The man who shamed the PM

and thereby saved Australia

By David Salt

How did we do it? How did Australia beat COVID 19 when most other countries failed; failure being their inability to prevent the overloading of their health systems and the consequent death of tens of thousands of lives that should have been saved.

Is it because Australia has better leaders? Better health officials? Better people? Better geographical positioning?

Maybe our island continent’s physical isolation helped a little but I don’t think the other human factors had much to do with it, not directly anyway. Our health officials delivered similar advice to those health officials overseas but leaders in other nations often ignored this advice and shut the gate only after the horse had bolted (then searched for a scapegoat when their citizens started dying needlessly).

But our leaders followed the scientific advice pretty much to the letter. However, this is not in keeping with their behaviour in recent years in which they felt free to ignore, discount, denigrate or deny scientific advice that ran counter to their politics and ideology – think death of rivers, collapse of coral reefs and skyrocketing extinction rates.

And yet this time they did listen. What’s more, they showed how effective our federal system of governance could be when federal and state governments pulled together. How did we do it? Why did we do it differently this time?

The answer, I believe, is that our nation was primed for an unprecedented national response to an unprecedented national emergency by an earlier unprecedented national emergency. And I’ll make my case on this using what happened when our Prime Minister mis-read this earlier unprecedented national emergency.

Our PM’s Black Summer

Remember our Black Summer? The fires were extinguished only a couple of months ago but COVID 19 has relegated that disastrous time to a different age. But I reckon it was our experience of Black Summer that made the difference on how Australia responded to the ensuing COVID 19 pandemic.

And maybe the defining moment during this horror season on wildfire was when our Prime Minister Scott Morrison was rebuffed after making a unilateral announcement to bring in the army reserve on Saturday 4 January.

It was already clear by that stage that the Federal Government’s standard command-and-control approach wasn’t cutting the mustard. But, true to form, our leaders pushed on hoping to push through. And they played down the connection with climate change: ‘let’s not talk about that now, we must focus on the emergency’.

But the fire emergency was still escalating so the Government called out the army reserve without telling the states and simultaneously put out a political ad telling Australia what a great job it was doing. And they did it on the very day the wildfires were at their unstoppable worst.

The real heroes of the moment were the firies and emergency workers. When the NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons was told of the army reserve call out (by the media, not by the Federal Government) he was flabbergasted describing the manner of the announcement as “atrocious”.

And the whole country sat back and wondered what an earth the national government was playing at. Can they not see that in a time of national emergency that politics and ideology has to take a back seat to reasoned, evidence-based, co-operative action?

Well maybe that reality became apparent because after that incident they went decidedly quiet, letting the states, who have primary responsibility for fire management, take the running.

Not a panacea

A little bit later during this unfolding catastrophe, Conservative political leaders including our Prime Minister started looking around for a scapegoat for the wildfires and, predictably, targeted environmental groups and the Green Party as responsible for preventing hazard reduction burning in the lead up to the Black Summer.

Again, Commissioner Fitzsimmons spoke truth to power saying that hazard reduction is important but not a panacea for bushfire risk and has “very little effect at all” on the spread of fire in severe or extreme weather.

Fitzsimmons also pointed out that hazard reduction burning itself is extremely challenging and hazardous. What I didn’t know at that time but subsequently discovered on ABC’s Australian Story is that Fitzsimmons knows the perils of hazard reduction personally – his father burnt to death in a hazard reduction burn in Sydney’s north in the year 2000.

So one of our true national heroes of the Black Summer, Shane Fitzsimmons, called out our national government on at least two occasions while simultaneously showing what calm dedicated leadership looked like. Many hold him up as the type of leader we need in a national emergency.

It takes a disturbance to be prepared for a disturbance

If there is a silver lining on our Black Summer it’s that it knocked the hubris and arrogance out of our national government’s approach to dealing with mass disturbance. Had it have been a ‘normal’ summer I believe we would have taken our lead from the UK or the USA on how to deal with Covid 19. And, in prioritizing the economy over the environment and discounting the science (our normal modus operandi), we would likely have led to the same death rates those countries are now experiencing (an outcome many are putting down to failed leadership).

Much has been written about how different countries have coped. It’s been suggested that South Korea and Taiwan have both fared well because they both previously experienced SARS and MERS, two respiratory pandemics very similar to Covid 19. They didn’t take it for granted and didn’t treat it like a flu, they responded appropriately.

I think our biggest risk now is believing the myth that Australia has done well because Australian’s (and Australian leaders) are a cut above the rest, that we are superior. We aren’t. We were lucky. Above all else, our decision makers approached the task of keeping Australia safe through the pandemic with a degree of humility, acceptance of the evidence and collegiality that has been missing from Australian politics for many years.

The smirk is back

And now, as Australia looks to be ahead of the (flattened) curve, I fear the smugness and arrogance is creeping back in. The idealogues are seizing back the pulpits, and tribal politics is beginning to strangle our winning formulation.

The months ahead look uncertain and strange. We’ve beaten the first wave but how will we go with the second and third?

The biggest national disturbance prior to this was the Global Financial Crisis in 2007. Once again, as a nation, we reacted strongly and well. But there was collateral damage. In the following year the GFC helped knock the wheels off our Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, and our politics has been a shameless dog fight ever since.

There are two lessons here for our national leaders. The first is that circumstances (history and path dependency) play a large part in our triumphs and failures. The second, contained in the first, is that pride goeth before a fall.

Image by David Salt

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