An incredible bit of footage led the nightly news last weekend. A firetruck rounds the bend in the small country town of Nelligen, New South Wales. In the background we can see smouldering bushland. The truck slows as the firefighter behind the wheel spots the camera. He leans out of the cab of the truck and shouts.
“You from the media?” he jabs his finger at the camera, looking exhausted and furious.
“Tell the Prime Minister to go and get FUCKED from Nelligen.”
Like the scale of the fires themselves, it may be difficult for an outsider to fully comprehend just how badly Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Liberal government have responded to them. It’s not just that they ignored warnings about this specific fire season, though they did; nor is it that they denied funding to the rural fire services when they begged for it, although they also did that. It’s that from the moment the country started to burn, the people who run it have done everything in their power to ignore the true scope of the catastrophe — even as the blaze spread, the air grew thick with smoke and people began to die.
The reasons for this failure are worth exploring, because this is a problem not unique to Australia. The New York Times was one of the many international outlets who pointed to these fires in Australia as the new normal under climate change, and they’re right about that. But far more alarmingly, Australia right now is a case study of how many governments and media will respond to these disasters, and just how bad that response will be.
If you were holding out hope that the cynical and partisan way we currently talk about climate change can’t possibly hold in the face of actual climate disasters — when it’s undeniably manifested itself in unbreathable air and burning homes and smoldering coastline — let go of that hope now. These fires have shown the status quo to be a stubborn thing, possibly an immovable one. It’s rooted fast in place by money and politics and ideology.
People in New Zealand — which is as far from the east coast of Australia as the city of New York is from Haiti — can smell Australia burning.
So far, at least 24 lives have been lost and over 1,500 homes have been destroyed. Hundreds of millions of animals have died. An area of 10.7 million hectares has been burnt to the ground. The sheer scale of this area is difficult to convey, but if measuring things in Cubas is helpful to you, it’s around one Cuba.
While the rural and regional areas burn, urban centres are being choked by the ash and smoke. The NSW Department of Health considers any Air Quality Index reading over 200 to be “hazardous” last week, instruments in the capital city of Canberra read 3,463. People in New Zealand — which is as far from the east coast of Australia as the city of New York is from Haiti — can smell Australia burning.
There’s not enough space here to catalogue every failure from the Australian government in response to the above, but the whole fiasco can be broken down into two broad phases: smug calm then blind panic. The first phase lasted until very recently and is best typified by two weeks in early December. The fires had been raging for months, and Sydney had been breathing noxious smoke for weeks. On Dec. 10, around 20,000 people took to the streets in protest of the government’s policies on climate change. Many of those 20,000 wore masks, not for anonymity, but because they couldn’t breathe. But the line from the government was clear — now wasn’t the time to talk about political matters, the PM’s focus was on helping the regional and rural communities who were trying to save their houses.
Two days later, when he was asked by reporters if he would consider payments to the volunteer firefighters currently working unprecedented hours trying to save those houses, his answer was no. We haven’t needed to pay them in the past, he explained, and we don’t need to start now.
At some point in the days that followed, Morrison took his family to Hawaii for a holiday without telling the public. When people noticed he was missing on the 16th, his office flat out denied he was even there. Once they were forced to admit it, they said he wouldn’t be cutting his holiday short. Again, the message was clear — these fires are sad, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary.
On the 19th, Morrison agreed to come home. By this time two volunteer firefighters had already died and a mass protest had formed outside the Prime Minister’s residence in Kirribilli. When he eventually confronted the media four days later, his tone was petulant. Would he rule out another holiday before the end of the year? That was only nine days away — a request reasonable to the point of redundancy. He refused.
On the surface, Morrison’s response makes no sense. Even from a cynical standpoint, there seems to be very little to gain in playing down a national crisis of this sort. A strong response rallies the nation. It shows you’re a leader who acts. Best of all, there’s no partisan division to navigate. It is a political truism that everyone, regardless of how they vote, does not want the country to be on fire.
But this isn’t about people, it’s about ideology, and to accept the unprecedented scale of the fires and act accordingly is to accept that the climate is changing and something needs to be done. That’s it. To me, this is the most striking aspect of the crisis — the debate about how best to douse a burning country has been seamlessly press-ganged into service in the ongoing culture war, all of which is amplified and buttressed by an increasingly demented right-wing media and an absurdly powerful fossil fuels lobby.
It’s difficult to overstate the influence and vitriol of the conservative media in Australia. The Murdoch press enjoys one of the world’s densest concentrations of media ownership here, and it is perhaps for this reason that we manage to produce, despite an international reputation for insouciance, some of the most monumentally cruel and rabid conservative policy in certain areas. Immigration is one of these areas — long before Americans were appalled at the government locking up refugee children, it was policy in Australia. Climate change is another. And if Australia is a sort of proving ground for just how much bile a populace can stomach from its media, it’s worth watching how they’ve behaved during these fires.
In this crisis, the conservative media have defended Morrison against the most benign attacks even as the death toll climbed and the fury mounted; they have dismissed experts with decades of in-field experience as “activists”; they’ve spread thoroughly debunked theories about these fires being caused by environmentalists’ opposition to preventative land clearing; even bushfire victims themselves were branded as “feral” when they had the temerity to heckle the PM during a photo opportunity in their fire-ravaged town of Cobargo. Possibly most telling of all, Craig Kelly, a member of Morrison’s government, went on UK television to deny any link between the fires and climate change, where even a wet gollum like Piers Morgan couldn’t let it pass. Back home, pundits on Sky News defended him, saying that they “didn’t know anymore more across the science than [Kelly].”
And so warnings weren’t heeded, rescue efforts weren’t funded, Hawaiian jaunts weren’t called off, not through incompetence, but through sheer bloodymindedness. If you take one thing away from all of this, know that there are people in both the government and the media who would sooner see the country burn than confront the enormity of this problem.
All of this should terrify you, because the appalling response to this crisis in Australia isn’t an aberration. Like the fires themselves, it’s the product of years of adverse conditions — a dominant conservative press, a powerful fossil fuel lobby, a class of politicians in the thrall of both — that would look very familiar the world over.
No one is being told to calm down anymore. The smug reassurances have given way to blind panic as it comes apparent that not even the friendly media can shield the government from the rising ire of the public. But even as the army is called in to assist in the relief effort, even as Morrison agrees to pay volunteer firefighters, even as a two billion dollar recovery fund is pledged, the government refuses to alter its climate change policy.
There are two more months of summer left.