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Expert says Royal Commission could be undermi -

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PETER CAVE: An expert in royal commissions says the actions of the Victorian Government have the
potential to undermine the royal commission into bushfires which killed 173 people in February.

The royal commission has demanded an explanation from the Brumby Government, after it announced
changes to its bushfire policy without waiting for commission's findings.

The Government has defended its decision to jump the gun, saying it can't wait for the royal
commission's advice before it starts preparing for the next fire season.

Simon Lauder reports.

SIMON LAUDER: John Brumby was praised for his quick action when he announced a royal commission two
days after the Black Saturday fires. Now the Premier is being criticised for acting too quickly.

The senior counsel assisting the royal commission, Jack Rush QC, says any recommendations of the
Commission will be weakened by the Government's announcements.

The Premier says he's just doing his best to make the state safe before the next fire season.

Victoria's Environment Minister Gavin Jennings has also been on the defensive, after announcing
plans to do more fuel reduction.

GAVIN JENNINGS: I don't necessarily want this to be a media tit-for-tat between the Government and
the royal commission. We have said from the very beginning, the Government has said, that we will
be respectful and responsive to the royal commission. We have allowed the royal commission to
consider evidence and make submissions to us on any matter that it sees fit and we will respond.

But in the intervening period, it is essential that we get on with the fire fighting effort. It is
only in the order of about 14 weeks before the fire season begins again. The commission doesn't
make its report for another five weeks.

SIMON LAUDER: Professor Scott Prasser from the Australian Catholic University has written a book on
royal commissions and is on the Australian Law Reform Commission's review committee for royal
commission powers.

SCOTT PRASSER: Royal commissions are set up because they are meant to be independent therefore the
minimal amount of government intervention or interference is required.

So when you set up a royal commission, you've got to let it go otherwise you start to undermine the
very reason for setting up a royal commission.

SIMON LAUDER: Do you think the Brumby Government is on safe ground with its announcements about
changes to bushfire policy?

SCOTT PRASSER: Unless a matter is absolutely urgent and done in consultation with the royal
commission, it is better to wait for the report to come through. The reason why there are interim
reports is so the royal commission can alert a government about some of the issues it is finding.

It might have been better to ask the royal commission to advance the interim report a little
earlier so the Government are getting the blessings, if you like, of the royal commission before
they start to initiate new policy changes.

SIMON LAUDER: As well as announcing changes to bushfire policy without giving the royal commission
a heads-up, the Premier John Brumby has been quick to defend the head of the country fire authority
after criticism by counsel assisting the royal commission.

Professor Prasser says the Premier should keep quiet.

SCOTT PRASSER: I know there's media pressure on the Government to respond to these sort of issues
and what it has got to say, just like in investigating allegations of impropriety or allegations of
malpractice in hospitals, the Government has got to hold its fire until the royal commission has
come out.

That is why you have a royal commission.

Every time you get into the game of defending people or intervening in a royal commission process,
you undermine the royal commission process and the loser of this will be the Government in the long
term.

You have got to let the royal commission run its course.

SIMON LAUDER: The Government says there is an element of urgency here and that the next bushfire
season is fast approaching and it wants to start acting as soon as possible. Is that a good enough
excuse?

SCOTT PRASSER: Oh, look there are two urgencies in government. There is the policy urgency - we
must act to try and solve the problem and there is the political urgency that we must be seen to be
doing something.

Now, at this stage we are still some time away from the bushfire. The royal commission is very
cognisant of the timeframe. It is working to a tight timeframe. I think it would be better if we
just wait for the royal commission to get on, do its job, give the initial interim report and then
see what has to be done.

SIMON LAUDER: The commissioners have given the Government until the end of the week to explain
announcements it made last Friday, including plans to set up "town protection plans" and
"neighbourhood safer places".

PETER CAVE: Simon Lauder reporting.