Until this month, whenever I have walked around the city at lunchtime and noticed various international students wearing face masks to filter out the pollution, I have thought them rather silly. After all, this is Melbourne, not Kuala Lumpur or Beijing.
Guess who is laughing on the other side of his face now?!?
This morning, a push notice from one or other of the various news apps I have on my phone announced that today, Melbourne has the worst air pollution in the world, thanks to the bushfires.
I was not quite 14 when Ash Wednesday happened in 1983. That night, a big, thick, black cloud of smoke descended on Melbourne around 7.30pm, a frightening and unprecedented experience.
We have never had anything quite like that in my lifetime, including right now.
What is different is that the Ash Wednesday smoke cloud passed by and disappeared into history. We have now had about a week and a half of smoke and poor air quality plaguing Melbourne due to the bushfires.
And when I am not getting push notices on the air quality, the news apps are telling me that either the Prime Minister or one or other of the state Premiers is currently addressing the media on the sorry state of affairs.
In the case of the Prime Minister, it is a rather belated show of leadership (standing next to a four star general in a slouch hat is probably as good a way to recover as any from the image crisis of a Hawaiian holiday). You would think, given he is surprisingly good at reading the mood of the people and achieving electoral success, that he would have at least noticed how Jacinta Ardern in New Zealand shows leadership in a crisis situation – the rare times she does not show that disarming smile. [To say nothing of the prime minister we did not have, Bill Shorten, who used to be very good at looking very leader-like when members of his union were in life threatening situations.]
But when we put aside the failure of our Prime Minister and various state politicians (ie the emergency services minister of NSW) to put on the appropriate show of empathy and leadership in a crisis, the problem of the bushfires currently besieging the nation is a bit more complicated than whether to take a holiday at what most people see as the right time of the year.
Whether the Prime Minister was on holiday or not was not a good look, but it was not determinative of the fire crisis. Nor, 11 years ago on Black Saturday, was the absence of Police Commissioner Christina Nixon from the crisis centre determinative – although it was a symbol of poor leadership (something which the Brumby state government probably gratefully hoped would deflect attention from themselves).
The main problem is that there has been a total failure to address the root causes, real or potential, of the bushfires. That is where leadership has failed, and the failure was long before Scott Morrison booked his holiday in Hawaii. Nor is it a matter of his failure alone – his is mostly an uncharacteristic lapse in his ability to read the mood of the people.
I see three issues where we have put ourselves, as a nation and as individual states, in the predicament where we have such fires besieging much of our country.
- Global Warming and its causes
- Fuel loads and the lack of ongoing attention to fire risks in rural area
- Equipping and supporting our country fire services
Taking global warming first, I must say that I am still a bit skeptical about it, but, as Rupert Murdoch once put it, I am willing to give the planet the benefit of the doubt. The Prime Minister and some of his cronies treating coal like gemstones triumphantly after the last election has become, during bushfire season, a rather tone-deaf gesture. But whether global warming has contributed or not to the bushfires, we need, as a community and not just at the behest of our leaders, to assume that it might and behave accordingly.
[What are you doing about your carbon footprint? I don’t drive, and see the presence of several cars in a drive way as rather obscene and wasteful. I compost and have a worm farm. I have planted many trees around my house, both front and back, and am looking at where I might perhaps plant some more. I don’t complain about rising energy prices. I looked into getting solar panels, but I was persuaded that they are inefficient on my roof orientation and I am concerned about the long term environmental impact of the waste produced by those panels.]
After that, there is the issue of fuel loads. Where there is fuel there will be fire. Much as I find the general tone of conservative political commentator Peta Credlin rather off-putting, I think that she did have a point when she wrote on the weekend in the Murdoch Press that in recent years, state and local governments sympathetic to urban Green politics have avoided winter back burning and the sort of low intensity fuel clearance needed to keep our bush and wilderness areas more fire proof in the summer. They have done so in worship of a misguided environmental agenda which has now, if you pardon the tragic pub, backfired. After all, have we learned nothing from Black Saturday 11 years ago?
[Or is the agenda here a but more sinister? Back in the late 1980s, a politics tutor of mine commented that in the UK, there were committed communists voting regularly for Thatcher’s Conservatives because they believed that only Thatcher in power was capable of forcing the proletariat to achieve class consciousness and rise up in workers’ revolution. Greens might be cultural Marxists, if such creatures exist, and perhaps some of them might be insane enough to think that they can achieve greater acceptance of their ideas by having policies which cause the fuel loads to grow (supposedly for the good of nature) to the point where bushfires are more ferocious than ever before. Just speculating, but I would not rule it out entirely.]
And lastly, there is the issue of properly equipping and supporting our fire services.
This is usually not a matter for the Federal Government. However, the decision of the Federal Government some 4 years ago not to fund a national fleet of aircraft specialising in fire fighting because it is a state responsibility seems to have been a smug and short sighted one. (After all, I think that the first federal politician to seriously put state rights in front of the growing powers of the Commonwealth has yet to be born, and probably won’t be until the second coming of Christ or thereabouts.) Big mistake, and one which right now is going to prove costly.
How we do organise, equip and support our country fire services is a state issue. Sadly, this is one which appears to have been either neglected, or subject to tragic political interference.
As a major case in point, in 2016, the highly unpopular reorganisation of the predominantly volunteer Victorian Country Fire Authority along lines proposed by the United Firefighters Union to the Andrews Government was a matter which tore the Andrews Cabinet apart, and caused the departure of several senior firefighters from the CFA. It also became a federal election issue in Victoria, one which probably cost Premier Andrews’ federal colleagues the 2016 election (although I suspect he would only shed crocodile tears over the failures of his factional opponents).
Aside from it’s electoral consequences at that time and it’s general unpopularity, has the CFA reorganisation had more serious consequences for their capacity to handle bushfires? I don’t know, but it is an example of putting petty politics in front of public safety. Are there other such examples in other states?
In any event, the Royal Commission into these matters will be interesting.