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Victoria announces inquiry into bushfire crisis as Morrison flags royal commission

The Guardian logo The Guardian 14/01/2020 Paul Karp

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The Victorian government has announced a two-year inquiry into the bushfire crisis, ahead of the mooted federal royal commission which has met resistance from some states.

On Tuesday the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, announced the inspector-general of emergency management, Tony Pearce, will receive $2.55m for extra staff to review recent bushfires in the state, including in the Gippsland region and the dramatic evacuation of Mallacoota.

smoke coming out of it: Photograph: Xinhua/Barcroft Media © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Xinhua/Barcroft Media

The inquiry will report by mid 2020 on preparedness and firefighting efforts – ahead of the next fire season – with a second report on relief and recovery due in 2021.

The intervention comes as Melbourne suffers from very poor to hazardous smoke conditions – at one point overnight reaching the worst air quality in the world.

On Sunday Scott Morrison said that a national inquiry – most likely a royal commission – would be “necessary” to examine the bushfires and he intended to take a proposal to cabinet for endorsement in coming weeks.

The inquiry would need to be agreed to by the states and should cover the “full gambit” of issues, including the operational response, the role of the federal government and climate change, he said.

The Western Australian government has dissented from the call for a royal commission.

a group of people standing on top of a wooden ramp: Brian and Elizabeth Blakeman inspect the bushfire damage to their property in Wairewa, East Gippsland, Victoria. Photograph: Chris Hopkins/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Brian and Elizabeth Blakeman inspect the bushfire damage to their property in Wairewa, East Gippsland, Victoria. Photograph: Chris Hopkins/Getty Images

On Monday the WA emergency services minister Francis Logan said: “I would prefer – given the royal commissions that are under way at the moment and it takes a huge amount of time in doing royal commissions … I’d prefer personally to see a thorough investigation, not necessarily a royal commission into it.”

The New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has already announced that state will hold a separate inquiry.

Andrews told reporters in Melbourne that Morrison was “still working through the type of inquiry he prefers” and a proposal was yet to go to cabinet.

“It is unclear to me – and that’s not a criticism it just isn’t settled yet – whether this would be an inquiry into how the national effort can be as best coordinated as possible or whether it is an inquiry into the event more broadly,” he said.

Andrews said he had told Morrison about Victoria’s plans and Morrison had given a commitment to consult on the terms and scope of a national inquiry.

Andrews praised Pearce, who he said had the “experience, the understanding and the status in our emergency services system” to conduct the Victorian state inquiry.

Bernard Teague, a retired Victorian supreme court judge who conducted the Black Saturday royal commission, said a national royal commission would be ideal if the federal and state governments could agree about the terms of reference and who would conduct it.

Australia’s bushfire catastrophe in photos (The Atlantic)

“If that’s not possible … then it may be scaled down to have appropriate inquiries in the relevant jurisdictions,” he told Radio National.

Teague said the hurdles to setting up a royal commission in the right way were “substantial” and it was therefore “not particularly likely”.

Teague said it is clear climate change has a major impact on bushfires but an inquiry could consider “taking more appropriate action into the future” to combat it.

The business community will meet in Canberra on Tuesday and is expected to push for the extension of recovery grants to those directly affected by bushfires in Victoria as well as government support for “exceptional circumstances” faced by businesses indirectly affected by the national crisis, to be paid for from a $2bn federal recovery fund.

The Victorian emergency services minister, Lisa Neville, announced further measures to assist in the cleanup in the state, where 353 residential properties have been damaged by the fires, including the suspension of the landfill levy.

MSN UK is committed to Empowering the Planet and taking urgent action to protect our environment against the climate crisis. We’re supporting those on the front line tackling the Australian bushfire crisis. Find out more about our campaign here.

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