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Apr 8, 2010

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‘If Black Saturday had happened in Greece’  Nick Skrekas, a bond trader said to me  ‘the government would have fallen.’ No fan of the radical left, who were bigging up the fiscal crisis into a political confrontation at the time in Athens, Skrekas was nevertheless amazed by the apathy in Victoria in the aftermath of the disaster. 15 people had died in Greece a couple of years earlier during similar conflagrations. Had it been 200, he was right – parliament would have been stormed, and not merely by anarchists.

The truth is that Black Saturday hasn’t really hit us yet.  The enormity of what happened, the unnecessary waste of life, the hideous nature of the deaths, are something we shield from ourselves.

Quite simply, it is too awful to think about a woman and her two children burning to death on a road…..

…or banging on the windows, asphyxiating in a car, four hours after they realised that today might be going very very wrong – and some minutes after they realised that they were certainly going to die.

But try it for a few seconds. Then multiply it by a hundred.

What has happened seems to be clear. The reality of the deaths was too awful to contemplate — so attention was diverted to a koala being fed with a bottle.

And when an inquiry into what happened found that a similar process of reality avoidance had occurred before the event, and may have contributed to it, the avoidance of contemplating that horror was simply rolled over to it.

Even though it became clear that – however many deaths were inevitable on that day – some or many were caused by a fatal paralysis of action and initiative, a sheer lack of audacity and leadership, an inability to take control in a situation which has totally engulfed and undermined any notion of normality, nothing has really happened.

Don Watson has done the best work on this – pointing out the way in which managerialist language, of ‘populating the map with incidents’ rather than ‘finding out which towns were going up in flames’ – appeared to have infected emergency services in the same manner as it has done for less lethal bureaucratic areas.

But the weird thing is that, even while this was being rolled out and made visible during the inquest, the paralysis continued. SCs in ridiculous bow-ties, old Labour hack QCs – all appeared to be running it like a series of motor insurance cases in Doncaster court on a wet Wednesday morning.  Chaos, stupidity, time-serving arse-covering emerged. Nothing happened. Maps were missing. Nothing happened.

And now we find that Nixon spent a total of three hours at the control room before going out to dinner because she ‘had to eat’ – thereafter ‘monitoring’ the situation – ie listening to the radio.

In other words, the leader was following the followers, who were clearly in need of some leadership – which is in essence, creating a new situation, imposing human collective will on an unfolding process.

Could dynamic leadership have saved lives? We don’t know, but we do know that there wasn’t any of it in place.

Right across the board there should have been resignations after Black Saturday – Nixon, the whole CFA leadership, others. Some might have been re-appointed, but the important thing was surely to acknowledge that something had happened, that there had been a breach in reality.

Instead we get the opposite – an elite and interconnected political class, made up of the higher echelons of the ALP, the police, the bureaucracy. Overwhelmingly conformist people, eager to fit in with whatever ridiculous managerialist mantra rules the roost, living in perpetual fear of a situation that others would welcome. Such groups become reinforcing – once they dominate a party like the ALP, the political leadership ‘populates the map’ with mirror-men and women.

Nixon has to resign, if she has a shred of decency – and even if she’s doing a good job in her current position. It’s about something other than finding 23 different reasons that things would have turned out the same if you’d done something different.

It’s about acknowledging the one possibility that they might have turned out different, very different, if someone had taken the situation in hand. The government should really have gone too, and offered itself to the judgement of the people (even with various inquiries still to run).  Paradoxically, it might have been rewarded for its decency. Now, it is more likely to be punished for its cowardice. And it will deserve it.

Populating the map? Death on the road more like, for a rural population under-served and treated with contempt, by an elite off to dinner banging on the windows, before  the restaurant doors had opened.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle

Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle is Crikey's correspondent-at-large. He was co-editor of Arena Magazine for 15 years, and has written four hit stage shows for Max Gillies, two musicals, numerous books and produced TV shows including Comedy Inc and Backberner.

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35 comments

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35 thoughts on “Nixon should resign – but so should Brumby.

  1. Elan

    I have no doubt Frank, that there are loadsafolks who think she shouldn’t be! And that amazes me.

    As for Brumby I am unfamiliar with the fellow, we have our hands full with the odious ( but allegedly very affectionate), Rann!

    However, it seems to me that what happens is entirely predictable. The Brumbys of this world have to protect their investment,-and in many cases the appointment they made. It reflects back on them..?

    So it goes on-the blindly incompetent supporting the blindly incompetent.

    If it gets too bad for him though, he’ll cut her loose.

  2. Frank Campbell

    Does anyone now think Nixon should not be sacked, after yesterday’s 75 minutes of cross-examination at the Royal Commission? Giving false and misleading evidence last week to the Commission, her phone apparently switched off between 6 and 9pm, when the fires were at their murderous worst? Nixon’s fudging, ducking, weaving, dissembling, and distracting were camouflaged in mock outrage.

    And what did Brumby do? No need to ask.

  3. Elan

    EXACTLY!! MDMConnell.

  4. MDMConnell

    It’s so infuriating when the lessons of past disasters aren’t learnt. I was living in Canberra during the ACT fires and what stood out was the lack of leadership and co-ordination, and particularly the lack of accurate communication to the public. Suburbs were being listed as “Under Potential Threat” when they were already going up in flames.

    Exactly the same situation as Black Saturday.

    No-one’s suggesting that Nixon’s presence would have magically stopped the fires. But it’s not unreasonable to raise questions about whether her absence contributed to the chaotic and uncoordinated response, and the apparent breakdown of communication.

    As for the argument “She’s got to eat!”, couldn’t something have been sent in? How hard would it have been to rustle up a dozen pizzas and some platters of sub sandwiches for everyone in the control room?

  5. Elan

    Make sense Witless, and I’ll attempt to respond properly.

  6. wilful

    elan, if you think a subscriber based private company is censorship, then you’re a complete dill. Go buy a clue.

  7. Elan

    FROM: (Feeds)- Firstdog: “The Culprit Has Been Found!”

    “There must be something about FD, you’re right; the discussion here has been well-informed and respectful, and for once an actual discussion, and well worth reading. I note that there’s been more informed comment on this post than on Guy Rundle’s piece about Nixon the other day.”

    I find this BLOODY pretentious and sodding irritating!!!

    Unfortunately us common plebs are unable to access the rarefied atmosphere of this Firstdog topic re. Christine Nixon.

    Being a regular peruser of the Feeds facility, this ‘Culprit’ thing started to intrigue me. I could not access it, and other than Feeds, I can’t even find this topic on the Homepage??

    What could it be about thought I? (I started to track the topic through Feeds)
    Who could ‘they’ be talking about? (The progress of posts and their increasing smugness solved that one!)

    So I took out the lovely little Free Trial thing, to see if I could breach the walls of this self-congratulatory little clique, to experience the warm brown fuzzy of being up there with the creme de la creme.
    No dice. ( Query pending).

    However, this raises an important issue about censorship.

    I have just walked away from the Adelaide Advertiser forum, (I don’t bloody care if I’m off topic OK!!!). I did so because AdelaideNow allowed a complete open slather over the…censorship! issue ( by the former AG); they got hundreds of posts,-they had a vested interest in doing that.

    Noticeably, a current topic on asylum seekers has scored 18 posts-all negative. I cannot get a supportive post up;-AN is hardly swamped with posts!-they can have no other reason not to print, other than to tailor to one particular message.

    Another on the same topic resulted in one Marilyn S copping a right bollocking! It is abundantly clear that this Murdoch rag will attract these types of posters, and I managed a supportive post there.

    Clearly AN wanted a nice one way thread this time. Minimal posts,..yet no room for anything even remotely supportive of refugees.

    IT IS CENSORSHIP. And THAT is my concern here.

    Because the Firstdog Nixon topic is closed to all but those who pay money???? Posts of the above ilk are inevitable!

    A topic becomes ‘well-informed and respectful’,- you can read the rest (and this was not the first smarmy self-congratulatory post, put up).

    IF this kind of fiscal ‘vetting’ is allowed. It can lead to what is so self evident here. Not always,- but I think that this FD topic and it’s self awarded gold star are a graphic example of the snobbishness of those who seem to think that exclusive membership equates to ‘well-informed and respectful’ !!

    So??? those of us discussing the same topic on an OPEN discussion, MUST by definition be ill-informed and disrespectful!!

    Why?? Because we don’t agree with the Firstdog elite? Because Guy Rundle is three shades of shite? Why?

    EVEN if there was any dissension in the Inner Sanctum, that by definition is a cut above any open forum!

    Now let me be disrespectful and NOT ill-informed:

    If you don’t know what I’m talking about , then you are a bloody idiot!

    (What can you expect from one of the great unwashed).

    Censor THIS and I’m OUT.

  8. Skepticus Autartikus

    Shorter Guy Rundle:

    “How come I’M not yet part of the elite and interconnected political class?

  9. Elan

    It is not the iceberg’s fault. The iceberg is a natural phenomenon and besides it is the free will of people to sail around in these floating tubs and they should be aware that there are a lot of icebergs and how can you prove which one it was and after all that was the condition on the night and it really wasn’t the icebergs fault I mean you can’t blame it as it is simply the way it is and really it is not a good thing to attach blame to the iceberg because as I’ve already explained there are lots of icebergs and also it was in the past and it is not right for you to judge because you weren’t there and what’s more……………………

    The iceberg is now helping to rebuild the Titanic.

  10. Frank Campbell

    “It is the Garrett Syndrome all over again.”

    Exactly, Elan.

    The unsackable aboard the unsinkable. Where’s that damned iceberg?

  11. Elan

    No probs BB. But we are all as eloquent as one another kiddo!

    Juzzy: I have to broadly agree with what you have written, because it is measured and calm! I need to make clear though, that I am not ‘blaming’ Nixon. She was but a part of an appalling situation, and I am only to well aware of how easy it is to sit at a comp. and apportion blame.

    (I AM however highly critical of Nixon as an individual within a decision making group).

    BUT..?! First of all, an Inquiry must crucially concentrate on the minutiae, in an endeavour to unravel the process in order to at least TRY not to repeat mistakes.

    In that unravelling-the evidence of the former Police Commissioner has brought to the fore her decisions at what was the most critical point of this horror. And they were (she now admits) lacking.

    It is but one part of a hellish fiasco, and it is this part/this decision that has currently come out of the Inquiry. It is thus being discussed at this time.

    The seemingly age old question seems to arise again and again;-don’t blame the individual. In my view this ethic is utterly wrong, in that if we do NOT look at those who are ‘in charge’ and make them accountable;-then these ‘individuals’ who make up a group-who are charged with making life or death decisions- can vacate responsibility because it is the fault/responsibility of the group!

    The group-the decision making body, ARE individuals-making collective decisions! I argue strongly that that UNLESS we hold individuals within a decision making group accountable,- then those individuals-as part of ‘a group’ will learn bugger all!

    Christine Nixon is NOT responsible for Black Saturday FGS!-but her behaviour that night DID set an example of appalling leadership in VPol.

    As a society we increasingly seem to think that there is something correct about not ‘blaming’ the ‘in charge of’ folk. As a concept I suggest it is not working?!! It is a philosophy of ‘no one is really accountable’–it is the system.

    How many examples need be put up to show how many people have fallen foul of ‘The System’?

    The System is made up of individuals-and those individuals MUST be held accountable for their decisions. Nixon was one very senior part of The System- and she has been quite appropriately held up to negative criticism by some (incl) for her behaviour.

    It does not sit comfortably with me or others because we ask for individual accountability. IF that were shown, I would venture to suggest we would see some improvement in ALL systems.

    As it stands, people are routinely hiding behind ‘the system’. That is unconscionable.

    And SusieQ: if any employee ‘has made a hash of their previous job’ let me tell you, it has a huge influence on a prospective employer-as it should do!

    ……….but of course if you are a politician;-a corporate executive;-if you hold ANY position at a senior level and have made some bloody lousy and incompetent decisions, you will be promoted or you will receive massive bonus’s or you will be moved to head yet another department!

    THAT is why The System survives,-and The People perish.

  12. Billy Blogs

    Thank you for taking your time Elan, you put it so much more eloquently than I could.

  13. SusieQ

    Leaving aside whether Christine Nixon did go out to dinner, we have something called DISPLAN in Victoria. If I’m wrong, I know someone will correct me, but I think it means the Police Commissioner has conduct of whatever disaster it is that causes DISPLAN to kick in. Also, it allows for delegation of tasks i.e to the CFA, Ambos or whoever. Clearly a lot of people made a mess of things on that day and we can also blame a lot of other stuff, underfunding and lack of resources, poor decisions on fuel reduction, freaky weather – the list goes on.

    But, why should Christine Nixon resign from the job she has now because she may have made a hash of her previous job? What a precedent to set !!!! Brumby will, hopefully, get his comeuppance at the election, but I doubt the Libs will be any better at any of this anyway.

  14. juzzy

    By pulling apart, minute by minute, the minutiae of what happened in the IECC, the POC, and all the other control rooms that day, we may find individuals who did the wrong thing, or did nothing at all.
    The point of this search, however, is not to blame individuals, it is to recognise their failures for what they were: the natural outcome from a decayed culture of management. Where the head of a paramilitary organisation, and Deputy State Controller, is too timid and lacking in command presence or knowledge, to actually ask for a briefing from anyone “because they were all very busy”, and worked out what was going on by “looking over people’s shoulders”, it points to the cancer of management by committee and buzzword, rather than command and control.
    The fact that she never takes notes speaks volumes – there is no ability to forensically examine her action or inaction, because she is of the management style that relies on not being told bad news in case a decision may have to be made or accountability may be required.
    But I repeat, this is not about blaming individuals, it’s about determining how badly the system had broken down and how this contributed to the loss of life and property, and trying to ensure that, next time, the system is good enough to carry the odd spare wheel such as Nixon or Rees.

  15. Elan

    Absolutely agree Billy Blogs! (I’ve had this page up for over an hour, but took a break so that I could moderate my comments!).

    The mediocrity in senior management-uniformed or not-is such because it is always justified. There is always a reason/s for leaders NOT to be responsible-not to LEAD-: because this occurred/that occurred/there were others involved/it was only an hour/this is the Left spin/Right spin…blah, bloody blah!

    It is the Garrett Syndrome all over again. God forbid that the Head of ANY organisation ACTUALLY takes some responsibility-shows some integrity. Nah. Why should they, they have a mass of people who will justify their lack of efficiency; their lack of leadership…………., and if anyone suggests that they should act as…er, leaders, well hell! it’s just a witch hunt!!

    THAT is why there is little or no leadership of any decency and quality,- because so many can be relied upon to make sure inefficient leadership survives and thrives.

    I haven’t formed my opinion on the basis of ANY Opposition who milk the “resign”!!! scenario for all it’s worth, yet would mimic the Government stance if they were in power!

    There ARE those who DO form an opinion, NOT from a Lib/Lab point of view, but because-, as in this case, the then Commissioner of Victorian Police left a crisis room and sought to ‘fiddle while Rome burned’!!

    And she did! It is utterly outrageous for someone of such senior rank, in charge of a body that WAS involved in what was happening;- to leave the administrative core of this appalling crisis, get driven home by her husband, and then join friends for dinner in a Melbourne hotel!! I don’t give one damn whether she was there (hotel) for 10 minutes or 2 hours, it is a bloody disgrace!

    And I don’t damn well care WHICH Departmental Head did this,-I care that this was done when there was a graphically apparent catastrophe going down.

    It is utterly beyond my comprehension that this appalling and callous inefficiency can be defended!

    You know what? I thought it was a beat-up; a lie…., until Nixon herself confirmed it.

    I’m gobsmacked. The defence is ‘I have to eat’. Was anyone stopping her? Did they all starve in that crisis room?

    ………..the worst thing by far for me IS the defence of Nixon, and given that this was known- her appointment to head the reconstruction process.

    Perhaps those she dispenses sympathy to, can compare notes with her about what THEY were doing on the evening of the 7th of February 2009??

  16. Tony Kevin

    Setting aside whether Nixon was at fault for eating a pub meal away from the police crisis centre, I am fascinated by the aptness of Rundle’s overall judgement on this horrible day – “a fatal paralysis of action and initiative, a sheer lack of audacity and leadership, an inability to take control in a situation which had totally engulfed and undermined any notion of normality”. Harsh but true.

    Strikes me the same can be said of the Rudd Government’s policy on the slowburning but existential national climate crisis. Garnaut’s dramatic reporting to Rudd through 2008 on the severity of Australia’s coming environmental crisis stunned Rudd as the coming bushfire emergency stunned Brumby, Rees and others – because it ‘totally engulfed and undermined any notion of normality’. Rudd’s response was and still is ‘a fatal paralysis of action and initiative’, masked by a few feel-good rhetorical speeches and a series of pseudo-policy initiatives that do nothing to tackle the causes of global warming – the burning of huge quantities of coal and oil. Rundle’s description of how the Victorian bureaucracy sat immobile, like roadkill frozen by oncoming car headlights, is a pretty good description of how Australia’s federal political and bureaucratic elites are failing to respond intelligently and decisively to the climate crisis.

    And of course, Black Saturday’s fires were the fires of climate change. There wil be more like them.

  17. Billy Blogs

    “She is not a crook!”

  18. bangin4

    “Nixon should resign!”. I’m sure he is just saying that because he loves the nostalgic feel of it.

  19. Holden Back

    Yes, so I’m never disappointed. Goes with living remotely and always taking responsibility for your own safety.

  20. jack jones

    I think the response on Nixon is over the top. She went to a pub for a meal for 1 hour, and it would not have made any difference whatsoever if she hadn’t. That day was way way out of control, a prospect we unfortunately may have to get used to. It was chaotic and its not immediately apparent that the result would have been much different in hindsight. Of course the commission needs to sift through to find what can be done better next time, and there will be one somewhere. Other than a general withering of government capacity and will to do anything, which is bi-partisan to the majors, I’m not sure what can be addressed other than sifting through the technicalities of implementation of response with a heavy heart and fixing what we can. I really wonder whether, on such a chaotic day, with things moving so fast, and so many escape routes cut off and dangerous, there was much else practically that would have saved lives. If there was, lets do it. But a police union attacking Nixon (clearly payback) for stuff that didn’t make any difference is an insult to the dead I reckon. Are we now totally immersed in appearances-as-substance that we can’t tell the difference?

  21. Billy Blogs

    You’re easily pleased. You expect very little from your leaders.

  22. Holden Back

    No, I don’t have a problem with the scenario you describe, and it would seem many other people directly affected by the fires don’t either.

  23. Billy Blogs

    So Holden Back, as a CFA volunteer, are you happy that while you and/or fellow volunteers headed into the flames to help others, Nixon was not even briefed on the events? She went to dinner because she wasn’t rostered on.

    Rees went home that night – The leader of the CFA went home while his troops left their homes and families in hells path and risked their lives on the fire front.

    I understand the chain of command – the last thing you want is your top people on the front line, you need them where they can have the greatest effect and with Nixon and Rees, I’d have thought that would be in the command centre with the very latest information at hand.

    If they are NOT required on a night like that – we’re paying them too much.

  24. deccles

    What utter crap Guy. “If this would have happened in Greece the government would have fallen.” It DID happen in Greece and the government didn’t fall. The death toll just wasn’t as high. Do you ever check facts?

    The only way Christine Nixon could have prevented the deaths is to have the ability to change the weather.

  25. Holden Back

    I wasn’t clutching, I was projecting the outcomes suggested by the article.
    As a fellow bushfire zone resident and CFA memeber I applaud your decision to take responsibility for your fire safety.

  26. Frank Campbell

    As usual with Rundle, he states the obvious (the entire incompetent, evasive crew should have been sacked, along with Brumby’s culpable government), then misses the salient point:

    “SCs in ridiculous bow-ties, old Labour hack QCs – all appeared to be running it like a series of motor insurance cases in Doncaster court on a wet Wednesday morning.”

    Teague’s low-key approach was the best way to handle the inquiry. He knew the government and bureaucracy would attempt to destroy the Royal Commission if he took an abrasive line, or allowed counsel assisting to do so. This doesn’t mean that the queue of bumbling, mumbling, duckdiving officials, exuding toxic jargon like anxious toads, were given a free ride. Rundle hasn’t read the transcripts. They are damning. Teague and the lawyers are far smarter than Rundle. Teague didn’t jerk the line, he played the fish. Let them run. Same with the noxious vested interests seeking to exploit the disaster- loggers, “mountain cattlemen”, rednecks and Green-haters.

    Let’s see what Teague delivers. Let’s see if he understands the interlocking nature of the corporate state and the repulsive private language which cloaks its endemic incompetence and corruption.

    Rundle fails to mention the most crippling and conspicuous failure after Black Saturday: the media and the Left. A vast sea of shallow reportage from the former, silence or waffle from the latter. The intellectual bankruptcy of both the media and the Left was exposed. Neither comprehend anything about the real environment, rural Australia or the bush. Germaine Greer’s fatuous piece comes to mind, just one of hundreds. Instead, the Right and vested interests had a field day.

    What DID exercise the minds of Greens and the Left since Black Saturday? You know the pathetic answer.

  27. Billy Blogs

    Glengyron – you just misrepresented the article. Nobody is suggesting police ‘fight fires’. Does that make you a hypocrite?

    State Labor have stuffed this up. It’s bveen years in the making, but it finally fell apart. And I can tell you from the ground in a fire prone area – it’s only become more complex and more confusing. Meanwhile local councils are still obstructing residents from protecting themselves in the future.

  28. Keith is not my real name

    Well said Guy, well said.

  29. Johnny B Good

    Those figures are correct. 84 died, including 60 in one day. Little more than one month later New Democracy was re-elected. Very easy facts to check Guy…

  30. glengyron

    This article starts by completely misrepresenting the 2007 Greek forest fires. Over a 4 month period 84 people died; the failures were systemic. As Rocket Rocket points out on one single day in August, the third month of the fire season, 60 people died.

    From that opening bullshit we then go on to placing the Police at the centre of fire fighting. Sorry, but that’s not right either.

  31. LacqueredStudio

    I’m inclined to agree with paulkidd and Holden.

    If you’re going to make the call that there’s a systemic problem across multiple levels of state authority, then you should know better than to think that en masse resignations left, right and centre will do anything more than make you feel good for an afternoon.

    Clearing the decks won’t fix the system, fixing the system will. The heads of the CFA should obviously go and Brumby too (although I just think he should go anyway) but where exactly do you think the resignations should end? Why don’t all of us who didn’t do something to prevent the death and destruction just resign? Then we can all reapply for our jobs the next day with a clear conscience.

  32. Billy Blogs

    Nixon was at dinner and Rees went home to his wife – how nice. To hold a position like chief police commissioner and head of the CFA you need to have passion and commitment. On Sat Feb 7 2009 both people in those positions showed they were incapable of dealing with stressful situations, and obviously didn’t have the passion we required.
    So what does Brumby do – well he he re-hires them of course.
    I live right in the heart of bushfire territory – I now take bushfire management into my own hands because I know I can’t rely on state and local governments.
    Holden Back…..you’re clutching mate – the Libs have nothing to do with this – move on.

  33. Holden Back

    If you’re really getting worked up, you forgot the heads of the DSE, Department of Planning, and the local councils and planners whio refused to institute Wildfire Management Overlays, and the local farmers and developers who sold irresponsibly dangerous house blocks.

    Then it’s the Libs in the saddle, with new teams in all of these areas. That’ll be fun.

  34. paulkidd

    Christine Nixon was the head of Victoria Police, not the CFA. There is a chain of command in a major bushfire in the fire-fighting authorities (CFA and DSE) are in charge. Admittedly there are some ambiguities in the chain of command – these have been canvassed at the Royal Commission – but no-one is saying the police should be in charge.

    What was Nixon supposed to do on Black Saturday? Take charge? Stage a mutiny? Or just hang around the control room getting in the way?

    The police don’t fight fires, the CFA and DSE do. There was nothing Nixon could have done on Black Saturday that would have changed the outcome – Russell Rees and Ewan Waller were in charge and if the response was botched it was because of the CFA’s and DSE’s failure, not because Nixon didn’t mess things up further.

    The current calls for Nixon to resign are nonsensical. Yes, she went to a hotel for dinner, which was probably a bit stupid, but it’s not a dereliction of duty. Russell Rees and Ewan Waller were responsible for the coordination, response and the communications that were so spectacularly bungled. If anyone should resign, it’s them.

  35. Rocket Rocket

    In the 2007 fires in Greece, I think about SIXTY people died on August 24, and a total of 84 died that season. In Greece’s national election on September 16, 2007, the Government did not fall, but was re-elected.

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