Bushfires and politics: Scene-setters for an Australian Christmas

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Lee Duffield goes to the fire zone at the heart of Australia’s bushfire crisis, metropolitan Sydney, finding worry in the streets and some kind of game of politics happening behind the smokescreen.

THERE WERE NO PRIZES in Sydney during the last week for grasping that a crisis in nature was an actual threat to life.

  • There was the drought – most of New South Wales already drought-declared – plans being made for some 90 towns running out of water.
  • Across greater Sydney itself, water restrictions came in, with bans on hosing or car washing, the dams down to below 45% — enough to start off a few thoughts about mass survival.
  • Fires circling the city got worse, especially the mega-fire inland from Gosford. Nobody in Sydney could get away from the choking fumes from burning eucalyptus leaves, day and night, save for pumping up the air conditioning while having a cough and bathing the red eyes. Local sages recalled a similar encirclement in 1994 saying this was heavier and considering the drought and tinder-dry landscapes everywhere, more frightening.
  • A few days checking the scene in the Blue Mountains – where they said the smoke was not as bad, but as always the bushfire threat real – told the same story of creeping anxiety. Visitors to the Three Sisters at Katoomba looking for the sweeping mountain views saw smoke. Through the thick haze could be seen, in daylight, orange flame two kilometres short of the town and an enormous field of blinking embers further down the valley. Helicopters chugged back and forth overhead for hours with suspended water buckets. Householders in the town, experienced, have their cars packed up with baggage, camping gear, the household documents and family mementos.   
  • Similar worries have been building up across the continent, including vast areas of Queensland and around the national capital, with Victoria, South Australia and the west gearing up for their turn. The harbinger of strife for the immediate future was the continent-wide heatwave arriving exactly one week before Christmas. Wednesday 18 December 2019 saw the announcement of Australia’s hottest day on record — on Tuesday, the national average set at 40.9 degrees, outstripping the 2013 record of 40.3 degrees. Melbourne and Adelaide both reached more than 40 degrees. Forecasters were promising worse to come.

How hot is that?


Where there is crisis, you find leadership. It brings out the best in democratic government. Reassurance, responsibility, rhetoric — of the best kind. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” said President Franklin Roosevelt. “We will never surrender,” said Winston Churchill.

Australia in 2019 has indeed produced its own brand of Great Man rhetoric on causes of the fires. “Now is not the time to talk about climate change,” said the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. “It might frighten the children.” That handy line, “now is not the time”, as used by U.S. Republican Party spin doctors, would serve to cover general silence on the cause of the conflagration all around.

How smart is that?

It is claimed that the Great Man has effected another solution for confronting the crisis and reassuring the people: clear off to American or somewhere, family and all, on a holiday.  Political offsiders were not actually telling where the man might have gone — security, you know. Would it be in shelters, mucking-in together with families from the 500 homes that have burned this year in New South Wales alone? Could it be Maui? Or an inter-family visit, back at the guest house across from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, DC? We have to imagine when we do not know.

How imaginative is that?


Meantime, some serious politics kicked in in the state of New South Wales, where the Liberal Party Environment Minister Matt Kean appeared to break ranks with the party dictum that says “nothing to see on this climate change idea”.

Matt said “no one can deny” climate change was to blame for the bushfires and smoke haze everywhere:

“This is not normal… I am not going to wait until the end of summer to start having a meaningful conversation about what we’ve got to do to address this issue.”

Now was the time, he said.

His leader, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, had disappeared from public view for a day or two, but had at least not gone off to Hawaii or somewhere similar. Resurfacing, she put her name to a new policy: an ambitious shortening of the state’s own greenhouse emissions target of 35% from 2050 to 2030. That would seem to be a logical policy response to what the environment was telling the State Environment Minister, but what about politics and the Liberals, who at the national level continue to run with climate change deniers? No actual split in sight, but the incident did tell a story on media politics.

How divisive is that?

The Sydney Morning Herald naturally splashed the story from Kean. The News Corp outlets, persisting with an editorial policy pro-denial, did not. A few days later, when the greenhouse emissions decision was front-paged in the Herald, News Corp’s Telegraph gave it a miss. But it broke what had been its silence on the Minister’s comments, with two attacks on him: from a National Party Member on page nine and a columnist on page 13, who said: ‘will Matt be kean [pun — see?] on sacrificing NSW industry’.


What had taken place, you could almost suspect “to the rescue” for the editors at News Corp, was the tragedy at White Island in New Zealand. This got the full treatment, heavy journalistic work, finding families and updating on all angles over many pages. Climate change/drought/heatwave/bushfires stuff pushed aside, best ignored. (They also ignored a plea from Morrison for journalists to get victims’ family information indirectly through the police.)

Morrison himself, before standing down temporarily as PM and going somewhere, had given his lead on that: no to talking about climate change during bushfires in front of children and yes to emoting in public over an exploding volcano that killed off family groups on holiday. It was a quick get-out, before getting out altogether and disappearing, as if into a haze of smoke.

How clever is that?

Across the country, they started laughing at him hard. This is fairly new in the general media-scape and politically dangerous for the man. The slogan from his tourism promotion days, “where the bloody hell are you?”, has been having a run across all media, likewise, his Q&A crack at the Victorian Police Commissioner who skived off for dinner during a bushfire crisis. Also heard this one about Scott’s resort holiday: He’s been heavily using the kid’s pool, something about the idea of “shallow” and making a big splash had more appeal than doing hard work over in the big pool.

A marketing man under fire has to think of something quickly. Might that something be something like a Big Program against climate change? The Earth and the air are demanding it, and many citizens who might have been reassured at election time that bad things would not happen could be reassessing that. If the New South Wales Liberals peering through smoke are seeing what might have to be done and votes are in it, maybe it is a moment to take on the deniers in the party — get something from the fraught climate summit just ended at Madrid, step up with a new plan on emissions and offer some money — that might be a good trick to start off the New Year.

How simple is that?

Footnote from the writer: Normally I can’t offer personal views but the cant-detector is objecting to the exemption-from-everything being proclaimed for family holidays. I do recall doing some serious international journalism with the Australian public in mind, nothing anywhere as vital as running the country, but going off on a two-day job that blew up like a bushfire and getting back a week later. It had to be explained to the children that it can be good for them to learn what is going on; you make up the holidays once able. I do recall myself feeling somewhat duty-bound and cannot help feeling that if it was really in his heart to be with the people, not just perform before them, this would have been the time to stay around.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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