Bushfires destroy myths of the "lucky country"
Bushfires destroy myths of the "lucky country"
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The Morrison government’s response to the bushfires and its treatment of the victims has demonstrated the sharp class divide in this country. The capitalist class, the state apparatus and the ruling parties are united in their contempt for the rest of us. If you’ve got money you can pay your way to safety and security. If you haven’t, the system is happy to let you burn.

The current bushfires – the worst in the country’s history – have already burned 8.4 million hectares of land, an area the size of Scotland. Twenty six people are dead. More than one billion animals have been killed. 1,900 homes have been destroyed in New South Wales alone.

The impact has been devastating, particularly for Indigenous people. As Lorena Allam wrote in the Guardian regarding the situation on the New South Wales south coast: “Some of these places have never burned, not once in my lifetime, let alone all at once. Like you, I’ve watched in anguish and horror as fire lays waste to precious Yuin land, taking everything with it – lives, homes, animals, trees – but for First Nations people it is also burning up our memories, our sacred places, all the things which make us who we are.”

“It’s a particular grief, to lose forever what connects you to a place in the landscape. Our ancestors felt it, our elders felt it, and now we are feeling it all over again as we watch how the mistreatment and neglect of our land and waters for generations, and the pig-headed foolishness of coal-obsessed climate change denialists turn everything and everyone to ash.”

The fires are likely to burn for months, with the worst of the fire season still to come. And the future threatens even greater horror. Australia is heating up at a faster rate than other countries. Nine out of the ten hottest years on record have occurred since 2005. 2019 saw the highest temperatures of all, with the average across Australia 1.5 degrees above the mean for the years 1961 to 1990.

2019 was also the driest year on record. Much of the area not directly impacted by bushfires is being devastated by drought, the effects of which have been exacerbated by land clearing and mismanagement of water resources. Animals are dying of thirst. Communities are forced to bring water in on trucks. Meanwhile, the Murray Darling river system continues to be drained to maintain cotton production and aquifers are being sucked dry by companies like Coca-Cola Amatil and Asahi.

The long term cost of the bushfires is incalculable. We don’t yet know, for example, the impact of millions of people being subjected to hazardous levels of smoke for days or weeks on end. Studies of the consequences of the 45-day fire at the Hazelwood coal mine in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley in 2014 revealed that unborn babies were much more susceptible to coughs and colds in their first years of life, pregnant women suffered higher rates of gestational diabetes and other healthy adults experienced a range of respiratory conditions.

Then there are the effects of the fires on food and water supplies, the loss of animal and insect life, and the destruction of their habitats. Not for nothing are people referring to the situation as apocalyptic.

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After being heavily criticised for his failure to respond quickly to bushfire crisis, on 4 January prime minister Scott Morrison announced a range of measures which he hoped would relieve the political pressure. At the centre of these was a $2 billion bushfire relief fund, the deployment of the navy to evacuate stranded bushfire victims and the employment of 3,000 members of the defence reserves to help tackle the fires and assist in reconstruction.

But Morrison’s bushfire package is an insult. The $2 billion is spread over two years and represents just a fraction of the annual subsidies enjoyed by the fossil fuel industry.

For those who have been directly affected by the bushfires, the government will offer disaster recovery payments of just $1000 per adult and $400 for each child. This is woefully inadequate for people having to rebuild their lives from scratch. Meanwhile, business owners receive much more generous assistance – up to $15,000. A special $100 million fund has also been created from which farmers and other primary producers will be able to access up to $75,000 to rebuild their operations. Much of the proposed reconstruction is thus aimed at reviving businesses, not the lives and houses of ordinary people.

The disaster recovery allowance, aimed at those who have lost income as a direct result of the bushfires, is capped at the Newstart rate, which is well below the poverty line, and cuts out after 13 weeks. Those with cashless welfare cards are in a worse state again, unable to get any food or groceries at all, with EFTPOS services down in many areas.

Volunteer firefighters have also been dudded by the Morrison government. After initially trying to reassure people that volunteer firefighters were happy to put themselves in danger and work for nothing for weeks on end, Morrison was forced to backflip and is now offering to fund compensation for volunteers. But the offer is a joke. No money until volunteers have worked, without pay, for more than 10 days. No money for time spent fighting fires when volunteers would not normally be at work. So, someone working a 9am to 5pm working day could be out fighting fires from 4pm to midnight and be entitled to only an hour’s compensation. No money for volunteers who are retired from work. This is just spitting in the face of those who put their lives on the line to defend homes and communities.

As for the professional firefighters, state governments have failed to maintain funding appropriate to the growing population and the effects of climate change. Across New South Wales, the number of fire engines used by the Rural Fire Services (RFS) fell from 7,530 in 2010 to 6,288 in 2019. On the New South Wales south coast, one of the epicentres of the current fires, the number of fire engines at the disposal of the RFS has fallen from 1,384 to 1,176 over the past five years, the number of pumpers from 43 to 12, and – of the fire engines in use –many more of them are second hand or refurbished.

While it’s scraps for bushfire victims and firefighters, the Morrison government has deep pockets when it comes to funding Australia’s military “means of destruction”. It is currently spending $50 billion on building 12 new submarines, $35 billion on nine new frigates and $20 billion on the new F35 Joint Strike Fighter. This largesse for the military comes on top of the running expenses of the Australian defence forces, now standing at $38 billion a year.

The government is expecting applause for deploying 3,000 reservists to fight the bushfires, while refusing to call back the 2,300 defence personnel currently stationed overseas or mobilise the other 55,000 full time defence staff. It’s more important, it seems, that the government keeps 400 personnel stationed in Iraq alongside US troops than that they be deployed within Australia to save lives here.

The miserly attitude of the federal government is matched by state governments and the insurance industry. Ninety five percent of the funding for the New South Wales fire service comes from a levy that is added to home insurance premiums. The resulting rise in premiums has driven many people in that state to drop their cover. Those who have lost their homes in the fires are now left destitute. The situation will only get worse: the insurance companies have already declared that whole areas of rural Australia are now uninsurable. Like health insurance in the US, the crazy logic of a private insurance industry in Australia is that those who need it most will not be able to get cover.

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The severity of the bushfires is directly related to climate change, which is driven by fossil fuel use. The fossil fuel industries play a central role in Australian capitalism. Australia is the Saudi Arabia of coal – a global powerhouse in energy production with some of the biggest and best quality coal deposits in the world. Australian coal accounts for one third of global coal exports and if the Galilee Basin in central Queensland is fully opened up, coal exports will jump much higher.

In a global economy reliant on coal for its energy supply and in particular for heavy industry, there are enormous profits to be made from plundering what lies beneath Australian soil. Coal also fuels a wide array of domestic industries: more than half the energy use in Australia comes from coal and three quarters of the electricity supply.

Australia has also become a major gas producer in the last decade and is now the world’s largest LNG exporter, generating billions of dollars in revenue for the likes of Santos. The Gorgon offshore gas project in Western Australia is leading the way, but a massive expansion of coal seam gas and shale gas extraction in New South Wales and Queensland is also planned.

The large quantities of fossil fuels in Australia is one of the country’s main competitive advantages, particularly since coal is so central to heavy industry and arms production.

Fossil fuel extraction also makes Australia a key contributor to the global climate crisis. Coal mining by the nation’s six biggest coal producers results in more greenhouse gas emissions each year, whether burned at home or overseas, than the entire domestic economy. Australian carbon emissions in 2019 were the highest on record. Far from being a “good global citizen”, Australia is a repeat climate offender.

The interests of the fossil fuel industries distort the entire political process. Australian capitalism is extremely dependent on fossil fuels and the resources and energy companies use their leverage to get their way. Just look at the power they wielded in 2010, spending millions of dollars to destroy the Rudd government’s proposed “Resources Super Profits Tax”.

The Coalition parties are most closely tied to coal: many ministers and staffers in the Morrison government have worked in the resources and energy sector at some point. But the revolving door between government and industry is also apparent with Labor: a string of former Labor ministers have been hired in senior positions in the fossil fuel industries, including most recently former Treasurer Wayne Swan who was appointed in December to the board of Stanwell Corporation, the state owned coal and gas power generator in Queensland. Donations by the fossil fuel companies to the big parties, Labor and the Coalition alike, also help open doors to lobbying.

But even if all donations were banned and the revolving door jammed tight, the political parties would still do the bidding of the resource companies because of the central role resources and energy plays in the fortunes of Australian capitalism. If you want to run the state, you have to do their bidding.

This is why governments have for years done their best to cover for the mining companies and their contribution to global warming. They have lied about the link between fossil fuels and rising temperatures, wrecked international attempts to develop global commitments to reduce carbon emissions, and mocked the scientists who have for years pointed out that this course of action invites disaster.

The Coalition are the most obvious offenders, but it has been Labor’s Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk who has given the go-ahead to what will be one of the biggest coal mines in the world, Adani’s Carmichael mine. It is Labor’s federal leader Anthony Albanese who is now parroting Tony Abbott’s lines about the great contribution of the coal industry to Australian exports and job creation. The whole of the political class are servants of coal and neoliberalism.

The mining companies are rolling in public funds. According to the IMF, annual energy subsidies in Australia (including indirect subsidies such as the added cost of healthcare associated with pollution from burning fossil fuels) amount to $42 billion, or 2.3 percent of GDP. On a per capita basis, that’s $1,750 for every man, woman and child in the country. Compared to the huge handouts they get from the state and federal treasuries, the few million dollars the likes of Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest have offered for bushfire relief is peanuts.

While they are first in line for government handouts, the fossil fuel companies make themselves scarce when the taxman calls. In the past five years, five of the biggest coal miners have paid not one cent in tax, while the biggest, Glencore, paid only six percent tax on its declared taxable income (which was a fraction of its overall income).

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The capitalists and their political servants have a very clear agenda: to ensure that it’s us and not them that pays the cost of the bushfires. And to use the crisis to make money, to intensify the logic of capitalism that unlies this destruction, not to constrain it.

The Australian Forest Products Association was very quick off the mark, asserting that the bushfires demonstrated the need for more logging – flying in the face of research that demonstrates that logging only exacerbates the intensity of fires.

Morrison has argued that the bushfires also make a case for a bonfire of government regulations which currently, very weakly and ineffectively, limit capitalist open slather in the bush. As he put it on 2 January: “Dealing with land clearing laws, zoning laws and planning laws ... there have been many restrictions put around those issues that now I would think would have to be reviewed.”

John Roskam of the Institute of Public Affairs, whose wages are paid by climate change denialist Gina Rinehart, agrees, arguing in the Financial Review on 10 January that: “The best way to help fire-devastated communities recover is establishing special economic zones exempt from taxes, charges and regulations”. “Eliminating red tape”, he calls it. Open slather for the capitalists, more like – pillaging the natural environment, exploiting workers and filling their own pockets.

Governments also want to use the crisis to push greater authoritarianism. The last two decades of the “war on terror” have seen Australia turned into one of the most repressive countries in the West, with unprecedented national security and police powers. The climate crisis is making this worse again.

The Palaszczuk government has already introduced new anti-protest laws in Queensland. In New South Wales before Christmas, police broke up a climate protest outside Morrison’s official residence in Kirribilli on Sydney Harbour, while early in the new year, riot police were on the streets of bushfire-ravaged Eden and Cobargo. In Victoria, the Andrews government set the police on peaceful protesters demonstrating outside the International Mining and Resources Conference in October and in early January waged a vigorous campaign to have Uni Students for Climate Justice call off Melbourne’s “Sack ScoMo” rally on the spurious grounds that it would draw police away from bushfire management.

Repression will also be aimed at Australia’s neighbours. The Australian government is notorious around the world for its persecution of refugees. With global warming gaining momentum, submerging islands beneath the South Pacific, we can expect thousands, if not tens of thousands, of climate refugees. The federal government, responsible in part for their plight, will do its best to keep them out.

The government is worried that climate change induced disasters will create social chaos, and that in turn may give China, Australia’s emerging rival in the Pacific, opportunities to build its presence in the region. So, even as the government is cutting the civilian aid budget, it is rapidly boosting military ties, building camps to train police and “peacekeepers” in Fiji, increasing “security cooperation” with the governments of the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, developing the Lombrum Naval Base on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island as a joint facility for the US and Australian navies, and training regional military forces on new bases in Queensland.

This is a global fight. With disastrous weather events now occurring frequently all over the world, the damage to human life and property is growing all the time. It is a fight against the fossil fuel industries responsible for this destruction.

And yet, even in the midst of the fires, Morrison has said that his government will not be changing its climate change policy – its pathetic emissions reduction targets will not be altered. The big polluters can carry on with business as usual.

The bushfires have shown up the realities of Australian capitalism. It’s the “lucky country” only for those with money, it’s the miserly country for those without. If you’re a coal magnate the door is always open, if you’re a firefighter or someone who has seen their home destroyed, the door is slammed in your face.

The bushfires this summer are just a taste of things to come. Australian capitalism and its state apparatus will become more vicious and repressive towards its victims, more undemocratic to those who protest. The politicians and bosses don’t care about us and are happy to see us burn. Their system has to go.

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