmaking transport infrastructure or new property developments, some tightly managed closed access profitable tourism resorts: anything from which a private sector buck can be made at public expense. Even fuel hazard reduction itself will be used as a profitmaking centre - bulldozed and shredded timber products taken out of parks can be sold and used in manufacture or composting. It is all about making money. And our park heritage will be fatally weakened and shrunken in extent - what the fires have not killed, human greed will. Under Morrison, if he is not resisted, this will all happen.
Tony Kevin | 22 January 2020

Kate, I could not agree more; a waste of time , money and any answers will be prejudged by the brief given to the proposed Commission.There are volumes of expert reports which those in power should read and act on.
Gavin O'Brien | 22 January 2020

Thank you David for your calm but penetrating response to Roy’s post. The idea that he expressed, that the earth and all the life forms that have evolved ‘were made for man’ is for me appalling. To the extent that the writers of Genesis might express this view only demonstrates the antiquity of this extreme hubris. The sooner that Homo sapiens as a species acquires some sense of humility and proportion the better off will be the earth and iall it’s other species.
Ginger Meggs | 23 January 2020

David Timbs: 1. “That the earth can happily do without human presence or 'stewardship.'” So can a mosquito-infested swamp. When humans drain swamps, reclaim land from the sea or make the deserts bloom, they improve the earth. For the Amazon dolphin? No, for humans including believers in anthropogenic climate change who are in a tizzy because they don’t want to suffer climate pains. No climate change doomster stays gut-wrenchingly awake at night because the Amazon dolphin will suffer climate pains. Climate change doomsters are the biggest species-chauvinists around. If they were more loving of Gaia than their own lives, they’d welcome the ecocatastrophe for the sake of the Amazon dolphin. 2. Given that the first law of capital is not to degrade it --- because (basic economics) no stock, no flow --- what is the problem with ‘dominion’? 3. Further to (2.), in Genesis, God gave Adam and Eve ‘dominion’. Arbitrary, whimsical, burn-through-your-inheritance Satanic-style dominion maybe? Probably not. Probably cautious, bookkeeper, stay-out-of-debt God-style dominion was what God intended. What is Father Thomas Berry OP talking about? Humans doing God-style dominion would be my guess, him being a priest and all.
roy chen yee | 23 January 2020

Actually Roy, your example of swamp-clearing and the like solely in the interests of humans is a good example of the widespread destruction of habitat for birds, fish, amphibians, crustaceans, and plants that humans have caused to the ecology of the earth. Those actions certainly don't 'improve the earth', far from it.
Ginger Meggs | 31 January 2020

Ginger Meggs, there is a difference between local and general ecologies and between changing an ecology and destroying it. For example, wherever we live is founded on the crushed remains of legions of earthworms whose service in aerating and fertilising the soil is well known. Unless there’s something very special about the particular kind of earthworm under a proposed development, I don’t think anyone - greenies included - even thinks about the local earthworm apocalypse. Why? Perhaps because there are many more of them elsewhere, just as there are, for ordinary swamps, many amphibians, fish, crustacea and plants of the same kind safely living elsewhere. (Birds, of course, can migrate.) More fundamentally though, the sculpting that is ‘dominion’ is inescapable when a being with a superior brain and innate urge to understand itself has to manipulate its environment in order to do just that. Lesser creatures don’t manipulate their environments as much because they don’t have as spacious a concept of identity in life or death and of the temporalities of past, present and future. Is rock art graffiti upon natural beauty? Is Rushmore vandalism?
roy chen yee | 02 February 2020


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up