Coded Messages About Australia’s Big Burn

Photograph Source: Meganesia – CC BY-SA 4.0

“Blame doesn’t help anybody at this time, and over-analysis of these things is not a productive exercise”

– Australian prime minister Scott Morrison

Media-inflected “fatigue” has been in the news recently.

“Impeachment fatigue” on the part of the public is cited as the context for the sham impeachment proceedings which allowed Republican senators to dump every remaining shred of principle in their contorted attempts to exculpate Trump (Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee saying Trump was guilty but should not be removed from office because senators were bound not so much by their oath of office and the principles of the justice as by the opinions of their electorate).

Similarly “Brexit fatigue” is invoked as a reason for Boris Johnson’s recent election victory— his misleading slogan “Get Brexit done” resonated with voters allegedly fatigued by the 3 preceding years of unproductive and often farcical goings-on as Brexitannia meandered towards its divorce from Brussels.

The Australian wildfires, which started in August last year, have receded from media attention outside Australia.

The fires have (so far) killed 34 people and an estimated 1 billion native animals since August. Approximately 2,500 homes have been destroyed and more than 26.2 million acres have been razed.

Australia’s wine industry is starting to be affected by “smoke taint” caused by the wildfires. “Smoke taint” is brought about by particulates which settle on the skin of the grape and affect its taste. The entire 2020 crop has been lost in some parts of the Hunter Valley and Adelaide Hills wine regions, while many growers are harvesting only a fraction of their fruit.

While many fires continue to burn, heavy rain is falling on coastal areas, and less so in drought-affected areas inland. Fires have so far been reduced fires by a third, though flooding is now a major problem on the coast, causing widespread evacuations and power outages.

The Australian summer still has some way to go, and warm temperatures can be expected to last until April.

But has media and public fatigue set in where the fires are concerned, especially after a spell of torrential rain?

The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison (also known as ScoMo and Scotty from Marketing), seems to be counting on it as he “evolves” his government’s policy response to climate change and the continuing wildfire crisis.

In a TV interview last week Morrison said he would not “be bullied” into more action on climate change:

“We listen to Australians right across the country. Not just in the inner city…. It’s important to listen to everybody but take people forward on practical, balanced action that doesn’t go and write people’s jobs off, or industries off…. It’s about technology, not taxation. So we won’t be bullied into higher taxes or higher electricity prices. What we’ll do is take practical action that deals with these challenges”.

ScoMo heads a coalition government consisting of his centre-right Liberal party and the right-wing National party, so he has on his “left” moderates who want more done to address climate change, and on his “right” hardliners who say flat-out that the science behind climate change is a leftwing “hoax”, or that the science is somehow beyond them because they are “not scientists”.

Keeping this crew together requires ScoMo to give the appearance of doing something about climate change, but at the same time not doing anything significant enough (such as passing a carbon tax or taking concrete steps to reduce emissions) to fire-up the troglodytes in his coalition’s rightwing.

Scotty from Marketing has therefore to operate on two fronts, one policy-oriented, the other involving “messaging”.

Evidence of the latter is evident in the interview mentioned above. First comes a pitch directed at “Australians right across the country”, thereby giving the impression that ScoMo will not be “bullied” by this or that faction of Australians with their own axes to grind (while he of course remains in the pockets of carbon-energy companies possessing their own very sharp axes).

Then comes an immediate dilution of the seeming inclusivity of this pitch, as ScoMo separates-out the “inner cities” from “Australians right across the country”.

Many Aussies will know there is underlying code at work here.

As in most parts of the western world, cities tend politically to be more liberal and progressive than their rural counterparts, and so in Australia the opposition centrist Labor party has its strongholds in the cities.

Labor had introduced a carbon tax a few years ago when in government, only to have it rescinded by the coalition when it took over, so by saying he would “listen to everybody” and not just the “inner cities”, ScoMo is implying that his climate-change agenda would tilt in favour of measures that work for “everybody”, and not just the pro-environment inner cities.

Moreover, this would be done by moving “forward on practical, balanced action”, all this undertaken without threatening industries (coal!) and the jobs therein.

“Practical” and “balanced” are of course easily-recognizable as tranquilizing representations underwriting the status quo— who in their right mind likes being called “impractical” and “unbalanced”?

So what seems on the surface to be a message conveying a welcome inclusivity, turns out on inspection to be a tad more select, as Scotty signals he’ll continue to coddle carbon-energy producers and polluters, while flipping a finger at environmental activists—those irritating “inner city” types– who unlike ScoMo don’t “listen to everybody”.

This underlying coded message of partiality is confirmed by Morrison’s policy proposals. In the interview just mentioned he goes on to say:

“Hazard reduction is important, if not more important, than emissions reduction when it comes to protecting people from fire and hotter, drier, longer summers in the future.

Also, in a country ravaged by drought, and the impacts that we have experienced, and that drought continues, building dams is climate action now”.

Emissions reduction will therefore be less of a priority for ScoMo than building more dams and so-called hazard reduction.

Dam construction is a well-known double-edged phenomenon, likely if at all to be beneficial in the shorter term, while these benefits are at the same time offset by environmental problems and a diminishing cost-benefit ratio as the dam ages. In a previous CounterPunch article I discussed Australia’s “market-based” approach to dam construction, which drained waterways and stiffed small farmers while lining the pockets of agribusiness fat cats and the water companies. If Scotty wants more of this, then the small farmers are going to need divine intervention.

Hazard reduction– involving controlled burning, and removing trees and vegetation, both dead and alive– is another potential smokescreen employed by ScoMo.

Climate change, by bringing hotter and drier conditions and higher fire-danger ratings, is reducing the time-frames that allow controlled burning to be undertaken safely.

Fire chiefs have also said that some fires have been so intense they crossed areas that had already been subject to hazard reduction. One fire chief said there has been “reburning” in some places that had previously been scorched— so dry is the atmosphere that after a couple of weeks even burnt leaves were able to reignite.

In addition, hazard reduction costs money for equipment and personnel, and ScoMo’s record on being forthcoming with extra funds for fighting the wildfires is patchy (to say the least).

Rupert Murdoch’s titles account for 59% of the sales of all daily newspapers in Australia, and they have played a significant part in conveying disinformation about the wildfire crisis.

Spreading the blame and finger-pointing are well-known tactics used by politicians criticized for mishandling a crisis, and here the Murdoch media have helped Aussie conservative politicians in two respects.

Firstly, the Greens and other conservation groups were blamed for preventing hazard reduction activities by being over-zealous in safeguarding natural habitats (so-called “vegetation worship”).

The New York Times reported that Murdoch’s media empire has been instrumental in publishing claims blaming Greens for impeding hazard reduction.

Murdoch’s media also says these fires are no worse than normal.

Secondly, Murdoch’s flagship newspaper, The Australian, spread the story that the wildfires were the work of arsonists, obviously in the hope that this would detract from the assertion that climate change is the main contributing factor to the crisis.

The moronic Donnie Trump Jr quickly used Twitter to repeat the story in The Australian.

A common premise in these debunked stories is that the Australian police and firefighters are the source of what is purveyed in Murdoch’s papers.

Alas for Murdoch the police and firefighters have refused to play their part, and refuted his papers’ claims.

The Guardian reported a spokeswoman for the Victoria state police as saying “There is currently no intelligence to indicate that the fires in East Gippsland and the North East have been caused by arson or any other suspicious behaviour”.

The Guardian article also notes that according to a Rural Fire Service spokesman, “The majority of the larger fires in the state [of New South Wales] were caused by lightning, and that arson was a relatively small source of ignition”.

The claim that “vegetation worship” on the part of the Greens is impeding hazard reduction has also been discredited by officials.

The former New South Wales state Fire and Rescue Commissioner Greg Mullins wrote in The Guardian: “Blaming ‘greenies’ for stopping these important measures is a familiar, populist, but basically untrue claim”.

In 2012 a UK parliamentary inquiry into the widespread phone-hacking of celebrities by Murdoch’s papers concluded that he was “not a fit person” to run a major international company.

Murdoch appeared before the inquiry, and presaged Harvey Weinstein’s current tottering walking-frame courtroom act, by playing a doddering old fool clueless about what was going on in his companies.

Alas for Murdoch, renowned for micro-managing the content of his papers, the UK parliamentarians did not fall for his con.

Australia could emulate the UK and hold a similar inquiry into the part played by Murdoch’s media in spreading outright lies and distortions during one of Australia’s greatest-ever crises.

If Australian officialdom did hold such an inquiry, it should come to the same conclusion as its UK counterpart on Murdoch’s lack of “fitness” to head a major international corporation.

In the meantime, the Australian summer still has a couple of months to go.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.