The intemperate language used by McCormack and Joyce points to the Nationals’ own desperation about their constituency. Equally it has given an opportunity to the prime minister to appear statesman-like and the ALP to remain silent. Both illustrate how politicians regard the attention span of the electorate in regard to worsening environmental conditions.
The stridency of the two NP spruikers has arguably been matched by the Greens Senator Jordan Steele-John who accused the LNP of being arsonists, thereby receiving a severe rebuke from Queensland ALP Senator Murray Watt in parliament on Monday. Then followed the inflammatory comments of the NSW deputy premier, John Barilaro, who is reported to have said: “It is an absolute disgrace to be talking about climate change while we have lost lives and assets.”
“For any bloody greenie or lefty out there who wants to talk about climate change … when communities in the next 48 hours might lose more lives, if this is the time people want to talk about climate change, they are a bloody disgrace.’’ (The Guardian 13/11)
Strong stuff indeed. All of this can be contrasted with calming words from the Prime Minister who said, ”There have been a lot of provocative comments made over the last few days from all sides of the debate and I find it very unhelpful.”
“The last thing that people in an urgent crisis need at the moment is hearing politicians shout at each other. There is a time and a place to debate controversial issues and important issues. Right now it’s important to focus on the needs of Australians who need our help.” (The Age 13/11/19)
A real opportunity has been provided to the Prime Minister here. The tone of these words is intended to be calming and to show Scott Morrison not just to be a “daggy suburban dad.” Instead he is someone who rises above the political bear pit, disliked by so many voters, and assumes the role of a statesman. Here is a man who stands back from the petty responses of his colleagues in order to respect the emotions being felt by those directly impacted by the catastrophic fires. Moreover, he is explicitly attacking politicians, functioning as an anti-politician of the type so beloved of the populist right. Clearly his response is diversionary in its intention.
But is it really any better than the ridiculous outbursts of McCormack and Joyce, both not really speaking about the fires but verbalizing fears about losing the support of their own traditional constituency? Morrison is seemingly confident about retaining the support of his own constituency, irrespective of how much the environment degenerates, whereas the NP clearly is not. Nor has the Liberal Party done anything more than the NP in attempting to mitigate the effects of climate change, yet it is in the country areas that it is now so visibly being felt. If this massive failure is the Nationals, it is also the Liberals.
Rather than doing anything about the underlying causes of the problem the NP prefers to focus on symptoms, as has the prime minister. Their responses are simply immediate reactions to these severe fire events, isolating them from the much larger long-term factors causing and exacerbating them. The handouts of money for drought affected people fall into exactly the same category, because this oft-repeated practice refuses to take seriously the underlying causes of the increasing level of drought in this country.
This in turn further consolidates the kind of discourse now so widespread in the media and politics–with a few exceptions outside of the main stream media–that sustain a short term reactionary attitude against more long-term thinking requiring a serious application of rationality, not emotion, and a preparedness to examine evidence produced by climate scientists over the last three decades. (See G. Rundle: https://www.crikey.com.au/2019/11/12/nationals-bush-fire-climate-change/?utm_campaign=Daily&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&ins=OE5IRVZVTzRtdndoOElVSU83NFlDZz09#comments)
Commentary in the media over the past two days has brought out the desperation of the NP in standing firm, if hysterically, before fundamental changes that even its own traditional supporters know is happening before their eyes. Whilst country NP voters have traditionally been painted as traditional, conservative and common sense types, with a resistance to the abstract learning of science, this is all changing. The NP does not know how to deal with this change, in an environment it has successfully harvested for so long. In addition, the rise of independents in seats such as Indi must be causing them concern. Both Helen Haines (2019) and Cathy McGowan (2013), independents in Indi, sought to represent their country electorate rather than the large corporations. Neither are climate change deniers.
But Morrison does know how to respond to these disasters and the political fall out, without for all that doing anything serious about confronting the underlying problem. Yet this strategy can only work for a certain time as the increase in the Greens vote in traditional inner city Liberal seats showed in the May election. And if there are still more damaging fires this summer–as is likely–then short term reactionary responses will be shown to be increasingly inadequate. The calmness of the prime minister will then be revealed for what it is, a political response to a catastrophic climate situation.
Greg Bailey is Honorary Research Fellow in Asian Studies, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University. Formerly Reader in Sanskrit. He has just published a novel on early Buddhism called In Search of Bliss.