Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Picture: Mick Tsikas
Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Picture: Mick Tsikas

PM’s crucial bushfire decision

ANALYSIS

Australia's bushfire crisis has been shockingly bad. And it looks set to keep deteriorating.

More communities are evacuating, again.

It's becoming very obvious Prime Minister Scott Morrison needs to do something, both from a practical and political perspective. And with the nation facing a real threat, we are as close to united as we will ever get.

 

Times like these are rare.

At first, the PM was lackadaisical, slow to appreciate how unusual this summer is. Even after he came back from Hawaii, his first instinct was to downplay events. He appeared frustrated that he had to bother addressing the nation, insisting all was under control and going to plan.

"I understand the fear," he said in one dismal early press conference. "But …"

 

 

It went down like a ton of bricks.

Australia's Prime Minister is not an idiot. However, he is elected.

That means he can't stay out of touch forever.

ACTION TIME

Before long, Mr Morrison reversed course on pretending these fires were just part of a usual summer. Perhaps polling told him to (over the last three Newspolls his lead has averaged just 51-49). Perhaps his colleagues forced him to sort himself out. Or perhaps when he found himself calling out the navy he had a flash of realisation that this time was different.

It hasn't been perfect. He has made more mistakes, including some odd grabbing of hands and, appearing to forget that people have died.

In 2020, Mr Morrison will spend a lot of energy compensating for his mistakes. Maybe even overcompensating. He's already considering a royal commission into the crisis and response to it. There is a lot of time before the next election, and the PM will use it to vigorously scrub at any perception he doesn't care.

 

CARBON OR HOSES?

Mr Morrison is talking about taking action on climate change.

"It is and always has been the policy of our government to understand the need to take action on climate change," he said on Thursday. But Australia's biggest action recently has been changing the way we account for carbon emissions in order to make us look better on the surface.

Aussies want the government to take strong action on climate change.

Australia's emissions per person are among the highest in the world, and we can't expect to pressure other countries to act until we show strong willingness ourselves.

But the Coalition - who, under Tony Abbott, dismantled Australia's carbon tax - is famously reluctant to act on it.

A much easier political path for Mr Morrison is backing firefighters.

Protesters hold placards during a 'Sack ScoMo!' climate change rally in Sydney, Friday, January 10, 2020. (AAP Image/Steven Saphore) NO ARCHIVING
Protesters hold placards during a 'Sack ScoMo!' climate change rally in Sydney, Friday, January 10, 2020. (AAP Image/Steven Saphore) NO ARCHIVING

HOW GOOD ARE OUR FIREYS?

In May, the smoke of this summer will have cleared, but the memory will still be strong.

The PM and Treasurer will release their first budget since the election. Whether there will be a surplus is now in question - a lot of money is being spent on bushfire recovery, and revenue will take a hit from the fires.

One thing I'm confident there will be money for is Big Red Fire Trucks.

Australia's emergency management systems have long been run by the states. But the 2019/20 fire season is starting to create serious doubts about whether that is the best approach.

Fires don't respect state borders. The NSW and Victorian emergency management websites are no good if you live along the border, because they each show only the fires in that state.

Could we end up with a new, well-funded, fully professional national Fire Department inside the Commonwealth Department of Home Affairs?

Let's just say I wouldn't be surprised if by October, ScoMo and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton are being photographed in front of a shiny new fleet of waterbombing aircraft with the words BUSHFIRE FORCE written on them.

NSW Rural Fire Service crews keep water on a fire burning in bushland at Penrose in the NSW Southern Highlands, 165km south of Sydney on Friday.
NSW Rural Fire Service crews keep water on a fire burning in bushland at Penrose in the NSW Southern Highlands, 165km south of Sydney on Friday.

TIME TO GO PRO?

The question of whether firefighters should be professional is a very tough one. Nobody doubts for a moment the courage and commitment of our volunteers. They are Australian heroes. But can you name another volunteer job where the volunteers regularly die?

More volunteer firefighters have died working in the last few weeks than Australian Defence Force personnel in the last five years.

It's an incredible burden we place on these heroic few. Not to mention their families.

It is sad but unsurprising to learn Australia has 18,000 fewer volunteer firefighters than a decade ago.

A century ago, volunteer nurses were replaced with trained professional nurses. Volunteer sheriffs were long ago replaced by full-time police forces. Maybe it is finally time for volunteer fire fighters to be replaced by full-time professionals too. Especially if fires are going to be this bad regularly.

The fact we are now compensating volunteers suggests the job has grown too big to truly rely on volunteerism. Certainly, something extra must be done. When you're sending in the Defence Forces, it's a sign the systems you've got in place are completely insufficient.

Australian Army 7 Royal Australian Regiment clear a felled tree with civilian authorities on Orbost-Mallacoota after delivering supplies to Mallacoota, a small town in the East Gippsland region of Victoria.
Australian Army 7 Royal Australian Regiment clear a felled tree with civilian authorities on Orbost-Mallacoota after delivering supplies to Mallacoota, a small town in the East Gippsland region of Victoria.

AN INTERNATIONAL FORCE?

One interesting aspect is how we manage the seasonal aspect of bushfires. We really only have big bushfires November-March. Do the specialised bush firefighters and all the kit spend six months a year training and repairing equipment?

Or could we possibly create an international firefighting corps we share with California or Canada? California's fire-season runs May to November, meaning a fairly neat fit.

We already do this, sort of.

Canadian and American firefighters fly to Australia in small numbers when they can, and some aircraft (e.g. firefighting chopper Elvis) cross the Pacific twice a year. But to efficiently fighting fires with the highest quality equipment, we might need to formalise this arrangement.

Whatever change the government makes, it needs to start now.

This bushfire season is far from over, but there's probably only ten months 'til the next one starts.

Vets and volunteers treat Koalas at Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park, on Kangaroo Island. Dozens of Koalas have been rescued from the fires over the past 5 days. Picture: David Mariuz
Vets and volunteers treat Koalas at Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park, on Kangaroo Island. Dozens of Koalas have been rescued from the fires over the past 5 days. Picture: David Mariuz

 

Jason Murphy is an economist. He is the author of the new book Incentivology. Continue the conversation @jasemurphy


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