Opinion

Sean Kelly
Scott Morrison’s efforts at hazard reduction

On Tuesday, Australia’s chief medical officer announced that new screening measures would be implemented for high-risk flights from China. Passengers would be asked to identify whether they were suffering particular symptoms. The aim was to stop “a human coronavirus with pandemic potential” spreading to Australia.

These are sensible measures. By Thursday, 17 people had died from the virus in China, with more than 500 infected, but precisely how dangerous the disease is remains unclear. While there is still hope of preventing its spread, any possible measures should be taken. This is an example of the government doing its job.

Now imagine if, instead, the prime minister announced that no checks were necessary – especially given that they would slow people down on their way to important business meetings, probably costing jobs and investment – and said we should accept, instead, that the spread of the virus was inevitable, and probably, anyway, not as bad as the experts were saying; that Australians were an optimistic people, and this spirit would see us through. The government would, however, be subsidising cough medicine.

This is the point Scott Morrison’s government reached this week on climate change.

Charting the illogical twists and turns of politicians has come to seem almost pointless. But here I go: on Monday, the prime minister was forced to respond to New South Wales Environment Minister Matt Kean. Kean, a Liberal, had been calling on the federal government to do more on emissions. Morrison had a fairly heated go at Kean, which was described as “gratuitous and inept” by journalist Michelle Grattan. “I think Matt should focus on hazard reduction,” said the PM, “and I’ll focus on emissions reduction.”

Well, okay then – great! There are, at this point, several million Australians who would love to see the prime minister do exactly that.

But then, a day later, in an interview with Tony Abbott’s former chief of staff, Peta Credlin – who just two days before had repeated her absurdly irrelevant talking point about carbon dioxide being an “odourless and colourless trace gas” – the prime minister decided hazard reduction burns were something he wanted to focus on. He suggested there be national standards. He said that hazard reduction was as important as emissions reduction, and “many would argue, I think, even more so”.

You get into difficult territory quickly here, because it’s true that hazard reduction is, in general terms, important. But the only reason the government is talking about bushfires at all is the scale and severity of this year’s fires, and the concern we will see similarly devastating fires in the coming years.

Three weeks ago, the chief of the NSW Rural Fire Service, Shane Fitzsimmons, agreed that hazard reduction was important, and then said this: “When you’re running fires under severe, extreme or worse conditions, hazard reduction has very little effect at all on fire spread.” And Greg Mullins, a former RFS commissioner, said extreme conditions meant hazard reduction wasn’t doing what it was intended to: “There has been lots of hazard reductions done over the years – more by national parks than previous years – but the fires have burned through those hazard reduction areas.”

In one sense, Morrison is simply continuing a tactic he has been pursuing since January 4, when he held a press conference to announce the deployment of Defence Force reservists. In several media appearances in the weeks since, he has backed suggestions that Greens opposing hazard reduction are in some way responsible for the fires. This is a baseless conspiracy theory, spread on social media and adopted by the prime minister. Until this week though, the prime minister was merely kicking it along. Now he is letting it drive policy pronouncements, using it both as justification for action on hazard reduction – and for inaction on emissions.

And why wouldn’t he? Politicians, like the rest of us, respond to incentives. Not once, before this latest foray, as far as I can tell, had Morrison been pulled into line by an interviewer on his claims about hazard reduction. This comes after an election campaign in which he managed to make the cost of Labor’s climate change policies an issue. The cost of not doing anything – which has now, tragically, been the focus of two months of wall-to-wall coverage – was largely ignored.

The Liberal Party, to date, has failed on this issue, but so has most of the media.

I wrote above that it seems almost pointless to point out a politician’s contradictions. It does, but this is also part of the problem. Most politicians are now so shameless that it is easy to write off such examples as business as usual. But that approach quickly becomes self-fulfilling.

An important test will be Bridget McKenzie and the sports grants, and whether this story becomes an unstoppable scandal juggernaut – even if McKenzie falls. Early this week, questions were put to the PM – to the credit of the questioners – about the involvement of his office. Morrison said, “The prime minister’s office has always relayed on representations made to it by its members.” Well, yes, that bland statement is hard to fault, in itself. But remember that we are talking about a grants program in which money is supposed to go to sporting clubs that need it most. Why are MPs approaching the prime minister’s office at all? Why do they expect that Morrison might intervene?

Of course, we know the answer to that, because the auditor-general already told us: this was a dodgy program aimed at winning seats in an election. The prime minister’s answer was not a rebuttal; it was confirmation. It was also suggested this week that a club in the PM’s electorate might have known it was getting funding before assessments had finished. Rob Harris at Nine newspapers reported that McKenzie had approved a grant to a club of which she was a member. Most damningly, Channel Ten’s political editor, Peter van Onselen, reported that a senior adviser in the prime minister’s office had been involved with McKenzie’s office in the allocation of the grants.

Do sports grants matter much? Ask the prime minister. He supports McKenzie, he says, “and the reason I do is because she was delivering a program which has changed the future of local communities”. But then it must be equally true that missing out on funding has changed the future of other local communities – communities that missed out only because their votes weren’t useful to Morrison and McKenzie.

This week, the attorney-general, Christian Porter – – whose own electorate received almost $1 million in grants – was asked to look at one very narrow section of the affair. We also found out that the secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department – who used to be the prime minister’s chief of staff – had been asked by Morrison to investigate the affair. Elsewhere, a freedom of information request to Angus Taylor’s office on the dodgy-documents scandal led to the release of just four full documents out of 18.

I should add the banal caveat that at various points in history both sides of politics have failed to uphold standards in our democracy. That’s true, and the story of how we got to this God-awful point leaves no one looking good. It is also true that it is becoming just a little bit silly how flagrantly this government operates outside any conventional sense of accountability.

Perhaps this would be less troubling if the problems we face right now were less alarming. Speaking at the World Economic Forum summit at Davos this week, Greta Thunberg reminded us all that if emissions continue as they are, the world could be in serious trouble within eight years. At that point, there will be a one-third chance we have already lost our shot at limiting the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Dismiss her if you like. She’s 17, et cetera. Two weeks ago the head of the world’s biggest asset manager – he’s 67 – said we were “on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance” due to climate change. This week, the 89-year-old Bank for International Settlements said a “green swan” – some type of climate event – could cause the next financial crisis. A survey of Australian executives by Deloitte found 81 per cent believed climate change would hurt their business.

But Donald Trump, also at Davos, dismissed the “perennial prophets of doom”, which presumably includes these business leaders. “This is not a time for pessimism. This is a time for optimism.” He could have been cribbing from Morrison’s new year message to us all: “The wonderful Aussie spirit … means that we will always overcome whatever challenges we face. That we will always look optimistically into our future.”

In the next fortnight, many journalists will return to work in Canberra. Parliament will resume in a city that has recently been hit by both suffocating smoke and spectacular hail. It will be interesting to see how long the prime minister maintains his optimism.

Paul Bongiorno returns next week.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 25, 2020 as "Failing the hazard perception test".

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Sean Kelly
is a columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers.

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