The Prime Minister has appealed for calm during the fire crisis and says the Federal Government is doing all it can.
“What you cannot have in these situations is governments stepping over the top of each other in responding to a natural disaster like this,” he said this week.
The Federal Government has been consistent (and indeed, insistent) in saying that bushfire emergencies are a state government responsibility. In “normal” emergencies – if such a thing still exists – the Government is correct to a significant degree.
States must request assistance. The Federal Government cannot ride roughshod over them.
But let’s reiterate the grim facts. Areas of land as large as European countries have been burned. There is no rain forecast. Communities have been razed and this weekend is likely to be as dangerous as New Year’s Eve, or worse. Seven people, likely more, have died.
There are estimates that perhaps four million animals may have died in the infernos. Surviving farm livestock and native animals alike risk thirst and starvation.
Our emergency responders are stretched beyond their limits. There will be a profound toll on their mental health and wellbeing.
This is well beyond an emergency. This is a natural disaster of unprecedented scale on the Australian continent as far as we are aware, stretching across state boundaries and with no end in sight.
NSW is the most populous and prosperous state and its resources are at breaking point. Imagine if a disaster on this scale were to happen in Tasmania? Or, God forbid, here in the ACT. Would it still be up to the state governments to respond?
But we’ve had not so much as a COAG meeting.
If it’s not the business of the Federal Government to lead a response now, then when would it be?
We have heard from Defence Minister Linda Reynolds about the ADF’s role in logistical support. She described “significant behind the scenes support” for frontline firefighters. And from Emergency Services Minister David Littleproud, also warning against “kneejerk reactions”.
But there’s been a notable, almost hushed, silence from one other major Government figure: Peter Dutton.
The Home Affairs mega ministry was set up by Malcolm Turnbull in 2017 under Minister Dutton’s leadership and is seen as a key portfolio for a very powerful politician.
Described by Mr Turnbull as “the most significant reform of Australia’s national intelligence and domestic security arrangements” in more than 40 years, the super department combined the Immigration and Border Protection Department with parts of the Attorney-General’s, Infrastructure and Social Services departments.
Those parts include responsibility for Emergency Management. To quote from the Departmental website: “We lead the Australian Government disaster and emergency management response. We work to build a disaster-resilient Australia that prevents, prepares, responds and recovers from disasters and emergencies.”
It is difficult to see how and where this has happened during the unfolding crisis, and even harder to discern Mr Dutton’s role in this major national emergency.
Home Affairs could initiate a Crisis Coordination Centre, bringing together public and private infrastructure into a co-ordinated national emergency response across multiple sectors including telecommunications, energy supplies, transport, banking and retail, and many other areas where a strategic national approach could help alleviate the carnage.
Perhaps this is already happening. Perhaps not. We’ve certainly heard nothing to indicate that it is. And this emergency has been building inexorably for months now: nobody’s been caught on the hop without adequate time to respond.
So if now is not the time, when?
This is an awkward crisis for a government that does not want to discuss climate change because, they say, our focus should be on the disaster – as though we can’t all walk and chew gum at the same time.
It’s an awkward crisis because there’s no barnstorming piece of legislation that can “fix” the problem and work well in sound bites.
There’s no easy solution for this one.
But when we went to the polls in 2019, we elected a government for all Australians, for all of the time. That is what we asked Scott Morrison and his ministry to do for us. It’s time to see that leadership in action.
If not now, when?