The IPA held a conference in March 2003 about the lessons to be learnt from the 2003 bushfires which destroyed over 3 million hectares including three quarters of Kosciuszko National Park.
This was just before I started with the IPA and so I didn’t get to hear what Phil Cheney, one of three invited experts, had to say.
According to the summary as published in the IPA Review key messages included failure of land managers to follow established scientific principles as a result of green politics, see http://www.ipa.org.au/publications/publisting_detail.asp?pubid=198 .
The summary concludes that “there is little doubt that the management of Australia’s parks, forests and other public lands will come under greater scrutiny as a result of the horrific fires of 2003.”
This was the hope of many ordinary Australian who live in rural and regional Australia when Coroner Maria Doogan began hearing evidence on October 7th 2003. The inquiry had been established by Jon Stanhope, the Chief Minister and Attorney-General of the ACT.
Then the inquiry was closed down by the same government, on the basis of ‘apprehended bias’ on the part of Coroner Maria Doogan.
Michael Duffy summarized the situation in a piece titled ‘The firing line’ published in the SMH on 23rd May, see
Yesterday Justice Crispin of the ACT Supreme Court handed down a long judgement dismissing the application from the ACT government.
The judgement is a fascinating read and includes much comment about the views of Phil Cheney, http://www.courts.act.gov.au/supreme/judgments/doogan1.htm .
And page 33 of 69 (paragraph 92) includes:
An apprehension of bias may easily arise when, as appears to have occurred in this case, a judicial officer has been led to believe that an expert witness has been independently appointed to assist the court when, in fact, he or she has been engaged by the ACT Government and that entity has also been granted leave to be represented as an interested party to the proceedings. It may be understandable that departmental officers accustomed to treating courts as a sub-branch of their department may have failed to appreciate the impression that could be created in this manner. However, s 59 of the Act was clearly intended to permit coroners to engage investigators who would be independent of any of the interested parties, and whose opinions could not therefore be called into question on the grounds that they may have been influenced by competing loyalties. A lay observer could well become apprehensive on learning that a coroner had treated a person as an independent investigator when, in fact, he or she had been engaged by one of the interested parties.
Despite Mr Burnside’s able submissions to the contrary, this was clearly a matter of potential concern in the present case and, if the evidence given by Mr Cheney and Mr Roche had generally favoured the ACT Government, a finding of apprehended bias may well have been inescapable. However, that was not the case. On the contrary, Mr Tracey’s submissions clearly reflected concern that aspects of their evidence was critical of Government employees and/or agencies. It is true, of course, that a party who has engaged experts may itself come to feel that it has suffered from subconscious bias due to them “bending over backwards” to be fair, but it will, of course, have been largely responsible for the situation that has led to any such psychological inclination. In any event, Mr Tracey did not raise any such contention. Nor did it lie comfortably with the ACT Government that, having created a situation of potential conflict, it then sought to complain of it.
The next really interesting read should be Coroner Maria Doogan’s final report – given she can now hopefully get on with the job of writing it.