Australia’s shameful response to disaster

 

OPINION

The historian Donald Horne famously described Australia as "The Lucky Country", a moniker that became the greatest misnomer of our national identity.

Punters and political leaders alike embraced the term, wearing it as a badge of honour. In fact it was supposed to be a caustic condemnation.

Horne's full assessment reads thus: "Australia is a lucky country, run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck." In short, we have succeeded despite ourselves.

Yet the behaviour of some of our elected representatives in the midst of what was feared to be the greatest bushfire catastrophe the country had ever seen suggests that Horne was, if anything, too generous.

The bushfire disaster brought out the best in Aussie citizens. The same can’t be said for our leaders. Picture: Brett Hemmings/Getty Images
The bushfire disaster brought out the best in Aussie citizens. The same can’t be said for our leaders. Picture: Brett Hemmings/Getty Images

This week's frothy-mouthed race to turn a national tragedy into ideological fodder is perhaps the most shameful evidence of just how low public debate has sunk in the past decade. Australian history has produced deadlier crises and angrier arguments but I can recall none so desperate and pathetic.

The first stone was cast by the inner-Melbourne Greens MP Adam Bandt, who seemed to rush with wide-eyed fervour to blame this week's bushfire catastrophe on climate change and thus the government. And like all great men of action, he put it in a tweet.

This was as distasteful as it was predictable. Any political observer knows the Greens wait with bated breath for any natural catastrophe so they can blame it on climate change. Like Walter in The Big Lebowski, this does not make them wrong, it just makes them arseholes.

More mature political leaders thus usually ignore or dismiss such undergraduate posturing. Unfortunately, Nationals leader Michael McCormack wasted no time in sinking to the occasion, jumping on radio to denounce Bandt's comments as "the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies".

Again, he wasn't wrong but that doesn't mean he was smart. The fact he decided to do it on the ABC's Radio National - a station beloved by tree-change Baby Boomers who only stopped marching against Vietnam so they could knit sleeping bags for asylum-seeking quokkas - is testament enough to that.

And so the bushfire sweeping NSW and Queensland was suddenly accompanied by a dumpster fire sweeping social media. Soon Barnaby Joyce was speculating on the voting intentions of dead people and Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John was accusing both major parties of arson.

Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce was blasted for his comments on some of the fire’s victims. Picture: Adam Yip
Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce was blasted for his comments on some of the fire’s victims. Picture: Adam Yip

Meanwhile, people at the real firefront were fighting and dying and desperately pleading for community and political solidarity. The community gave it to them, the politicians did not.

It turns out Australia is a nation of first-rate people and third-rate politicians.

And then, as if the nation wasn't nauseated enough, the Greens rolled out an activist ally at a press conference who accused volunteer firefighters of domestic violence, all with a Greens senator standing supportively behind her.

It was only when Seven's Mark Riley blew the whole thing open that the senator hurriedly distanced herself from the comments and left her erstwhile spokeswoman swinging in the breeze. So much for the party of sisterhood and solidarity.

Thus it was that a time of national crisis - deadly and dangerous days of unprecedented catastrophic threats - was hijacked in the most despicable and dopey ways by headline hungry politicians at both ends of the spectrum.

It is of course a political axiom that you should never let a crisis go to waste but the decent politicians at least wait until the bodies are buried.

Little wonder the Australian electorate is cynical to the point of shame about those who are supposed to represent us.

But, there are still signs of intelligent life in Canberra.

To be fair, Prime Minister Scott Morrison slapped down Joyce's remarks. More hearteningly Labor statesman Craig Emerson rightly observed that Barnaby seemed to be trying to convey the opposite of what he has been crucified for.

In fact, Joyce was actually saying that he refused to attack the deceased pair for being greenies - as though he was having a conversation with some imaginary adversary in his head. Batshit crazy? Perhaps. But a denouncement of the dead it was not.

And when Labor's climate spokesman Mark Butler was offered a potshot at the government on Q&A he sagely declined, stating that, unlike the Greens, Labor would always stand with the Coalition in times of national emergency.

Greens MP Adam Bandt was also criticised for his contribution to the debate. Picture: AAP Image/David Crosling
Greens MP Adam Bandt was also criticised for his contribution to the debate. Picture: AAP Image/David Crosling

And as the debate descended into evermore absurd depths of irony, this was interpreted by the woke left as Butler attacking them. There is honestly no horizon in their endless search for victimhood.

This is the difference between Labor and the Greens - the difference between intelligence and ideology. The difference between decency and desecration.

As for the facts of the matter, allow me to save everybody their wasted breath and settle both sides of the argument.

Bushfires are often started by dry lightning and arsonists however climate change increases their likelihood and severity. Blaming policymakers for bushfires is like blaming steelmakers for gun crime. Just because they are working with the same material does not make them both culpable.

Bushfires are often fuelled by a lack of hazard reduction and backburning however climate change decreases the number of days on which this can be done. Blaming green councils for bushfires is like blaming defence counsels for criminals. Just because they are in the same place does not make them both guilty.

In short, there is truth to both sides. And as usual, it is complicated.

It is absolutely true that we need to reduce our carbon emissions but the pathway to doing that effectively, doing it in concert with other nations and doing it without crippling livelihoods is still a work in progress. And it certainly won't be achieved by pithy tweets.

Which brings us to the third lesson: If you think people dying and family homes being torched to the ground is your big chance for political grandstanding then you are a massive f***wit.

Joe Hildebrand is news.com.au's editor-at-large and co-hosts Studio 10, 8.30am weekdays, on Network Ten | @Joe_Hildebrand


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