Bushfire Royal Commission, six months on

The scene confronting firefighters in Talbingo on the night of January 4, 2020.

Six months since the Bushfire Royal Commission handed down its findings, the federal government says it is “methodically implementing” the recommendations.

Eighty recommendations were made by the Commission, handed down on October 30 last year, split between the federal and state governments, joint recommendations, and industry. 

The federal government says it has already begun implementing the recommendations, with the establishment of the National Emergency Declaration Act, faster and more efficient Australian Defence Force deployment, and the development of a charity coordination mechanism.

Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud said that the devastating Black Summer bushfires and the Royal Commission’s findings “must transform the way we prepare for, respond to, and recover from natural disasters.”

“There have been over 240 reports into natural disasters since 1920 and this one can’t go on the shelf and gather dust,” he said.

“The Federal Government responded to all of the recommendations within weeks, and committed to boosting our federal emergency management capabilities, driving risk reduction and mitigation initiatives, and improving how people experience the recovery journey.

“We are six months down the track and on track to deliver what we promised.”

Minister Littleproud said that in February, he published an online monthly implementation tracker and “called on all levels of government, not for profits and the private sector, to be transparent about our collective progress.”

According to this tracker, the federal government has completed four recommendations, three are ongoing, and eight have yet to be started – but timelines are in place.

On Monday the Minister thanked the New South Wales and Tasmanian state governments for supporting the recommendations, but argued that “other state and territory governments have failed to do the same.”

According to the tracker, no joint recommendations have been completed yet. Three have been started, and 39 have not been started – 17 of these have timelines developed, however.

As for the state-specific recommendations, only one recommendation has been partially implemented. 21 are left to be addressed, with timelines developed for two of those recommendations.

There is one recommendation for industry, revolving around guidance for insurer recognised retrofitting and mitigation, that is yet to be addressed.

Mr Littleproud said he “wrote to the Insurance Council of Australia asking how they will improve their consumer guidance on getting a fair premium through recognised risk mitigation actions, but I have had no response from them.”

“We have a responsibility to work together on this and not lose our focus on a better prepared and more resilient Australia,” the Minister continued.

When the government first responded to the Bushfire Royal Commission, it said that a national sovereign aerial firefighting fleet would not be established, despite a recommendation suggesting that it should be.

Instead, the federal government said it would continue to support the existing state and territory aerial firefighting fleets. Minister Littleproud later said that the government would support a sovereign fleet, “but we want the fire commissioners to tell us.”

“Our fire chiefs and aviation industry do an excellent job of maintaining the national aerial firefighting fleet, and I am consulting them to understand what more is needed to manage longer, overlapping fire seasons,” Minister Littleproud said on Monday, in reference to the issue.

Member for Eden-Monaro Kristy McBain welcomed news this week that a new disaster resilience agency will be established in line with the Commission’s recommendations, saying it is “something that I and many in our community have been advocating for.”

“We can only hope it delivers for our community where the Morrison Government has failed to,” she added.

Ms McBain also said that next week’s Federal Budget marks the two-year anniversary of the Prime Minister announcing the $4 billion Emergency Response Fund.

“But since the announcement was made, not a single fire break or flood levee has been funded,” she said.

“The fund has earned more in interest, some $400 million dollars, than it has spent protecting Australians from natural disasters.

“Next week’s Budget must deliver on the 80 recommendations of the Royal Commission and for the communities of the Snowy Valleys; it’s a critical step in our renewal and recovery from the trauma of our Black Summer.”

Speaking about the separate NSW Bushfire Inquiry, Member for Wagga Wagga Dr Joe McGirr said that he understood work had begun on all 76 recommendations, and the state government had allocated $192 million over five years to address these, which includes “equipment for firefighting, fire trails, training, communication and emergency operations centres.”

“There are other key issues that must be addressed: local preparation for bushfires with senior staff from all services working together to make sure communities are ready; working with farmers and landowners; proper care of neighbouring property by government agencies to prevent fire; appropriate clearing and rebuilding,” Dr McGirr continued.

“The devastation caused by the Black Summer bushfires was immense. It will take, in some instances, decades for communities to recover and rebuild.

“My office still regularly receives requests for assistance from residents of the Snowy Valleys on a variety of bushfire-related issues.

“I will continue to press for assistance for the community as it rebuilds and hold the government to account on the promises it made in response to the bushfire inquiry’s recommendations.”

The monthly tracking document marking the progress of the Royal Commission’s recommendations can be viewed on the Department of Home Affairs website.

Bushfire Royal Commission

Known formally as the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, the Bushfire Royal Commission was launched in reaction to the devastating Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20.

The report handed down by the Commission last October contains 24 chapters and is hundreds of pages in length, outlining 80 recommendations for the federal and state governments, as well as industry.

It includes extensive research based on over 1,750 public submissions and 35 days of public hearings, which saw more than 270 witnesses come forward and share their knowledge, expertise or first-hand experience.

The Black Summer bushfire season took place in Australia’s hottest and driest year on record and saw over 24 million hectares burnt across the country. 33 people tragically lost their lives and the extensive smoke coverage over much of eastern Australia may have caused more deaths. 

Over 3,000 homes were destroyed, and the estimated national financial impacts are over $10 billion. It is also estimated that nearly three billion animals were killed or displaced due to the fires.

In the Snowy Valleys, 44.9 per cent of the total council area was burnt during the bushfires.

The Dunns Road fire burnt around 330,000 hectares before it was officially put out in mid-February 2020, destroying over 180 homes and killing thousands of livestock in the process.