Page 150 - Week 01 - Wednesday, 8 December 2004

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Mr Quinlan, you got it right at the time.

DR FOSKEY (Molonglo) (12.05): I would like to speak to Mr Stefaniak’s motion. The Greens have a range of competing concerns about this matter. The coroner’s inquiry to this point has taken evidence from a vast array of people and cost the taxpayers millions of dollars, and the public interest in achieving an outcome is enormous.

We will soon be in bushfire season again and it is vital that this season be managed, as far as possible, in a way that will ensure that we do not have a recurrence of the events of summer 2003. The public also has a right and a need to know those factors that contributed to the devastation of south-western Canberra. They need to be confident that the lessons arising from the bushfires have been learnt and that all the necessary steps are being taken to ensure the safety of Canberra residents and homes for the future.

They rightly fear that, if a thorough assessment of the past actions is not undertaken, the lessons of the past may not, in fact, lead to substantive changes in behaviour by the significant players. It is also of vital importance that the decision makers in the lead-up to the fires are held accountable for their actions, not by way of a witch-hunt, but simply as a mechanism for understanding how decisions may need to be different in the future and for determining who should take responsibility for which aspects. There does, of course, also need to be an examination of whether any past poor or negligent performance by a key player or players contributed significantly to the situation that occurred.

Mr Speaker, it is particularly inappropriate for a majority government to hide behind its numbers in the Assembly to prevent proper scrutiny of the events leading to the largest disaster ever faced by Canberra people. It is also inappropriate for it to be party to legal proceedings designed to thwart the public’s right to proper consideration of all the issues. If, however, the perception of bias claimed by the appellants and the government in this case leads in the end to recommendations coloured by actual bias on the part of the coroner, the public interest will not necessarily have been served by allowing the coroner to continue in her duties.

There is no value to be placed on the development of recommendations that spring from a mind made up long before the evidence has been heard and considered. In such a circumstance, it may be better to call a halt to proceedings before further moneys are expended on the development of unsound recommendations. However, there are other possibilities open to the government.

Section 55 of the Coroners Act 1997 requires the coroner to give a person about whom he or she has made adverse comment in a report or finding the opportunity to respond prior to release. It would be open at that time for the government either to respond and request that its response be included in the report or to take action directed to the perceived bias to prevent the release of the report.

The advantage of that course of action would be that the government and the other appellants, on sighting the report, might determine that they were needlessly worried about bias and be comfortable that the report should be made public. Alternatively, they might decide that their concerns could be adequately addressed by providing a response

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