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Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 2007 Week 2 Hansard (8 March) . . Page.. 413..

Bushfires—coronial inquest

MR STEFANIAK (Ginninderra—Leader of the Opposition) (5.12): Tonight I want to talk about several issues. When responding to debate on the Doogan inquiry and coronial inquests generally the government indicated that it was looking at amending the Coroner's Act or determining how it should proceed. In that debate I was concerned to hear suggestions that coronial inquests should just be a rubber stamp, that a no-fault approach should be taken and at the end there should be just recommendations for improvements. So no matter how bad things were, how many stuff-ups there were, how many problems or how many acts or omissions by various individuals, there should be a no-fault approach.

As we are debating the coronial structure it is important to look at the history of coronial inquests in this country to see what has come out of them. Sometimes individuals have been blamed and sometimes systems have been blamed. In the ACT we have a great history of thorough coronial reports. The act has been changed a bit since some of the matters that I will mention tonight were dealt with. For example, through the coronial process we have had committal proceedings against David Harold Eastman, who seems to have exhausted every conceivable appeal avenue available to him and some that no-one ever knew existed. However, a thorough coronial process led to his committal.

In some of the other coronial inquests that affected the ACT government, excellent improvements have been made in various agencies, such as JACS, ACT Health and other government departments. It is disappointing that some of the recommendations that were made by the Doogan inquiry, the latest thorough coronial inquest, will not be accepted by the government, including that major recommendation of great concern to everyone—the recommendation of a stand-alone emergency services authority.

Over the decades the coronary process has been a robust one. If we truncate it and emasculate it we will see some very real problems. New South Wales implemented a rubber-stamp coronial process in relation to its fires. It is painfully obvious to anyone with half a brain that one of the major fires that swept into the ACT—one of the four started by lightning on 8 January 2003—was the McIntyres Hut fire. After listening to people like Wayne West and other people experienced in fighting bushfires who live in the area it is apparent that New South Wales did not take the proper steps. That process was a much emasculated one.

I hope that in any review of the Coroner's Act we ensure that there are relevant mechanisms to improve the system and, if need be, to lay blame. We are dealing with competent judicial officers who oversee coronial inquests. We are dealing—and over the decades we have dealt with—a plethora of learned counsel, counsel assisting and counsel representing various parties. They sift through the minutiae of evidence and ensure that material is placed before the coroner so that the facts can be found. Systems can be changed through recommendations and, if need be, people and organisations can be blamed and structures can be improved.

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