RICHARD WHITINGTON. Bushfire inaction from the Commonwealth? Federation is the real villain.

Many of the shots laid on Scott Morrison are as justified as they are cheap. But in many respects his hands are tied by what our forebears voted for more than 120 years ago: narrow, not national interests.

Launched by the Arnott’s Biscuit Company in 1904, the SAO remains an Australian favourite.

Nobody is sure what SAO stands for. The most common theory is “Salvation Army Officer”. One of the Arnott brothers was a Salvo.

I have another theory. This pantry staple’s name is actually a tribute to Australia’s most enduring characteristic. I’m not referring to “bland” or “crumbles and gets a little flaky under pressure”, let alone “hard to swallow in large quantities without taking a drink”.

No, SAO stands for Stubbornly Avoiding Obvious. We Australians have a great appetite for it, expending enormous energy nibbling around the periphery of issues, rather than addressing what lies at the heart of them.

We saw it again when PM Morrison skipped off on a week’s family holiday. A former head of Tourism Australia, he went overseas, for shame! While his “how good is Australia?” dominion suffered an inferno attributed, by many, to climate change. After much clamouring for him to come home and show some leadership while people were dying and losing their homes and businesses – with many others putting their lives at risk to volunteer in the crisis – the PM capitulated and issued a sort of apology for giving offence, if any had been taken, for taking his leave.

What people wanted him to do was take the lead.

The manner in which he made his escape, is one thing: carelessly neglecting to observe the convention and appoint an acting PM in his absence, part of a ploy, it seems, to trick the press gallery into not noticing that he was, in fact, away, out of the country.

Caught out, Scomo (or Smoko as people have now “christened” him) and his apologists pointed out that a PM wasn’t likely to add much value holding a fire hose. And besides, he’d offered at every opportunity to provide assistance from the government he runs, if he was asked for it by the state governments he doesn’t run.

Therein lies the kernel of the obvious but unremarked problem: it’s the Constitution, stupid. As it often is, not least in relation to the mildly related disaster of our river systems, their degradation, the mindless overuse of the land around them, the probable contribution of that to climate change, and so forth.

Put aside Morrison’s continued obfuscation on whether climate change was an issue, or appropriate to be discussed at a time like this. The political and legal reality is that the head of the Commonwealth Government can’t actually “take charge” of responding to something that falls within the remit of the States: like fighting bushfires.

At the most basic level, it involves questions like who takes command if the Commonwealth turns up: the army, the air force, the rural fire services, the state emergency service?

Can the Commonwealth make direct grants to those who’ve suffered losses? Or is that a State responsibility? Sure, the Commonwealth can make emergency grants to the States to distribute to bushfire victims. And, just as surely, you’ll probably see States which haven’t been affected by the fires putting their hand out for a share of the loot, for some disaster on their turf. Or an Independent, balance-of-power cross-bencher in the Senate saying, “Fine, but I’ll only approve that if you ban poker machines, get the refugees of Manus and ……”

We have in in this country the wonderfully named COAG (the Council of Australian Governments). It brings coagulation to mind. It was set up to see if it’s actually possible to work around, by consent, the byzantine constraints of our Constitution. In something of a timing miracle, COAG is due to meet next March, to discuss how the Commonwealth and the States might respond more effectively to natural disasters, like bushfires. They’re nothing if not quick on the uptake. We’ve been a continent of “droughts and flooding rains”, and bushfires, since long before most of us turned up here.

Lampoon and lambast “Smoko” as much as you wish. His political instincts might have proved somewhat limited on this occasion, but nothing compared to the limits the Constitution places on him to actually do much in times like these.

And, yes, the Whitlam Government responded to the Christmas Eve Darwin cyclone in 1974. But only, never forget, because the Northern Territory wasn’t a State. It wasn’t protected by the Constitution from such interference by the Commonwealth.

Richard Whitington was a member of Gough Whitlam’s staff from 1974 to 1977. After a subsequent career in advertising, corporate communications and executive recruitment, he retired earlier this year to do some freelance writing. Website: richardwhitington.com

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Richard Whitington was a member of Gough Whitlam's staff from 1974 to 1977. He'd been a journalist, briefly, and a political publicist, later spending 25 years in marketing and corporate communications, initially with the ALP's advertising agency in the late 70s and early 80s. He finished his career with 20 years in executive recruitment and retired in 2019 to do some freelance writing.

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