A decision by the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office — on behalf of CFA — to initially withhold documents from a parliamentary inquiry has proven a poor one. Now the CFA faces not just the tragedy of Fiskville, but also a parliamentary committee that say it can’t be trusted.
The state parliamentary committee charged with inquiring into whether the Victorian Country Fire Authority covered up its knowledge of dangerous chemical exposure at its training facility at Fiskville has slammed the CFA for failing to provide requested documents going back over 40 years.
Since issuing the summons over two months ago, the committee has been provided with the minutes of just 100 out of a total of 739 CFA board meetings — that is, 13.5% of what was requested.
The CFA claims it has provided all documents requested by the inquiry to the Victorian Government Solicitors Office, which made the decision to withhold the majority of them.
This includes minutes from 1987, during which time the committee believes requests for information regarding chemicals used at Fiskville were made to the board. None of the minutes from the 22 meetings held that year have been provided.
There are concerns about how toxic chemicals used in firefighting training at Fiskville training centre have affected people who have worked and trained at the site over the past 40 years, including claims of a high number of cancers.
The facility was only closed earlier this year. In the committee’s June interim report, it noted that evidence received in the first half of 2015 suggested:
“… significant criticism and mistrust about the role of CFA management especially from the late 1980s to the present, and views [were] expressed that the CFA were more concerned with protecting its own reputation.”
The CFA’s failure to co-operate had led the committee to take the step of deciding to release a special report, released Thursday, detailing the problems it was experiencing in uncovering the truth of the matter. Committee chair Bronwyn Halfpenny said:
“The committee has been forced to table this report due to documents not being produced under the terms of a summons relating to CFA board papers.”
The report argues there are “substantial issues” with the documents produced, as well as the manner in which they were handed over, including:
- Slow production of documents;
- Ad hoc production of documents;
- The use of a filtering system for determining information to be produced;
- Duplication of documents;
- Claims that existing documents no longer exist; and
- Extensive redaction of material due to potential claims of executive privilege.
In her foreword to the report, Halfpenny paid tribute to the work of the men and women who make up the CFA and their important role in protecting the community from fire, emergencies and disaster:
“For these reasons it is disheartening for this committee to have to table this special report. Decision makers within the CFA have done a disservice to the CFA legacy and CFA firefighters twice over. First the tragedy of Fiskville itself and now the refusal to provide vital information to this inquiry. “The committee has made extensive efforts to undertake this inquiry in a cooperative manner and to be reasonable in its requests for documents that can help us find out what occurred at Fiskville.”
The report also describes the committee’s problems dealing with the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office, which is representing the CFA in this matter. Although the VGSO initially stated that minutes of meetings not originally given to the committee were irrelevant to the inquiry, when these documents were eventually handed over after continued requests by the committee, they were found to have relevance.
In addition, initial CFA claims that board minutes from before 1996 were unavailable were later retracted following further inquiries by the committee. The committee stated it is “concerned” by this claim, noting that it may not have been retracted without further requests for information and that the CFA should have been aware of their existence, given that another report on Fiskville, chaired by Professor Robert Joy, had accessed these documents in 2012.
The committee also criticised sometimes extensive redactions made to documents surrendered, which the VGSO claims were made due to potential executive privilege:
“It is apparent that the delay in the production of documents by the CFA relates to an understanding of executive privilege which differs from the committee’s position which is well established within the parliament.”
In concluding, the committee report argued that it believes the CFA has failed to produce documents relevant to the inquiry:
“The committee is not satisfied with the VGSO’s assurance that there was no discussion of matters relevant to the inquiry recorded in CFA board minutes and would prefer that it be provided with the minutes for every board meeting so that an independent assessment may be carried out. This is the committee’s view of what the terms of reference require.”
CFA’s newly appointed CEO Lucinda Nolan responded:
“CFA has provided all documents requested by the inquiry to the Victorian Government Solicitors Office.
“The VGSO has determined many of the documents may be subject to a claim of ‘executive privilege’ by the government while others were not relevant to the terms of reference.
“It is a matter for the government to determine whether those documents can be provided to the inquiry.”