Climate change becomes battleground in bushfire royal commission

Firefighting crews battle a bushfire encroaching on properties near Lake Tabourie on the Princes Highway between Batemans Bay and Ulladulla. Source: AAP

Scott Morrison wants the bushfire royal commission to report back quickly so its advice and recommendations can be acted on before the next fire season.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison unveiled the terms of reference for a royal commission into the devastating bushfires which burned across Australia on Thursday, but not everyone is impressed.

The terms of reference show a focus on which levels of government are responsible for preparedness, response, resilience and recovery from fires and how this can be better coordinated.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison discusses the royal comission on Thursday.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison discusses the royal comission on Thursday.

The commissioners, led by former Defence Force chief Mark Binskin, are asked to keep in mind land management and hazard reduction, wildlife management and planning and development approvals.

But Mr Morrison has also explicitly acknowledged the role of climate change, and appointed ANU climate risk and environmental law professor Andrew Macintosh as one of the commissioners.

Former Federal Court judge Annabelle Bennett is the third commissioner.

"This royal commission accepts, it acknowledges, it understands the impact of climate change more broadly on the climatic conditions that Australia is living in," Mr Morrison said in Sydney.

"What this royal commission is looking at are the practical things that must be done to keep Australians safer and safe in longer, hotter, drier summers, in the conditions in which Australians will live into the future."

The commission will consider what legal framework is needed to better coordinate natural disaster responses across the country, including the possibility of the Federal Government being able to declare a national state of emergency.

Labor backs the royal commission but said the narrow terms of reference were a huge missed opportunity to look at how to reduce bushfire risk by acting to slow climate change.

"I think most Australians want to see the government actually take action now to reduce the risk of those bushfires in the future rather than deal with the effects of them down the track," opposition disaster and emergency management spokesman Murray Watt said in Queensland.

Similarly, former emergency service chiefs say credible measures to curb greenhouse gas emissions are "the only way to keep Australians safe".

Former Emergency Management Victoria commissioner Craig Lapsley said this season's bushfires were so severe that areas where hazard reduction burns had been carried out - and even mown lawns - were torched.

The inquiry will also examine what actions can mitigate the impacts of natural disasters and whether Indigenous fire management practices could be better used.

The commission has been asked to finish by the end of August and collaborate with state inquiries, with the Federal Government keen to receive recommendations ahead of the next fire season.

More than 30 people died and thousands of homes were destroyed in horrific blazes that burned across Australia over the past spring and summer.

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