Our leaders fiddle while the country burns


The Nationals leader and Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, accused the Greens of trying to take advantage of the fires to promote a political agenda on climate change. People trying to survive fires “don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time, when they’re trying to save their homes, when in fact they’re going out in many cases saving other people’s homes and leaving their own homes at risk”.

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McCormack named the Greens leader, Richard Di Natale, and Greens MP Adam Bandt and said their tactics were “disgusting”.

It wasn’t mandatory for Nationals politicians to resort to invective. The Nationals deputy leader, Bridget McKenzie, managed to deal with Di Natale’s questions in the Senate quite calmly and rationally: “Fires are caused by a variety of factors – climate change, drought – which makes the fuel grow dryer and more combustible – and fuel management,” she said this week.

Barnaby Joyce says he was trying to be calm and rational, but he didn’t manage to give that impression when he said: “I acknowledge that the two people who died were most likely people who voted for the Green party, so I am not going to start attacking them. That’s the last thing I want to do. What I wanted to concentrate on is the policies that we can mitigate these tragedies happening again in the future.”

Joyce, whose language is always splashy but rarely precise, has spent almost a week apologising and pleading misrepresentation. He at least has the mitigating circumstance that he made those comments in a phone interview while he was in the NSW bush fighting fires.

But the Nationals’ worst efforts were soon outdone by the Greens’ Senator Jordon Steele-John. He said of the main parties: “You are no better than a bunch of arsonists – borderline arsonists – and you should be ashamed.” His leader, Di Natale, sidestepped all invitations to reject Steele-Johns’ demonisation.

Illustration: Jim PavlidisCredit:

The abuse-a-thon between some Greens and some Nationals, while gratifying for them as they indulge their political vanities and excite their cheer squads, merely reminds the community why they are minor parties on the outer edges of the political mainstream. And will remain so.

Or, if you’re in the Liberal or Labor parties, you’re more likely to choose option 2. It’s okay to discuss fires and suffering, but not causes and solutions. Or, resuming the military metaphor, it’s okay to talk about the enemy’s weapons and your own casualties, but not military strategy.

As Prime Minister Scott Morrison puts it: “There is a time and a place to debate, you know, controversial issues and important issues. Right now, it’s important to focus on the needs of Australians who need our help. They need our support.”

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This is a nonsense because it’s a false binary. Of course it’s necessary to focus on the needs of people suffering and in need of support. It’s also necessary to make sure you have the right strategy and tactics in addressing the phenomena causing the suffering.

Is it a national government or a relief agency? A country’s political system that is incapable of discussing strategy during a crisis is a failure. With all the resources of a modern nation-state, it has to be able to do more than one thing at a time. Aid the distressed, equip the troops and refine strategy. All at once.

Labor’s Anthony Albanese is following Morrison’s lead. “Our focus has to be on the immediate and making sure that, one, that we protect lives. Second, also that we try to do what we can to protect properties … But certainly, there is a need once we get through this period to really have a look at what the science is telling us and what the experts are telling us.”

Through which period? When can we discuss strategy? Australia’s fire season this year started in winter.

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“People need to recognise that this is not a short-term crisis,” the former head of California’s fire service, Ken Pimlott, said this week. “All the trends are going the same way.” He said California’s fire season traditionally lasts half a year, but “now there really hasn’t been a month in the last calendar year when there was no fire activity”.

One consequence is that the Californian firefighting gear and personnel who used to be free to come to Australia to help in the southern hemisphere fire season are less likely to be available. Australia has to be geared to do more, and to do it with less help from afar.

The “not now” mantra of the two major parties is more edifying than the abuse-a-thon occurring on the edges. But the leaders of the major parties are reluctant to talk strategy because each presides over an uneasy internal truce within his own party on climate and coal. Neither wants to open an internal schism. Better to avoid the topic and stick with “not now”.

And option three? The idea of searching for a way to bring the country together to defeat a common enemy has not been proposed by any political leader.

Strictly speaking, the Greens’ Richard Di Natale did call for a joint approach, but it was at the same time he refused to disown Steele-John’s abuse of Labor and Liberal. So he can hardly expect Morrison or Albanese to take him seriously while he stands with a senator calling them arsonists.

In truth, the poses struck by all these parties and leaders this week – you cannot call it a debate – are a continuation of Australia’s crisis of over-politicisation.

Retrospect reveals to us that the crisis has had two distinct phases and appears to be entering a third. Phase one was when political parlour games trumped national problem-solving over climate change when Australia first attempted a response over a decade ago. All the parties share the blame here.

It began when Barnaby Joyce and Tony Abbott teamed up to break the John Howard-Kevin Rudd consensus. At the 2007 election Howard and Rudd converged on the idea that Australia needed to have an emissions trading scheme, a market-based way to curb carbon emissions.

But this national consensus proved fragile in the face of political ambition. After Howard fell and the Liberal leadership eventually passed to Malcolm Turnbull, the rebels – Joyce in the Nationals and Abbott in the Liberals – generated an internal insurrection against the idea.

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In 2009, just as Turnbull was about to clinch a legislative deal with Rudd, Abbott toppled Turnbull and killed the emissions trading scheme. Just as he later killed the Gillard-Greens carbon tax.

The Greens share some blame because they could have kept the Rudd government scheme alive but killed it because it was not sufficiently pure. And Labor shares some blame because it preferred to kill its own leader, Kevin Rudd, an elected prime minister, than back him in implementing Labor’s election promise to implement such a scheme.

This ushered in phase two. While climate and energy policy remained lethal for leaders Labor and Liberal for the decade to follow, it was no longer the only lethal zone. Once the door started spinning in the era of revolving-door prime ministers, just about any issue could become a leadership issue. This marked a widening and intensification of the crisis of over-politicisation.

This phase appears to have abated. The evidence? Both major parties have changed their internal rules to prevent mad rushes to regicide. That doesn’t make it impossible, but it does signal a realisation of error. And makes a lightning coup against a leader harder.

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Now we have to ask if we’re entering a new phase of over-politicisation. Where each party is so intent on its own internal politics that they are incapable of coming together to deal with a parched country, running out of water, and burning as never before.

This might be premature. The so-called leaders might yet discover leadership. Real leadership would bring the major parties, and governments federal and state, together to soberly deal with a national crisis. There is a much broader agenda than climate change alone, but it’s also hard to pretend that climate change is irrelevant.

The omens aren’t good. The Prime Minister refuses to meet former fire chiefs who’ve been seeking a meeting since April to warn of fire catastrophe. Refusing expert advice on a national crisis because it might not exactly suit your existing policies is hardly the stuff of leadership.

Politics at its best is problem-solving. Guys, it’s your job. Don’t tell us “not now”.

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