Aither Senior Associate Emeritus Professor Stephen Dovers and Doctor Michael Eburn have released an article on the role of inquiries to respond to Australia’s recent and ongoing bushfire disaster. They reflect on what approach can best enhance our future capabilities while supporting those affected by the disaster.
The article draws on their work reviewing post-fire litigation and inquiries across Australia, including their 2018 work with Aither to investigate post-event reviews between 2009 and 2017.
The article presents several recommendations as to what a post-event inquiry into these bushfires should – and should not – involve, including:
- Multiple inquiries should be avoided. An overarching inquiry panel could assess multiple issues collaboratively at a state and federal level, while reducing demands on the people and responders affected by the disasters.
- An independent review is preferable to a parliamentary inquiry. An independent process supports the capacity and objectivity needed to undertake a meaningful review.
- A legal-led approach is not appropriate. Quasi-judicial inquiries do not suit hearing experiences and distilling lessons.
- Specialist panels could be established. Panels including science, governance and operations could focus specialist knowledge and expertise effectively.
- A focus on stories, not just evidence, is critical. This enables a restorative process and multiple experiences, rather than a formal process in pursuit of a single experiential ‘truth.
The article is a timely reminder of the importance of looking to past inquiries and reviews to learn and improve over time, and suggests how Australia might respond to the 2019-20 bushfires.
Emeritus Professor Stephen Dovers and Doctor Michael Eburn are with the Australian National University and associated with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (BNHCRC). They have collaborated with Aither on a range of emergency management and natural hazard work.