Ordinary Australians will continue to suffer because of our venal, shallow leadership

Genevieve Jacobs 6 February 2020 153

Cobargo’s main street burning on 31 December, 2019. Photo: Josh Mead.

After 30 years as a journalist, I don’t often bother getting angry with politicians.

I know there are good people on both sides doing their best. You only have to look at Bega MP Andrew Constance’s honesty and pain on Monday night’s Q&A to know that, or Member for Eden-Monaro Mike Kelly’s deeply felt response to the bushfire crisis that’s racked our region.

But I’m angry now, because 10 years of venal, shallow politics have come to this: an apocalyptic natural disaster that will take a toll on this nation for years to come.

And who will pay that price? Ordinary Australians.

Ordinary people who should have been helped earlier, supported better and recognised more, except it wasn’t politically expedient to do so.

There will be post-traumatic stress disorder and family breakdown after the fires recede. There will be suicides. Despite all the strength and resilience we have to muster, there are communities and families that will never be the same again, their lives permanently scarred.

Those on the frontline are worst affected but everyone in south-eastern Australia has been touched. Half a dozen times, I have talked to colleagues about letting the tears come, amidst relentless disaster coverage of the places they love.

In our staff meetings at Region Media we talk about referred trauma. On Monday I watched Four Corners and sobbed, helplessly, for my own friends who have faced down the blazes again and again. I cannot bear thinking about the suffering wildlife.

It’s felt like death is stalking us all.

You can argue all you like about who or what caused these fires, but an impeccably qualified panel of former fire chiefs gave clear warnings many months ago about this season’s exceptional risks. By November, as the fires began their deadly progress down the coast, it was abundantly clear those warnings were coming to pass.

Yet no deep planning had taken place. There was no coordination with the states to map a response, no recognition that this time it was different.

So what did we have?

We had a Prime Minister on holiday in Hawaii.

A government that said it wasn’t its role to deploy the ADF, it would wait to be asked.

A government in which someone, somewhere, thought it appropriate to throw shade at NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian while she was managing a crisis so considerable it would floor many nations.

A government that followed the long-overdue decision to deploy the ADF Reserves with a cheap political ad that initially included a Liberal Party donations link.

A government that didn’t want to poke the ant’s nest around climate change, preferring, instead, to minimise the situation as it became clearer and clearer this was an unprecedented disaster.

Make no mistake, we’ve seen impeccable leadership: Premier Berejiklian was clearly across her brief. Coastal mayors Kristy McBain and Liz Innes have been on the frontline for months. ACT ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan has been steady, unflinching, courteous and calm at all times. NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons has not wavered.

But we have a Prime Minister who couldn’t handle meeting a Cobargo firefighter who’d lost his house, or a request for more RFS resources from a pregnant woman accompanied by a leashed goat.

Who told Scott Morrison to walk away from locals instead of dismissing the cameras and sitting the PM down to listen amidst the smoking ruins of their town? Who put together a flotilla of shiny white Comcars without thinking to load up every bottle of water to be had from Coles in Manuka to deliver to a town where people were queuing at the oval to get their drinking water out of a tanker?

I’ll tell you who: people who think about spin and polls and images first. Politicians and advisers who have learned that government is about how to massage the message and keep the donors onside. To attack rather than to listen. To tell critics that they are being unAustralian or, God forbid, part of the “Canberra bubble”.

That’s what leadership has been reduced to.

I don’t blame any one side of politics for this parlous situation. I blame a federal political class that has been captured by cynical opportunism for the last decade, Liberal and Labor alike. I blame the spinners and the dodgers and the sliders who think winning points matters more than serving the people.

Let them all think long and hard, up there on the Hill, about why they are there. Let them consider how different it could have been if they’d put the people before their own interests. And then let them consider what they have wrought.

Do you think the federal political class has been captured by cynical opportunism for the last decade?

What's Your Opinion?

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153 Responses to Ordinary Australians will continue to suffer because of our venal, shallow leadership
grim123 grim123 11:03 am 14 Feb 20

Yes, we should totally have listened to the “Former fire chiefs”, most of whom had ZERO experience in bush fire or bush fire risk management, and had been metropolitan fire chiefs. Then the few that did have any experience with bush fire were the people who were responsible for doing absolutely nothing about risk management while they were in the job.

You’d have to be all kinds of special to not notice that.

    astro2 astro2 6:27 pm 15 Feb 20

    Yeah–nah mate they had experience of bush fires than urban fires. Not sure where you get that patently false claim from, you have a powerful imagination. They warned the Morrison government about the severity of the bushfire season, which is what actually happened, due to climate change. Morrison ignored the warning, we all know that now. You’d have to be all kinds of in-denial to not notice that.

Vicki Smith Vicki Smith 7:59 am 13 Feb 20

I don’t know how you included Mayor Liz Innes in your list of politicians & leaders doing their best. All she did was make a very poor video (in which she couldn’t even enunciate correctly)
She invited everyone back to the Coast, despite the danger from the fires being far from over & the fact we were running out of water & many homes & businesses still didn’t have any power, a monumental mistake, as our towns came under attack again & more homes were lost & even more sadly lives.

    Deb Keeley Deb Keeley 6:28 pm 13 Feb 20

    I agree with Vicki. Mayors Kristy Mc Bain to the south and Amanda Findley to the north of Eurobodalla shone during December/January. Time and again I heard them updating their communities on the changing situation, providing clear, calm and sensible advice on all manner of challenges facing their communities. It was clear they and their Council staff were on the job and trying to do all within their power to find out what was happening throughout their regions and to advocate for their residents. Sadly, this was not the case in Eurobodalla. Many of our communities felt abandoned. The council website was not updated with bushfire information between Christmas shut-down until after the disastrous fires of New Year’s Eve. Some of our elected representatives and Council staff were visible, some did all they could. Others, our Mayor included, fell way short of how they should have/could have helped their communities prepare for, and respond to, our recent emergencies. And worryingly, after the first Council meeting of the year held this week, it is clear that most of our Councillors are unable or worse, unwilling, to recognise or reflect on the deficiencies that were so evident. Instead they are brazenly denying how close so many people and so many communities came to panic, riot and annihilation.

Capital Retro Capital Retro 8:48 am 11 Feb 20

The recent fires were on a similar scale to ones in 1926 but back then we had very little media input so the rest of the world probably didn’t even know it had happened and today the media is ignoring history to maximise the HD images and the “one on one” interviews.

Spare a thought for the pioneers of this country and how tough they did it after bushfires.

Mike Cosgriff Mike Cosgriff 5:34 am 11 Feb 20

I'd hope Barnaby and his mates would read this

Acton Acton 3:24 pm 10 Feb 20

What a lot of drivel. We have been through this many times before and far worse. What is the matter with journalism today that everything has to be exaggerated? Is it more exciting and self-stimulating to catastrophise? Do we want our kids to be constantly fearful as each new event is breathlessly reported with ever more hyperbole? Floods, fires, droughts, dust, hailstones and even flu viruses have always been with us and are insignificant compared to real disasters like world wars, mongol invasions, starvation and black deaths.

Capital Retro Capital Retro 11:34 am 10 Feb 20

Have you ever wondered why there is an annual mandated bushfire season in Australia?

This covers the fact that there are bushfires every year so there is no need for “predictions”.

James Barnes James Barnes 10:01 am 10 Feb 20


Capital Retro Capital Retro 9:00 am 10 Feb 20

“Our politicians do not seem to have been aware of what the majority of Australians think”

The last election was “the climate change election” and LNP won it which reflects that the voters think the current settings which addresses “climate change” are fine. The recent bushfires have nothing to do with climate change.

    GrumpyMark GrumpyMark 2:19 pm 11 Feb 20

    Yet again you come out with the drivel that it was a single issue election, Capital Retro, and therefore claim a mandate for climate deniers … What about self-funded retirees, who may believe in climate change, but were more concerned about losing their tax return for franking credits? What about the ‘mum and dad’ investors, who may believe in climate change, yet were more worried about the impact on their future super, if changes to negative gearing provisions were made? Then of course there’s the voters, who while they may believe in climate change, could never bring themselves to vote for Shorten. You are great at pushing for absolute proof on the existence of anthropogenic climate change, where is your proof that every LNP vote was cast on maintaining the status quo in relation to climate change.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 8:31 am 13 Feb 20

    Remember Shorten’s failure to give costings for Labor’s proposed climate change policies? The closest he got was “the cost will be cheaper that doing nothing” which translates as “a blank cheque drawn on the Australia taxpayers” which is the best reason any voter will get to support the other party so there is your proof.

    By the way, I am a self-funded retiree and I haven’t got any shares nor do I believe in negative gearing which is useless for retirees in pension mode anyhow. How about all you hand-wringing warmists who have billions of dollars tied up in fossil fuel companies through your superannuation funds take a look at yourself ? Bit of a double standard there, eh?

    GrumpyMark GrumpyMark 3:08 pm 13 Feb 20

    There you go again with your totally unsubstantiated generalisations directed at people about whom you know nothing, yet you assume you know their circumstances. How about addressing your other unsubstantiated generalisation which I challenged – you claim “The last election was “the climate change election” and LNP won it which reflects that the voters think the current settings which addresses “climate change” are fine.” Proof please – which you are so fond of consistently demanding of others. Or are you just good at slinging accusations of double standards while not avoiding them yourself?

    Gilavon Gilavon 12:20 am 14 Feb 20

    I recall mention of “the climate change election” several times in general media and it was certainly promoted by the ABC. Franking credits are an issue for me but neither determined my vote. I was concerned with stopping Shorten and the rest of the socialist tribe.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 7:29 am 14 Feb 20

    Thank you Gilavon.

    GrumpyMark GrumpyMark 3:13 pm 14 Feb 20

    “I recall mention of “the climate change election” several times in general media and it was certainly promoted by the ABC. “
    OK – so now we have you both agreeing with the general media and ABC on the single issue election … well I recall mention in the general press and certainly on the ABC that these recent fires are unprecedented. So can we assume that you both now acknowledge the fires were unprecedented – given it’s the same source … or are you going to be hypocritical and cherry pick what you accept as gospel from the general media and ABC?

Bill Gemmell Bill Gemmell 1:05 am 10 Feb 20

Great article. A lot of people have had their enjoyment of life irrevocably altered as a result of this ongoing catastrophe. Let us not forget though that there are people in our society who should know better and just don't get it about what is happening in our environment. It is like communicating with someone who comes from an alternative universe. And then we have those in the political class who engage in a special form of double speak derived from self-interest. Besides the usual suspects, I find the mad rants of Joel Fitzgibbon a total failure of political leadership for those living in his electorate - it is like he didn't notice what is likely to happen with the next Hunter Vintage.

stevew77 stevew77 9:32 pm 09 Feb 20

I think whingers need sit and take stock and ask if had they had the weighty responsibility of fairly extreme circumstance, if they could have done it better?

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 8:16 pm 09 Feb 20

“….or a request for more RFS resources from a pregnant woman accompanied by a leashed goat.”

It’s perhaps worth noting that, unlike the federal Budget, the NSW Budget is already in surplus, and could doubtless have found more resources for the NSW Rural Fire Service –

“The NSW Government continues its record of sound financial management and is on track to deliver average surpluses of $1.9 billion over the four years to 2022-23.”

source – https://www.budget.nsw.gov.au/half-yearly-review

This, of course, is just one relatively small detail, but it’s a reminder that facts and details – particularly those which are inconvenient to a preferred narrative – have too often been lost over the last few months.

    Ria Rakali Ria Rakali 7:54 am 10 Feb 20

    Fair point …. but looking at the “record of sound financial management” – the NSW economy is larger than South Africa, Thailand or the Philippines. Much of it’s income is derived from the housing market. …… NSW has the largest population in the country, with sky rocketing house prices driven by the demand for housing, which returns stamp duty. Other taxes the state gains revenue from are GST and gambling. NSW unashamedly scoops up revenue from an inflated housing market and taxes on gambling, as well as letting mining companies run rampant over agriculture, and encourages agriculture dependent on high water crops like cotton and rice, in a country where the water should be shared.

Lyn Kemp Lyn Kemp 7:31 pm 09 Feb 20

Wonderful articulate report on this government's total incompetence, thank you Genevieve. Sadly they will continue their shallow, opportunistic politics until hopefully they are voted out. I certainly hope the Labor Party has one hell of a lot more integrity if by chance they ever get into government again!!!

Gilavon Gilavon 5:45 pm 09 Feb 20

Why blame Morrison, again? How long did it take for Berejiklian to realise federal help was needed? Irrespective of Morrison’s status at the time we do have a Deputy Prime Minister with the power to do what so many people thought Morrison was too slow to do. Neither can act until the states or territories ask.

Whilst you’re allegedly fed up with politicians Genevieve you haven’t called out Andrews who didn’t show his face until 2 January and Paluszuzck (?) who was absent, I understand, on a cruise.

But you’re right about the spinners and weavers and the preoccupation with polls (ban them) by all sides of politics. There is also the insidious side of social media, so much negativity from mainstream media (too much of either) and sabotage by activists (outlaw them).

Don’t know when and where the rot set into our society but it’s high time we all took a deep breath and counted to ten.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 9:13 am 14 Feb 20

    “……counted to ten….”

    That would be challenging for some.

Patsy Fraser Patsy Fraser 5:28 pm 09 Feb 20

Well said Cheryl Honey, I was only thinking that the farmers and the drought had been forgotten myself. I hope I'm wrong

Capital Retro Capital Retro 5:18 pm 09 Feb 20

What is an “Ordinary Australian”?

Cheryl Honey Cheryl Honey 4:56 pm 09 Feb 20

With respect to everyone who has been affected by the fires, (I was as well) , and I don’t mean to take the focus from the fires, but our farmers have been facing this drought and flood- caused devastation for years without the same level of interest from the media and the public.

When the task-force and government review the affects of the fires and plan for the future, let’s hope that ALL natural disasters receive the same consideration and funding opportunities. The effects of drought and flood cost the taxpayer, but most of all, they ruin the lives of people on the land and cause depression, family impacts and other sad issues.

I wish all those affected by the fires the best outcomes with sincere kind wishes.

Diane Asenoguan Diane Asenoguan 4:31 pm 09 Feb 20

Thank you for echoing many Australians thoughts and emotions at this time. Love the tags but the last one wont bother to read let alone respond. We need to find a new way of choosing our politicians and to look at banning all donations to every political party

Ian McTaggart Ian McTaggart 4:24 pm 09 Feb 20

What is really sad about the lack of planning and prepositioning of assets to cope with the fires predicted as far back as 2008, is the gross lack of adherence to published Emergency Management Australia planning documents. Guess who is in charge of EMA? Mr Dutton.

    Ian McTaggart Ian McTaggart 9:40 am 11 Feb 20

    Monica Tiffen it is not just about money. It is about taking account of what assets the commonwealth might have available and coordinating the use and prepositioning of those assets to effectively deploy them in the case of an emerging contingency. No different to having a Defence Force fully trained and available at short notice to be deployed into the region or elsewhere.

    Surely domestic safety and security of our population in the event of a natural or any other domestic disaster is more important than assistance outside our borders?

Elias Hallaj Elias Hallaj 4:06 pm 09 Feb 20

Genevieve I agree with most of this. What I think is missing though is the important point that elections have consequences, not just for us but for our children and future generations as well. I strongly believe the response to this summer’s bushfire emergency would have been very different had there been a different result in the federal election in May. I understand the anger and the need some have to blame politicians and parties but the solution doesn’t lie in the false equivalence of the leadership of Labor and Liberal. Over the past year the approach of the two major parties to this impending crisis has been very different. I don’t think Labor is perfect. Far from it. But I don’t think Labor representatives or their efforts should be so summarily equated to the disastrous lack of leadership of Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton during this fire season, which began in August 2019. Don’t forget there is only one PM, Defence Minister and Premier. They have a lot of power compared to a leader of the opposition (who doesn’t really have any power other than a microphone that a small section of the media might occasionally give him/her). The PM/Premier alone can decide how to use their power. Or not use it. Same goes for the media.

    Kathleen Lazzari Kathleen Lazzari 11:03 pm 09 Feb 20

    Completely agree, especially regarding the false equivalence when you consider where we might have been otherwise if Abbott hadn't got rid of the suite of climate change mitigation strategies put in place by the previous government. The drop in carbon emissions alone compared to what has happened since the 2013 election demonstrates the stark difference in approach.

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