Page 2703 - Week 09 - Tuesday, 16 August 2005

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If only the Chief Minister kept his word. The Chief Minister should have ensured that no stone was left unturned to analyse, and to take the lessons from, the emergency that we had, putting the community that elected this government ahead of the Chief Minister’s own self-preservation. Instead, the Chief Minister put his promise not to pre-empt the outcomes of the coronial inquest on the backburner and did so on the basis of a very premature hypothesis of perceived bias by the coroner, using around $1.8 million in taxpayers’ money to fund a legal challenge to have the coroner disqualified. We need to find the truth of what emergency systems failed in January 2003 and why they failed. But the kind of self-preservationist behaviour displayed recently by the Chief Minister and Attorney highlights an obvious lack of a commitment to community representation by this government, thus creating a huge doubt in the minds of the community as to who the Chief Minister represents—himself or the community at large and the victims of the 2003 bushfire disaster. On 6 March 2003, the Chief Minister was recorded in Hansard as saying:

I do not believe we will be in a position to implement the recommendations of the coronial inquest before the bushfire season 2005. I think that is unacceptable. It is unacceptable to the people of the ACT that they should have to wait over two years for answers to some of the fundamental questions that have to be answered in relation to this disaster.

This is another misleading by the Chief Minister. Previously he gave the community confidence in that he thought it was unacceptable that they would have to wait more than two years for the outcomes of the inquiry, but then he contributed to, and was the driving force behind, the inquiry’s delay. As I said in this place, and in three press releases back in 2003 after the 2003 bushfire, after any major disaster it is axiomatic that a community carry out a broad and deep inquiry. Politics should have been the least of our concerns.

All political parties in the ACT would clearly share the criticisms coming out of an effective inquiry going back over many years, which is what the coronial inquiry should do. This is not a matter of politics and self-preservation. It is a matter of all of us here working together to make sure that we get to the bottom of this problem, for the good of the safety of the community. The Chief Minister’s actions in driving the disqualification of the coroner go against that promise. On 2CN radio on 4 February 2003, just 16 days after 500 homes and four lives were lost, the Chief Minister said about the inquiry that was going to be established:

It’ll be open, it’ll be public, it’ll be conducted freely and frankly and fearlessly. This government has no desire to hide anything. I don’t want to have anything hidden.

Via the coronial inquiry, in the quest for free, frank, and fearless discussion, the Chief Minister must allow both the Assembly and the community to have answers to questions such as why were the fires of 8, 9 and 10 January 2003 not extinguished, or contained, before they spread to disastrous extremes? Why did the government not issue any substantial warning to the public in the three days leading up to 18 January 2003? Why was the worst-case scenario planning, alerting the vulnerable suburbs, not undertaken? Why was the gravity of the fire and weather intelligence on 16 and 17 January 2003, indicating a potential suburban disaster, not utilised to sharpen the warning and alert system of the ACT community?

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