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Politics stymie bushfire response


The Australian, Wednesday 11 February 2009Historically, playing the blame game is one of the most predictable responses of all to Australian bushfires. It happens after every major event. Usually a government agency of some sort or a specific group of people is blamed for either what it did or didn't do.

Clearly the psychology of blame is operative here. Much of the attack is an expression of the usual need to find scapegoats and deal with a sense of loss. In the Black Friday fires of 1939 the Forestry Commission and the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works were accused of not being proactive in clearing forest litter and scrub. Nowadays 'extreme Greens' or 'city-based academics' of some sort are more likely to be blamed.

After the most extensive and long-lasting series of fires in the European history of Australia in 2002–2003, there were many attacks on those considered responsible for not carrying out preventative or hazard reduction burning. This became a touchstone that focused a range of other issues simmering away in rural communities.

How governments respond to this is important. In 2003 the governments of Victoria and the ACT initially offered help, but once their bureaucrats got hold of the process people had to go through complex procedures in order to get minimal assistance. The governments failed to deal with the emotional response of people who had lost everything.

In New South Wales the then Premier, Bob Carr, an old hand with a lot of experience, took a different approach. Aid was promised and delivered without a great deal of red tape; Carr made sure the Premier's Department dealt with everything. This prevented anal-retentive public servants from erecting an obstacle course for victims. I know, because I received some aid from NSW after a bush block and old house I owned were reduced to rubble.

Carr also funded a project that allowed people to tell stories of their experiences of the fires. This acknowledged publicly that people had been through terrible times. The project was launched at a social meeting at the National Parks headquarters in Jindabyne. It brought together locals and National Parks staff, who are often in conflict over land management policies. This built relationships rather than dividing people.

A House of Representatives Select Committee, chaired by the then federal member for Eden-Monaro, Garry Nairn, is a good example of what not to do. It was set up, in the words of the minority Labor report:

'... in a highly charged political atmosphere ... where the media is seeking the sensational story, the community is demanding answers and the politicians are seeking to apportion blame. These are hardly conducive circumstances for the rational evaluation of evidence, the setting aside of long-held prejudices and the development of practical recommendations.'

In retrospect, the Nairn Committee reinforced the blame game and, in the words of one submission, pitted 'environmentalists and academics, supported by inner-city residents not threatened by bushfires [who] advocate a hands-off approach to land-management, where 'natural' events like bushfires are allowed to run free', against 'rural people, fire fighters, foresters and land managers who are responsible for values threatened by bushfires'.

The latter want 'an interventionist approach, where steps are taken to minimise risks before fires start'; that is, to carry out preventative burning.

It is clear that the same kind of debate is already beginning after last Saturday's horrendous fires. An article in The Australian on Wednesday (pictured) pitted 'one of Australia's leading bushfire experts', Ron Incoll, and David Packham of Monash University, against Nillumbik Shire Council in which 'green groups' are seemingly influential.

I am not in a position to make any comment on this specific issue. But it is unfortunate that the bushfires are not yet out, but the blame game has already begun.

In fact, this debate has already become irrelevant. On Saturday we entered a new category of bushfire, the type that results from global warming. From all that I can see Saturday's wild fire had a velocity and intensity that far surpasses both Black Friday and Ash Wednesday. We are in a new era of fire and we are going to have to take a long, hard, rational and ecologically sensitive look at what has happened.

The proposed Royal Commission is a good way of doing this, especially if it is chaired by a person with the talents and objectivity of Leonard Stretton who ran the1939 post-Black Friday Royal Commission. Rather than scoring points and blaming people, we need to pull back and look at what has happened, putting - as Premier Brumby has said - everything on the table.

And that includes global warming.

Red Cross Bushfire Appeal

Paul CollinsPaul Collins is a former head of religious broadcasting at ABC Radio.


Topic tags: scapegoat, blame game, bureaucracy, victorian bushfires, bob carr, john brumby, nairn committee



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Existing comments

Upon what fact do you assert that 'Saturday's wild fire had a velocity and intensity that far surpasses both Black Friday and Ash Wednesday'? Are you not pre-judging? Is that not prejudice? I will await the Royal Commission report and see what facts emerge.

Kim Chen | 13 February 2009  

I would agree with Kim Chen, when you say yourself:

'But it is unfortunate that the bushfires are not yet out, but the blame game has already begun.'

And then later say about the situation it is '...the type that results from global warming'.

Do you not think this contradictory?

Simon | 13 February 2009  

Are we are playing a 'blame game' or simply seeking to find the multi-layered reasons for a national cataclysm which has claimed 181 lives (and climbing?) and caused immesurable grief in those who survived, their families and friends?

Sylvester | 13 February 2009  

Thank you, Paul. Our immediate and long-term response should surely be compassion and just action for those affected by the tragedy; and progress towards improving the resources that will mitigate against such devastating loss of human and animal lives.

We must not lynch the fire-lighters, but neutralise their power to kill, maim and destroy. This is the desired outcome of the Royal Commission. There is no morality in a firestorm.

Moira Rayner | 13 February 2009  

Well said Paul. The blame game achieves nothing except to fire rumours, since not everyone reads, sees or hears opinion as simply opinion. It is often seen as fact and then acted on or propagated further.

Rosemary Keenan | 13 February 2009  

You say "Rather than scoring points and blaming people, we need to pull back and look at what has happened, putting - as Premier Brumby has said - everything on the table. And that includes global warming."

I say: what sort of an enquiry would it be without global warming on the table?

Further,I say what sort of enquiry would it be without bringing the force of rational enquiry to focus on whether the provenance of the global warming on the table is anthropogenic or non anthropogenic, in other words natural and cyclical.

Eric | 13 February 2009  

Thanks for your input into this debate Paul. I will endeavour to read your book on bushfires. I would like to take up Kim Chem’s comment: ABC TV interviewed the main CSIRO Scientist on fire safety and management recently, and he stated that all the fire modelling up until this fire had been on weather conditions to 45C.
Saturday’s temperature was 47.5-48C. This 2-3 degrees higher temperature will cause a different set of parameters and obviously a more intense firestorm. The debate on survivability by getting into a bunker is also very interesting.

I note that in a recent interview of Paul Collins by Philip Adams he talked about bunkers in the 1939 Bushfires.

Perhaps by reading Paul’s book on the subject and further research as well as the results from the upcoming Royal Commission, will add further enlightenment to this very real debate with some positive outcomes particularly for people rebuilding in these fire ravaged areas.

peter Igoe-Taylor | 13 February 2009  

No one is suggesting that we "lynch the fire-lighters". Every effort should be made to identify arsonists, apprehend them, try them and, where found guilty, incarcerate them, not primarily as punishment but to protect the public. I suspect that bush-fire lighters must be mentally deranged or confused. As such, they need psychiatric assessment and therapy. Such people need to be securely separated from their murderous interest in forests and matches.

Sylvester | 13 February 2009  

Thanks Paul. Valuable comments.
I'd like for the insurance companies to be on the table too, to a) Stay in business, b) Assert effective risk management eg protect life,then property (community assets, utilities, "protectable" homes, etc.) & c) Be required by the subsequent Royal Commission (& Government) to limit their exposure to sites without burnable fuels reduced.

Having worked as a fire manager in 3 states we must use all available tools well. This includes Local, State and Federal government and their $ limited agencies together with business and communities.

Charlie | 14 February 2009  

With the Queen's Birthday Honours coming up in June, I'd like to urge the State government and the people of Victoria to nominate the Country Fire Authority as a body for an Order of Australia to mark the bravery of its members through the firestorms of Black Saturday.

Europeans who have migrated to Australia would recall that the Mediterranean iland of Malta was awarded the George Cross for its people's bravery in withstanding Hitler's onslaught at the height of the Second World War.

Brian Haill | 15 February 2009  

The ferocity of last Saturday's wild fire is beyond dispute. The evidence? The absolutely unprecedented level of death and destruction.

Paul is right... Blaming individuals will not get to the root of the problem. It appears there was a monumental "system failure", and the Royal Commission will hopefully analyse the interplay of ALL of the elements responsible for the conflagration.

Patricia | 15 February 2009  

it sounds completely great

ryan | 30 April 2009  

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