Is the Lucky Country running out of luck? Natural disaster or political disaster? An essay by John Keane on Australia’s bushfires and its ailing democracy.
A popular poem penned by Sydney-born Dorothea Mackellar in the early years of last century speaks lyrically of a vast brown continent shaped by ragged mountain ranges, sweeping plains, jewel seas, golden noonday sun, droughts and flooding rains. My grandmother taught me its lines. I later recited it in primary school and hummed and sang it as a farm boy, rather proudly. The poem left lumps in my throat. It taught me to adore the perfume of the local eucalyptus, the exotic flowers and hopping, pouched animals. And although I didn’t quite understand its chilling line about the ‘beauty and terror’ of the sunburnt country, the poem had humbling effects. It made me feel dependent on the landscape I loved.
My Country was written by a homesick teenager in England in 1904, shortly after the adoption of the federal constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia. Her poem refused the past. It was the voice of the future. It plucked the heartstrings of readers. With a whiff of republicanism running through its lines, it turned out to be one of those rare works of poetry which became genuinely popular. It was turned into a patriotic song.
Some years later, as my political brains germinated, I came to understand that Mackellar’s sunburnt country had been stolen from peoples who today form the oldest continuous civilisation on our planet. I learned that our first Australians had managed its sun-drenched mountains and flooded plains differently, more modestly and prudently than the invading Europeans. Our first peoples thought of its far horizons and sapphire-misted hills as their material embodiment. They were its spiritual and physical extension. Custodians of their ancestors and future generations, they acted as its guardians and stewards. Now the land they loved is on fire.
A natural disaster?
The scale and depth of the unfolding calamity is hard to fathom at a distance. At close range, this is how things look: two hundred fires are still burning out of control. Nearly 9 million hectares of land – the size of the whole of Ireland, and over ten times the area destroyed in 2018 by the deadliest fires ever recorded in California – have suffered incineration. Never mind the multi-billion dollar damage to the country’s tourism and communications infrastructure. A billion native animals are dead. Countless others are maimed and bewildered by their loss of habitat. The infernos are increasing the rate of bottom-up species destruction; the chances of ecosystem collapse in several regions are rising. Not even the native worms, spiders, grasshoppers and other tiny creatures that dwell humbly and honourably at the base of our local biomes are safe. Crops and farm animals and several thousands of homes have gone up in flames.
Nearly 30 people have lost their lives. A third of the continent’s citizens are either suffering ruin or know others whose lives have been damaged. For several months, the normally glorious azure blue skies of my hometown Sydney have been poisoned by black ash and orange-brown vapours. Last Sunday, shrouded in stinking black smoke from fires burning 100 kilometres away, my neighbourhood shut its windows, pedestrians donned masks and local drivers switched on their headlights. Water bans for the whole city have been imposed. Nearby reservoirs are emptying and a few days ago temperatures in the western suburbs of Sydney reached nearly 50C, the warmest place on planet Earth. And this is just the beginning of what may well turn out to be the sunburnt country’s hottest and driest summer ever recorded.
A third of the continent’s citizens are either suffering ruin or know others whose lives have been damaged. For several months, the normally glorious azure blue skies of my hometown Sydney have been poisoned by black ash and orange-brown vapours. Last Sunday, shrouded in stinking black smoke from fires burning 100 kilometres away, my neighbourhood shut its windows, pedestrians donned masks and local drivers switched on their headlights. Water bans for the whole city have been imposed. Nearby reservoirs are emptying and a few days ago temperatures in the western suburbs of Sydney reached nearly 50C, the warmest place on planet Earth. And this is just the beginning of what may well turn out to be the sunburnt country’s hottest and driest summer ever recorded.
So savage are the devilish infernos that millions of people are asking after their causes and wondering what they mean for their future lives, and for the country and the world as a whole. Catastrophes are of course moments when opal-hearted citizens not only come to each other’s rescue but look to their elected leaders for solace, guidance and material support. So what does Prime Minister Scott Morrison have to say on the subject? In this unfinished disaster what has he done to help?
In recent weeks, I confess, there have been more than a few moments when I want someone to wipe the smug smile off his weight-challenged face. But since this country is called a democracy I must first let him speak. ‘It’s a natural disaster’, says the former boss of Tourism Australia, a second-rate machine politician who ran the first-ever presidential style campaign to win office in last year’s general election, with no clear policies but stacks of photo opportunities featuring him as an unremarkable suburban father and reliable mate in whom his fabled people can trust. ‘How good is Australia?’ were among his first words as the newly-elected leader of the country. Since then his self-congratulatory tune hasn’t changed.
The sunburnt country of azure blue skies and brown sweeping plains is in flames, but you’d not know it from his media utterances, or his do-nothing doings. Non sequiturs are his specialty. Climate and heating and fire are words absent from his dictionary. “Whatever our trials, whatever disasters have befallen us, we have never succumbed to panic,” he said in his pre-recorded New Year’s Eve video message. “The generations of Australians that went before us, including our First Australians, also faced natural disasters, floods, fires, global conflicts, disease and drought.” He added: “We have faced these disasters before and we have prevailed, we have overcome … That is the spirit of Australians”.
Well, the sunburnt country’s most extensive and savage bushfires began four months ago, in September 2019, but since then the dollar-pinching, neo-liberal and soft-populist government Morrison leads has acted mostly as if the calamity simply doesn’t exist. It presumes that all that’s now needed are the brave energies of volunteer fire fighters (tens of thousands are currently in action) and the generous donations and strengthened self-belief of citizens in Australia as the land of rainbow gold. In terms of media strategy it’s been all mirrors and no smoke. And in matters of strategy, the government has for months been acting out Karl Deutsch’s famous dictum that power is the capacity to talk without listening and the ability to afford not to learn.
Imperious complacency is the new normal. The unfortunately surnamed federal Minister for Natural Disaster and Emergency Management David Littleproud says things like: “We will continue to respond to changing conditions while these fires affect communities across the country”. The rote self-confidence is astonishing. It’s what my grandmother who lovingly introduced me to Dorothea Mackellar used to call handling the truth carelessly. Australians nowadays use a pithier expression. They call it bullshit.
The fact is that the more conditions have edged towards catastrophe the less Morrison’s government has seemed capable of acting wisely, and decisively. Pleas made by fire commissioners for additional aerial firefighting equipment have been repeatedly snubbed. In mid-December, after helping the United States, Saudi Arabia and Brazil derail the COP25 climate talks in Madrid, the Prime Minister packed his bags and went on holiday to Hawaii (unfortunately for him during exactly the same period when average national temperatures soared to 41.9C, the hottest ever recorded). As if this was just a natural disaster, several key federal and state ministers did the same, or blanked mainstream media by switching off their mobile phones.
As the infernos worsened, the government offered no additional funding and twice refused to meet with the Emergency Leaders for Climate Change, a body comprising the most senior experienced former emergency services leaders. Much testosterone was spent offloading responsibility for the calamity onto the states and then to blame them for their ineffectiveness. Then things changed, or so it seemed.
With fires raging throughout the country, and gate-keeper journalists and gate-watching social media platforms crying out for leadership, the government sang a different tune. There was initial talk of 500 million dollars for bushfire recovery – a pittance by comparison with the nearly 30 billion dollars granted annually to the local fossil fuel industry. More dramatically, the government announced (on January 4) that 3,000 army reservists would be called up – oddly, without bothering to consult the chief rural fire services commissioner in New South Wales, who learned from the news media that the deployment was happening. And just a few days ago, rather like reaching for condoms in a maternity ward, a plan for establishing a 2-billion dollar-funded National Bushfire Recovery Agency was announced.
The wilful ignorance and policy neglect beggar belief. Yet especially interesting is that despite the wilful neglect a national discussion about the long-term and proximate causes of the unfinished catastrophe has now begun. There is rising public awareness that the catastrophe has more than its share of entirely local causes. Millions of citizens know that intense fires are marked by frightening quantum qualities that display a will of their own. People understand that eucalyptus oil when vaporised easily explodes and burns with a fury; that scorched gum trees explode and fireballs spread flames and ash indiscriminately in all directions; and that massive heat-stoked clouds called pyrocumulonimbus trigger lightning bolts that spread the infernos, without delivering so much as a drop of desperately needed rain.
Bigger things are happening as well. Millions of the country’s opal-hearted citizens are experiencing an epiphany. Despite government blather about “natural disasters”, they grow convinced that there are links, no matter how meteorologically indeterminate, between spiralling carbon emissions, rising temperatures, warming oceans, drought and raging bushfires. People are aware that Australia, when measured per capita, spits more carbon gas into our atmosphere than any other country except the United States. They have heard that Morrison’s coal and gas-loving government is globally ranked the lowest in matters of climate heating action. And they now smell with their own blackened nostrils and see with their own reddened eyes what we as weather makers – the felicitous title phrase used by Tim Flannery for a best-selling book published over a decade ago – are doing to our beautiful land.
As the calamity intensifies, my wish is that there’ll be other lessons learned. One of them, so far not much publicly discussed or treated by journalists, has been a core theme of my research during the past decade on monitory democracy and mega-projects and (as it happened) the subject of my inaugural public lecture at the University of Sydney. Billion-dollar mega-projects are a menace for democracy. The global rule is that nine times out of ten mega-projects will suffer cost overruns, delays, and outright failures unless those who are in charge of their complex design and operation are subject to toothy public scrutiny and democratic accountability. If there is little or no monitory democracy, as I call it, then mega-projects typically produce various sorts of disasters. The nuclear melt-down at Fukushima, the massive oil spill caused by the failure of BP’s Deepwater Horizon and the long-delayed opening of Berlin’s new Brandenburg international airport are examples of how badly, in the absence of monitory democracy, things go wrong.
The Australian government’s underfunding, poor coordination and mismanagement of bushfire reduction, drought and disaster relief schemes is another case in point. The bottom line is that the mega-fire calamity we’re suffering is not a natural disaster, as the Prime Minister and his ministers and journalist friends say. It is a political disaster.
Another way of putting the point is to say that the calamity in our sunburnt land is the product of democracy failure. Economists have long warned that unregulated markets fail, and that market failures produce great misery among their victims. My Power and Humility (2018) offers an anatomy of democracy failure. It shows that in the absence of watchdog and barking dog mechanisms of democratic scrutiny and restraint things usually go wrong. When democracy is in short supply, mega-disasters multiply. Democracy failure happens. The equation is almost mathematical: without effective democratic accountability, powerful state and corporate organisations typically make foolish or reckless decisions that wound the lives of citizens and spoil the ecosystems in which they dwell.
Democracy failure is exactly what the sunburnt country ravaged by bushfires is now suffering, which raises questions about the likely or probable political consequences of this unfinished tragedy. What can we expect in the coming days, weeks and months? Will there be a return to normality? Or is this the moment when the lucky country runs out of luck?
A quick return to normality is most unlikely. Vast areas of unburned bush remain vulnerable. Military intervention will not compensate for government ineptitude and civil society hurt. The worst-affected small-town communities may not recover. Inadequate insurance claim payouts will be bitterly contested in the courts. Most probably, the current warming and drought trends will worsen. In spite of the regenerative capacities of the bush, species destruction, for instance the permanent extinction of much-loved koalas, glossy black cockatoos and native honey bees, is now on the cards.
The whole thing is more than sad. Deep feelings of powerlessness and mourning the destruction of a ruined environment are spreading. The age of solastalgia, a term coined by the Australian thinker Glenn Albrecht, is upon us. Shocked by the great calamity, many citizens will understandably grow fearful of the future. Though Australians generally see through bullshit, conspiracies and end-of-the-world catastrophe thinking may flourish.
Backed by disinformation spread by bots and trolls, and by a Murdoch press that owns nearly three-quarters of the local media, the Morrison government could well survive, and be re-elected. State of disaster emergency rule, of the kind now operating in the state of Victoria, might become more frequent, even permanent. Where all these trends would take the country nobody knows. In the face of ecocide, the political dangers of phantom democracy and despotism (the subject of my next book) shouldn’t be underestimated. For we are learning again what my wise grandmother knew, and Dorothea Mackellar didn’t say: when citizens grow anxious they can become putty in the hands of populist demagogues skilled at re-directing popular discomfort onto unwanted immigrants, ‘greenies’, Muslims and other misfits.
One thing’s certain: in the wake of the most serious environmental disaster since colonisation, the long-term democratic resilience of the country is about to be tested. There are rising expectations that the government will be punished for its calculated ineptitude. Fortunately, the federal election cycle in Australia is short: three years only, which means that Morrison’s government will be facing rough music in or before 2022. I very much hope it gets the drubbing it deserves.
The distinguished Australian novelist Richard Flanagan goes further. He says the unfinished bushfire catastrophe is the country’s Chernobyl, that moment in the Soviet Union when a poorly-regulated mega-project corrupted by arbitrary power bred demands for the glasnost that ripped apart the whole imperial system. The simile, first used by Greenpeace Australia Pacific’s David Ritter, is arguably misplaced. The failing parliamentary democracy of Australia can’t plausibly be compared with a corrupt one-party state socialist system. And yet I agree with Flanagan that fundamental institutional changes are now needed because the grand political lesson of this moment is that democracy has failed – with disastrous results.
For several years, I have been saying publicly that Australian democracy is cursed by complacency. The political class is excessively white and male and heavily unrepresentative of an impressively multi-cultural civil society. Our indigenous peoples are denied formal political representation. The gap between rich and poor is widening. There is no federal anti-corruption commission. Dark money poisons elections. Public service institutions are under assault. Public service media are legally and financially vulnerable. In a system of compulsory voting, hundreds of thousands of young people have gone missing from the electoral rolls. Well over a million permanent residents are denied the vote. And the whole political system is wedded to a carbon-based capitalism whose bell is now not just tolling, but melting.
An energy regime change and a political revolution are needed. A re-definition of democracy is definitely required. During its remarkably long and stormy history, democracy always functioned as an anthropocentric norm that supposed that self-governing humans are the rightful masters and possessors of ‘nature’. Democratic principles now need to become viridescent, so that in the age of monitory democracy popular self-government embraces the obligation of humans to treat the ecosystems in which they dwell as their equals, and as therefore entitled to proper political representation in human affairs.
Whether a semantic shift of this kind will happen, or whether the ailing carbon democracy can be transformed peacefully into a more robust and resilient monitory democracy, is another matter. Let’s suppose it doesn’t happen. What then will life in Australia be like during the next couple of years? The Morrison government will act as if it’s business as usual. Using government handouts, army troops and media messaging, it will do all it can to win the next election and to normalise the abnormal. Clampdowns on environmental boycotts and public assemblies will tighten. Opposition leaders will tag along. They’ll mostly stick to the script that in this hellish moment their job is to be constructive and practical and not to stir up trouble by commenting unhelpfully on the overall performance of the Prime Minister and his government.
The political class will play the role of amnesiacs (who today remembers the near-total levelling and military evacuation of the city of Darwin, half a century ago, by Cyclone Tracy?). It will bend over backwards to appeal to the fabled ‘quiet’ and ‘hardworking’ and ‘optimistic’ Australians. The politicians might succeed. Fiction would then become fact. Citizens would choose to be complacent subjects. Gripped by anxiety, with temperatures rising and fires burning before their eyes, Australians would stop caring about their far blue horizons, brown ragged mountains and emerald jewel seas. The catastrophe would then be complete, leaving poor Dorothea Mackellar to mourn her sunburnt country, awash in floods of angered tears.