The Canberra bushfire of January 2003 burnt, in an afternoon, nearly three times as many houses as have been consumed in NSW in this terrible week of 2019 as fires have raged in north-eastern NSW.
In its first issue after the 2003 fire, the Sydney Morning Herald made a serious error of editorial judgment. It reported as fact an uncommonly self-serving (and false) briefing by senior NSW bushfire officers suggesting that the ACT bushfire authorities had been completely out of their depth in their failure to anticipate the tragedy, and in failing to properly deploy resources against it. NSW authorities had watched helplessly, it suggested, having warned of the impending disaster but finding themselves unable to galvanise the ACT babes in the woods.
It was the Herald’s major story on the fires – and overwhelmed most of its other perfectly appropriate reports describing deaths, the extent of losses, the impact on a vast array of individuals, and reactions from an array of community leaders, from the Governor-General, the prime minister and others visiting the scene and empathising with victims, and with firefighters whose struggles had been overwhelmed by a fire of almost nuclear proportions.
The vehement objection to the Herald’s headline story was not merely to its falsity. If it were true, for example, that the NSW bushfire commanders, coping with a fire that had started in their state and built up its force there, had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen, why did they park all of their reserve equipment in the direct path of the fire to be destroyed?: NSW firefighters fought the fire bravely alongside ACT professionals and volunteers. But their masters were getting in quick in an attempt to deflect any blame away from themselves.
The problem was that this political positioning was deeply out of synch with the well-established conventions of reporting human and natural disasters anywhere. The first few days are for empathy and having the sense of tragedy and the losses. There were people hurting. There were people who had lost everything and had few reserves to draw on. There was grief and disbelief, and efforts to understand and appreciate the scale of the disaster. There was a need for the local and the wider community to rally around with preliminary practical help and solidarity. There would be ample time for recriminations – for asking why and what might better have been done to avoid it, for anger and frustration, some directed at the wrong people, for finger-pointing. There would also be time, probably even before that, for taking stock, asking questions about re-building houses and rebuilding communities.
The Herald report seemed to have jumped straight past the human dimension of the suffering, and gone straight into the assignation of blame, and the execution, before trial, of the people who looked guilty of causing, or of failing to prevent, the disaster. It helped, I am sure, that the victims were ordinary people of Canberra, because even the Sydney Morning Herald is not always above pretending that we are an alien and cossetted race, on another planet rather than in its circulation area, and entirely different from other Australians.
That was a reaction shared with a number of others who immediately used the disaster to trot out their favourite hobby-horses, without any awareness of the facts. Several rustic politicians and a Sydney controversialist were quick to lay all of the blame on Greenies, who had, apparently, prevented adequate burning off and clearing. It stood to reason that this had occurred, of course, because Canberra was crawling with environmentalists, NIMBYs and people opposed to progress. Perhaps, it seemed to be implied, the bushfire, the lost houses and losses and the heartache for thousands of Canberra folk served us all right.
None of those angry about the story were arguing that there was never a place for such a report, assuming it was true. The suggestion was that it was inappropriate at the particular time, not least because those being criticised (who were afforded no right of reply) were themselves focused on the impact of the disaster on themselves and their own families.
I am not revisiting the Canberra fires to beat the Herald about the head again. Its coverage of the bushfires in north eastern NSW has been excellent, whether in images, in reports of what was happening in different locations, in its coverage of weather conditions and developments over scores of individual fires out of control. It has the big picture and the little picture. And, conscious that many people were relying on its hour by hour coverage online as much as in print, it decided that all of its fire coverage would occur outside the paywall by which, like other papers, including The Canberra Times, it keeps some of its best material for those who pay. And yet again, ABC radio showed its value in keeping communities connected with what was happening.
Yet there was something different this time. Despite the entreaties of many politicians, including the use of the word “inappropriate” and “now is not the time”, there was a good deal of finger-pointing going on. It was focused on the role of climate change in bringing on an earlier-than-usual fire season (indeed it began in August in many places), and in intensifying the numbers and severity of fires.
In one respect the conventions were being observed. No one was criticising the firefighters, or blaming them for instant decisions they made, often under great pressure. Those who lost homes and possessions, or were displaced, were not whingeing, or blaming their misfortune on others. Indeed, they are often marvelling, as such victims often have cause to do, about the way that other Australians, near and far, had rallied around to give them immediate assistance and support. For those victims, there will be time for intensive inquests into how local fires developed, how people and resources were mobilised against them, and to review the many decisions made, including decision to evacuate or stay.
Strictly, at least assuming that there is no great fresh outbreak, say on the outskirts of Sydney or in the Blue Mountains, we are moving into a period where fair criticism can be made of such matters, although, so far, the only appetite for it has appeared confined to pointed and pained remarks about how NSW politicians had severely cut resources available to firefighters in the last budget, and, probably, handicapped almost every single battle of the war. Local deficiencies were, as usual, supplemented by assistance from firefighters from elsewhere, including the ACT, but at both the macro and the micro scale of firefighting, success depends on the speed and flexibility by which available resources can be deployed. That the NSW premier and senior politicians mugged various fire bureaucrats in an effort to have them agree that the swingeing cuts had been necessary, appropriate and had not made things worse served only to emphasise that they had.
That’s in part because at least some of the anger and bitterness has gone instead into statement and counter-statement about the role of climate change with the fires, but, even more importantly, the role that politicians have played in doing anything about it.
Scott Morrison, particularly as he has been moving about fire-affected communities, has been loudly saying that now is not the time to be talking about climate change, or its role in the fires. And, needless to say, now is not the time to be making party political points, or to be ascribing political blame for what has occurred. So too has been Gladys Berejiklian, the NSW premier, whose nervousness on the issue has extended to a government direction to NSW public servants that they are not to discuss climate change as a factor in the fires.
So too has Anthony Albanese, as he has moved around fire scenes. He’s there, apparently, to show his support for victims and to those in the local communities, such as firefighters, who have been doing such a good job. He’s not there to grandstand, to score points in a political contest, or to use people’s misfortunes as a stage for putting himself to the forefront. That’s not to suggest that he resiles from his or his party’s beliefs about climate change; it is simply to agree with Morrison’s point about now not being the time.
There are others who are not so constrained. There is the National Party, making maximum use of the occasion to demonstrate the ignorance and stupidity of its leader, its former leader and many of its leading lights. Its not a discussion of the timing or appropriateness; it is an opportunity to blame all of the problems of the world on raving inner-city greenie lunatics. Barnaby Joyce gave it as his opinion that some of those who had died had probably voted for the Greens – a thought bubble he seemed to strangle before quite moving to what had seemed the logical conclusion that they had somehow deserved their fate, perhaps by actively opposing preventive burning-off.
By contrast, the media, and a number of individuals and organisations were eager to explore and discuss their view that climate change was obviously involved in the increased frequency, and more severe incidence of fires. Most took care to keep the message in a sort of abstract – by not linking their argument directly to particular events on the ground. Because questions about the association are logical and reasonable (and because the answer is fairly obvious – that there is a close connection between climate change and earlier and bigger bushfires, as well as drought) they did not want for platforms or airspace. No one can ever say a particular fire is an artefact of climate change. But we know that with climate change there will be more fires. There will be more severe fires. And the fire season will expand. And that is what is happening.
Morrison, of course, does not dispute the science. What he says is unsettled is what must be done. He seems to feel no sense of urgency. And he thinks what he is doing is enough. The science community disagrees vehemently – at least when they are not censored by Morrison’s government. And so does much of the population, which is increasingly well informed. It is now – it is always – time to talk about it, because the longer we delay meaningful action, the more drastically we will have to act once we bestir ourselves, assuming that it is not, by then too late.
There was little direct evidence that the immediate victims of the fire were repulsed, revolted, or deeply upset about the temerity of media questions. Nor did it appear that the plight and the suffering of the victims had been cruelly cast aside so that the discussion of the need for action could occur. Not only were the usual suspects involved. A good many fire chiefs made clear their conclusion that climate change was potentiating the timing, frequency and intensity of fire. They added pointedly that this was something they had stressed to ministers long before the current crisis. For them, ministers saying “now is not the time” were seeking to avoid or deflect their culpability for the incapacity of the brigades to be more effective in containing fires on the scale now being encountered.
Although some of the “now is not the time” refrain comes from a tradition of restraint about disaster, as I discussed earlier, there are some who have pointed out that it also comes straight from the playbook of the US National Rifle Association whenever there is a fresh massacre, as often as not of schoolchildren. Such wanton murder immediately invites attention to the ludicrous state of American gun laws, the ready availability of assault weapons, and the need for the politicians to show some leadership in winding back the rights extended by the American second amendment to its constitution. The NRA, and those in its thrall, from Donald Trump down, will quickly insist that “now is not the time to be talking about things” – we should instead be empathising with the victims, or suggesting that preschool teachers should be armed, or something. They will insist that anyone speaking of reform is illegitimately using the community’s emotional response to a tragedy, instead of the detached response to a matter that the issue deserves.
I’m inclined to think that the Australian public is mature enough to be able to discuss climate change at the same time that they are seeing its effects, including on the lives of thousands of ordinary Australians. Argued cogently but with respect, I do not see this as improperly exploiting a tragedy, or as interrupting a process by which the broader community, particularly through some of its leaders, shares with victims an understanding and a sympathy for loss, and a collective hope that some of the damage can be undone. Indeed, a clear majority of the population (including the rural population, and agricultural constituencies) believes in the reality of climate change and its impact on drought and natural disasters.
Politicians are, and ought to be vulnerable to criticism whenever they venture into the terrain. It is quite legitimate to ask Scott Morrison whether his government’s actions, or lack of actions, have made the damage worse. It is a question that can be asked even as he is shaking hands, hugging firefighters, or looking grim as he surveys the scene with his entourage.
What’s most amazing is the denialist behaviour of senior members of the National Party. In recent years that party has acted rather more as an agent of coal, gas and mining interests rather than as a party formed to promote the interests of people engaged in farming and grazing, and the local and regional cities that support them. The interests of these agriculturally-focused constituencies are increasingly at odds with the extraction vote – as can be seen from the civil wars about fracking in the heartland of National Party NSW. Folk in rural and regional cities, and agricultural producers are by no means as ignorant of climate science as Michael McCormack or Barnaby Joyce. They are living it. They are already adapting to it. And they are increasingly exasperated by the lack of concerted government action. That the federal government, in organising a dubious drought plan has chosen to remain hostage to big water consumers no doubt increases doubts about its practical and moral fitness to be their representative.
No doubt one can distract, at least for a moment, by evoking images of greenies and environmentalists, whether from Canberra bubbles or the goat cheese belt, as being the source of all interruptions and inconveniences to the bucolic lifestyle. No doubt it works in somewhat the same manner as suggesting that all social problems come from migration, or refugees – though that, usually, is a proposition increasingly less weighty in areas shedding population. Sooner or later, the victims of poor government thinking are going to be connecting the dots and recognising that government is not trying to do its best against the onslaughts of the greenies, but have become committed to doing as little as possible, at the instance of lobbies that do not have the best interests of Australia, or Australians, at heart.
An iteration of this article was published in The Canberra Times on Saturday 16 November 2019
Jack Waterford is a former Editor of The Canberra Times