It’s only fitting that the nation’s capital should be drenched in thick smoke while the country burns. Canberra; home to the Parliament of Australia, the city where politicians stamp their mark and influence, and where law is passed. Canberra, where policy comes to life; policy which may spell the difference between suffocating never-ending seasons of smoke-hazed skies, homes razed to the ground, lives lost, wildlife, ecosystems and communities destroyed, or alternatively, strategised long term coordination, preparation, prevention, and management, and a national, unified approach to disaster.
When the catastrophic fires first burned through forests and bushland in the early days of Spring 2019, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was quick to push back on the states. Fighting fires was a state responsibility, he maintained, and thus nothing to do with the Commonwealth. He, along with senior members of Cabinet and other Coalition politicians, continued their approach of implicitly endorsing anti-climate change rhetoric, twisting the facts on what Australia was doing to address climate change, demonising protestors, and positioning environmental activists alongside groups and ideologies which threatened national security such as neo-Nazi terrorism and a pro-terrorist Islamists.
On a practical level, before the bushfires raged, the Federal Government had already rejected the National Aerial Firefighting Centres call in May 2016 to expand the fleet in preparation for hotter and more extended bushfire seasons. It had already dismissed warnings from ex-emergency chiefs in April 2019 that a catastrophic fire season was on the way and ignored requests to discuss the escalating climate change risks. This was despite there being 18 warnings that the impacts of climate change were leading to increased bushfire risks since the Coalition was first elected in 2013.
The 18 warnings were in addition to the 2008 Garnaut Climate Change Review’s final report which predicted a horror bushfire season in 2020; a report commissioned and supported by state and federal politicians, and which examined the long term impacts of climate change on the Australian economy. The Government had steadfastly ignored warnings and predictions from over 40 years, that the impacts of climate change would increase the risk of catastrophic bushfires.
Over the months that catastrophic fires burned through 10 million hectares, taking nearly 30 lives and killing more than a billion animals, the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework lay buried in Canberra; a crucial report prepared under former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and ready to publish just weeks before he was ousted by current Prime Minister Scott Morrison in August 2018. The Framework, ready, but sitting unactioned for over 18 months by Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, warned that the changing climate was exposing the country to natural disasters on ‘‘unimagined scales, in unprecedented combinations and in unexpected locations’’.
While the Federal politicians passed law after law with the promise to keep Australians safe and protect them from hypothetical national security risks, while the Home Affairs Department warned the Government again in May 2019 of unprecedented “disasters” exacerbated by climate change, and called for national action in a now public briefing, while Morrison chided climate protesters for imposing ‘needless anxiety’ on children over the impact of climate change on their future, the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework sat idly in a metaphorical Canberra drawer.
It’s only fitting that the city drowning in smoke is home to the most damning of evidence that the Morrison Government willfully endangered Australia and its people for ideological and political purposes.
It is now indisputable that the lack of national coordination, prevention strategies and preparation for the predicted bushfire disaster is not because of departmental policy failures, or the absence of experts to advise, or the unwillingness of bureaucrats to recommend tangible action to the Prime Minister and his Government.
It’s painfully clear that the gaping hole that is national leadership is because the Prime Minister either does not appreciate the Commonwealth Government’s responsibility to mitigate the devastating impacts of a changing climate, or he simply does not care.
Morrison’s sloth-like response to the emergency crisis, the reactive, hastily drafted, shoddily communicated recovery and support policies, and the extraordinary Liberal Party ad spruiking Morrison’s belated actions, demonstrate that Morrison was not prepared at all for the disaster which presented over Christmas and New Years 2019/2020. The absence of collective preparation, preventative action, and long term national management strategy wasn’t for lack of internal knowledge or expert information being available, it was because Morrison chose to ignore it.
The scientific evidence demonstrates that “as the world warms due to human induced climate change, we experience an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events.” The science has shown this for over 40 years. And yet as soon as the Coalition Government was first elected in 2013, it set about repealing the key legislation aimed at reducing carbon emissions. And in the years that followed it has persisted in obfuscating on scientific fact, slashing funding to bodies tasked with researching climate related issues, and dismissing international criticism of its policies.
The Coalition Government’s failures are twofold;
- globally, by failing to take appropriate action on climate change, ranking 57 out of 57 countries on climate change policy, yet still defending Australia’s policies as acceptable, and
- nationally, by failing to provide and implement national, long-term strategies for prevention, preparation, management and recovery for the growing incidence and severity of natural disasters linked to climate change.
The Coalition Government has obstinately refused to take the threat of climate change seriously, even as bushfires burned simultaneously across every state of Australia and Canberra was drenched in smoke. The deliberate public policy vacuum, Morrison’s fierce defence when called on the Government’s insufficient action, and the refusal to implement long term, national risk reduction strategies, despite evidence the Government knew about the increasing risk and the predictions of a disastrous bushfire season, is unacceptable.
The Government’s own reports, briefings and reports demonstrate it knew about the risks posed by lack of appropriate action to mitigate the consequences of climate change, and yet it did nothing tangible at all. The Morrison Government’s multiple failures, which have arguably contributed to the loss of life, homes, communities, wildlife and over 10 million hectares, must be seen as a gross act of negligence.
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