The government is guilty of criminal neglect. But it’s not alone


While Scott Morrison deserves to bear the brunt of criticism for the bushfire catastrophe, it is a disaster a generation in the making – Bernard Keane

 

For decades, Australia’s governing class — politicians, policymakers, economists, journalists, business leaders — have patted themselves on the back for their success in the core business of public policy: the unprecedented global feat of nearly three decades of economic growth, including avoiding the 2008 global recession.

While they were achieving that, however, they were also preparing a climate catastrophe that would cost the lives of, so far, 28 Australians, inflict an unimaginable toll on the country’s ecosystems, impose colossal health costs on the residents of our largest cities and inflict tens of billions in economic costs.

It’s the greatest policy failure of a generation, much worse than the debacle of the Iraq War or the early nineties recession. And no one has any excuses. This summer’s catastrophe — which will be a forerunner of similar summers to come — is exactly what scientists have repeatedly, for decades, warned would happen.

Scott Morrison is bearing the brunt of the blame. That’s entirely reasonable. Even putting aside his climate denialism and his enthusiasm for coal, his government is guilty of criminal neglect in its refusal to properly prepare for a catastrophic summer: emergency strategies left to gather dust (yet another stuff-up by Home Affairs), fire experts ignored, requests for additional funding rejected.

To cover his government’s negligence, Morrison has repeatedly resorted to blatant lies — about linking bushfires with climate change, about the role of backburning, about calling out the ADF.

 

But blood is on the hands of many more than just Morrison and his ministers. Australia’s long-term role in sabotaging international climate action began under the Howard government, with John Howard leading the effort to resist internationally-agreed targets for emissions reductions in the 1990s and obtain a special deal for Australia’s rampant land clearing that alienated other countries.

The election of George W. Bush in 2000 gave Howard a partner in climate crime but Australia — the developed economy most at risk from climate action — had already forfeited any role of global leadership in reducing the level of global warming that, 20 years later, would deliver year after year of record high temperatures.

For those who insist no amount of emission reductions by Australia would have made any difference this summer, what might have been if the Howard government, instead of sabotaging international climate action, had properly sought to protect Australia by pushing global action to curb emissions?

Responsibility, too, rests with the corporations and industries that systematically stymied climate policy in Australia over the last 20 years. The Business Council has worked hard to undermine climate policies while professing to support climate action; the climate denialism of the Minerals Council is so bad even some mining companies have threatened to abandon it.

Global and local fossil fuel companies like Chevron, Gina Rinhart’s Hancock, the failed Linc Energy, Minara and Origin have collectively pumped millions of dollars in donations into the coffers of both sides of politics; Santos and Woodside by themselves have handed millions each to the political parties to influence policy in their interests.

Many offer lucrative jobs to politicians, party officials and public servants after they leave public life. Responsibility for the catastrophe of this summer lies at their door as well; their executives should contemplate the charred landscape of eastern Australia and reflect on their handiwork.

And much of this couldn’t have happened without the media. There’s plenty of blood on the hands of News Corp executives and successive editors of outlets like The Australian, the Telegraph and, now, Sky News. Years of climate denialism targeted at both sides of politics — witness the recent smearing of NSW Liberal Matt Kean for daring to talk of bolder climate action — has wrecked evidence-based policymaking; the malignant nature of News Corp has been displayed in recent days in an absurd campaign to blame arsonists for the catastrophe.

 

Australia’s political class — no longer fit for purpose

 

But much of the non-Murdoch media has also helped normalise a brazen climate denialism that would be regarded as unhinged even in other countries. Failing to address the blatant lies of the Coalition campaign against the Gillard government’s carbon price; urging voters to support Tony Abbott; and political journalists fixating on race-calling and political tactics while ignoring policy have all made life comfortable and relaxed for denialists.

In particular, many journalists have unthinkingly absorbed the favoured climate framing of denialists and fossil fuel companies — that we can have emissions abatement or economic growth and jobs, but not both. The tens of billions in damage and lost growth from the bushfires are a frightening demolition of that myth — and a stark rejoinder to the journalists, Murdoch and non-Murdoch alike, who literally screamed at Bill Shorten during last year’s election campaign to explain the economic costs of his (woefully inadequate) climate policies.

And yes, Labor too has played its part in the debacle, despite being out of power for much of the last two decades and its own myth-making about the Rudd government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Only the Gillard government — under pressure from the Greens — and Bill Shorten in the 2013-16 parliament, when he advocated strong emissions abatement targets and two carbon pricing schemes, can avoid blame.

Morrison deserves to wear this catastrophe, to use Keating’s phrase, like a crown of thorns. But our governing class, the media and business elites of the last two decades share responsibility for the lost lives, ruined businesses, damaged health and ecocide that have marked this summer, and will mark decades to come. And they should never be permitted to forget it.

 

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