If there are any similarities between now and then it is that our leaders must take a leaf out of Keating’s book by directly acknowledging the scale and complexity of the problem. Then they must get on with the job of making tough decisions, because there is no easy way out of the current predicament. Indeed, the bushfires expose two key fault lines running through our democracy.
First, a federal system is not always well equipped to deal with a national emergency. Disagreements between the federal and state governments over hazard reduction in national parks, the funding of emergency services, communications protocols and the co-ordination of firefighting aircraft must be resolved.
A second parliamentary inquiry into land-clearing and controlled burn-offs is a sensible starting point, but a broader, united strategy is critical. Having seven different versions of emergency management helps nobody when it’s clear the scale of these mega-disasters means crisis response should be co-ordinated at a federal level.
Second, the failure of both sides of politics to come up with a workable climate and energy policy during the “lost decade” of the 2010s must be addressed. The past few weeks underline the fact Australia is more vulnerable than most countries to irreversible damage from global warming.
Australia’s emissions are dwarfed by bigger economies, and the government expects to meet its Paris carbon reduction targets for the 2021-30 decade (albeit by dubiously banking Kyoto credits that dramatically reduce our actual abatement task). But a nation exposed to extreme weather with delicate ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef must lead from the front.
Whether Prime Minister Scott Morrison will make the most of the policy opportunities presented by the bushfires is far from clear. Since returning from a Hawaiian holiday that his office tried to cover up, he has been widely criticised over his leadership. A social media advertisement on Saturday promoting the government’s response was another misstep that suggests the sharp political instincts he displayed during the election campaign have deserted him.
This summer has been marked by an atmosphere of anxiety as real as the smoke that chokes many towns and cities. The Prime Minister needs to reconnect with a growing number of formerly quiet Australians expressing anger about his government’s handling of the fires. He should start by worrying less about “the optics” and more about the substantive issues facing the nation.
Nobody would describe this catastrophe as the fire season we had to have, but we could learn the lessons of the past. This crisis represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for genuine reform. Mr Morrison must grasp it.