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

Five lies that stain the nation’s soul

What really burns me up about our climate denialism

By David Salt

As I wipe the tears from my smoke-stung eyes and choke down the bile rising from my indignation, I ask myself why the angst? A large part of it is the remorseless lying we get day after day from our national government on climate change. It’s the big lies and small lies, the obfuscations, distractions and falsehoods that come at such volume that we start to distrust everything we hear; which I feel sure is part of the government’s strategy.

Multiple media players and experts attempt to filter the truth from the falsehood but it just keeps coming regardless.

For me, there are five overarching lies that subsume all the smaller falsehoods. And those five are:

1. We are guided by the science
2. We are doing our bit when it comes to climate change
3. We are good neighbours (to Pacific nations)
4. We are a responsible international player
5. Our children should be optimistic about their future

1. We are guided by the science

This is one of the most oft repeated lies the government gives us day after day. It’s a claim completely repudiated by its actions when it comes to climate change, environmental science and sustainability in general. The scientific consensus is crystal clear on what the problem is and the appropriate solution. Yet the government ignores the evidence, cherry picks data to suit its own narrative, constantly throws out red herrings to give it cover, and disparages climate science in general (all the while claiming they are ‘guided by the science’).

But this lie extends beyond climate science to expert knowledge in general. They ignored repeated pleas from retired emergency managers for greater action in the lead up to the current fire catastrophe. And they ignored the economic consensus that has been around for years on the need for a price on carbon (this government reversed the ‘carbon tax’, the only policy that appears to have had any measure of success in curbing Australia’s carbon emissions).

The government claims it is guided by the science, that their policy is evidence based, but they lie. And in many ways all the deceit that follows is based on this foundational deception.

2. We are doing our bit when it comes to climate change

The government’s target of a reduction of 26-28% in carbon emissions (below 2005 levels by 2030) is not ‘Australia doing our bit’. It is not based on evidence, science or equity. It is one of the weakest targets amongst developed countries, is not aligned to what the science says is necessary to tackle climate change (the government’s own Climate Change Authority recommended a minimum of 45% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, the government’s response was an attempt to abolish the Authority and, failing that, ignore it), and the target not proportionate to the size of our population or economy. Our Prime Minister claims it is “credible, fair, responsible and achievable” yet all the evidence suggests the exact opposite.

3. We are good neighbours (to Pacific nations)

We ignore the evidence and refuse to even shoulder our fair share of the burden. Then we happily preach to the members of the Pacific Islands Forum that everything is okay and Australia is a great neighbour. To prove it, we throw $500 million in their direction (taken from the existing aid budget) so they can invest in “renewable energy, climate change and resilience in the Pacific”.

Keep in mind these are our neighbours. Unlike us, they haven’t contributed any carbon emissions to speak of, they haven’t enjoyed the benefits of economic growth but they are faced with existential threats arising from climate change caused by that growth.

We disregarded their fears and did our best to stop the Islands Forum from releasing a communique including references to phasing out coal and limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees.

4. We are a responsible international player

Having repudiated our neighbours our Prime Minister then visited the UN to tell the world what a great job we’re doing when it comes to climate change; both overhyping what we were actually doing while underplaying our culpability. He also did his best to distract everyone’s attention by talking up our efforts on plastics in the ocean, as if it were a problem of the same order as climate change.

Another constantly repeated note in our siren song of denial is that we’re but a small part of the problem emitting a paltry 1.3% of global emissions. He never then acknowledges that 1.3% coming from only 0.3% of the world’s population is actually a shocking record making us the highest emitter per capita in the developed world and one of the world’s top 20 polluting countries.

But it’s not enough to deny our responsibilities and mislead on our effort to this global cause, we have also gone out of our way to thwart efforts to curb global carbon emissions. At a UN conference on climate targets in Madrid only weeks ago Australia was accused of ‘cheating’ and blocking efforts to reach a consensus on how to make the Paris agreements on emissions work. ““The conference fell victim to the base positions of a handful of major polluting countries, Australia included,” a former Australian diplomat was quoted as saying.

So, it’s not enough that Australia is rated as the worst-performing country on climate change policy out of 57 countries, a new report prepared by international think tanks also criticises the Morrison government for being a ‘regressive force’ internationally.

We bully our neighbouring nations in local forums and then snuggle up to the world’s biggest climate change bullies (in this case the US and Brazil) on the international stage.

5. Our children should be optimistic about their future

After lecturing the world on how great Australia was in terms of its climate action at the UN in September, our Prime Minister then rebuked younger Australians for taking time off school to protest his climate inaction. He suggested Australian kids needed to be given more

“context and perspective” on the issue because, he says, “I don’t want our children to have anxieties about these issues.” He said it was important Australian children were confident they would live in a “wonderful country and pristine environment”.

Well, that ‘pristine environment’ is now being engulfed in flames, communities are in despair and everyone is scared of a future in which we can only expect worse. What context and perspective is he talking about? And how is it possible for our children to be optimistic about their future when their present is in chaos and our national leaders won’t even engage with the real problem. They may be young but they’re not stupid.

Many many lies

Yes I get angry at most of the other deceptions foisted on us daily by this denialist government, this farrago of lies. I get upset when they blame a lack of hazard reduction burning as the real problem behind the fires, that they claim their policies are protecting the Great Barrier Reef or that this Coalition Government is responsible for the enormous investment in renewable energy. They are all dissembling untruths with strong evidence revealing what the real situation is.

But overarching these untruths are the five deceptions I have discussed here. We ignore the science and the expertise on climate change, we are not doing our fair share in addressing this challenge, we are poor neighbours and wretched global partners; and in doing all this we are destroying the hope of upcoming generations.

There are no easy solutions, no silver bullets; this is a wicked problem. But we cannot redeem our nation’s soul in regards to climate change until we honestly acknowledge the nature of this challenge and get real with our response.