Opinion

John Hewson
Morrison’s Katrina

It is most disappointing that natural disasters seem to bring out the best in the Australian people and the worst in our politicians and political processes. We see the enormous outpouring of goodwill from neighbours rescuing neighbours, the phenomenal clean-up and recovery efforts from the “mud army”.

We see the food, clothing, accommodation and other support from charities and local governments, the generosity of public donations. And then we see our politicians: ignoring the warnings, generally slow to respond, and then denying and blame shifting on the causes of the disasters and the adequacy of the response. Our governments were poorly prepared and slow to act, but the people never gave up, arriving in tinnies, on paddleboards, whatever it took while they waited for “official” help.

Many important challenges for our governments have been emphasised by the recent experience with the floods in Queensland and New South Wales. While it is difficult and unwise to attribute a particular natural disaster or extreme weather event to climate change, Scott Morrison and some of his ministers have gone to absurd lengths to deny any link, in the face of the Climate Council’s assessment that climate change “isn’t a footnote to the story of these floods, it is the story”. The council has criticised the Morrison government’s “supercharging” of these extreme weather events by continuing to allow the burning of fossil fuels.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk agreed, saying, “Let’s face it, it is climate change.” This view is supported by the overwhelming science that says global warming results in more extreme weather events occurring with greater frequency and severity, confirmed by the latest United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released last week.

Alarmingly, Morrison’s response was “we already have policies in place and we have to deal with the here and now”. What could be more “here and now” than the floods? And what could be more concerning than the inadequacy of his policy response? Does Morrison take heart from the Outsiders on Sky News looking for the next “Ice Age”?

This discussion came to a ridiculous head this week, with Barnaby Joyce claiming on Channel Seven’s Sunrise that the floods are a “very rare situation” – a “one in 3500-year event” for Lismore. He said the event could not be planned for: “This is monumentous [sic]. It’s diluvian.”

The hosts referred to Joyce’s claims as “bullshit”. They cited figures that said it was a one-in-100-year to one-in-500-year event and the Bureau of Meteorology saying there was a 1 per cent chance of it happening every year.

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet constantly refers to the floods as “unprecedented”. They were not. The phrase is used simply to dodge responsibility. All of this clearly downplays the significance of climate science. Perrottet has at least appeared empathetic and genuinely concerned for his constituents in the face of this disaster, which he also described as “unimaginable and devastating”.

Another major weakness of the federal government response is the focus on a narrow concept of resilience, confined to cleaning up and rebuilding after a natural disaster. I suggest that it be broadened to include preparedness for natural disasters. The focus of Emergency Management Australia, within the Department of Home Affairs, and the National Recovery and Resilience Agency is therefore too narrow. As a result, the government usually appears to have been caught short by such events and is slow to respond. This is compounded by the fact Morrison seems unwilling to listen to warnings and advice, as he demonstrated with the bushfires. His failings are shown in the late deployment of military personnel and equipment, and in announcing financial support that is not commensurate with the magnitude of the disaster in humanitarian terms and on individuals and businesses. He is consistently found wanting.

In response to the floods, Morrison visited Kedron in Queensland with the minister for Emergency Management and National Recovery and Resilience, Bridget McKenzie. Later he also visited Gympie and Maryborough, and Lismore, in northern NSW. The motivations here seem to have been twofold, both in the extent of the destruction and the political significance of the towns relative to the United Australia Party and One Nation. These visits were not always positive. For example, Morrison was forced to admit he could spend only the interest of the $4-5 billion disaster fund, leaving the principal untouched. This seems like just another excuse for why allocated funding wasn’t delivered and ignores the fact that the government has a standing appropriation for such disasters by way of the budget’s contingency reserve.

In Lismore, it seems the longer-term damage has not yet been fully recognised. It has been estimated that two of every three flood-affected homes will need to be demolished or substantially repaired and it is possible that the Lismore Square, the core of downtown, locally known as “the Block”, may never be rebuilt.

Residents in Lismore and elsewhere, in places such as Ballina, feel they have been forgotten. Insurance costs, which have historically been prohibitive, meaning most homes and businesses were uninsured, are set to rise even further and local councils are being pressured not to allow new builds or rebuilds in flood-affected areas. This should be the subject of a national policy position. The pressure is also mounting for effective national preparation strategies to reduce the risks of natural disasters.

Morrison has obviously been feeling the criticism of his failure to devote enough time to visiting the floods and the inadequacy of his policy and Australian Defence Force response, such that he rushed back to the NSW flood zone this week. Why hadn’t he already declared a national emergency? Why has he tried to get away with the $1000 disaster payment, which is about what it was 15 years ago?

None of this resonates with those who have struggled to be rescued and lost their homes and businesses and loved ones. His spending priorities have also been criticised. How is it that he could find $10 billion to magnificently park his fleet of unbuilt nuclear submarines, which many of us will never live to see, but nothing extra for this extraordinary disaster? Talk about “here and now”.

Our photo op PM reminds me a little of past United States president George W. Bush after hurricane Katrina. Bush had spent some 27 days on holiday at his Texas ranch while Katrina was building to landfall and then flew over the damage in Air Force One. This only served to make him appear detached from the disaster on the ground, and Bush has since conceded in his autobiography, and in the media, that the photo that became a symbol of his administration’s response to Katrina made him look “detached and uncaring, no question about it”.

Bush said “he wished he had landed in New Orleans”. He didn’t at the time, he says, for fear that first responders would have been forced to handle his arrival instead of disaster relief. “In retrospect, however, I should have touched down in Baton Rouge, met with the governor and walked out and said, ‘I hear you. We understand and we’re going to help state and help local governments with as much resources as needed.’ ”

Morrison’s visit to the flood zone around Lismore was carefully managed by his team. All media were banned and photos were confined to his personal photographer. Against the cries from the distressed public that “we need your help” and “climate change is real”, perhaps the most cutting call came from one lone protester holding aloft a bit of cardboard box stating: “It’s raining, it’s pouring, the PM is snoring.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 12, 2022 as "Morrison’s Katrina".

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John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and former Liberal opposition leader.

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