The Deadly Failures of Conservative Government in Australia in the Face of Ferocious Fires

Photograph Source: Meganesia – CC BY-SA 4.0

The Morrison government is engaged in distorting and obscuring the causes of the bushfires raging across parts of Australia since October 2019. This is being done for ideological and political reasons by a conservative government with an established record of climate denial and coal addiction. The huge scale of the disaster is clear.

‘Mothers, daughters, fathers, sons’: on 8 January, Calla Wahlquist in The Guardian identified 26 people confirmed to have died since the summer began. NSW is the most populous state, and at 20 people, the death toll was highest there. Some were killed actively fighting the fires, including three volunteer firefighters. These men and women are unpaid, often defending their own communities, in a proudly activist tradition of public service. In South Australia there were then three confirmed deaths, and the same in Victoria.

Samuel McPaul, age 28, was killed when his heavy fire truck ‘flipped in a fire tornado’ at Jingellic, east of Albury, on 30 December (he was pictured with his wife, Megan, both youthful). A spokesman for the NSW Rural Fire Service said McPaul “did everything for the right reasons” and always put the community first. He was then the third volunteer to die currently: Geoffrey Keaton, 32, and Andrew O’Dwyer, 36, were killed when a tree hit their tanker when they were fighting a fire at Balmoral, south of Sydney, on 19 December. Keaton was deputy captain of the Horsley Park brigade, and he received an honour guard at his funeral. Both men were pictured beamishly with babies in their arms. Among others whose deaths were recorded were Gwen Hyde, 68, Coongbar, who died with her husband, Bob Lindsey, Vivian Chaplain, 69, Wytaliba, and Julie Fletcher, 63, Johns River. Matt Kavanagh, 43, worked for Forest Fire Management Victoria, and was suppressing new fires on the Goulburn Valley Highway, when he was killed in a car crash on 3 January. Wahlquist noted eight more people confirmed dead in NSW but not yet identified.

Expert Warnings Ignored Over Years

In May 2018, the National Aerial Firefighting Centre sent the commonwealth (federal) government in Canberra a business case requesting a permanent increase of AUD 11 million to its annual budget (1 AUD is about US 80 cents). In April 2019, the Emergency Leaders for Climate Change, a new group of 22 former emergency services leaders, led by former commissioner of NSW Fire and Rescue, Greg Mullins, wrote to the federal government alerting them to ‘the threat of increasingly catastrophic extreme weather events’, and calling for recognition that new ‘firefighting assets’ including large aircraft, were needed to deal with the scale of the threat.

On 16 September, the Emergency Leaders wrote again to Prime Minister Morrison asking why the government had not yet given them a meeting, despite being told on 4 July that Minister Angus Taylor’s office would arrange one: “It appears that Minister Taylor…fails to grasp the urgency of this matter…the minister appears at best disinterested in what the Emergency Leaders might have to say”, Stephanie Convery reported in The Guardian, 4 January 2020.

On 9 November 2019, Carol Sparks, the mayor of Glen Innes in NSW, where an inferno had killed two of its residents, declared: “Its climate change, there’s no doubt about it. The whole of the country is going to be affected”.

Ignoring the warnings, attacking the messengers and obscuring the issue, all were utilised by Morrison. On 11 November, Michael McCormack, deputy prime minister, attacked “enlightened and woke capital-city greenies” and “inner-city raving lunatics” who are “trying to get a political point score” (sic) from trying to link climate, drought and bushfires. While David Littleproud, minister for emergency management, claimed the same day that Taylor’s office had received no formal request for a meeting from Mullins or the Emergency Leaders forum, as reported by Convery.

Physical detachment was also utilised. As fires burned through the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, and the city was shrouded in smoke pollution, reports circulated that Morrison had gone on holidays to Hawaii. His office claimed that national security (a taboo issue) was involved, and then that reports of him in Hawaii were “wrong”. Delaying tactics remained part of the mix: Littleproud said on 17th that fighting bushfires is “obviously’’…the “responsibility of state governments…” This was when Keaton and O’Dwyer were fighting and dying outside Sydney. On 20 December, the PM announced that he would return from holidays, “deeply regret[ing] any offence caused by my taking leave”. But back in office he affirmed on 22 December that the government ‘will not increase its efforts to combat climate change’. Drawing attention to climate crisis and emissions policies is an attempt to “score [political] points”. He said his government was ‘considering calls to pay volunteers’, but reiterated that ‘in the first instance’ this was a matter for state governments, Convery, 4 January.

Aggressive denials and crude diversionary tactics continued hand-in-hand. On 23 December Morrison labelled calls to reduce carbon emissions “reckless”. After McPaul became the third NSW RFS volunteer to be killed, on the NSW/Victoria border, the PM’s New Year message urged Australians to celebrate living “in the most amazing country”, where “there’s no better place to raise kids”. Aside from this resort to godzone banality, little changed. Australia would not change its existing emissions policy and its firefighting efforts because he doesn’t want state and federal governments “tripping over each other in order to somehow outbid each other in the response”, Morrison said on 2 January. Two days later, his office released a glossy add (in the name of the Liberal Party) boosting the governments firefighting efforts, backed by a jaunty jingle. Before he won the prime ministership, Morrison had displayed his showmanship when he brought a large lump of coal into the parliamentary chamber, exhorting Labour MPs not to be afraid.

The Prime Minister was now facing, according to David Marshall, a specialist in media management, “the snowballing of this issue”. On his way back from Hawaii, Morrison gave a radio interview where he said that “Australians understand and they’ll be pleased I’m coming back…they know “I don’t hold a hose, I don’t sit in a control room.” He was a former head of Tourism Australia, and had been lampooned on social media as ‘Scotty from Marketing’ for his ‘spin-heavy turn of phrase.’ Notably his repeated reference to the ‘Canberra bubble’ of out-of-touch politicians, and his implicit message that he is better connected to real people, termed by him the “Quiet Australians”.

But his visit to the ravaged village of Cobargo in early January exposed just how detached he was to the situation and the people. Two people, a young woman and a volunteer, who had both lost their homes, declined to take Morrison’s hand, and among some shouting and abuse, he simply drove off. There were other contrasting leadership models just then: Daniel Andrews, Labour Premier in Victoria, and Gladys Berejiklian, Liberal Premier in NSW, were according to Marshall, recognised as proactive, responsive leaders. Ben Smee, ‘Death of the Salesman?’, The Guardian, 4 January 2020.

Kevin Rudd, former Labour Prime Minister, summarised the conservative governments record on the crisis as “evasive, tepid, tone-deaf and above all, too late.” He noted that Australia was the driest inhabited continent, and needed therefore the best national aerial fire-bombing fleet. The state fire service chiefs should have a direct executive voice to Canberra: it’s not good enough when the NSW RSF chief says ‘he first heard of the call-out of the army reserve through the media.’ (The Defence Force reservists were committed in early January when AUD 2 billion was offered to bushfire relief, ABC News, 11 January 2020.) Rudd identified some of the leading denialists. The ‘high priest of climate denial’ was Tony Abbott. (Abbott himself defers to his Liberal doyen, John Howard, who had dismissed climate action as a “substitute religion”, The Economist, 4 January 2020) Abbott had earlier proclaimed climate change as “absolute crap”, and had told a global audience, via Israeli radio, that the problem was that Australia had been taken over by a “climate change cult”. Abbott had destroyed a Turnbull Liberal government in 2017 over a national energy guarantee. Abbott “has always been 100% politics”, and has seen climate as “the perfect political wedge against Labour among working families”, deploying fear campaigns about jobs and living costs. The Abbott denialist cult has now ‘taken over the entire Coalition government’. It is backed by the Murdoch media, as a ‘command centre of climate policy obstruction.’ Rudd, The Guardian, 6 January 2020.

Jericho reminds us that Australian conservatives inevitably follow the lead of the US. The actions of Scott Morrison directly reflect this linkage. His evangelical beliefs are ‘a first for Australian politics’. He upholds a belief in a so-called prosperity bible, and is a regular devotee at the Pentecostal Hillsong maxi church in Sydney. Australians have very low religious attendance rates and tend to dislike overt expressions of religious adherence. Jericho feels that avoidance of American religiosity demands vigilance. What Morrison has chiefly taken on board from Trump is that ‘arrogance and utter refusal to concede error…is a potent weapon in a fractured world’. For Morrison as for Trump, ‘overwhelming evidence’ ranks lower. Greg Jericho, The Guardian, 1 December 2019. ‘Unquiet’ Australians probably face a long struggle to attain sanity.

Change was nonetheless happening. An articulate independent MP, Zali Steggall, had defeated Tony Abbott in his blue-ribbon Sydney seat in 2019 on a platform of climate change action, and a cross party pro-climate action group, the Parliamentary Friends of Climate Action now existed. Inner-city seats had shown support for climate issues, and Steggall planned to promote further action. Morrison still insisted that “we don’t want job-destroying, economy wrecking…targets and goals”. Sarah Martin, The Guardian, 10 January 2020. The human and physical realities might render such mantras ultimately untenable.