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Burning States, Secret Travels and Scott Morrison

Photograph Source: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos – GFDL 1.2

The bush fire 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 New South Wales, and major incendiary activity in South Australia and Victoria. 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. To this could be added fires at Currowan, Kerry Ridge and Upper Turon Road, Palmers Oaky.

The announcements keep coming; we are witnessing a logbook of environmental terror and despair, with jottings of lost homes, destroyed property, and incinerated fauna. While this has been 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 last month 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. On Friday, he announced that he would return “as soon as can be arranged” expressing “regret [at] 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 bush fires was to be expected; 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 some 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’s Radio National program 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 the 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. “By that time,” recalled Mullins, “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 November 29, 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 include 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 finds itself cornered ahead of Christmas. Even McCormack finds himself conceding that some nexus between climate change and fire risk exists, if only because the community thinks it does. “Yeah, I do, absolutely – yeah 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.” Plus ça change.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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