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Australia fires inquiry gets under way

China Daily | Updated: 2020-02-21 09:14

An animal carer takes care of orphaned kangaroos rescued in the bushfire season, in New South Wales, in January. JORGE SILVA/REUTERS

After Black Summer trauma, panel seeks solutions amid heat on govt

SYDNEY-Australia set up a national inquiry on Thursday into its recent bushfire crisis that killed 33 people and prompted widespread criticism of the government for its sluggish response to the blazes.

Australia has for months been battling hundreds of blazes that began in September-an unusually prolonged summer wildfire season that was fueled by three years of drought, which experts have attributed to climate change.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the vast scale of the fires required a new response from the bushfire-prone nation.

The royal commission inquiry will be tasked with finding ways to improve Australia's preparedness, resilience and response to natural disasters, but has been criticized as an effort to put off tackling the problem.

Former Australian Defence Force chief Mark Binskin, former Federal Court judge Annabelle Bennett, and a specialist in climate risk and impact management, Andrew Macintosh, professor at Australian National University have been appointed as commissioners.

Morrison said they would be required to report their findings by Aug 31, "so recommendations can be acted upon before our next bushfire season".

"My priority is to keep Australians safe and to do that, we need to learn from the Black Summer bushfires how nationally we can work better with the states and territories to better protect and equip Australians for living in hotter, drier and longer summers," he said.

"The inquiry acknowledges climate change, the broader impact of our summers getting longer, drier and hotter and is focused on practical action that has a direct link to making Australians safer."

Australia has seen dozens of inquests into the causes of bushfires and steps that could be taken to mitigate them, with mixed results.

Many measures from the dozens of inquests going back to the 1930s have still not been implemented.

The opposition Labor party accused Morrison of trying to "shift attention to the things that he thinks are politically convenient to talk about", rather than "actually fixing climate change and getting emissions under control".

New powers

Morrison said the panel would be asked to consider establishing new powers for the federal government to declare a national state of emergency, which he argued would allow a faster response to fires.

The conservative leader, who was criticized for his sluggish reaction to the months-long crisis, has defended his actions by pointing to regulations requiring states to formally request federal assistance.

He claimed to have operated in a "constitutional grey zone" by deploying thousands of troops and reservists to assist in the bushfire recovery. "We did that without clear rules," Morrison said.

The most recent crisis has sparked calls for Australia's conservative government to take immediate action on climate change, with street protests urging Morrison to reduce the country's reliance on coal.

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