The culpability of Dutton and Pezzullo for the bushfire crisis.
Peter Dutton is the senior minister responsible for the Home Affairs portfolio that includes Emergency Management Australia (EMA). EMA is a division of the Department of Home Affairs whose Secretary is Mike Pezzullo. EMA says its role is to “build a disaster resilient Australia that prevents, prepares, responds and recovers from disasters and emergencies”. Thus in their empire building, Dutton and Pezzullo took on responsibility for preventing and preparing Australia for these bushfires. So why the eerie silence from both of them?
To be fair, EMA itself has done all it could in the circumstances.
Around 18 months ago, EMA warned in its National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework that climate change was exposing the country to natural disasters on ‘‘unimagined scales, in unprecedented combinations and in unexpected locations…As a result, the cost of disasters is increasing for all sectors of society – governments, industry, business, not-for-profits, communities and individuals’’.
So what did Dutton and Pezzullo do in response to this very clear warning?
Very little is the answer according to Mark Crossweller, the senior public servant responsible for developing the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework. While $130.6 million over five years was allocated to the Framework, Crossweller told the Australian Financial Review (AFR) that it had been impossible to get proposals adopted “so that significant work can be done in preparation and mitigation.’’
Nothing concrete has been done with the $130.6 million according to the AFR.
The incoming government brief provided to Dutton immediately after the May Election last year said co-ordinated national action was needed to deal with the disaster risks posed by climate change. According to a report in The Guardian, the brief warned “Australians will experience …more frequent and severe heatwaves, bushfires, floods, and cyclones. These will increasingly occur concurrently.”
To Pezzullo’s credit, he allowed this brief to be passed onto Dutton .He would not have had the temerity to stop it. But with Dutton being a notorious non-reader, Pezzullo would have known that unless he explicitly brought this brief to Dutton’s attention, there is every chance Dutton would not have read it.
Did Pezzullo bring the brief to Dutton’s attention? Did he alert Dutton to the many warnings from fire authorities and scientists to the likelihood of a severe bushfire season in 2019-20?
Given Dutton’s known views on climate change – we would all remember Dutton’s public giggling about the threat of climate change for Pacific Islands – there is every chance Pezzullo said nothing to Dutton on the topic (or indeed to Minister Proudfoot who is another climate change sceptic).
How do we know Pezzullo himself gives little weight to the threats of climate change to the safety and security of Australians?
In an infamous March 2019 speech, Pezzullo lists the ‘seven gathering storms’ facing the safety and security of Australians. In it he boasts that these are based on 32 years of experience in the field using an evidence-based risk framework.
The speech was given a few days before the Christchurch massacre and, to Pezzullo’s utter shame, did not mention the dangers of islamophobia, neo-nazis and white supremacists. Pezzullo has ever since been back-peddling on this appalling omission.
He did, however, include a range of his own pet ‘scares’, many of which are on the very fringes of his responsibilities (eg a great power war; use of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons).
Yet he said nothing in the speech on the risks of disasters such as bushfires caused by climate change which are central to his responsibilities and for which he was receiving detailed warnings from EMA and others. These risks had a far higher probability of doing enormous damage to Australians and Australia than many of his other ‘storms’.
Was this a failure of his so-called evidence-based risk framework or his own personal prejudices and ambitions to become Secretary of Defence or his knowledge of the Government’s views on climate science?
If Dutton and Pezzullo genuinely cared about the safety and security of Australians, the risks associated with climate change would have been at the top of their list. They would have used their enormous political and financial power to ensure development of a well-funded national level plan to deal with the bushfire risk they were being warned of.
Imagine if they had used the $180 million spent on opening and closing the Christmas Island Detention Centre – purely for a photo-opportunity for the Prime Minister – on additional hazard reduction. Or on strengthening Australia’s national aerial fire-fighting capability for which they have a lead responsibility; or on encouraging and training more volunteer fire fighters.
How many lives and how many homes and businesses could have been saved?
As recently as 6 December 2019, Morrison said in a joint press release with Dutton that “my first priority is to keep Australians safe and these new measures will help protect thousands of Australians”.
Given the ongoing bushfire crisis at that time, one would think that statement referred to protecting Australians from bushfires. But no. Morrison and Dutton were showing off the size of the new guns for police that they had invested in.
To them keeping Australians safe is largely about keeping enough Australians scared.
Abul Rizvi was a senior official in the Department of Immigration from the early 1990s to 2007 when he left as Deputy Secretary. He was awarded the Public Service Medal and the Centenary Medal for services to development and implementation of immigration policy, including in particular the reshaping of Australia’s intake to focus on skilled migration. He is currently doing a PhD on Australia’s immigration policies.