The Morrison government’s mismanagement of the bushfire crisis has profoundly damaged its legitimacy, just months after the Liberals’ shock electoral victory. Scott Morrison’s approval has fallen below that of Anthony Albanese (a considerable achievement), even after he has thrown money around in a desperate bid to regain favour. The government’s criminal conduct – its culpability for the fires as well as its callousness towards the victims – has attracted international attention and condemnation. One hundred thousand people have rallied nationally demanding his resignation, supported by many more. This should spell the end of this government, or at least Morrison’s prime ministership.
But it hasn’t. In large part this is because the political class, environment bureaucracy and media have chosen to let Morrison off the hook rather than help cohere justified popular anger into a political movement that could make this crisis a terminal one for the government. In so doing, they have provided a glimpse of what we will be up against in the climate battles of the future: a ruling elite so tied to the coal and gas industry that it is prepared to sacrifice every person, plant and animal at the altar of their profits. This ruling elite will have to be swept aside if we are to have any chance of preserving the planet for future generations.
Meanwhile, the tens of thousands of people who rallied against Morrison provide a ray of hope. Climate change is now a central political issue that cannot be ignored. Events that once could have been dismissed as natural disasters and even capitalised on by politicians now will provoke anger and resentment at a political class that is knowingly subjecting us to this horror. The mass sentiment – encouraged by climate activism over the last year – is becoming a real social force of which public demonstrations form a crucial part.
But not everyone is happy about it. When re-elected in November 2018, Victorian premier Daniel Andrews boasted that his was “the most progressive government in the country”. Yet, more than any other politician, Andrews has tried to sabotage efforts to turn the fire crisis into a decisive moment for climate action. When Uni Students for Climate Justice called a rally in the centre of Melbourne for 10 January – part of a national day of protest – they were denounced by police, who tried to force them to cancel the rally and, when that failed, called on people not to attend. Andrews leapt in to back them up, telling people to stay away and accusing rally organisers of compromising the firefighting effort (the police later admitted no police resources were diverted from firefighting to police the protest).
This came after weeks of Andrews refusing to criticise the prime minister or otherwise validate the outpouring of anger against Morrison. The premier had more vitriol for those seeking to express their concern about climate change by marching in the streets than for a government that has left people to die, starved fire services of essential resources and continues to back industries that are universally accepted as responsible for the disaster currently facing humanity. Andrews’ emergency services minister Lisa Neville called rally organisers “selfish and reckless” but displayed no such viciousness towards the climate criminals in Canberra.
The NGOs, trade unions and environmental bureaucracy – all of which are aligned formally or informally with the ALP – fell dutifully into line. In its 2019 annual report, Environment Victoria, a prominent state-based NGO boasting 100,000 members, lists one of its key objectives as being to “build the movement for change. Empower communities across Victoria to stand up for our environment and climate, making sure our elected representatives put the planet above politics”. Yet three days before the 30,000-strong march in Melbourne, Environment Victoria CEO Jonathan La Nauze contacted Uni Students for Climate Justice to explain that his organisation would publicly oppose the rally and to demand it be postponed.
He argued (wrongly, as it turned out) that the protest would be publicly attacked by fire victims and firefighters and as such was “destined to fail and backfire”. Organisers had to accept that they had been “outmanoeuvred and there is little you can do about that”, and that to go ahead with the rally would have a “counterproductive impact on public attitudes” and play “into Morrison’s hands”. Spurious, cowardly and self-serving arguments like these are routinely made when democratic rights are exercised without first gaining the blessing of the authorities. Rarely are they so roundly discredited as in this case.
Predictably, the mainstream media were happy to parrot these arguments. While the Murdoch press may have been too preoccupied with questioning climate science and attacking the Greens to worry about rallies, the liberal Guardian devoted much verbiage to discrediting protest and agonising over its “appropriateness”. For them, critical arguments are for qualified, well-dressed people to make at round tables, not to be scrawled on placards held up by riffraff during a national crisis. Of course, the media, along with the premier and every other public opponent of the rally, were at pains to remind us of their rock solid commitment to the right to protest – but only when it is passive, ineffective, easily ignored and held once the moment of anger has well and truly passed.
Like in a war, the powerful from both sides of the political divide have closed ranks against a threat: those seeking to give voice to the mass of people angry with the actions and attitudes of those in power. In this context, the 10 January Melbourne rally, which attracted 30,000 people in drenching rain, on short notice and in defiance of every conceivable authority figure, was a triumph.
The demands – for the resignation of Scott Morrison, more resources for firefighters and immediate action on climate change – tapped into and gave expression to the national mood. It said to the bushfire victims, like those in Cobargo treated with such contempt by Morrison, that thousands of people all over the country are with them. Thousands of people stand with them in their fight against a government wanting to sweep this whole event under the carpet so it can continue building coal mines and getting rich. And it has shown tens of thousands of people that there are many like them who refuse to sit idly by while the planet burns, and who are willing to take on those responsible, no matter how powerful.
The reaction has also highlighted the scale of opposition we will face in building the sort of movement that is needed to combat climate change. It has shown that the political class, both those who accept climate science and those who continue to deny it, are committed to preserving the profits of big business regardless of the cost to the planet. This means staring down any threat to coal and gas exports or pressure towards meaningful emissions reductions. Labor as much as the Coalition wants to avoid a situation in which environmental crises are seen as avoidable events that politicians, bosses and other authority figures are responsible for, and instead hold on to the fiction that they are “natural” disasters, unpredictable and not preventable, in the face of which we must all pull together, support the police and donate to charity.
Of course, one mass demonstration is not going to be enough to bring meaningful change. But it is one small step in the direction we need to go. The effects of climate change will not go away; they will become more frequent and severe. The powerful won’t help us – as the slogan from an earlier Sydney rally goes, “The only people coming to save us are us”.
This opening battle in the coming climate wars shows us the kind of movement that’s needed: one that doesn’t seek power within this destructive system but aims to destroy it and replace it with a humane, democratic alternative society in which mass destruction of precious living things leads to immediate action and an honest assessment of how to prevent it in the future – not cynical, self-serving public relations spin from people who are only really honest when in a board room or an exclusive gentleman’s club. The activists in Uni Students for Climate Justice, including many socialists, have led the way in this regard. They should be congratulated.
Environment Victoria wrote a response to this article. Read it here.