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Chapter 1: Introduction

Terms of reference

1.1 On 20 February 2020, His Excellency General the Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (Retd) issued Letters Patent establishing the Royal Commission and appointing three Commissioners as a Commission of inquiry:

  • Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin AC (Retd) (Chair)
  • The Hon Dr Annabelle Bennett AC SC, and
  • Professor Andrew Macintosh.

1.2 Complementary Letters Patent were issued by each state government.

1.3 The Letters Patent set out terms of reference, which outline the scope of our inquiry.[1] Our central task was to inquire into, and report on, national natural disaster arrangements – that is, arrangements involving all levels of government, the private and not-for-profit sectors, communities, families, and individuals. These arrangements concern all phases of disaster management: mitigation, adaptation, preparedness, response, and recovery.

1.4 The terms of reference were broad and directed us to examine, among other things:

  • the responsibilities of, and coordination between, Australian, state, territory and local governments relating to natural disasters
  • Australia’s arrangements for improving resilience and adapting to changing climatic conditions
  • what actions should be taken to mitigate the impacts of natural disasters, and
  • whether changes are needed to Australia’s legal framework for the involvement of the Commonwealth in responding to national emergencies.

1.5 We were directed to make any recommendations that we consider appropriate, including recommendations about any policy, legislative, administrative or structural reforms.

1.6 Our terms of reference suggested to us that our inquiry should not be conducted in an adversarial manner, or with a view to apportioning blame for any particular shortcomings in the response to the recent bushfires. Accordingly, we focused on identifying improvements to our national arrangements, to make Australia more resilient to natural disasters. Our approach has been aptly described as ‘appreciative’, [2] and we sought to gather the best and most useful information available from those with the requisite expertise and insights.

1.7 While many inquiries have examined particular disasters or emergency management arrangements within one state, this is the first Royal Commission to focus on natural disasters from a national perspective, and in particular, national natural disaster coordination and accountability arrangements.

Timeframe

1.8 Our Letters Patent originally set a reporting deadline of 31 August 2020, but this was later extended to 28 October 2020. The extended reporting date recognised the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, as a result of which many interested parties prioritised their response to the global health emergency.

1.9 Our timeframe has been short, illustrating the urgency of the need to identify improvements to Australia’s natural disaster arrangements. Our timeframe and public health measures have influenced how we have conducted our inquiry.

1.10 We sought to engage quickly but comprehensively, to inform our work. We adopted innovative approaches to reach the broad range of individuals and communities interested in our work, and, as our terms of reference required, have focused on what could be done better.

The Bushfire History Project

1.11 We launched the 2019-20 Bushfire History Project to encourage people to record their personal experience of the 2019‑2020 bushfires, and to share their photos and videos from the bushfires and the ongoing recovery, so that these stories are not forgotten.

1.12 These are available on the Royal Commission’s website, and a selection have been made available to the National Museum. A number of the photos that appear in this report were contributed to the 2019-20 Bushfire History Project. See Appendix 13: Bushfire History Project for further details.

Engagement

1.13 In March 2020, we travelled across Australia to hear the stories of people affected by the 2019‑2020 bushfires, from the organisations that responded during and immediately after the fires, and to observe firsthand the effects of the fires on properties and the environment. We visited communities in SA, Victoria, NSW, Queensland, the NT and WA; other visits, including to Tasmania, were planned, but could not proceed due to COVID‑19 public health measures.

1.14 In April, we visited fire grounds throughout the Canberra, the south coast and Southern Highland regions, accompanied by representatives of emergency agencies and public land managers. Counsel Assisting the Commission visited communities in NSW and Victoria to take evidence and hear the stories of people affected by the bushfires. These visits provided the opportunity for us to engage directly with affected communities and hear about the challenges they faced. A full list of the communities we visited and our other public engagement measures is at Appendix 3: Public Engagement.

Members of the South Australian Country Fire Service illustrating the bushfire progression on Kangaroo Island for Commissioners, March 2020

Figure 1: Members of the South Australian Country Fire Service illustrating the bushfire progression on Kangaroo Island for Commissioners, March 2020 [3]

1.15 To inform various lines of inquiry, we held a series of informal forums, seeking views on a number of topics, including aerial firefighting, health, Constitutional law, charities and insurance. We appreciate that not all experts were able to be consulted through these forums and thank those who were able to participate.

1.16 On 2 March 2020, we called for public submissions to assist us in our inquiry. We used the local and regional radio and print media in all areas affected by the 2019‑2020 bushfires to call attention to our inquiry. We accepted submissions orally by telephone and in writing, from any individual or organisation, and we sought to ensure that anyone affected by the recent fires (some of whom may have had limited access to the internet) had an opportunity to contribute.

1.17 We received 1,772 submissions, many of which provided invaluable insights into the lived experience of Australians directly affected by the bushfires, and others that shared the knowledge and expertise of individuals and organisations who work to protect Australia from natural disasters. Each submission was reviewed and summarised. The insights they contain have been invaluable contributions to our work.

1.18 We also sent notices seeking information from a variety of people, government agencies and other organisations. [4] In all, 3,317 documents, totalling 78,270 pages, were tendered in evidence.

Hearings

1.19 The conduct of our hearings was shaped by our terms of reference, but also the evolving pandemic and public health measures. We adopted an innovative hearing model with a view to ensuring that we were able to hear from relevant witnesses. Our electronic hearing model allowed witnesses to give evidence remotely, while ensuring that all Commission proceedings were broadcast and accessible to the public. The evidence of some individuals directly affected by natural disasters was pre‑recorded, providing a trauma-informed means for those community members to share, and often visually illustrate, their experience.

1.20 All witnesses were offered support and assistance, including support from professional counsellors. We were particularly mindful of the need to ensure that people directly affected by the bushfires were not unnecessarily distressed by recounting their stories.

1.21 Over the course of our hearings, conducted over 35 days between May and September 2020, there were 301 witness appearances. Witnesses included:

  • individuals directly affected by the 2019‑2020 bushfires
  • current and former representatives of state and territory fire and emergency management agencies
  • experts in a broad range of fields – for example, climate science, fire prediction, and the health impacts of bushfire smoke
  • representatives of state and territory national parks and wildlife services
  • representatives of charities, industry peak bodies, and consumer groups, and
  • senior officials from the Australian, state, territory and local governments.

1.22 A complete list of witnesses appears at Appendix 10: Witnesses. Transcripts of hearings are published on our website.

1.23 Much of our inquiry concerned governmental arrangements. The Australian, state and territory governments were each granted leave to appear throughout our hearings, to ensure that they had every opportunity to present their views.

Other inquiries

1.24 A number of reports of state and territory operational inquiries into the recent bushfires and other hazard events were released in 2020. Many agencies also conducted internal ‘after-action’ reviews of their own emergency response.

1.25 There have also been over 240 formal inquiries and reviews in Australia in relation to natural disasters since 1927. Collectively, these reports have made thousands of recommendations and findings. [5]

1.26 In conducting our inquiry, we considered the valuable work of other inquiries, while seeking not to duplicate their efforts. In this report, where the evidence before us has suggested the need for a particular reform, we have often sought to highlight similar recommendations made by other inquiries.

1.27 We also acknowledge the work of other current Royal Commissions that may consider, among other things, emergency arrangements as they relate to the aged care sector and people with disability.

1.28 The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability published an issues paper about emergency planning and response, which invited comment on the difficulties people with disability and their families and carers may have experienced during the 2019‑2020 bushfires and other emergencies. It also conducted hearings in August 2020 about the experiences of people with disability during the COVID-19 pandemic. That Royal Commission is due to report in April 2022.

1.29 The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety has heard about how the aged care sector prepares for crises, and has published a special report, ‘Aged care and COVID-19’. Given the particular focus of the Aged Care Royal Commission, and the matters canvassed in its terms of reference, we referred the evidence we received relating to the evacuation of aged care facilities to that inquiry. That Royal Commission is due to report in February 2021.

Royal Commission papers

1.30 We published issues papers and background papers on a number of topics, including health arrangements in natural disasters; firefighting and emergency services personnel and equipment; and the Constitutional framework for the declaration of a state of national emergency. These papers are listed in appendices 5 and 6, and are available on our website. We received over 170 responses to these issues papers.

1.31 On 31 August 2020, we published our Interim Observations to guide those interested in our work and to address some of the more pressing issues before us. As we commenced the final stages of our inquiry, Counsel Assisting the Commission also prepared draft propositions, which were published on 4 September 2020, and on which comment and submissions were accepted until 17 September 2020. These propositions played an important role in testing issues before the Royal Commission. We thank Counsel Assisting for their efforts, not only in this regard, but also for their diligent support and unwavering commitment throughout our inquiry.

1.32 State and territory governments and others were given an opportunity to respond to and comment on each proposition. Each government was also invited to propose additional evidence related to the propositions, and to make written and oral submissions about any of the responses, propositions and our Interim Observations. We were greatly assisted by the constructive and considered views we received.

1.33 The response to our Interim Observations and Counsel’s draft propositions was overwhelmingly positive. Many of these observations and propositions are reflected to some degree in this report. However, our Interim Observations and Counsel’s draft propositions did not reflect our concluded views. We have since received further evidence, including in hearings and in written responses to the draft propositions, and we have given further consideration to all the evidence and submissions. Our concluded views are reflected in this final report.

The Office of the Royal Commission

1.34 We cannot present this report without acknowledging the excellent work of the Office of the Royal Commission and, in particular, Ms Anna Harmer, our Official Secretary. We were exceptionally well assisted by a team of policy, enabling services and community engagement officers, and supported by Solicitors Assisting from King & Wood Mallesons. We could not have conducted our inquiry without them. Their outstanding commitment and professionalism was evident throughout the Royal Commission. Our team is listed at Appendix 2: Commission Team. We extend our unreserved thanks for the level of assistance we received.

Our report

1.35 Our recommendations are clearly identified throughout this report, and are listed separately at the front of the first volume. Our observations are presented in green bold text and offer key insights. The report features an overview, and each chapter begins with a summary. However, to properly understand our recommendations and observations, they should be read in the context of the chapter in which they appear.

1.36 We understand that some readers may be particularly interested in only parts of the report, so we have attempted to make the chapters, at least to some extent, stand alone.

1.37 Supporting evidence has been cited largely by way of example. Given the quantity of evidence before us, we have not comprehensively cited all relevant evidence. The material cited in this report represents a fraction of the evidence and submissions we have carefully considered in forming our views.

1.38 Similarly, where we have made specific reference to a particular jurisdiction (for example, a particular state, territory or local government), in many cases, the jurisdiction is referenced by way of example, and the comment may well apply to other jurisdictions.

1.39 We also synthesised a range of material where we found it helpful to do so. These syntheses appear in the Appendices to our report where they may also be helpful to others.

1.40 A number of times we record that ‘we heard from’ a particular person or organisation, and by this we mean we either heard from them in a hearing, or received from them a submission or other written material in response to a notice.

1.41 Some chapters of this report particularly relate to one part of our terms of reference. For example, Chapter 5: Declaration of national emergency particularly relates to paragraph (c); Chapter 17: Public and private land management to paragraph (f)(i); Chapter 16: Wildlife and heritage to paragraph (f)(ii); Chapter 11: Emergency planning to paragraph f(iii); Chapter 18: Indigenous land and fire management to paragraph (g).

1.42 However, these and most other chapters of the report relate to paragraphs (a) and (b) of our terms of reference, which are framed broadly, and concern, among other matters, the nation’s arrangements relating to ‘preparedness for, response to, resilience to, and recovery from, natural disasters’ and actions that should be taken to ‘mitigate the impacts of natural disasters’.

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