MUNGO MACCALLUM.- A Tin Eared Prime Minister

For the last three months the headlines have been dominated by bushfires, and the grim prospect is that this will continue for at least another three months to come.

Unprecedented, obviously – to all but the deliberately perverse. The latest line from the deniers and refuseniks is that sure, the bushfires are less than desirable, but hey, we’ve always had bushfires and we always will.

We can rely on no greater authority of Dorothea Mackellar, who has now been resurrected as a climate scientists – she called Australia a sunburnt country of droughts and flooding rains, so just suck it up, cupcakes.

And her droughts (forget about the flooding rains for the moment) were worse than our droughts – they led to more fires, more damage, more loss of life. Why, the Victorian Black Saturday holocaust of 1939 killed 71 people and burnt some 2 million hectares.

Then even our Queen, sheltered safely in her fastnessses on the other side of the world, sent a telegram of commiseration – a courtesy she had not extended at the time of writing. So this time we have got out relatively lightly – some deaths to date, although far less than the scores that were feared, and lots of destruction, but even that not on the scale the pessimists predicted.

We should be relieved and grateful. Well, sure, and we are. But the comparison is utterly misleading.

Communications, technology and fire fighting innovations have changed a bit over the last 80 years. We have been forced to become both faster and more efficient in our responses, and it this, not some irrational claim that the fires have somehow become less severe, have saved us from worse losses.

In fact the fires have become longer, hotter, more widespread and far more regular – just as the scientists have always told us they would. However, after bitter experience we have become more prepared. The internet, for all its drawbacks, has proved an unparalleled method of issuing instant and near-universal warnings of danger, the need to get ready for the worst and evacuate when necessary. And our irreplaceable ABC has been constantly on the job updating information and providing succour and advice.

Fire fighting remains a mix of professionals and volunteers, but both teams are now far better trained and resourced than they used to be. Water bombing, once considered a rare, ,expensive and often risky last resort, are now, if not quite routine, certainly a normal and effective part of the job.

Cooperation between all tiers of government – federal, state and local – has been vastly improved. And. somewhat belatedly and reluctantly, the armed forces have become involved in logistics at least, if not on the front line. Obviously we are neither fireproof nor foolproof, and probably will never become either. But as the disasters increase – as they will – we holding back the worst of the onslaught.

The problem remains that we will have to keep doing better, year after dreadful year. It’s not a solution — it’s a palliative, one which may offer some comfort, but will not heal the afflictions,, let alone offer hope that they might be alleviated altogether.

The best Scott Morrison and his climate sceptics can offer is a form of stoicism – last week we were repeatedly adjured to remain calm and steadfast, to look after each other and trust the authorities – meaning, basically, him. And, of course, pray for rain – the flooding rains, the drumming of the army Mackellar remembered.

But, as events have shown, that drumming is becoming far more of an exception than a rule. Drought is pretty much the norm in large parts of Australia, and while there will be areas which will escape – and even prosper — as a result of climate change, vast tracts on which we relied for providing our food, both locally produced and for export, are going to be all but unviable.

The government’s solution, as demanded by the beleaguered Nationals, is to try and buy itself out of trouble – more compensation, more subsidies. And obviously the farmers and graziers, having been assured for a couple of centuries that successive governments would look after them, have every right to expect help. But they would also like something like a plan, some hope that somewhere, somehow, someone is in charge and, if not ready with a silver bullet, can at least shown an ability to find his arse with both hands.

Which brings us back to the tin-eared ScoMo. Having returned from his family sojourn in Hawaii, the prime minister urged his quiet voters to celebrate, to fling themselves into new year festivities with mammoth fireworks displays, even in places where a total fire ban had ben imposed to ordinary mortals. Business as usual – pyrotechnics have proved to be hugely profitable, especially for those in Sydney.

Even the state National leader, John Barilaro, found that a touch crass and insensitive, but Morrison was unfazed – we mustn’t become depressed just because our homes are burning and our friends being killed. So watching a couple of tonnes of cordite explode on television is just the fillip needed.

And then, back to the real fire front – not that the exhausted fire fighters and their potential victims had ever left it. And they are unlikely to be assuaged by another distraction emanating from those determined to play down the ongoing catastrophe. This is the sudden realisations that some of the fires were probably deliberately lit – arsonists may have been involved. And a few may have been, although most flare ups are more likely to have been caused by badly extinguished camp fires, lightning strikes, electrical faults, even tossers who still throw their lighted cigarettes out of car windows.

And anyway it hardly matters – they still have to be put out. But the implication is that the fires, like everything else that goes wrong in the best country in the world, can be blamed by greenie lefty latte sippers intent on – well, what? Elevating the great climate change conspiracy to new height of evil? Very likely – after all, they are the ones who oppose massive burning off in the increasingly rare intervals when nature is not doing it for them.

Presumably that this is yet another escalation of the culture wars, a ramping up from the identity politics of the lunar right in which ideology – their ideology – will always be more important than science, logic and common sense. And of course, it provides a few more headlines anti-green diatribes for the Murdoch media. And that, perhaps, is the most important thing of all.

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Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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