It is understandable why some Australians are reluctant to use the term “Happy New Year” at a time when many have lost their homes to fire and some have perished in the flames. However, there is no reason to project the present tragedy on to a critique of the nation and its leaders.
I grew up in Melbourne where I heard constant tales of the 1939 Black Friday bushfires that afflicted parts of Victoria, South Australia and NSW. In the 1950s, there was still evidence of the fires that had burnt the forests two decades earlier. But southeast Australia recovered then as it almost certainly will recover again.
In Victoria, there were further huge fires in 1983 and 2009. But until now, there was no suggestion that the state’s future would be one of continuing apocalypse. Yet this is the message of the self-declared progressive media as it seeks to blame others for natural tragedies.
Writing in The Guardian on Wednesday, David Marr argued that the present bushfires are like none that have gone before — not even what some regard as modern Australia’s worst bushfire in 1851. In full hyperbolic mode, Marr wrote about the fires in the Victorian beachside town of Mallacoota: “Already, these scenes are part of the national imagination. Among Australians of a certain age, they stir memories of a Hollywood potboiler about the end of the world filmed 60 years ago in Melbourne. On The Beach starred Ava Gardener, Gregory Peck and Fred Astaire. The remake stars us.”
That’s clever writing but superficial in the extreme.
The 1959 film was based on Neville Shute’s 1957 novel of the same name. It was set in Melbourne as a group of (temporary) survivors await certain death as a consequence of a nuclear war. In short, it was a story about the end of civilisation. It seems that The Guardian’s high-profile columnist has joined the end-of-the-world-is-nigh club.
To Marr, this time we are doomed not by atomic weapons but by climate change. He claims that the Prime Minister is in denial about the issue.
But Marr maintains that if Scott Morrison “could face the truth, he might speak not only to his country but the world”. According to Marr, “if Australia were to take effective action against climate change, this catastrophe would give us the right to demand better of the rogue states in climate, China and the US”.
Now Australia is a middle-ranking nation with significant influence in the world. But it’s unrealistic to expect that Morrison can tell the leadership in the US, China or, indeed, India what they should do with their nations’ carbon dioxide emissions that would result in a policy change.
It’s much the same on the home front. On Wednesday, ABC Radio AM presenter Sabra Lane put the following proposition to Water Resources Minister David Littleproud about the bushfires: “Plenty of experts say that they have seen nothing like this before; do you acknowledge that the federal government now has to do more about climate change?” When Littleproud responded that Australia was on track to meet its Paris Agreement commitments, Lane asserted that “there are a lot of people saying that more needs to be done”.
Sure, a lot of people are saying this — even though the Coalition won what was said to be the climate change election in May. In any event, as Lane should know, there is nothing that an Australian government can do about climate change since Australia is responsible for just over 1 per cent of total global emissions.
On ABC Sydney on Thursday, presenter Josh Szeps did what he acknowledged was a six-minute-long “rant” about the fires. Szeps is one of a number of former or present comedians employed by the ABC.
But there was nothing funny about his rant to air that depicted Sydney as “at a tipping point” because of smoke and described the NSW south coast around Bateman’s Bay as akin to a scene from The Walking Dead or The Hunger Games.
Szeps’s suggestion? Well, he wants various Australian governments to buy “every rusty old Hercules plane that is sitting on a military airport in every poor country of the world” and “retrofit them … into water bombers”. I am not aware that any metropolitan or rural fire brigade has made such a request to any government in Australia.
While conceding that “it’s not Scott Morrison’s fault there are fires”, Szeps declared that there is “a sense of loss of leadership, a loss of faith, a loss of vision, a loss of being up to the seriousness of the challenge”.
That’s the view from a presenter’s chair in Sydney. Another view is that, considering the enormity of the fires on New Year’s Eve — on a day that was significantly hotter than predicted by weather authorities — state and local governments, with the assistance of the commonwealth government, did well in minimising fatalities and other casualties and in reducing property destruction.
Every Hercules in the world converted to a water bomber could not have extinguished the ferocity of the Australian bushfires on the last day of 2019 — or in 1851, or 1939, or 1983, or 2009. Firefighting can control fires to a greater or lesser extent but it cannot prevent them. It is a fact of life that many Australians live close to some of the most deadly potential fires zones in the world. The current smoke over large parts of NSW, Victoria and the ACT is unpleasant to all and dangerous to some. But it has happened before and it will happen again.
On Tuesday evening, The Saturday Paper’s Paul Bongiorno put out the following tweet: “As I choke to death in Canberra in thick acrid smoke the government would already be an ash heap without the rabid support of the Murdoch media.”
The good news is that Bongiorno is still alive and Australians are not so stupid to vote the way someone (allegedly) tells them. The bad news is there can be apocalyptic thinking without a real apocalypse of the end of the world kind.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute