TESSA MORRIS-SUZUKI. Our Leaders Fiddle While Australia Burns

Dec 9, 2019

As homes and communities go up in flames, Australian politics descends into new depths of silly-season absurdity. Enough is enough. It is time for Australia’s leaders to face up to the nation’s greatest security threat.

Kafka would have loved it.

Much of Australia faces its worst bushfire threat in living memory. Thousands of people have been forced from their homes, and hundreds have lost their homes altogether. Schools and major highways have had to close, and cities are shrouded in health-damaging smog. And our leaders respond with impassioned debate about… What? Whether Naomi Wolf wanted to remove a Christmas tree from an Oxford student common room twenty-eight years ago.

Is the Australian electorate supposed to laugh or weep?

Whether or not they blatantly deny the facts of climate change, our leaders are in denial. They are refusing to face up to what is happening, shrugging their collective shoulders and allowing the whole burden of their policy failures to fall on the shoulders of ordinary Australian citizens, local communities and volunteer groups like the heroic and desperately overstretched Rural Fire Service.

When challenged by some persistent interviewer, the best our Prime Minister can do is to mutter that changing Australia’s climate policy would not stop this year’s bushfires. Name me one person who ever suggested that it would. But the fact is that, in the struggle to find a global response to a global problem, Australia under the coalition has been one of the foot-draggers and would-be free-loaders, trying its best to do as little as it can get away with. It has therefore made a sterling contribution to the global failures whose consequences we are now reaping.

But that is only one side of the story. The other is that we are now living the reality of climate change. Having reluctantly and half-heartedly given up on climate change denial, Morrison and co. have now shifted to the new tack of telling us than no one particular fire or drought can be definitively blamed on climate change. Of course not. We get that. It is just that, overall, climate change makes them more severe, more frequent, more long lasting. What was the once-in-a-lifetime exception is now the new normal.

And what are you going to do about it?

Why is our government not bringing together the best minds in the country to talk about responses? How can we provide better national support to volunteer fire services whose tasks are getting more overwhelming by the day? How can we plan our suburbs and country towns to make them at least a little less vulnerable to fire, water shortages and rising sea levels? How can we improve infrastructure so that fewer places have only one escape route in time of crisis? What are we going to do about the grim future reality of skyrocketing insurance costs, which will leave many people unable to afford home insurance? None of our major parties has serious answers to these questions.

These are not easy or comfortable topics to discuss. Much easier to engage in silly-season name calling about political correctness and woke greenies. But these are the real existential threats to our security. These are the human security threats faced today by hundreds of thousands of Australians who will never find their lives and happiness threatened by the presence of a medivac-ed refugee or the wife of a former ISIS fighter.

Our Prime Minister’s beloved Quiet Australians (and don’t we love them as long as they keep quiet?) can only watch on gob-smacked bemusement as their homes, communities and environments go up in smoke while their leaders close their eyes to Australia’s greatest security threat.

Après nous la deluge… and the bushfires, and the droughts, and the cyclones, and the rising sea levels…

Tessa Morris-Suzuki is Emeritus Professor in the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University.


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