And the lesson is fire and drought do not force change. The history is everywhere today, not because of the 10th anniversary of those turning points in national politics, but because Australia has seen the repeated failure of politics in response to extreme events, just as it faces more extreme events.
That is why the wisest words on the bushfires came from those with direct experience.
“If it’s not time now to speak about climate and what’s driving these events – when?” asked former Fire and Rescue NSW commissioner Greg Mullins on Thursday, alongside other former fire commissioners. “This fire season is going to go for months, so do we just simply get gagged? Because I think that’s what’s happening. Some people want the debate gagged because they don’t have any answers.”
Mullins was speaking with former Queensland Fire and Emergency Services commissioner Lee Johnson, former Country Fire Authority Victoria chief executive Neil Bibby and former Tasmania Fire Service chief fire officer Mike Brown. Their message was that an urgent threat deserved an urgent response from government. They said climate change was the key reason why fire seasons were lengthening and fires were harder to control.
“We’d like to see Labor, the Coalition government, Greens and the crossbenchers all come together and declare a climate emergency,” Mullins said. He called the bushfire danger “unprecedented” and said climate scientists and emergency services chiefs had warned of the danger years ago, and he did not hide his frustration with conservative politicians who would not admit the link between bushfire and climate change.
“It’s OK to say it’s [an] arsonists’ fault, or that the greenies are stopping hazard reduction burning, which simply isn’t true, but you’re not allowed to talk about climate change. Well, we are, because we know what’s happening,” he said.
They are not the only ones. Dale Dominey-Howes, professor of hazards and disaster risk sciences at the University of Sydney, wrote of the connection between climate change and bushfire in September. “Although these bushfires are not directly attributable to climate change, our rapidly warming climate, driven by human activities, is exacerbating every risk factor for more frequent and intense bushfires,” he wrote in The Conversation.
The Australian Academy of Science says the increase in average temperatures caused by climate change will contribute to fuel dryness and, indirectly, to bushfire. “While the predictions for changes in rainfall are not as robust as those for temperature, it is expected that there will be less rainfall in the south-eastern and south-western regions of Australia,” the academy says, in a summary of work by leading experts in the field. “It is inevitable that Australia will always have large fires but, with better land management and continued research into our changing climate and bushfire behaviour, we can aim to avoid the catastrophic loss of life that has occurred in the past.”
The political response has been for each side to retreat into its corner.
Scott Morrison acknowledged the link between climate change and extreme weather events in February. “I acknowledge it’s a factor, of course it is,” the Prime Minister told the National Press Club. This is treacherous territory for any Liberal leader after the poisonous internal politics of the past decade. Morrison is reluctant to utter stronger words, and even more reluctant to set bigger targets to cut emissions. In his party room, the science that counts is that climate change burns leaders.
Anthony Albanese was measured this week on the same subject. “We do need to respond to climate change. And the science tells us that bushfires will be more intense, and the bushfire season will be longer,” he said. Yet Labor’s policy response will take time. The Opposition Leader will need all of next year to frame a new emissions target ahead of the party’s December 2020 national conference in Canberra. The policy detail would only come the following year.
The last election dictates this timetable. The previous Labor policy, a target of 45 per cent by 2030, will slip by with the years. Global talks on climate change will be focused on 2035 or beyond by the time of the next federal election. Morrison dismisses “negative globalism” but he, too, must respond to a United Nations negotiation about the years after his pledge to cut emissions by 26 per cent by 2030.
This left the Nationals and Greens to argue at the edges of the debate. The Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, attacked “raving inner city lunatics” who used the bushfires to talk about climate change. He did not deny the science. The Greens went further because they did not merely vent at their opponents but blamed them for contributing to the bushfires.
The worst of the rhetoric came from Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John. “You are no better than a bunch of arsonists – borderline arsonists, and you should be ashamed,” he said in the Senate. “Your selfishness and your ignorance have known no bounds for decades, and now our communities are paying the price.”
The response from Greens supporters highlighted the political divide. Some thought it was “false equivalence” for the media to criticise Steele-John’s overblown rhetoric when it also criticised McCormack. At its heart, the argument was that Steele-John was right about the science and right about the need for action, while McCormack should be called out for refusing to pledge deeper cuts to emissions.
Yet the meaning of the Greens’ rhetoric was not that it caused offence or broke the conventions of polite dinner conversation. It was that it played to one side of the argument and felt good for the Greens’ base while making it harder for their party to find a consensus with Labor or others. Steele-John was speaking to everyone except the Greens with his “arsonists” jibe. What does that say about the Greens’ ability to work with Labor? If that attitude prevails, stronger action on climate change is probably doomed.
The hardest questions for Greens leader Richard Di Natale this week were not about his colleagues’ inflammatory language but about his party’s decision to scuttle action on climate change by blocking the emissions trading scheme in December 2009. When asked, he tried to change the subject to the fixed carbon price the Greens helped Labor to legislate two years later, a policy destroyed at the election that followed.
Di Natale spoke with passion about climate change but he was hiding from cold reality. In this field, a reform has to be cemented to succeed. And a reform will often need a consensus between parties to have any chance of lasting. The way the Greens voted in 2011 does not wipe away the 2009 decision because so much changed with the death of the emissions trading scheme.
Political rhetoric does not always matter, but it mattered this week. The language confirmed that the dynamics of December 2009 are alive 10 years later. Failure can be easily repeated.
Droughts break. Problems remain. And the politics can be “interesting” without giving the nation the solution it needs.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.