Australia Launches National Inquiry Into Devastating Bushfires

February 21, 2020 Updated: February 21, 2020
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Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday announced a detailed national inquiry into the recent devastating bushfires that killed 33 and scorched more than 10.3 million hectares (103,000 sq km) of land—about the size of South Korea.

Australia has, for months, been battling hundreds of blazes that began in September 2019—an unusually prolonged summer bushfire season exacerbated by three years of drought. The episode has been dubbed the “Black Summer bushfires.”

Morrison said a six-month national Royal Commission would investigate preparedness for future bushfires and the need for any changes to the law to clarify who is responsible for overseeing emergency authorities.

Scott Morrison Australia
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during House of Representatives Question Time at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, on Feb. 12, 2020. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas via Reuters)

In January, the prime minister ordered the deployment of some 6,500 military reservists to support state authorities. Managing bushfires is typically the responsibility of state governments and fire services.

Morrison said in a statement that the call of the 6,500 reservists was the “first-ever compulsory call out of Reservists” that had been initiated “without clear rules,” and thereby created a “constitutional grey zone.”

“I believe Australians are wanting us to look at ways we can work together to give Australians greater assurances at a national level that these important tasks are getting done,” Morrison said.

The prime minister added that the Royal Commission inquiry “acknowledges climate change, the broader impact of our summers getting longer, drier and hotter and is focussed on practical action that has a direct link to making Australians safer.”

“That’s why we need to look at what actions should be taken to enhance our preparedness, resilience, and recovery through the actions of all levels of government and the community, for the environment we are living in,” he said.

Morrison said he hopes the Royal Commission can report back by Aug. 31 to enable recommendations to be acted upon before the next bushfire season.

The Royal Commission will be headed by former Australian Defence Force (ADF) chief Mark Binskin. He will be joined by two others, former Federal Court judge Annabelle Bennett and a specialist in climate risk and impact management, Andrew Macintosh.

According to the announcement, the federal inquiry won’t duplicate the work of other inquiries but will work with other state inquiries and also review previous inquiries’ recommendations. According to a release, the latest Royal Commission seeks to focus on three areas:

  • Improving natural disaster management coordination across all levels of government;
  • Improving Australia’s preparedness, resilience, and response to natural disasters, across all levels of government;
  • The legal framework for the Commonwealth’s involvement in responding to national emergencies and how that works with state and territory legal frameworks.

Part of the inquiry will also look into traditional land management techniques used by Indigenous Australians, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported.

The federal inquiry comes as an independent inquiry in New South Wales state announced by Premier Gladys Berejiklian in January kicked off in earnest, reported AAP. The inquiry is expected to last six months. Submissions for the NSW Independent Bushfire Inquiry are now open until March 27, but the deadline can be extended for those who were directly impacted by the bushfires.

In the aftermath of the bushfires, the Australian government committed A$2 billion over the next two years to a bushfire recovery fund to support local governments, farmers and primary producers, and deliver mental health support to first responders.

“This is in addition to over $100 million already provided in emergency payments for impacted individuals and families and payments for volunteer firefighters,” Morrison said of the A$2 billion commitment. “It’s a long road ahead, and we will be with these communities every step of the way as they rebuild.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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