Australian Associated Press | AAP
From day one they were told that this was to be a very open and transparent process and now they find out that they are being denied access to go and appear before the commission. —Australian Liberal MP Fran Bailey
The first hearing of the bushfires royal commission will be held on Monday amid complaints many survivors will be barred from giving evidence.
A directions hearing will be held at the County Court in Melbourne, where commissioner Justice Bernard Teague will consider applications for leave to appear before the commission.
But hundreds of bushfire survivors and families who lost loved ones have already had their applications rejected.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has sought an explanation from the premier’s office after he was approached by a woman who had lost four family members and was upset at being refused a voice at the commission.
Liberal MP Fran Bailey, whose federal seat of McEwen covers many of the areas worst hit on Black Saturday, said locking victims out of the proceedings was unacceptable.
“From day one they were told that this was to be a very open and transparent process and now they find out that they are being denied access to go and appear before the commission set up to investigate why their lives have been so terribly affected,” she told the ABC.
Victorian Premier John Brumby promised when he announced the terms of reference on February 16 that the inquiry would be “as broad as possible so that everybody can have their say”.
“I think it’s absolutely crucial that we undertake the highest level judicial inquiry into these bushfires, that we need to make sure that no stone is left unturned, that we need to ensure that every Victorian can have their say,” he said.
Counsel assisting the commission Jack Rush QC says it is standard practice to grant leave only to those whose conduct is likely to be scrutinised.
A spokeswoman for the royal commission declined to comment.
The directions hearing comes 72 days after the worst bushfires in Australia’s history swept through Victoria, killing 173 people and destroying more than 2,000 homes.
The commission has conducted a month-long series of preliminary community meetings, involving more than 1,200 people from 14 bushfire areas.
The media was excluded from the meetings but the formal hearings, which begin on May 11, will be open to the public.
The first stage of the hearings is expected to take about eight weeks and examine the spread of the fires, weather conditions, public warnings, the stay-and-defend or leave early policy, and building standards, time permitting.
Written submissions close on May 18 and the commission will hand down an interim report by August 17.