Dereliction

McLeod Governance has previously examined a number of the lessons learnt from the terrible bushfires in Victoria, Australia in February 2009.

Today we take a slightly different tack and examine the actions of the Victorian Chief Commissioner of Police on that fateful day and what her actions say about accountability, leadership and the tone set at the top in a crisis

The story – five years on – still resonates as an extraordinary case study on what people perceive their role to be in a crisis.

What are you going to do when an emergency visits?

**

The Black Saturday bush fires – as they came to be known – were a series of bushfires that ignited or were burning across the Australian state of Victoria on and around Saturday 7th February 2009 during extreme bushfire-weather conditions.

The fires resulted in Australia’s highest ever loss of life from a bushfire. 173 souls perished as a result of the fires and 414 people were injured. As many as 400 individual fires were recorded on 7 February.

3,852 firefighting personnel were deployed across the state on the morning of 7 February in anticipation of the extreme conditions. By mid-morning, hot northwesterly winds in excess of 100 kph (62mph) hit the state.

As the day progressed, all time record temperatures were being reached, 46.4 C (115.5F) in Melbourne, the hottest temperature ever recorded in an Australian capital city and humidity levels dropped to as low as 6%.

By midday, windspeeds were reaching their peak. The overwhelming majority of fire activity occurred between midday and 7pm, when windspeed and temperature were at their highest and humidity was at its lowest.

**

The 19th Chief Commissioner of the Victoria Police, Christine Nixon, was sworn in on 23 April 2001 – thereby becoming the first woman to become a police commissioner in Australia.

She was appointed to that position by the Victorian government following an extensive career in the New South Wales Police Force and attaining the rank of Assistant Commissioner. Nixon was a police officer for over thirty years.

Her actions on Black Saturday  became the source of great criticism after her appearance at the Royal Commission set up to investigate the tragedy.

What she did and what it meant is probably best summed up by the leading columnist from the Melbourne tabloid newspaper, the Herald Sun:

She admitted under cross-examination that she did not attend the State Emergency Response Co-ordination Centre until noon on Black Saturday, despite knowing the fires were already out of control on a day the Government warned would be “as bad a day as you can imagine”.

Not once did she check if police had fulfilled their formal responsibility to issue warnings to towns in the path of the fires.

From 1.30pm to 3pm, she actually left the SERCC and retired to her office to clean up paperwork, neither seeking nor receiving in those 90 minutes a single briefing or call on the fires.

Nor did she call any police in the fire zones to check their wellbeing, ask for news or offer help.

She did not call the Premier once, even to discuss – as is her job – declaring a state of emergency.

She did not call in her Deputy Commissioner in charge of disasters, Kieran Walshe, and he himself – perhaps following his boss’s example – did not turn up at work until nightfall, and only to give a press conference.

She failed to check that every regional commander in the fire-prone areas was at their post, and to this day does not know if they were.

It was as if she were a mere spectator.

Not once did she seem to actually do anything to help.

And it got worse.

On returning to the emergency headquarters at 3.30pm, Nixon did not ask for another briefing on the fires, even though she says she heard the staff say: “This is looking terrible; there are many more fires.”

“I should have, but I didn’t,” she told the commission, explaining that everyone seemed “very busy” and “carrying out their responsibilities”.

They acted.

She watched.

And was treated as a mere watcher, too.

Her senior officials didn’t bother to tell her that nursing homes and hospitals were being evacuated in Neerim South and near Bunyip.

She also didn’t check how police planned to protect fans at a country music festival at threatened Whittlesea.

Nor did she ask for or read the police log in the room that noted what her officers were battling to do.

“It sounds rather passive, Ms Nixon,” the startled counsel assisting the bushfire commission exclaimed.

At 5pm, the fire service chiefs did at last brief the paralysed Nixon, warning her the fires seemed about to burn Strathewen, and there was a “real potential for people to lose their lives”.

Worse, a change of wind later that evening threatened Kinglake and other towns and “we were facing a disaster”.

The Police Minister had been called in to help co-ordinate the effort.

It was now about 5.30pm.

And what did Nixon decide to do at this moment of crisis, with lives to save?

She asked an Assistant Commissioner, Steve Fontana, to brief the Police Minister in her place while she went out to dinner.

(When confronted with this issue on Melbourne radio, she defended this decision by saying that she “had to eat”).

She deserted her post.

And didn’t return that night, not even after hearing whole towns had been destroyed.

Nixon has tried to mislead the royal commission, in my opinion, about how profoundly she betrayed her duty.

She did not tell it she’d actually gone to a restaurant, and implied instead she’d stayed at home, keeping in touch.

She denied she’d had another appointment that night, saying only she’d “had a meal” and “was obviously listening to the radio … and watching television”.

Asked if she’d had email and web access, she said: “Yes.”

But presumably not while you were at the restaurant, Christine.

You weren’t properly monitoring anything then but the menu.

I cannot think of a worse failure of duty by an Australian police commissioner than this.

**

The revelations present a fascinating case study as to what is expected of our leaders in a crisis.

Do we expect them to take charge or do we expect them to have confidence in the delegations that they have exercised in moments when crisis is not upon us?

McLeod Governance will reserve judgement on the politics of the matter and simply conclude that of the many lessons that have been and are being learnt from that terrible Saturday the actions of Christine Nixon deserve to be studied by crisis management experts for as long as the discipline exists.

Post based on part on “Chief Nixon Copped Out” by Andrew Bolt, Herald Sun, 9th April 2010

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