Friday, February 24, 2012

Keelty report a missed opportunity

The Barnett Government’s response to the Keelty report into the devastating Margaret River fires missed a critical opportunity for important change within Department of Environment and Conservation and further solidifies the public’s view that the Western Australlian Government lacks compassion.

Both Premier Barnett and Minister Marmion said the government took full responsibility for the controlled burn started by DEC in 2011 which ultimately destroyed 32 homes and damaged 16 more. While on the surface the statements infer culpability, the government has only agreed to provide compensation of up to $190,000 for victims of the fire - almost encouraging those who have lost a lot more to pursue arduous and expensive civil action against the state.

This is either a gross error of judgement or heartless and mean-spirited action.

Interestingly, this decision was made in spite of it being widely acknowledged among Ministers and senior advisers that the government has an image problem in this regard. Since the government’s first two budgets in which it decided to move domestic utility charges closer to cost reflectivity, the Premier’s office has been hyper-sensitive about the perception that the government lacked compassion. The Barnett government’s huge increases in fees and charges, combined with the Premier’s numerous “air conditioning is a luxury” type gaffs over the years have provoked a substantial internal effort to create a public perception that the Premier and his Government are in touch with the common people and sensitive to their financial pain. Indeed this was one of the driving forces behind the enormous $800m giveaway to the community services sector in last year’s state budget.

Even though the Keelty report squarely lays the blame on process failures within DEC, the Government has not only chosen to shirk the responsibility of full compensation but also run from the rare chance to make a much needed change to the leadership of DEC.

This might sound like a knee-jerk reaction, but the need for reform of DEC’s leadership is a long-festering problem. There is no doubt that Liberal-National government was elected in 2008 with significant backing from the mining and exploration industry, based largely on a promise of fixing the tiresome approvals process. One of the major gripes held by industry at the time was specifically about the conservative culture of DEC and it remains a huge disappointment that more hasn’t been done to correct that problem.

The Keelty report gave the government another opportunity to explain a change to the DEC leadership team and prove that it has compassion for the unfortunate amongst us, but sadly the Premier has stuck by his personal philosophies of sheltering the government and its public servants at all cost.

On this occasion, the cost may have been seriously underestimated.

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