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Issue # 1399      18 February 2009

Bushfire tragedy – time for answers

As the full impact of the tragic loss of life in the Victorian bushfires continues to sink in and the huge task of rebuilding is considered, a dozen fires are still threatening regional and rural communities in the state. The federal and state governments are making commitments to rebuild devastated settlements in Victoria and to get answers to the many questions raised by the Black Saturday tragedy.

The media has focussed almost unprecedented attention on the disaster and canvassed all sorts of ideas about the origins of the crisis and how to prevent a recurrence. The coverage has crossed the line on many occasions and sought to exploit the suffering of victims in the worst “info-tainment” tradition. While ABC Radio has provided a lifeline source of practical update information on the status of fires and availability of emergency supplies to vulnerable communities, the corporate media has generally presented a package of “human interest” stories and spectacle.

Some very fundamental questions could be asked – if we can work and organise ourselves on the basis of solidarity and mutual aid when tragedy strikes, why can’t we do this in the course of our usual day-to-day social and economic life? Why should people who care enough to make these sorts of sacrifices for one another during this emergency go back to the dog-eat-dog of neo-liberal Australian capitalism once it has passed?

Pressing questions

Other, more immediate questions about the fires demand answers. Is the trend for people to move from the suburbs to heavily wooden semi-rural locations responsible for part of the fires’ heavy death toll? Should the drift be allowed to continue? Has the Victorian government mismanaged emergency services and early warning systems? Is climate change behind the twin disasters striking the country in the form of floods in the north and unprecedented hot spells, droughts and bushfires in the south? Will climate change mean we will need to live with these sorts of conditions and this sort of threat permanently?

Climate change does appear to be a contributing factor to the fires and Victorian Premier John Brumby has said that it will be “on the table” when a Royal Commission into the fires begins. A system for monitoring convicted and suspected arsonists – similar to that operating in South Australia – will also be examined. The policy of urging people to flee approaching fires early or “stay and defend” property is still being supported by state authorities but will be questioned in view of the intensity of the fires and the speed with which they struck.

Kicking the green can

Wilson “Crowbar” Tuckey, the attention-seeking member for the WA seat of O’Connor, was probably the first public figure to put the blame for the fires on what he claims are Greens’ policies. “The refusal of major political parties in NSW and Victoria to anger Green activists by conducting appropriate thinning and fuel reduction procedures in their national parks and reserves is clearly the reason for the massive escalation, in intensity and frequency, of wild fires and their destructive capability,” Mr Tuckey said recently.

The finger pointing at the Greens and environmental groups has caught on. Rather than wait for the results of any enquiry, the Greens are already being scapegoated in reactionary quarters for the tragic events in Victoria. The effectiveness of current fuel load reduction practices obviously needs to be looked into. Gary Nairn, the Liberal MP who headed a 2003 House of Representatives Select Committee on the bushfires that took place in that year, has weighed into the prescribed burning debate claiming that bureaucracy still slows the process.

The position of the Greens on prescribed burning has been assumed by some and distorted in the media coverage. This has prompted the group to release a statement last Friday that made the following points:

  • The Greens have explicitly supported hazard reduction burns, particularly works undertaken to protect human life, where the scientific evidence indicates they will reduce risk. The environment movement has largely advocated the same level of controlled burning as bushfire experts.
  • The amount of hazard reduction burning has been limited by the number of days on which it would be safe to conduct this activity, not by any policy directive influenced or otherwise by the Greens.
  • Dryness and climatic conditions have a greater impact on fire speed than fuel levels.
  • Forestry activities may promote dryness and hence the speed of fires by thinning forest canopies.

For more details, see the Greens’ bushfire policy at nsw.greens.org.au/policies/bush-fire-risk-management.

Shifting the blame

The attack on the Greens is a shameless attempt to pre-empt the findings of what the people of Australia hope will be a thoroughgoing and honest enquiry into the bushfire tragedy. Big issues like climate change – a crisis demanding changes that threaten the heedless “business as usual” operation of capitalism internationally – are being ignored or downplayed in an effort to isolate progressive voices on the Australian political scene. It won’t work. The Australian people have been moved by the plight of the fire victims and the survivors and want answers, not the same old vested interest politics.

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