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The burning truth

Nov 15, 2019 • 14m 59s

As fires burn through NSW and Queensland, a fundamental shift can be detected in Canberra: the politics of climate change have altered.

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The burning truth

122 • Nov 15, 2019

The burning truth

[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

As fires burn through NSW and Queensland, a fundamental shift is detected in Canberra: the politics of climate change have altered and it is no longer viable to do nothing. Paul Bongiorno on how the Coalition is dealing with this new reality.

[Theme ends]

Archival tape --David Littleproud:

“Obviously the Day report we’ve released today, there are 18 recommendations. 14 have been completed or are in progress. There are four we’ll continue working through that need... “

ELIZABETH:

Paul, I wanted to ask you about the drought review that was finally released last week. How long did the government have the review, and why did they sit on it?

PAUL:

Well, the Morrison government was handed this review seven months ago. In fact, it sat on it for so long that many of the timelines for action in the recommendations have already passed. Scott Morrison commissioned this review from Major General Stephen Day before the election and in fact, received the report just as the election got underway. But of course, since, the drought has not broken and people's patience, particularly in regional Australia, has worn very thin.

ELIZABETH:

Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper.

PAUL:

The fact the government sat on Day's final report suggests it was uncomfortable with his findings. He put climate change front and centre in his calculations.

Archival tape -- Unidentified reporter:

“And did you try to bury that auditor-general’s report on Tuesday?

Archival tape -- Stephen Day:

“I don’t try and….that wasn’t a decision of government… when it came out, that was not a decision by government at all, it was made by others”

ELIZABETH:

Hmm. Why, in your mind, did the government appoint an army man to this job rather than someone in science, for example?

PAUL:

That's a very good question. The conservatives in Australia have a view that if you bring the army in, it shows you're really serious. You really want to get down to it, take it by the scruff of the neck and work it all out. You might remember the Howard government thought that it could deal with Aboriginal dispossession and neglect in the Northern Territory by sending the Army in. Well, you can't really send the army in to end a drought, but by having an army person look at the issues it does in the mind of the prime minister and his colleagues, send the message that he's really serious about it.

ELIZABETH:

And Paul, why does it matter that Day put climate change at the center of that drought report?

PAUL:

Well, I mean, what it does is it links the drought to climate change so that the idea that, ah, well, in Australia, we always have droughts and flooding rains. What the report says is, yes, we do. But what's happening now is the droughts are longer and the flooding rains are more intense when they do come. And it's all happening historically unseasonably.

ELIZABETH:

And what does all this mean for the government this week as it responds to these catastrophic fires in New South Wales and Queensland?

PAUL:

Well, it does mean they're going to have to start dealing with climate change because no sensible person and certainly no scientist or meteorologist denies a link between the drought and seasonally earlier higher temperatures that we were talking about. Low humidity and severe weather fronts, setting the conditions for catastrophic fire events. It's not abstract anymore. You know, there are constituents, traditionally of the National Party in regional Australia, thousands of them, living through the impacts of climate change induced drought and fire. And they're victims of it. And as we've seen this week, they're very angry.

And it's worth turning your mind back to the early days of this government after Tony Abbott won the 2013 election. Shortly after Abbott's win...

Archival tape -- Unidentified reporter:

“Good evening, it's been a day of brute force and brain power as fire fighters prepare for tomorrow’s onslaught… and horrific weather in the Blue Mountains”

Archival tape -- Unidentified reporter:

“The RFS is calling it the most serious bushfire emergency in years…”

PAUL:

Devastating fires swept through the Blue Mountains in New South Wales.
Well, the new prime minister went on Radio 3A. W and Neil Mitchell asked Abbott about a view expressed then by the head of the United Nations climate change negotiations, a woman called Christiana Figueres. That she had the view that there was a clear link between climate change and the New South Wales fires.

Archival tape --Tony Abbott:

“Well I think the official in question is talking through her hat, if I may say so Nei”

PAUL:

Claiming at the same time that he was taking climate change seriously. Abbott also said the fires were certainly not a function of climate change.

Archival tape --Tony Abbott:

“Look we have had bad fires since almost the beginning of european settlement um climate change is real, as I’ve often said, and we should take strong action against it, but these fires are certainly not a function of climate change, they are just a function of life in Australia.”

PAUL:

In the same week, then Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, said he looked up Wikipedia and was confident there was no link between the fires and climate change.

Well, from there the Abbott government began dismantling the framework the Rudd and Gillard governments had set up to cut emissions and to foster renewable energy. Abbott scrapped Labor's price on carbon emissions, the so-called carbon tax. And abolished the Climate Change Commission with its remit to inform Australians of the latest science. At the same time, any mention of climate change in federal documents began to disappear. And business leaders, according to one source dealing with the government, discovered there was a fatwah on those who spoke the term climate change.

ELIZABETH:

And what do you think that history when it comes to climate change, means for Scott Morrison now?

PAUL:

Well, it creates a credibility problem beyond, you know, bringing a lump of coal into the parliament two years ago. Morrison can't ignore his participation in the Abbott government's decision making engine room, the cabinet. This week, the view that you could just ignore climate change lost its credibility and therefore its potency.

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

So Paul we're talking about shifts in the politics around climate policy this week, where is that view coming from? Where are you hearing this?

PAUL:

Well, I'm hearing this in the gallery. I'm hearing it in the offices of ministers and shadow ministers, senators and others. Basically, it's become apparent that ignoring climate change is no longer a viable political strategy. Mind you, it took the horrific inferno that destroyed a million hectares of New South Wales to do it. But the mood has definitely shifted not only in the community, but amongst the politicians who are in touch with their community. And they're hearing the message loud and strong.

ELIZABETH:

But within the coalition, are there's still some internal contradictions. What's the position there?

PAUL:

Well, the pressure is now on Scott Morrison to resolve the fierce resistance in his own government's ranks and respond with policies that convince voters that the federal Liberals and Nationals get it. This latest development left nowhere for the skeptics or denialists in the federal parliament to hide. Still, these skeptics are sure to fight a rearguard action, no doubt about that. Already they're seeking other explanations for the extremes in drought, temperatures, low humidity and intense fires that we’re all now enduring.

ELIZABETH:

And then there was Barnaby Joyce, for instance, you couldn't have missed him this week.

PAUL:

It's hard to miss Barnaby Joyce.

Archival tape -- Barnaby Joyce:

“I don’t have a problem with people who vote greens and I certainly don't want to go through the argument ad hominem against greens voters …. it’s nothing to do with that. What it is is certain conservation policies, or green policies, that I think have exacerbated this fire ...”

PAUL:

Yes. Among Barnaby's other contributions to the public discourse was the claim that Greens policies were getting in the way of undergrowth clearing and burn offs in state forests and national parks.

Archival tape -- Barnaby Joyce:

“Because it was definitely political decision to let fire trails fall into disrepair. And is definitely a bureaucratic process that means even when they can back-burn it’s so difficult bureaucratically it doesn’t happen or doesn’t happen to the extent that it needs to and it’s …”

PAUL:

It's the same argument. Donald Trump in the United States made when threatening to cut off aid to fire ravaged California. Earlier this month, Trump didn't realize it was his federal government's responsibility to fire manage most of California for their national parks and forests. Just as Barnaby Joyce seemed to not realize that it was his liberal and national colleagues in New South Wales who had management of the forests and national parks.

ELIZABETH:

And his point, though, is it true? Are laws preventing burn offs and clearing of that land?

PAUL:

No. Basically, the state coalition government in power in New South Wales since 2011 says its National Parks and Wildlife Service has exceeded its hazard reduction target of 680,000 hectares set eight years ago. The government says more hazard reduction has been carried out because of increased funding. But clearly, this doesn't remove the threat of bushfire, nor does it negate the unprecedented climatic conditions that create catastrophic fires. And that can't be denied, even though the skeptics are looking for other excuses.

ELIZABETH:

And where was labor on all this, this week?

PAUL:

Well, look, federal Labor has refrained from joining the fight. The hullabaloo over climate change and fires that we've basically seen between the Nationals and the Greens. Anthony Albanese says he's been criticised for not trying to politicise these bushfires.

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese:

“We know that bushfires are coming earlier, we know they're more intense. That is what is predicted and we see that happening. But I don’t think it’s time to be involved in party politics..”

PAUL:

And ah, Albanese this week got a boost in the latest Newspoll. I know people don't want to take too much notice of Newspoll these days. It's certainly no indicator at this stage of who could win the next election. But perhaps it is telling us that the Morrison government isn't traveling as well as people would imagine. Labor is now line ball on the two party preferred measure. But the real significance is the 12 point turnaround in Albanese's approval for the highest satisfaction of a Labor leader since Bill Shorten hit the same 42 per cent rate after Tony Abbott knighted Prince Philip and faced an empty chair challenge back in 2015. It'll be interesting to see how long Albanese can maintain it or even better it.

ELIZABETH:

So what's been the real test for Morrison in all this, do you think?

PAUL:

Well, it means you'll have to ignore the skeptics in his midst and start dealing with climate change. I think we've already seen, especially from Scott Morrison and even Angus Taylor, that they're already pivoting on their rhetoric. We actually saw in the Senate earlier this week, Senator Bridget McKenzie, the deputy leader of the National Party say, of course, we believe in climate change. Of course, we believe it's causing drought and making bushfires worse.

So they're getting, if you like, the rhetoric right. Now, they have to convince the voters that they are more serious in the way they're dealing with emission reduction, not only in Australia, but importantly in international forums. And we know the prime minister in September skipped the climate change summit at the United Nations. And we know that he's withdrawn Australia's funding for the United Nations Green Climate Fund. And the government needs to turn all of that around.

ELIZABETH:

Paul, thank you so much.

PAUL:

Thank you, Elizabeth. Always good to chat. Bye.

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

Northern Territory police constable Zach Rolfe has been charged with one count of murder over the death of 19-year old Warlpiri man Kumanjayi Walker. Demonstrations in a number of Australian cities were held on Thursday in support of the Yuendumu community’s demands for an independent investigation into his death. Walker was allegedly shot by police in his home on Saturday.

A fourth person has been confirmed dead from the NSW bushfires after a body was found in bushland at Willawarrin on the mid-north coast. On Thursday, Premier Gladys Berejiklian named the man as a 58 year old local Barry Parsons, and shared her condolences with his family.

The bushfire crisis continues to grip Queensland too. Police alleged on Thursday that a teenager was responsible for a central Queensland blaze that claimed 14 homes. Authorities in both NSW and QLD have warned that fire conditions could deteriorate again as the weekend approaches.

7am is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Elle Marsh with Michelle Macklem.

Erik Jensen is our editor.

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

This is 7am. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you next week.

As fires burn through NSW and Queensland, a fundamental shift can be detected in Canberra: the politics of climate change have altered. It is no longer viable to do nothing. Paul Bongiorno on how the Coalition is dealing with this new reality.

Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno.

Background reading:

A burning issue in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Elle Marsh. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

This episode was produced in part by Elle Marsh, features and field producer, in a position supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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fires auspol emergency climatechange morrison liberal




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122: The burning truth