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

Genevieve Jacobs 6 February 2020 159

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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159 Responses to Ordinary Australians will continue to suffer because of our venal, shallow leadership
Aldith Graves Aldith Graves 1:58 pm 09 Feb 20

Well said.

Illona Amrein Illona Amrein 1:50 pm 09 Feb 20

And the millions of dollars given through charity, where has that all gone, earning the Government a pretty hefty interest balance I suspect, and the people will have to fight tooth and nail to receive any of it, please someone prove me wrong..... this government is pathetic

    Larissa Bress Larissa Bress 9:07 am 14 Feb 20

    Illona Amrein Yes I like to know where my donation is now.

Caroline Oakley Caroline Oakley 1:25 pm 09 Feb 20

Totally agree with you Genevieve, well said. I just hope we maintain the rage and don't let the spinners and pollies take us on a "nothing to see here - job done" journey!

Maggie Treleaven Maggie Treleaven 1:08 pm 09 Feb 20

Great article

Carol Dutkiewicz Carol Dutkiewicz 12:44 pm 09 Feb 20

Well said and so very true. There are so many people suffering trauma as a result of these fires. I only hope that people remember when the next election comes around.

    Gilavon Gilavon 11:58 pm 13 Feb 20

    NSW and Victorian state elections not due for a while yet.

bd84 bd84 12:26 pm 09 Feb 20

I’m still looking for something that describes what Morrison has actually done wrong, but keep only getting some dribble like this. Morrison was on holidays in mid-December before the major bushfire emergency started. He came back when the keyboard warriors demanded it.

Did he need to? No, not really. Responding to bushfires is a state and territory responsibility where their leadership was required and has largely been done well. People seem to have ignored that the leader of each state and territory also took holidays in December or January. Zero was made of that. Nor have we heard from the Labor opposition leader, whoever and where ever he is?

Claims of lack of defence force involvement? Long been disproven as a false claim by the forces themselves. Again keyboard warriors making claims with no actual knowledge.

The only claims left are an apparent expectation that he should have brought some bottles of water with him when touring the area? Seriously? A couple of warm bottles of water isn’t going to fix anything.

He didn’t deal with the people in that area well? People who are emotional and only intend on being rude will never be an easy conversation for anyone, try to make it work then withdraw.

Great leadership would have been either party developing a policy that reduced the risk of it occurring and getting bipartisan support from all states and territories to implement it. But each party at each level of government has their own agenda, no matter who you voted for, your party is to blame. The media just needs to stop bull dust blame game.

Mark Chapman Mark Chapman 11:55 am 09 Feb 20

Agree completely, except

"Premier Berejiklian was clearly across her brief."

once you look past her government cutting funds to fire services and parks management earlier.

    Katrine Scott-Findlay Katrine Scott-Findlay 12:08 pm 09 Feb 20

    Mark Chapman .. .but now she has signed up to Federal funding for a big gas peoject in the Namoi all pollies, owned by the fossil fuel industry. ☹

    Sue Kalab Sue Kalab 8:04 am 13 Feb 20

    Mark. I agree

Cathy Dearnley Cathy Dearnley 11:49 am 09 Feb 20

Here's a suggestion.

Don't comment below. Give the post a 'wow' emoti, then go write to your local rep.

Ask them what they are doing to influence change.

Matthew Soall Matthew Soall 11:44 am 09 Feb 20

Whether it's Labor or Liberal our politicians have failed us and we as a country have suffered tremendously for their failure.

Janene Brown Janene Brown 10:56 am 09 Feb 20

Thanks Genevieve This needed to be said. Is this the tip of the iceberg of consequences?

Linda Leavitt Linda Leavitt 10:55 am 09 Feb 20

This is the best article I have seen from any journalist over this sad and sorry, lost summer! Agree wholeheartedly. I’m so sad and frustrated for what could have been mitigated with some planning.

tonykevin tonykevin 10:49 am 09 Feb 20

Wonderful writing by #GenevieveJacobs, always a class journalist. Why did #ABC ever let her go?
We have all now felt the fear and sinking feelings in this region- the coastal towns and villages, Braidwood and Bungendors, Bredbo, even comfortable Canberra at least on the southern perimeter ( where I live). A horrible, unhealthy, and scary summer, and yes, it is right to blame our incompetent and uncaring politicians . Not just coalition, but mostly coalition. Keep writing, Genevieve.
ABC News.
Tony Kevin.

    Gilavon Gilavon 12:02 am 14 Feb 20

    “Coalition” has nothing to do with it. Read the Commonwealth Constitution.

Amanda Lowman Amanda Lowman 10:47 am 09 Feb 20

I love this piece, it’s passionate and I imagine resonates with the vast majority of Australians. From my perspective it appears that most of the inaction, by all levels of elected officials, has occurred due to self interest or worse, deliberate action for personal gain. There isn’t any transparency and therefore a distinct lack of trust in a political system that is long overdue for an overhaul. Perhaps we could start by establishing an Integrity Commission.

Claire Jaclyn Claire Jaclyn 10:37 am 09 Feb 20

Agree with this - however the point missed out on here, is that as long as we continue with a 2 party preferred system supported with donations by special interests, we will never be well served. Its too easy to buy influence of both sides of the table. Weak, self serving, career politicians are predominant throughout both sides of politics; but a broken system where we have no option but to vote for one of these parties through the directions of preferences ensures nothing really changes.

    Tracey Crump Tracey Crump 11:51 am 09 Feb 20

    Claire Jaclyn while we wish it was different, it's entirely open to politicians to be weak, self serving, and downright dodgy in some instances. It's up to the voters to hold them to account. We had the chance last May, but voters prioritised their own self-interest over the community and environment , and politicians craft winning campaigns speaking to that same selfish short-sightedness...

    Claire Jaclyn Claire Jaclyn 1:19 pm 09 Feb 20

    Its more complicated than that. Look into preference voting, you could be voting for any given minor party, and yet your vote still ultimately goes to one of the major 2 parties - the benefit being simply that that minor party gets more seats at the table. There is no real way out of voting in either liberal or labour no matter what you do. As i understand it, the last election had a huge proportion of the population voting for minor parties, and yet, here we are again....because ultimately, it makes no difference who we vote for. That's a broken political system

Andrew Collins Andrew Collins 10:21 am 09 Feb 20

This summer has been a watershed period. Remains to be seen who provides leadership. My guess is it will not be the old males currently spinning the old lines to us.

    Cathy Dearnley Cathy Dearnley 11:18 am 09 Feb 20

    Andrew Collins you've more confidence than I have. Dutton keeps talking about arson instead of climate change because that's what his people want to hear . His people are frightened. Frightened of change. So they'd rather keep believing that the climate thing is either a mistake or will sort itself out with some magical scientific discovery.

    Old white men are the status quo and they'll keep voting that way hoping that things don't change.

    Andrew Collins Andrew Collins 11:22 am 09 Feb 20

    Cathy, the generational divide was very evident on Q&A, I don’t think the younger voters will tolerate the spin. My optimism is in the younger generation.

    Scottie Roberto Avelia Scottie Roberto Avelia 2:55 pm 09 Feb 20

    Cathy Dearnley What climate change..? All the experts are saying that these fires are not caused by climate change, but poor forestry management, and some arson and human accidental ignitions (40%).... if you don't like facts then go with the climate religion but its nothing to do with these fires this year.. when you remove the fuel, you reduce and eliminate the fire... by not removing fuel we got very hot fires that were out of control... we've known this science forever....

    Kirrin Birrin Kirrin Birrin 3:11 pm 09 Feb 20

    ”All the experts”. Sure.

    Marlene Peffer Marlene Peffer 6:45 pm 09 Feb 20

    Andrew Collins so who would you suggest?

Pamela Frances Pamela Frances 10:14 am 09 Feb 20

The other point every voter must know is that political parties have no place in this democracy. Check the constitution. The only question any voter ever needs to ask their representative or prospective representative is "will you represent me?". We would do well to consider a class action against every politician for the last 6 decades for failing to act in accordance with the constitution.

    Melanie O'Neill Melanie O'Neill 11:45 am 09 Feb 20

    This is a very interesting point

    Stephen Sherlock Stephen Sherlock 8:10 pm 09 Feb 20

    How do you propose a representative can simultaneously represent a climate denialist who wants more coal and a person concerned with the environment and wants to phase out coal? MPs are not elected to just blindly "represent" every individual voter. They are there to exercise judgement and make policies that balance many different interests and opinions. And that's what parties do - they present policy alternatives and their members implement them in a consistent way. Independents just do what they feel like according to how they feel on the day. Witness Jacquie Lambie, she's all over the shop on every issue. Parties have a LOT of weaknesses, but without them our system would be a lot worse than now.

    Kuan Bartel Kuan Bartel 8:29 pm 10 Feb 20

    I've always said that we have a democracy of democracies.

    We elect representatives which have been voted in on a majority basis within their electorate. They are then part of a party that votes for the elected members to take roles within their party (leader, deputy, etc.). A minority within the party then decide what the policies will be and the party members are required to support those policies in parliament regardless of their own personal support or the support within their electorate.

    So even if there is a policy (like say an ETS) which has large support within the community, within the party in government, and within the opposition it may not gain support in parliament because the small number of people which actually control the government say no. Every additional level where there is voting to decide policies deminishes support. And it likewise allows policies with wide disapproval to be passed. The democracy of democracies acts as an amplifier or a dampener.

Spiral Spiral 10:13 am 09 Feb 20

One aspect of this climate disaster that also needs reviewing is the role the media has played in making the economic effects worse.
Most people have probably seen the many dramatic images that were splashed across the world’s media showing the extent of the fires.

These images were shown with almost glee by media and conservation groups because they provided effective visuals to help support their climate claims.

Unfortunately many of them were also very inaccurate. See:

There were also very misleading claims made about the air quality.

Then surprise surprise, just when our devastated communities and economy need every tourist dollar we can get, many overseas visitors start cancelling their trips because they have the impression that everywhere interesting has been burnt and they are in danger if they visit.

I totally agree that our politicians have failed us. This summer has been catastrophic and perhaps even unprecedented. But like the fire triangle consists of three elements: Fuel, heat and oxygen, the solution to this crisis also requires three elements:

1) Better government
2) Voters willing to vote for what is best in the long term even if it hurts them now
3) Responsible media who report accurately instead of focussing on what sells best or appears to support their own political views

To ignore the negative impact of the media over this summer would demonstrate that the media has no interest in truth and honesty and really are venal and shallow, just like our politicians.

Mary Moxham Mary Moxham 10:11 am 09 Feb 20

You have encapsulated the issue succinctly

Kerry Lois Mac Kerry Lois Mac 10:11 am 09 Feb 20

I agree with every word Genevieve. Let’s NOT forget this lack of planning and leadership. Many others have stated that as a nation we need to have the conversations about land management, water and bushfires. We must demand it now from all elected representatives and keep them on task and accountable.

rationalobserver rationalobserver 10:09 am 09 Feb 20

Politics is responding to the environment it exists in. Any blame should be shared with the media and “progressive” types who feel entitled to demand this and demand that. Both serve to divert government from the course they might charter if they were left to get on with doing the job they were elected to do.
I also have to ask what steps these former fire chiefs took when in office to put appropriate systems in place to deal with these scenarios? Their legacy condemns them more than Tim Flannery manipulates them.

    Rob Calvert Rob Calvert 3:12 pm 09 Feb 20

    Your response is an insult to your own intelligence.

    rationalobserver rationalobserver 1:58 pm 13 Feb 20

    Well that’s your opinion. Care to justify it?
    Articulate for us all how all these protests & campaigns are fundamentally anything but an attempt by some to have a second bite at the old democracy cherry? Are they not seeking to change policy which was in place at the last election and by definition was the preferred choice by the majority of voters? (the only exception to that that I can think of was the greens policy on fire risk management which was changed at 2:30am on 8th Nov 2019 when the old one started to look a little un defendable in the face of the northern NSW fires at the time).
    How can any public official, at the very top of their space and therefore the ones most responsible and accountable for the long term planning and strategy in response to changing conditions, be in any way credible when they allow themselves to be used to highlight the risks and impacts of an outcome which they claimed to have known about whilst being paid to do something about it? Talk about getting a bet on after the race is run.
    Over to you.

    Gilavon Gilavon 11:55 pm 13 Feb 20

    Correct. The majority view prevailed in May 2019.

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