A couple of days ago, my sister sent a message to the family Facebook chat — their area in the Blue Mountains was declared “too late to leave” as the roads out were closed off. She had already evacuated her two kids to my Mum’s house in Sydney and driven back to defend her farm and livestock with her husband.
I live in Melbourne, a thousand miles from where I grew up, so all I can do is flip helplessly between the updates that my sister is sending — including photos of fire practically on their doorstep — and the map on the Rural Fire Service website which depicts the blaze currently surrounding her property, along with over 2 million hectares that are now on fire in New South Wales alone.
Her children are asking my mother when they can go home. No one knows the answer to this because a heatwave is forecast for the next few days and the winds are so unpredictable, the fire could change its course at any minute. There is nothing I can say about this that hasn’t already been said— and so far, my family members have not lost their home so I know they are better off than hundreds of Australians.
As I write this, they are bracing for a 40+ degree day tomorrow and another one on Saturday. A friend asked me why they moved to a home in the bush, knowing the risk of fires. Yes, of course they knew this was a risk. Yes, Australia has always had fires.
But vast swathes of our country are covered in bush — it is a great source of national pride. Sydney has national parks in the middle of it which are bushfire-prone. Should we cut down all our trees? Or just not build anywhere near them?
While other family members are going up to the Blue Mountains to help protect my sister’s property, our Prime Minister Scott Morrison has disappeared — presumably on holiday, presumably in Hawaii. I say presumably because his office has refused to tell us where he is. In the face of public outrage, his ministers are adamantly defending a politician’s entitlement to a “well-earned break”.
Perhaps we wouldn’t be so angry about his taking a holiday in the middle of a national crisis, if he hadn’t spent the last three months cheerily telling us that it is not in fact a crisis, even as volunteer firefighters are struggling to put out the megablaze. If it was indeed a well-earned break, we might actually understand wanting to escape to a beach where he can sip margaritas without choking on smoke — because everyone in Sydney wishes they had that luxury as well.
But the fact is, the leader of our country was missing even before he physically absented himself from Australia. By pretending everything is business as usual — for example, choosing this moment in time to give religious fanatics the right to discriminate against gay people, single mothers and the disabled — he hopes that we just won’t notice the smoky backdrop to the press conference announcing these new rights.
Meanwhile, the state premier, Gladys Berejiklian, is opening a new zoo in Western Sydney, and posing for photographs with smoke-shrouded giraffes. Our politicians believe that if they ignore the problem for long enough, that it will just go away. The fires will burn themselves out — not anytime soon, predictions are now saying April — but long enough before the next election for them not to worry about whether their actions now will impact their chances of being re-elected.
There is no coordinated effort to not only fight these fires, but to deal with the ones that are sure to come even earlier in 2020 and stay for even longer — as Australia grows ever hotter and drier. Instead, our Prime Minister is sending a few thoughts and prayers over in the general direction of the tens of thousands of exhausted and unpaid firefighters, and hoping that the “great summer of cricket” will bring them some cheer. As if they’ve got time to watch the fucking cricket.
The volunteer firefighters don’t need anything more than that because they want to be there, he assures us. Australia has always had fires, he assures us. He remembers smoke haze from his youth, he says. Why did you build your home in the bush?
Yesterday, I watched a press conference held by a collection of former fire chiefs, announcing their intention to have an emergency summit once they are finished with the formidable task of fighting this season’s fires. Our Prime Minister has declined to attend. They stated in no uncertain terms that the unprecedented nature of these fires is linked to climate change and that in the face of a “leadership vacuum”, they felt compelled to address the public because the government won’t.
It was the press conference our Prime Minister should have given — but I guess he has been too busy legalising bigotry, dismissing a global report that ranked Australia last in terms of its climate change record, and sending his minister to lie to the United Nations about our carbon emissions at the COP25 Summit.
Historically, disasters have always been a boon for leaders. It is when they rally bipartisan support and cement their popularity, a surefire way to have their grim previous track record suddenly overlooked.
In Australia and abroad, we have seen Prime Ministers and Presidents seize this moment: John Howard after the Port Arthur massacre, George W. Bush after September 11. Neither are leaders that I politically agreed with in any way — but, at the very least, they stepped up to the plate and offered words of comfort to the nation, whether genuine or to further their own agenda.
For God’s sake, even the much-despised former PM Tony Abbott was a volunteer firefighter — he’d probably be out there at the frontlines with his shirt off, having his photo taken battling the blaze.
But where the bloody hell is Scott Morrison? Why aren’t we treating the bushfires as the national emergency that they very obviously are? Why did Scott Morrison knife his pal Malcolm Turnbull for the top job, if he didn’t want to actually do the hard work of leading a country of 25 million people?
In the past couple of days, a record seven petitions have been started on Change.org to sack the PM for his absence. These hashtags have been consistently trending on Twitter: #WhereTheBloodyHellAreYou #FireMorrison #WheresScotty #NotMyPM #whereisScoMo
But it is not just Scott Morrison who has failed us. Where the bloody hell is Anthony Albanese? The leadership void left by the Prime Minister clears the way for the as-yet-unproven Opposition Leader to take charge.
While rallies for climate action are being held in Australia’s major cities, Albanese has a unique opportunity to be at the forefront in demanding change. He would have a ready-made platform to assure thousands of Australians that he understands our concerns, that it won’t be an easy transition away from a coal-based economy but that a Labor government in 2022 will demonstrate the leadership our country desperately needs. He could point to the fires, to the smoke literally filling the air, and say “We have a plan to fix this.”
But no, he is not at the climate rallies, encouraging young people to believe that they actually have a future that is smoke-free. He has not declared the climate crisis a national emergency. Instead, our Opposition Leader is currently touring coal communities, assuring them that nothing about our mining and coal exports would change under a Labor government. By campaigning for an election that isn’t due for almost three years, he has all but guaranteed the Labor Party will lose.
The fact is, we have no leaders stepping forward to take control of the situation, to help us see a way forward out of the smoke haze and prospect of even longer and hotter summers. The only politician addressing the climate rallies is the Greens leader Richard Di Natale, who has somehow been squarely blamed for the fires — even though his party has never been and most likely never will be in power.
And while this political horrorshow continues, the nation burns. My sister will spend sleepless nights over Christmas watching for fires on her property. We are only a few weeks into summer and the bushfires began in July, which is mid-winter. If they do indeed continue until autumn, then they are not seasonal — they are constant and permanent.
Here in Victoria, people talk about our state as a tinderbox just waiting to be set alight. It will be us next, they say. It’s a ticking time bomb, they say. And when that happens, as it inevitably will, where is the leader who will save us?
Teenage activist Greta Thunberg famously urged immediate climate action by saying, “I want you to act as if our house is on fire.” In Australia, our house is literally burning down all around us. And still our leaders refuse to act.