The government response to the bushfire crisis has been evasive, tepid, tone-deaf and above all, too late

Originally published in the Guardian on the 6th of January 2020

Written by Kevin Rudd

Article available here.

​It’s hard to know what to write in the midst of a national apocalypse.​​

I’m like most Australians, feeling every shade of human emotion each day as we see this living tragedy unfold before us. Each morning comes with a dull thud as we wake to the awful realisation that the new day could still be worse than the last.

The fear on people’s faces is palpable. It reminds me of Black Saturday. There the horror was quick, although the scars, still deep, remain. Remember those survivors today as the fires of recent weeks reignite the living hell of trauma a decade ago. ​​

Then there’s the helplessness we feel as we sit, watch and wait. Often the best we can do is stay glued to the ABC, ring people we know in harm’s way, and then give to charity. ​​

Then there’s pride in our firefighters, the unsung men and women who, without fanfare train week in week out, for years on end. Although no training can prepare you for war like this. They’re our new Anzacs. In the line of fire, literally, before the nation’s eyes. ​​

Of course there’s anger and rage as well. Much of it justified. Some of it not. Our national government will have much to account for once the current crisis has passed.

The uncomfortable truth is the government’s response just doesn’t pass the pub test.

It’s been evasive, tepid, tone-deaf and, above all, too late.

It’s been conducted as an exercise in “issue management”, rather than a substantive response to one of the worst natural disasters in our history, with every shoulder to the wheel. And the Australian public can spot a fraud at a thousand paces.

So in the midst of all this, what can be said that’s in any way productive for the future?

​​First, the feds should be taking their marching orders from the state fire chiefs each day.

It’s just not good enough when the New South Wales Rural Fire Service chief says he first heard of the call-out of the army reserve through the media.

Canberra’s job is to help provide whatever financial and physical resources firefighters and other emergency services need there and then. And on the question of “who’s going to pay”? I remember it well during the Victorian fires.

The answer should simply be: “Whatever it takes. Just get it done.”​​

Second, the National Bushfire Recovery Agency announced on Sunday should be underpinned by national legislation, jointly with the states, and empowered to slice through red tape.

There should be a national bushfire appeal – the Black Saturday appeal raised more than $400m – and its disbursement should be coordinated by new agency to avoid waste and duplication.

The taxable 13-week disaster recovery allowance should immediately be extended to 26 weeks and be exempted from tax, as it was in Victoria. The disaster relief payment of $1,000 has also lagged inflation, meaning its real value has fallen substantially since 2009.

Third, provide proper permanent funding for the nation’s bushfire services. The public will not tolerate any longer a discretionary “top-up” by the feds, or the usual buck passing between the various levels of government. Each brigade needs to be confident of their long-term funding. The formula should be hammered out and rigorously implemented. ​​

Fourth, the nation needs the biggest, best national aerial fire-bombing fleet in the world.

We are the driest inhabited continent on Earth. It will get worse. Therefore we need a standing capability the likes of which the world hasn’t seen before.

Whenever and wherever a fire breaks out, we then have a fighting chance of containing it at its earliest stages.

Bill Shorten was right to take this to the last election. ​​It will cost. There will be accusations of waste if it remains idle for a while. Just like we were accused of waste when we co-funded Adelaide’s desalination plant – until everybody realised we needed it.

Fifth, what more warning does Australia need on the absolute imperative of accelerated action on climate change? Not enough it seems for Scott Morrison, who says there will be no change in policy whatsoever. Nor for the high priest of climate change denial himself, Tony Abbott.

Indeed, in the midst of the fires, there was Abbott on Israeli radio telling a global audience the real problem for Australia was that we had been taken over by a “climate change cult”!

Abbott! He who famously proclaimed climate change was “absolute crap”. The political opportunist who stopped my government imposing a carbon price by toppling Malcolm Turnbull and revoking the deal we’d struck to pass it.

The partisan thug who played cheap politics, ridiculing Australian efforts with our partners to broker a global deal at Copenhagen to keep temperatures within 2C. ​The political cynic who ran the biggest fear campaign in recent memory against our carbon price in order to become prime minister in 2013. Yup.

The very same Abbott who destroyed Turnbull all over again in 2017 over climate policy – this time the national energy guarantee.

So why does Abbott do it? The truth is he doesn’t give a damn about policy. Abbott has always been 100% politics. He’s always seen climate as the perfect political wedge against Labor among working families, deploying fear campaigns based on wildly exaggerated projections about jobs and the cost of living. He’s done the same internally, using it to divide and conquer his moderate opponents in the Liberal party.

Pretty tawdry when now we see half the country going up in smoke!​​

But here’s the rub. The Abbott denialist cult has taken over the entire Coalition. It continues under Morrison and, when they oust him soon, it will continue under Peter Dutton. It’s become the battle cry of the far right which now runs the entire conservative show in Canberra. ​​

And yes, before the Murdoch media leap to Abbott’s defence, I know he is a firefighter. Good on him. The problem is most of the fire chiefs just don’t agree with him on the impact of climate change. Nor does the CSIRO. Nor does any credible climate scientist in the world.

In Australia, as in America, the conservatives’ strategic partner in climate change denial has been the Murdoch media. Rupert Murdoch, feeling the heat of public opinion, claimed recently there were no climate deniers at News Corp! The Murdochs, senior and junior, must believe the Australian people are total fools. Murdoch’s papers remain a command centre for the entire mission of climate policy obstruction.

Just look at their climate coverage over the last four federal elections.

In the midst of today’s tragedy, we still see the old denialist trope trotted out that Australia, with only 1.3% of global emissions, can have no influence, and shouldn’t bother trying. ​​What pathetic nonsense.

If other middle-sized economies did the same – there are about 20 with a similar share of emissions – that’s a quarter of the global total. We cannot work globally to get the biggest emitters – the US, China and India – to act unless we are also acting to clean up our own backyards. ​​

Our national interest dictates that Australia becomes once again a global climate change leader, not a follower. Unless we lead, and convince others to follow, Australia has a bleak future indeed. ​​ ​​​​​​​​​​​

The Australian people are angry. The Liberals and Nationals are now reaping what they have sown for more than a decade – through climate inaction at home, sabotaging climate negotiations abroad and a continuing pathology of poisonous fear mongering.

The melancholy truth is the only policies restraining Australian emissions today were taken under our government a decade ago.

Principal among these is our legislated mandatory renewable energy target for 20% of electricity supply to be renewables by 2020. The conservatives said it would destroy the economy. It didn’t. As a result, renewables are now 21%, up from 4% when we started.​​

But this is just the foundation stone of what must now become a bigger, bolder plan of national and international action.

I stand by what I said a decade ago: climate change represents the greatest economic, environmental and moral challenge of our time. Moral because it’s about what’s right and wrong for the nation. Moral because it’s about intergenerational justice.

The Liberals won’t change on climate. Denial is now their DNA. They may start pretending to care. Scotty from marketing is good at that. But we all know it will be paper thin. That’s why this lot have to go. Before it’s too late for us all.