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Why haven’t we learned from Black Saturday?

A decade ago, the catastrophic Black Saturday fires prompted wide ranging reforms to stop it happening again. Why have Australian politicians failed to do the same now?

Photo: 2009 Black Friday Fires. Credit: Alex Coppel for Herald Sun.

In 2009 Victoria witnessed the worst bushfires in this country’s history, spanning 450,000 hectares, wiping out 2,000 homes and killing 180 people. I grew up in bushfire country, and I will never forget the sight of turning around at my local cricket oval to see the tops of flames rise above the bushland that surrounded my home. Over the course of the following weeks, I came to learn of the people around me who’d lost homes, lives and loved ones; whose losses I couldn’t fathom. 

Within a week, a Royal Commission was announced, the findings of which transformed the way that bushfires are addressed in Australia: a host of recommendations were made, including a quadrupling of hazard reduction burn levels, a restructure of emergency governance, as well as bushfire awareness campaigns and a reassessment of evacuation procedures. The report’s recommendations were accepted in full, with almost $1 billion committed by the state government in implementing them.

A decade later, Sydney is choking on carcinogenic smoke from bushfires that have scorched an area six times larger than those on Black Saturday. Air in one of the world’s supposedly most liveable cities is 11 times the threshold considered hazardous, and even on its “good” days is categorically unhealthy. 

How is this possible? Conservatives across the east coast have scrambled to blame the Greens (a party that has never seen government), as well as progressives more broadly, for their apparent city-focused ineptitude toward land management.

This is a cynical, deliberately partisan distraction from the issue at hand. The plumes of smoke above New South Wales are a symbol of an utter failure of responsible governance, and a shameful indictment on a government that masquerades as the champion of everyday people. 

Ignoring the short-term, ideologically-driven administrative incompetence that saw cuts to the Rural Fire Service, and the Prime Minister’s refusal to meet with emergency service leaders who warned him of the horrors of this fire season, this government’s position on climate change should be rage-inducing. Every single one of us should be white-hot with anger at this government’s cynical and obstructionist response to climate change. People have a right to ask and a right to answers, even as New South Wales burns.

They also have a right to solutions, which have not been forthcoming from successive governments even after Black Saturday and as our understanding of climate change has further developed. Indeed, imagine a Premier having the audacity to insist she would “not today” discuss the role of climate change as people’s lives crumble to ash, as the sky above them turns a permanent shade of toxic yellow. Bronte won’t burn; nor will Northbridge – even as they choke, perhaps we can’t expect meaningful, timely action from our politicians. Begging conservative governments to do the bare minimum on climate is futile: Morrison’s Government might belatedly spend on fire service assistance, but is ideologically rooted in refusing to address the climate that exacerbates the fires in the first place. 

The question then is where our anger should be directed – I would posit that it is the Australian Labor Party, who have demonstrated a marked lack of enthusiasm for not only anything resembling a Green New Deal, but indeed differentiating themselves from the Morrison Government on coal. 

A decade ago, John Brumby instituted a Royal Commission within a week, including terms of reference that spoke to the role of climate change in relation to the bushfires. The wealth of literature surrounding the link between bushfires and climate change has only become more extensive. How is it then, that a decade later, a Labor Party still dominated by Brumby’s native Right faction has managed to flip its public messaging on climate from being the party of pragmatic progress, and into the Party that sees its return from the electoral cold in knocking back Gautam Adani’s proverbial Cristal? 

It may well be that Brumby operated in an era of less explicit partisanship on climate, and therefore that there were less political implications for his invocation of climate change in an extremely sensitive time. It may be that Black Saturday was unprecedented in a way that these bushfires are not, and as such there is greater capacity for blind partisanship and commitment to vested interests in the political discourse. Nonetheless, we are now faced with the only parliamentary hope for meaningful climate action in government being apparently hopelessly committed to coal for the foreseeable future, having received $430,865 in fossil fuel industry donations in 2017-18. 

Another path is open. Pushing climate policy that centers working people is not only politically expedient for a Party that has apparently lost touch with its working base, but furthermore is existentially urgent. Particularly so for the marginalised communities that Labor claims to represent who are disproportionately affected by climate change. We must address the narrative that coal mining is an industry that by virtue of its existing prominence in working-class communities, must continue to be subsidised and supported by government, all for the sake of the re-election of a Labor Party that may as well have not been elected in the first place. 

It is the immediate investment into a Just Transition that provides secure, sustainable jobs that will see the election of a government with actual capacity for acting on climate change. This is not to suggest that replacing one neoliberal party with another will be the catalyst for the reversal of anthropogenic climate change, but simply that this Government’s inaction can prompt us to seek electoral solutions in the climate crisis. 

Just maybe, then I’ll be able to put aside the HEPA mask for a bit.