When I wrote yesterday’s post on the Ivan Southall book Ash Road, I discovered a draft post that I had never published. It was written in March of this year, just as the tumult of our bushfires was ebbing – at least in the media’s eyes.
I must never have posted it as we were suddenly overtaken by COVID, but, since it is so relevant to the book, and the current situation in California and Oregon, and our imminent bushfire season, I have decided press the publish button.
And just a note. Political fortunes wax and wane as we all know. As fast as our Prime Minister Scott Morrison fell out of favour over the bush-fires, he clawed back brownie points over his handling of Australia’s response to Coronavirus. For a while there, politicians of all persuasions were working together under his leadership.
Okay, so that turned out to be a brief moment in the sun, and they are all back to taking pot-shots at each other. PM Morrison is no longer headlining every news broadcast, although he is still in the mix. We are a couple of years away from our next election, so there is a lot of water to go under the bridge of popularity and polls yet.
Without further ado, here’s where my thoughts lay six months ago . . .
Several things distinguished this year’s bushfires from all the terrifying and devastating ones that have preceded. They started very early in the season, even in September/October (2019) in some places, peaking in December/January (2020); they were widespread, simultaneously; they burnt through areas that do not usually burn; they returned to burn through areas they had just burnt, and they burnt on, and on.
Our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was on (secret) holidays in Hawaii (also secret) when it became clear that the fires would not be contained. That’s okay, he’s entitled to a holiday. But at first he pussy-footed around, and then, when two fire-fighters were killed and the media storm was turning ugly, he spoke from Hawaii to a 2GB radio host and confirmed he was returning. He justified his delay, “I don’t hold a hose, mate, and I don’t sit in a control room,” he said. “But I know that Australians would want me back at this time … of these fatalities. So I’ll happily come back and do that.” That kind of martyred speech is lead-balloon material. Many of us have been recalled from holidays when a work crisis looms, and we are not the national leader.
Our bush firefighters are volunteers. They give up their jobs and businesses to go to the fray. This is bearable for a short time, but this year they were without income for many weeks, even months. Calls were mounting to recompense them. “The volunteer effort is a big part of our natural disaster response and it is a big part of how Australia has always dealt with these issues,” Morrison said, rejecting these calls. “And the fact is these crews, yes, they’re tired, but they also want to be out there defending their communities . . . they WANT to be there.”
These quotes were in the early part of December 2019. The horrific situation continued to escalate from there. Ultimately, the Defence Force – including reserves – even had a role to play. Morrison had no hesitation in cancelling their leave and recalling them to service. By the end of December 2019, he recanted his position on firefighter remuneration and announced a support package – with many caveats attached. I wonder how many actually received any financial support. Yet, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, his Finance Minister Mathias Cormann praised Morrison’s leadership, telling the international media, that our PM “had led a historically unprecedented national bush fire response effort“.
On 7 February 2020 it was reported that torrential rain across most of south-east Australia had extinguished New South Wales’ fires by a third, from more than 60 down to 42 of extant fires. The emergency focus began to shift towards flooding.
On 31st March, the NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, declared the devastating bushfire season in that state officially ended.
Meanwhile, the corona virus aka COVID-19 had captured all the media attention.