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?