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Don’t expect much – with climate disasters you will largely be on your own

When Scott Morrison chides inundated Australians about expecting too much from the government or the ADF during a crisis, he is not just speaking about the nightmare scale of these catastrophic floods. He is setting expectations for the climate emergency’s cascading disasters. You’re on your own.

Through most of the 20th century, the Australian way was to balance government and private enterprise. We had many more state-run utilities than in the free market US, but it worked for us, reflecting and shaping a character that believed even the poorest among us deserved effective healthcare, clean water and education.

With the visit of Milton Friedman in the 80s, luminaries of the Economic Rationalist right such as Peter Costello were galvanised to transform Australia into America. Despite the chaos that America has become, captured starkly over the pandemic in its much higher death toll than comparable nations, this mission continues.

This week, at the Australian Financial Review Business Summit, Peter Costello urged the government to slash spending – no doubt to pay for the tax cuts this group commands. Morgan Stanley’s head, James Gorman, urged the attendees to “get greedy when everybody else is scared,” at the time that their home neighbourhoods were awash and Australians remained desperate for clean water.

Naomi Klein and Anthony Loewenstein have commended us to be alert to disaster capitalism. There is always money to be made in upheaval. For those who have the wealth to buffer themselves from undue suffering, the equation can be simple. Petrostates and coal nations capitalise while the market remains. Oligarchs welcome the warming climate for the opportunities opening up around the arctic. The rest of us are disposable.

Brooke Harrington, the sociologist who carried out an immersive study in the world of the Ultra High Net Worth Individual (UHNWI) pointed out that national borders and laws are as nothing to this class. Their enablers make a relative fortune finessing their mostly legal theft of their nations’ wealth. The professionals share their clients’ belief, more often than not, that governments are incompetent and thus money taken by the government in tax is wasted. They believe in their own mythology that they are wealth creators and thus more valuable. They perceive “redistribution of collected tax as immoral because it creates dependency on the part of the poor.” Destroying initiative with flood support would do nobody any good in the long run.

Through the bushfires of the Black Summer, the pandemic and now the floods drowning much of Queensland and NSW, Liberal and Coalition governments have generally commanded their populations to take individual initiative. This is fine for those enablers of the plutocrats who have strong wifi, large homes and access to consolatory luxuries and the best healthcare. Many have died because essential workers do not have that option.

The federal Coalition had few jobs over the pandemic, but it botched them all. It is undoubtedly responsible for quarantine but flung that hot potato to the states.

Vaccine roll-out followed by RAT provision was scandalously mishandled. The ugliest excuse was not wanting to get in the way of the free market. The wealthy donors were not going to be affected by the shortages, able to make their own arrangements. Subsistence-level workers were inescapably going to sicken and kill the elderly with these ridiculous and expensive mistakes, but neither the workers nor the elderly really mattered when profits were to be made. This is the model for the climate crisis: some lives are superfluous.

The recent IPCC report from the second Working Body took last August’s first report establishing that human activity was to blame for most current heating, and illustrated the catastrophic impacts. With the concurrent emergence of Japanese encephalitis far south on the Australian mainland, the Covid pandemic and shocking floods, we are seeing the cascading and compounding climate crises the new report describes. Wearing masks to protect ourselves from virus or bushfire smoke is going to be the least of our worries.

Politicians and public servants have been aware for decades that the climate emergency was coming, even if they chose to sneer at it as lefty hysteria. The right has opted to build a fortress against the crisis of displacement they knew would escalate from the relatively minor numbers of the Middle East “interventions.” It has chosen to inculcate a broadly-accepted ideology that taxpayer funds can be funnelled into fossil fuel subsidies and military spending without question. The Australia Institute’s Richard Denniss details how social spending, on the other hand, has been made to seem wasteful and soft.

Barnaby Joyce dismissed those who died in the bushfires in his electorate as likely Greens voters. Shane Stone, the coordinator general of the National Recovery and Resilience Agency appeared to blame people “who want to live among the gum trees” before stating that “the taxpayer and the ratepayer cannot continue to pick up the bill for these huge, catastrophic damage events.” As a former Liberal Party president, he receives a salary of $500,000 for the role. It is clear from this rhetoric that too many Australians are disposable.

At the same time the Coalition is announcing rorts, military spending and corporate welfare for more crisis-fostering gas fracking. As Denniss points out, we don’t have to accept the right’s moralising about which national money is thrust chaotically at donors and electoral success, and which programs are depicted as wasteful because they only help the public.

There are much more effective ways to deal with emergencies than to deploy the ADF, particularly if they are commanded to prioritise photo opportunities over labour. Australia is going to experience some of the most challenging impacts of a crisis that is making “the world sicker, hungrier, poorer and way more dangerous by 2040.” The numbers of poor in the world are compounded by the former middle class who’ve already tumbled out of that status over the pandemic, the money funnelled up to the global oligarchs. More of us will be poor as the crises mount. These poor and precariously positioned in Australia will, as always, suffer catastrophes worst.

We have to decide if we are willing to settle for people like Shane Stone who don’t believe that the nation’s money should be spent on Australians in direst need. Do we envision an Australia that leaves our fellow citizens in desperation, or do we envision one that spends its money on all of us?

The Australia Institute has a popular proposal that suggests taxing the fossil fuel sector to fund an emergency body that will have the capability to support Australians wracked by the succession of crises we face. That is certainly an important idea that must be discussed. The sector has prevented us from transitioning to renewables back in the 20th century when we could have done so with little pain; the time has come to make them compensate us for the suffering that has only just begun.

In the meantime, we need to debate what Australia looks like as these catastrophes slam us. Are we going to let the wealthy shut themselves away from the suffering, wincing at the next disaster’s figures of death and destruction? Will they establish elite private sector emergency services as happens in the US? Or will we work together, community and government, to assist those worst hurt?

Lucy Hamilton is a Melbourne writer with degrees from the University of Melbourne and Monash University.



This article was originally published on Pearls and Irritations.

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  1. Phil Pryor

    The analysis, comment and suggestions here are useful and it is informative. One can never trust the will, heart and soul, intellect and vision of politicians. They are driven by warped ideas, vanity, posing, deep need for recognition and acceptance to overcome inferiority and ugliness (sometimes), so do your own research. Jack Howard never changed fundamantally from school days. Always a self fixated awkward friendless oaf, he discovered that debating led to some sort of “victory”, above and beyond honesty or accuracy. The veneer of this was enough, for any blather forcefully delivered might win the day with the gullible, slow, indifferent, useless. Thus political ambition arose, a yearning for the rigged race, the inside run, the win by deception and even error over decency and accuracy. Lucky to be an ordinary solicitor, the political pimple climbed the greedy greasy pole of ambition. Most of the rest of us could outhink this dud, but he is now in the books, his deep desire. There are so many, worse, in politics, that you would never want as colleagues, neighbours, supervisors, relatives.

  2. Terence Mills

    The Australia Institute has a popular proposal that suggests taxing the fossil fuel sector to fund an emergency body that will have the capability to support Australians wracked by the succession of crises we face.

    That’s an interesting and practical proposal particularly at a time when we hear that all fossil fuels (gas, coal and oil) are experiencing massive windfall profits largely due to the Russia sanctions.

    Inevitably the fossil fuel producers will seek to pass any levy or tax on to consumers and if we treat it as a profits tax, they will seek to offshore those profits so we will have to be on our toes – these guys are slippery.

  3. Paul

    I’d love $kidmark to be my neighbour Phil, but I don’t think he’d enjoy it.

  4. Michael Taylor

    “You’re on your own” is the government’s motto.

  5. GL

    Don’t forget, “No bribe too small.”
    “No donation too large.”
    “LNP: When only the best corruption will do.”
    “LNP: The best party that money can buy.”
    “LNP with the new added, “We don’t hold a (insert paid for word here), mate.”

  6. Kathryn

    Yep, it appears that the callously inhumane, totally depraved, conniving, abhorrently arrogant, self-promoting and manipulative LNP political psychopaths, Hillsong cultists and sanctimonious bible-thumping hypocrites – who park their pretentious, elitist arses on the seats of the absolute worst, most corrupt and undemocratic regime in our history – have, indeed, got a long, long list of fanciful “Principles” BUT history has proven that they every single one of these so-called “Principles” are up for negotiation or for a quick sale if the price is right or if the Lying Nasty Party can further benefit, enrich and/or empower THEMSELVES in quickly forsaking them without a moment’s hesitation! No wonder Australians have lost trust in the LNP!

  7. Pete Petrass

    This government is the do-nothing government, doing their best to not perform any of their Federal responsibilities and where they can they will duckshove them onto someone (anyone) else. Which begs the question as to why we have all those cabinet ministers (that we pay big dollars for) who either basically have no responsibilities or have responsibilities that they choose not to perform.

  8. Andrew J. Smith

    Good article, and with current events in Ukraine there is much focus again on supply of fossil fuels yet demand side is never mentioned, previous nobbling of transitions to renewables and how to fund non fossil fuel initiatives?

    Joined up government and NGO campaigns could easily encouraged to make significant cuts in fossil fuels usage e.g. leave your car at home, insulate your home properly, new builds smaller home & tax per sq metre, tax breaks for those using public transport, removing ‘manager’ salary package vehicles etc.

    Funding is more problematic as it is the responsibility of fossil fuel ‘owned’ government and timidity, keeping the status quo under pressure from media oligopoly, business groups, car/road lobby and pro fossil fuel think tanks (linked to Koch Network).

    There is a lesson and warning learnt by Labor endeavouring to legislate carbon pricing in the noughties, undercut by both powerful financial, social and environmental gambits masquerading as valid arguments, or at least excuses, good for ‘dog whistle’ too.

    The latter included the imported and fossil fueled Tanton Network ZPG Zero Population Growth foil of blaming the ‘nebulous’ (UK journo Ian Dunt) NOM net overseas migration (inflated by the UNPD 2006…. same time acts as ‘Trumpian data wall’), (undefined) ‘immigration’ and ‘population growth’ as environmental ‘hygiene’ issues deflecting from fossil fuels and that immigration restrictions would solve everything….. sure Steve Bannon would agree with his muse Tanton too.

    Australia has wasted fifteen years through classic nativist libertarian denial and delay tactics by LNP govt., think tanks and media; now reliant upon private entrepreneurs to use innovative and radical changes to wean ourselves off fossil fuels aka SunPower Project as allegedly we have lots of free sunlight.

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