After Terry Place’s farm was burnt out in the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009, he learnt firsthand how difficult a class action could be.
The farmer, from Pomborneit in south-west Victoria, became the lead plaintiff against Powercor, after a falling live power line that ignited grass was found to be the cause of the fires, but it took seven years before a settlement was reached.
“I think the biggest thing of the whole lot was stress on the family, stress on all my neighbours that were in the same boat,” he said.
“Powercor just push it out that long to wear you down and just get you to throw your hands up in the air and walk away and I think, in the end, that’s probably what we did.”
In March this year, fires again ripped through south-west Victoria on St Patrick’s Day, destroying thousands of hectares of farmland and killing thousands of livestock.
Once again Powercor has been investigated over a termite-riddled power pole that caused one of the blazes.
Terang farmer Daniel Gilmour said the fire had cost him more than $500,000.
He has joined one of the four class actions against Powercor.
The class actions had their first hearing in the Victorian Supreme Court on Wednesday, but like the Black Saturday fires, it could be years before the St Patrick’s Day class actions come to an end and farmers receive compensation for their losses.
Mr Place said he was expecting a long battle ahead for many farmers in his region and called for a better system for victims of fire to recover their losses.
“Hopefully, something may come in the next shorter [term] rather than later to make sure something like this doesn’t put more grief on the people that have already suffered,” Mr Place said.
A better system?
Local MP Richard Riordan said he wanted a system similar to the compensation for car crash victims, which in Victoria is administered by the Transport Accident Commission (TAC).
“Can we create a system that looks after them [victims] first and lets the Government and the power companies have their fight in court on another day, without having to affect the families involved?” Mr Riordan said.
Mr Riordan said governments should be able to bring those liable to account and has called for a parliamentary inquiry after November’s state election.
“I would hope immediately after the election, it’s something we can work together on and it would certainly be a priority of mine,” he said.
Mr Gilmour said that like many farmers, he was underinsured because it was impossible to protect things like pastures.
“It’d be great to see the ability to be able to insure for things like our pastures, because they do come at a large cost to establish and do take a long time to replace.”
For now, Mr Gilmour said he was not holding his breath.
“I’m basically farming for the future with the expectation that I won’t get a dollar out of the class action.”
Powercor has been contacted for comment.