Devastating Bushfire Toll: Royal Commission to be called
Written by Professor David Flint AM   
Wednesday, 11 February 2009

The Premier of Victoria, Mr. John Brumby, has announced a Royal Commission will be held into the bushfires which have so devastated the State.  He told the ABC  “We want to put in place whatever arrangements are necessary to ensure nothing like this ever happens again in our state.''

A Royal Commissioner has considerable powers, but must act within the "Terms of Reference" of the Commission. The Commission will be established by the Governor on the advice of the Victorian Government.

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Royal Commissioners are considered to be non-political and independent, and this is reinforced by their appointment by the Crown acting on advice. It sometimes occurs that the findings of a Royal Commission do not reflect well on the government which decided to appoint it.


Royal Commissions are called to look into matters of great importance. They are usually chaired by a judge, former judge, Queen's Counsel or a senior lawyer.  ( As part of creeping republicanism, in some jurisdictions, QC's are no longer appointed. In its place the local bar association has created the rank of Senior Counsel.)

 Some Chief Justices take the view that since  a Royal Commission is an administrative body, judges should not take part.  They adopt a strict intepretation of the separation of powers doctrine.

The Premier also said "There is clear evidence now that the climate is becoming more extreme. Those people that doubted it... we have had temperatures of 48 degrees.''

He had earlier said that Victoria may need to review its bushfire policy of "stay and defend or leave early" in light of the appalling death toll.

The head of CSIRO's bushfires research unit, Phil Cheney, told The Australian on 10 February  the Royal Commission should look at fuel reduction policies.  He said that while temperatures rising several degrees might increase the fire danger by one or 2 per cent, doubling the fuel load doubled the threat.

 
"It's very difficult to protect a home and life in tall forest," Mr Cheney said. "If fuel reduction was carried out around homes and in adjacent forests there was an excellent chance of people staying and protecting themselves and their homes."

He said fuel reduction practices had changed dramatically in the past 20 to 30 years.