Illustration: John Shakespeare
DON'T you just love Australia. An ill-prepared bushwalker heads off on a three-day trek through the Blue Mountains with naan bread and a kilo of spuds. Taxpayer-funded rescuers haul him out at an estimated cost of $10,000. He's fined $500 for activity that risks the safety of self/others.
A forum of four-wheel-drive enthusiasts roars into action, but not as you might think: "Far from stopping 'adventure', maybe it will create a little awareness that some activities have a greater inherent risk and need to be approached in a better manner than … 'mind in neutral' mode".
Letter writers to the Herald haven't held back, either. The $10,000 is the price of stupidity, it seems. Why not make him pay the lot?
With bush friends like that, who needs snakes, storms and chasms. Australians certainly don't need any more deaths or injuries resulting from excessive risk taking in the bush, the desert or in the ocean.
Individuals should generally be free to do as they please, as long as it's legal and does not hurt anyone else.
The risk to the bushwalker in this case is difficult to judge without all the details. Police and the National Parks and Wildlife Service do, nonetheless, have a joint strategy called TREK which specifies what to take on a bushwalk, whom to tell and how to get a free emergency beacon. They want to reduce from 130-odd the number of bushwalkers who get lost and/or need rescuing every year. Access to the TREK program may be problematic for some and it's not well known.
No matter the bushwalker's background, though, the risk of danger he created for rescuers was a high price for the community to pay. The same applies to people who swim outside flagged areas on beaches and make risky sea voyages without backup.
Whether the burden of payment for the rescue should be shifted to the rescued is a touchy question. The distinction is critical between a penalty and a co-payment. The deterrence in $500 in the bushwalker case is weak. Only two fines were reportedly issued last year. Most people do not know the offence exists. More do now. Penalties of about $5000 would send a much stronger signal. While some say this would deter the needy from seeking help, that option already exists.
The spread of user pays is also plausible, albeit more problematic. Cases such as the million-dollar rescue of the British sailor Tony Bullimore in 1997 have fuelled calls for the rescued to repay taxpayer funds.
Yet one post on the Blue Mountains police Facebook page on Monday said: "I can't see how charging people for the cost of helicopter retrieval is in any way a fair thing. A silly mistake in this situation could just as easily be levelled at someone who breaks their ankle doing something silly …. It is punitive, mean spirited and flies in the face of rescue service."
A survey in the 1990s by the social researcher Hugh Mackay also found a "nagging fear'' that when people feel they are paying for everything, ''the concept of community service will have been lost".
Still, Mackay also found that "in relation to rescue services, a number of participants in the study vehemently argued for (user pays) on the grounds that it would cut down reckless and foolhardy behaviour".
Simon Longstaff from the St James Ethics Centre analysed that study, suggesting that "community obligations are seen to include a responsibility to pay for what you use and not force costs onto others of your neighbours".
It is reasonable to expect risk takers to minimise the potential dangers they create for others. Knowing that miscreant behaviour will incur a hefty fine is a start. But expecting risk takers to pay all the costs of a rescue is unrealistic, given the likely arguments over mitigating factors. Instead, a modest yet compulsory refundable deposit before risk-taking activity may bring safety to front of mind. With luck, many deposits will not be reclaimed, thereby creating a form of voluntary contribution to the good works of rescue services.