One of the odd things about bushfires as we know them in Australia is the unlikely truces declared between species normally very keen to inject toxins or tear out each other’s throats. When the state of Victoria burnt and 173 people died in 2009, one young woman from the picturesque hamlet of Marysville found shelter in a large drainage pipe, where she was soon joined by a dog, a tiger snake and a wombat. The foursome endured each other’s company without protest as all but a handful of homes in a town of 400 souls was turned to ash, along with 32 of its citizens. At one point, the woman later said, she dipped her hand into a puddle of water only to find that the wombat had something similar in mind. With gentlemanly reserve, it allowed her to go first before having a drink itself. The snake, one of Australia’s most poisonous, bit no one and was pointedly ignored by the dog until the flames passed and the serpent departed to whatever fate awaited it in the embers. When the ‘red steer’ charges before a driving wind, our native examples of Homo politicus could learn much from dumb animals.
The fires this time are farther to the north, in New South Wales, but that is their one distinguishing characteristic. In all other respects, events are unfolding as they always do. TV’s talking heads are jamming microphones in the faces of burnt-out residents and asking them how they feel. None have yet responded that they feel like punching the nearest reporter. Police are warning sightseers to stay away, and some 2,000 firemen, most volunteers, have turned out to help save lives and property. In their ranks is our recently elected conservative Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, who has seen 14 years of unpaid service with his local brigade. Reasonable minds might see this as commendable, but there is a distinct shortage of reasonable minds in Australia just at the moment, and rather too many bitter ones. Labor and its media supporters remain miffed about the results of the last election, and so Tony can do no right. The ABC, our national broadcaster and a perpetual fount of green-left dogma, has had a great time giving air to Abbott critics who insist he should be running the country from Canberra, not dashing about the bush in yellow gear and a big red truck.
Curious perspective, that. When the second-to-last prime minister, Julia Gillard, spoke of never missing Game of Thrones there was much laudatory comment on the pitch-perfect work-life balance she had struck. Her predecessor and successor, Kevin Rudd, was similarly feted when photo-op’d helping soggy locals cross a flooded Brisbane street. On cue, the media proclaimed it a wonderful display of Rudd’s common touch. Sadly for Abbott, he is not of the Labor fold, so much of the coverage has been snide. Instead of being hailed as a hero, he’s portrayed as a macho brute, given to dodging serious work while capering in the embers.
Equally out of sorts are the Greens, who also received a magnificent thumping at the polls. The latest fires had barely moved from nuisance to major alarm when one of their number, MP Adam Bandt, suggested that Abbott had doomed the country to more and worse bushfires as a consequence of his pledge to scrap the detested Carbon Tax. Ridiculed by more rational souls, Bandt was soon supported by the ABC cavalry. It’s always global warming that’s to blame, come fire, flood, high winds, unseasonable heat or unexpected cold. Never let a good disaster go to waste, that’s the true believers’ motto. Who knows what might happen to those lovely climate grants, research units, climate foundations and expensive computer models if brave little men like Bandt were not prepared to make pulpits of vanished towns and charred bodies?
Australia’s first problem is that it loves to burn. Many plants cannot reproduce unless seeds have been charred, while a few are so devoted to fire that exposure to smoke determines the extent of their fertility. The second shortcoming is a green romanticism which has elevated tree worship to levels not seen by civilised folk since the ancient Romans encountered Germania’s animists. The post-fire inquiries have yet to be convened, but we can expect one of the most contentious issues to be the role of controlled, prophylactic burning during the damper months. Many greenish sorts oppose broadscale measures to reduce ground fuel, saying such efforts must be restricted to sites and times that are ‘safe and appropriate’. Ah, but what do those words mean? Well, according to one green-eyed panel of inquiry, a mere ten days of the year. As to lopping trees, even on one’s own property, local councils may well impose stiff fines on those caught molesting Mother Nature. Then the fires come, as they always do, and homes surrounded by these mandatory pyres go up in smoke. But it is global warming’s doing, of course. Nothing to do with those who insist that both town and countryside are carpeted with kindling
More bad news. The forecast is for high temperatures and ferocious winds. The fires are bad already and about to get worse.
Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online and the author of Inferno: The Day Victoria Burned.