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How the Coalition Government has been ineffective in dealing with our fire crisis

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Scott Morrison and his ministers, including David Littleproud and Angus Taylor, have mishandled Australia's fire crisis to much public criticism (Image by Dan Jensen)

Aside from the Prime Minister abandoning the nation as it burned, other Liberal Party ministers have handled the situation equally as ineptly, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

THE BUSHFIRE SITUATION in Australia is now deemed catastrophic. And it started early, with a relentless ferocity that has seen thousands of volunteers stretched across the states and a slow but assured rise in the number of deaths. Currently, there are fires raging at emergency level across the southern states, with some scenes from Victoria’s coastal town of Mallacoota resembling a visiting apocalypse.

One Saturday was deemed by NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons “awful”, given the loss of 20 homes in a “mega-blaze” northwest of Sydney in the Gospers Mountain area. To this could be added fires at Currowan, Kerry Ridge and Upper Turon Road, Palmers Oaky. But that was just the start in what has become an environmental calamity that may prove to be unprecedented in the country.

The announcements keep coming; we are witnessing a logbook of ecological terror and despair, with jottings of lost homes, destroyed property and incinerated fauna. While this was happening, the Australian Prime Minister took leave for a family trip to Hawaii. Deputising in his stead has been the less-than-impressive Nationals leader Michael McCormack, who said in November 2019 that bushfire victims “don’t need the ravings of some pure enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time when they are trying to save their homes”.

It is not unusual for leaders to leave in such moments for a vacation; history is replete with examples of those seeking distraction in times of crisis. If the leader is relishing a moment of enjoyment, the populace will be reassured. While it would be churlish to deny them a chance for recreation and relief over a parliamentary recess, doing so in times of lethal crisis might be considered more than just poor form. When that period of leave is supposedly taken without formal announcement, electors may see red.

It took the deaths of two fire-fighters – Geoff Keaton and his friend Andrew O’Dwyer near Buxton south of Sydney – to finally convince Morrison that he should cut his Hawaii vacation short. He announced that he would return “as soon as can be arranged” and regretting “any offence caused to any of the many Australians affected by the terrible bushfires by my taking leave with family at this time”.

This did not mean, Morrison assured, that he was uninterested or inactive in matters touching on Australian welfare.

“I have been receiving regular updates on the bushfires disaster as well as the status for the search for and treatment of the victims of the White Island tragedy.” 

But shaming social media hawks did the rounds, finding images suggesting that the Prime Minister was still enjoying a spot of Hawaiian fun before his departure. 

Leaving aside the mandatory mutterings of apology that come with being caught out, the Australian Prime Minister had it coming. He has made every effort to normalise environmental catastrophe, putting it down to the natural ebb and flow of Australia’s harsh conditions. The choking haze of Sydney arising from bushfires was to be expected, he said, as he remembered them as a boy, growing up. 

As part of what may be more an instinct than a strategy, he has sidelined those pointy-heads, the irritating experts that have come to signify so much that is supposedly wrong with what is done (or not). One such expert, you could say, is former Fire and Rescue NSW Commissioner Greg Mullins. In November, he told ABC Radio National how he had warned Morrison twice – first in April and again after the May election – that the coming bushfire season would be exceptionally dangerous. 

The response was telling: Mullins was told that Energy Minister Angus Taylor would be in touch. This was symbolic. With Australia facing probable incendiary calamity, the Morrison Government had cold-shouldered such concerns by passing concerns to the energy portfolio. 

It would take weeks before Natural Disaster and Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud would take the reins over the issue and seek a meeting. Even then, Morrison did not deem it relevantly grave to warrant seeing members of the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action and those seasoned in battling fires.

Mullins recalled:

“By that time, what we’d predicted earlier in the year had manifested … That something is on everybody’s TV screens at the moment. We saw it coming. We tried to warn the Government.”

On 29 November 2019, Mullins sent Littleproud a letter briefing him of potential responses as part of the fire and emergency chiefs’ advice ahead of their meeting.

They included recommendations that the Government:

  • ‘take immediate measures to aid current firefighting and community protection efforts by the States and Territories’;
  • ‘make effective strategic interventions to increase community resilience and support fire and emergency services to cope with a more dangerous environment’;
  • establish a ‘suitable reporting and auditing framework’; and
  • focus on combating climate change as ‘the key driver of worsening fire and extreme weather risks’.

The fourth recommendation would have been particularly stinging to Morrison and McCormack. Terms such as “empirical data”, “peer-reviewed” and “irrefutable scientific findings” rarely fly in the Liberal and Nationals' party room these days.

‘To protect Australians from worsening bushfire conditions and natural disaster risks, Australia must accelerate and increase measures to tackle the root cause, climate change.’

With such a barrage of advice and Morrison’s Hawaiian stint, the Government found itself cornered ahead of Christmas. Even McCormack conceded that some nexus between climate change and fire risk exists, if only because the community thinks it does. “Yeah, I do, absolutely — I do agree entirely.”  But – and here it remains a resounding “but” – there was “a lot of hysteria around climate change”.  Akin to the devout and pious, the Nationals leader had a weak suggestion: comfort those “who have lost loved ones” and address “fires as they are occurring”.

This attitude did not change much in the Prime Minister’s New Year address, as he admitted that 2019 had not been without difficulties:

“But the one thing we can always celebrate in Australia is that we live in the most amazing country on Earth and the wonderful Aussie spirit that means we always overcome whatever challenges that we face that we always look optimistically into your future.” 

Australia remained truly singular as a “place to raise kids”.

Not so the disasters, which remain, in the Morrison world, manageable matters more akin to standard bookkeeping:

“Whatever our trials, whatever disasters have befallen us, we have never succumbed to panic.”

And just to emphasise how distortions on climate change science remain fixed and trenchant within the Coalition Government, Taylor would praise Australia’s efforts in battling carbon emissions in the safe space of The Australian, using a novel method of accountancy we have come to expect from Morrison’s inner circle. 

'Australia meets and beats its emissions-reduction targets, every time.'

The Kyoto targets were outdone by 129 million tonnes; the 2020 targets will be duly met by 411 million tonnes.

Besides, Australia was:

‘...responsible for only 1.3 per cent of global emissions, so we can’t single-handedly have a meaningful impact without the co-operation of the largest emitters such as China and the U.S.’

As studies have shown, this is a mirage of statistical deception, ignoring the obvious point that Australian emissions should count not merely those it produces directly, but those produced by fossil fuel exports that are subsequently used. Arms manufacturers are no less culpable ethically, or tangibly, if their weapons are used by citizens of one country or the other. Such a method is pure Morrison: keep up appearances before the incineration and hope that memories weaken in time.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.

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