Wren's Week: Scott Morrison seeks distractions from bushfire aftermath

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It would appear that Scott Morrison's "thoughts and prayers" strategy isn't doing enough (Image by Dan Jensen)

A thick blanket of smoke from the bushfires has covered Sydney while the leader of our nation seems to have no idea how to deal with the situation, writes John Wren.

WHAT A WEEK. As Sydney is blanketed with bushfire smoke with no sign of it abating, Australians still wait on its political leadership, such as it is, to act or say something positive. It’s an absolute political nightmare for Scott Morrison. Weeks ago, when the fires started, he made a few minor appearances and then as the fires grew, he went into hiding. Why would a nation’s leader act in such a cowardly manner?

It is true that Australia has always had bushfires. Many of our trees have evolved to cope with fire, some even need fire for their seeds to germinate. But we’ve never seen fires of this magnitude before. The reality is the fires in Australia, like those raging similarly in Africa and South America, have been exacerbated by climate change. Climate change has changed rainfall patterns, drying out the forests far more than normal and as the fires rage, there has been no subsequent rainfall to dampen or extinguish them as would normally happen.

Even as I type this, the Bureau of Meteorology is not forecasting any significant rain for months yet in the fire zones. It is quite possible that when the fires do eventually die down (they’ll run out of fuel at some point) the forests may not be able to recover as they have in the past due to the lack of rainfall. It’s desertification in action. It’s not a drought.

Morrison’s regressive coalition is packed to the rafters with coal lobbyists and climate change deniers. Having famously brought a lump of coal into Parliament, he is arguably both. The fires are a clear challenge to his ideology. With humans, when long-held beliefs are challenged, cognitive dissonance sets in — often the first sign of this is outright denial. We are seeing this now across the regressive side of politics. The shock jocks and National Party MPs like Deputy PM Michael McCormack are blaming arsonists for the fires, not climate change.

Like bushfires themselves, Australia has also always had arsonists. Even pre-European settlement, Aboriginals deliberately set fire to the land to clear it for wildlife and initiate fresh growth. It was a form of landcare and farming. These regressives will do and say anything to avoid acknowledging climate change.

When it became obvious the fires were much bigger than normal, Morrison’s PR team must have decided to play the fires as though they are routine. Keep Morrison’s head down until the fires fizzled out, then business as normal. Bad call. It hasn’t happened. Weeks later, the fires are still raging and Sydney is now blanketed in smoke. Schools and businesses are closing down, people’s health is suffering, wildlife is being decimated and tourism is affected. The cost to the economy is profound.

The smoke is keeping it front and centre in people’s minds. They can’t go out their front doors without being assailed by it. And the people are angry. It’s now gone on so long Morrison cannot go out and show leadership as it will highlight how late in the piece he’s left it. If he makes a public statement he will be associated with the fires and thus the ravages of climate change that he continues to deny.

Morrison is now desperate for a distraction from the bushfires. On Monday, he thought he had it. New Zealand’s White Island (Whakaari) suddenly erupted violently while 50 or more tourists were on the Island. Many Australians were amongst them, many have been killed, many more are in critical condition and, unfortunately, may not survive. The NZ authorities have been superb, evacuating the victims to burns units across the country. As some of the Australians are stabilised, they will be flown on to Australian hospitals’ burn units.

It has been reminiscent of the Australian response to the Bali bombing, with burns victims airlifted to hospitals across Australia. NZ PM Jacinda Ardern has shown her characteristic compassion and leadership through the crisis. Morrison sent out three tweets in an hour expressing condolences and promising support to both the NZ authorities and the families of victims. It was more than he has mentioned of the catastrophic fires in his own country.

Australians were not fooled by it. They are now used to the Coalition’s media cycle of blunders, scandal, distraction then the next mess.

On Wednesday, tens of thousands of protesters took to the smoke-filled streets of Sydney to demand the Government take action on climate change. The protests will get bigger, will spread to other cities and become more disruptive as the Government’s inaction continues. The fires have brought home the reality of climate change to many who may have been sitting on the fence. Morrison needs to find a circuit-breaker or it could bring his government down. With the Liberal Party now largely composed of deniers and funded by fossil-fuel donations, it’s unlikely he’ll come up with one.

This morning, obviously under huge pressure to be seen to be doing something, Morrison announced a further $11 million would be spent on aerial firefighting equipment. To put this into context, this will pay for about 1/3 of an aerial water bomber. It’s a paltry sum. This is a typical response from Morrison — talk in millions of dollars because to the average punter that sounds a lot. John and Jane voter really have no idea how expensive water bombers are and how expensive they are to keep in the air, but it sounds like a lot, doesn't it?

But wait, it gets worse. Back in March, former fire chiefs publicly warned that Australia needed its own firebombing aircraft fleet. In past years, Australia has leased aircraft (remember Elvis?) for our fire season. However, with climate change, fires are burning across the planet and those aircraft are not available this year. What do you think the Morrison Government’s response was in March?

‘...purchasing a national firefighting air fleet would be too expensive and current leasing arrangements are working.’

Morrison also tried another distraction. He released the second draft of his pointless Religious Freedom Bill. But more on that next week.

You can sign the petition to have John Wren reinstated on Twitter here.

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