Bushfires present significant challenges for emergency-management policymakers and practitioners. All too often in recent times we have seen how bushfire has given rise to damages and losses, so significant that governments have established public inquiries to scrutinise what happened and why. Unfortunately, such processes have resulted in emergency-management practitioners and policymakers being blamed in a way that is not always fair.
With the general consensus being that bushfire seasons are starting earlier and lasting longer, coupled with a scepticism that public inquiries generally and royal commissions specifically have accrued recommendations that have not been implemented, it is important to ask the question: is there a way that we can learn to learn better from bushfires? This is important particularly when experts such as Associate Professor Kevin Tolhurst have cautioned that: ‘The propensity for inquiries has had the perverse effect of making bushfire management less effective and efficient than it should be’.
While royal commissions are the most authoritative form of public inquiry, which can be appointed by federal or state governments to review, examine and/or investigate matters, it remains unclear why they are chosen as a mechanism for reviewing significant bushfires. Research by renowned Professor of Sociology Barry Turner in 1976 found that significant public inquiries such as royal commissions ‘create a discrepancy between the way the world is thought to operate and the way it really does’ after a crisis or disaster has occurred. Subsequent studies have repeatedly found that public inquiry findings will be more plausible than they are accurate and that their recommendations into bushfire events create significant equivocality for emergency management organisations. Studies have even found that royal commissions hindered the lessons learned process by blaming emergency-management practitioners for events that were often beyond their control.
We need to remember that emergency-management practitioners carry significant post-traumatic stress from decades of responding to a range of different bushfire events. With this in mind, it is timely to begin the process of examining the normative judgements and the authorial strategies of omission by commissioners, which they use to re-construct what happened and why to arrive at their reports of findings and recommendations. This is all the more important when counsel assisting the 2009 Bushfires Royal Commission admitted to ABC journalist Jane Cowan that the final report omitted important evidence from the inquiry and could have been more significant and thorough.
With the growing body of research and evidence that questions the value of conducting exhausting and expensive royal commissions after significant bushfires it is important to now ask the question: in what way should we learn in the future? It is as if bushfire royal commissions have created a learning vacuum insofar as the same recommendations seem to repeat themselves and are not necessarily always implemented. This has given rise to considerable inertia, whereby public inquiries after significant bushfires are offering little by way of new insights into practice, while placing considerable demands and unnecessary scrutiny on emergency-management practitioners, whose energies would be better focussed on planning for future bushfires in a way that leverages their collective insight from having lived through the event in the first place.
Accordingly, a more agile public review process is required that moves away from constructed versions of what happened and towards the actual occurrences before, during and after bushfire events, which offer pathways towards transformative learning beyond blame.
There is then considerable scope for developing a shared approach to learning from the past, in present moments, with a focus on the future. The good news is that there is beginning to be some recognition of this, at least by the Victorian government. For example, Premier Daniel Andrews has recently commented: ‘I think we’ve learnt many things along the last 10 years, and one of the them is to have a standing review mechanism so that you’re constantly learning and improving every time one of these terrible incidents happen’.
Bushfire events (like the recent crises surrounding COVID-19) serve to remind us that we all need to be responsible for learning as we continue to live with risk in the present and the future. Blaming emergency-management practitioners through public inquiry processes emotionally affects them in a negative way while also keeping us fixated on the past and blinded to learning opportunities for the future for which we all must accept responsibility.
Time inevitably dims our memory in relation to bushfire events. Therefore it is important that we learn to learn from bushfire. The words of Mrs Vicki Ruhr at the 2009 Bushfires Royal Commission who lost so much on Black Saturday remind us why learning is so important:
‘I hear my friend, Suzanne Hyde, who perished in the fires. I hear her voice and I hear her screams—often. I worry about my husband and my children. I miss my community, my home, my garden and my farm animals.’