Australia's political firestorm

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Satellite images of the bush fires over Australia

The startling effects of climate change have highlighted the global catastrophe for people who might have thought they were immune. Camilla Royle explains the political context of the crisis and Caitlin Doyle looks at why the government wants business as usual, despite the evidence.

The huge fires ripping through the Australian bush over the past few months have brought climate change home. Although people in the Global South are the most vulnerable, and the fires come at the same time as devastating floods in Jakarta, Indonesia, the climate catastrophe is also reaching the wealthier countries.

At the time of writing, 33 people have died in the fires. This includes volunteer firefighter Samuel McPaul, whose truck was overturned by extremely strong winds, and three firefighters from the United States who died when their waterbombing plane crashed. Thousands of properties have already been destroyed in a nightmare fire season that has lasted since September and shows little sign of ending soon.

Australia has fires every year and some ecosystems are adapted to cope with fire. But the fires this time have started earlier and been more intense. Five times the amount of land has been burnt this year compared with last year. The fires follow the county’s hottest and driest year on record with temperatures exceeding 40°C, making it clear that climate change is exacerbating them.

The negligent response of prime minister Scott Morrison has shown how unable the Australian government has been to find a solution to the catastrophe. In December, when residents of cities and rural areas were cancelling their Christmas plans due to the fires, he decided to go on holiday to Hawaii. When he did return and visited the fire-ravaged town of Cobargo in New South Wales, firefighters refused to shake his hand and locals heckled him.

While the fires are dramatic and understandably receiving media attention around the world, people in Australia have faced water shortages for some time now — a less spectacular but still desperate situation. Rivers have dried up in the town of Walgett in New South Wales. People are reliant on warm and salt-polluted water from bore holes. At one point even this supply failed and charities had to send bottled water by truck.

Aboriginal people are particularly affected by the drought. Dhariwaa and Gamilaraay people have talked about the destruction of places of cultural significance and the loss of totem animals as well as dying fish. Yet industry is able to secure access to water. Last year photos taken from the air in an upstream part of the Murray-Darling river basin highlighted how water was being stored and allocated to the highly profitable cotton industry.

Climate change plays a major role in Australian politics. Its effects — fires, droughts, soaring temperatures and threats to biodiversity such as coral bleaching — are increasingly clear. But Australia is also one of the world’s biggest per capita emitters of carbon dioxide, with overall emission levels similar to those of the UK but with a much smaller population of just under 25 million. This is in large part due to its addiction to coal. Australia is the world’s fourth-largest coal producer.

Lobbying power

The coal industry, and especially huge firms such as Glencore, Rio Tinto and BHP, have huge lobbying power fuelled by their mega profits and benefit from close links to both the government and Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Mining lobbyists are frequently able to hold face-to-face meetings with key ministers. Research by policy think tank the Grattan Institute shows that mining accounts for the highest proportion of major donations (those above $60,000) to political parties.

There is also a revolving door between the mining industry, its commercial lobbyists and government. Brendan Pearson, who used to run the Minerals Council of Australia, an industry lobby group, is now a senior advisor to the prime minister. This close relationship has enabled the mining industry to block legislation that affects them on several occasions including the gutting of a new tax on their profits in 2012.

There is an obvious need to rapidly cut fossil fuel use to prevent further climate change. Yet coal extraction in Australia is actually expanding. The Carmichael mine, built by Indian company Adani, was approved last year and there are plans for a further six mines that will exploit untapped coal reserves.

Morrison, known as “ScoMo”, has been a long-term supporter of the coal industry. In 2018, the previous Liberal Party leader Malcolm Turnbull resigned, in part due to opposition within the party even to Turnbull’s modest climate change measures. It was widely expected and predicted in the polls that a Labor government would come to office in the following year, but instead ScoMo gained a small majority.

Along with Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, he is part of a trend of right wing and conservative politicians who have sought to block action on climate change and spread doubt about whether it is happening.

Labor’s lukewarm policy on climate change cost them votes in the election. Rather than putting forward an ambitious and pro-active strategy for creating jobs in renewable energy, Labor refused to oppose the Adani mine and continues to support investment in coal. But at the same time it hinted it might review permission for the mine, leaving workers in the coal industry worried about their future. This pleased nobody.

It has allowed the Liberal Party to pit workers against environmentalists and people in rural areas against urban Australians, consistently arguing that coal provides jobs and that stopping coal mining would put people’s electricity bills up. The Australian revolutionary socialist group Solidarity argued at the time of the election that: “Demand for climate action that costs workers’ jobs will not win popular support, and only boosts the far right”.

But the bushfire crisis has also inflamed resistance to ScoMo and his planet wrecking policies. On 10 January 30,000 people marched in Sydney as part of nationwide protests calling for proper investment in the fire service and demanding that ScoMo be sacked. There is a further day of action planned for 22 February. After initially refusing to do so, Morrison has now belatedly offered compensation to volunteer firefighters.

Hazardous levels

Importantly, trade unionists have started to back action over climate change. In December the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) called on their members in Sydney to stop working outside when the air quality reached very poor or hazardous levels due to the fires. The bosses argued that this was an unofficial walkout — actually workers have a legal right to down tools over health and safety — and tried to withhold the workers’ Christmas bonus but were forced to pay it back.

As MUA member Justin Timmins explains, it took effective union organisation, with a network of health and safety reps, to stop the employers putting profit before the health of the workers: “Businesses will try anything just to keep the productivity on the wharf going.”

Mark Cross, a construction organiser from the CFMEU union, which also represents workers in coal mining, spoke at a rally in Newcastle, Australia on 10 January alongside Aboriginal activists and survivors of the bush fires. Perhaps surprising some in the crowd, he called for a just transition away from the coal industry and towards working in renewable energy.

Such a transition, for example via the installation of huge arrays of solar panels across Australia’s deserts, would not only provide its energy needs, and beyond, but employ thousands.

The movement in response to the fires hasn’t come from nowhere. It has been inspired by last year’s Climate Strikes which saw a mass revolt of school and university students where workers, especially in the universities, have also walked out in solidarity.

This kind of action can start to undermine the Liberal Party’s efforts to use the threat of job losses as a block to action on climate change. It can highlight that they care more about the profits of the mining bosses than the lives of their workers. The Australian climate movement faces huge obstacles — the need to get rid of not just ScoMo but the system he represents — and there is a lot to do to involve more workers and their unions. But there is much that people around the world can learn from them.


'The ruling Liberal Party is still full of climate deniers'

Caitlin Doyle

Scientists and fire experts have been warning the Liberal-National coalition government for years that the periods of heat and years of drought that the country has experienced would likely lead to a catastrophic bushfire season. These warnings were all but ignored.

After initially denying any connection with climate change, prime minister Scott Morrison has been forced to admit the fires have been fuelled by a global rise in temperatures. But rather than commit to immediately cutting Australia’s carbon emissions, which are the second-highest per capita in the world, Morrison insists his government is already doing “more than its fair share” to fight global warming.

Australia’s emissions reached a new high in 2019, but the government has stuck to its pathetic target of a 26 percent reduction by 2030. The Coalition is now trying to shift attention away from the question of climate, focusing instead on “resilience and rebuilding”.

At the end of December, Morrison deployed the reserve army to evacuate towns and assist fire-fighting efforts, and has now committed $2 billion for recovery. But this money comes after years of cuts to fire services and land management bodies, carried out by both the Federal and New South Wales state governments, which have loudly celebrated their “budget surpluses”.

This commitment to neoliberal policies of cuts and privatisations has compounded the climate-driven bushfire crisis enormously.

While the Coalition is now focusing on the need for land management, they have sacked the people most capable of carrying out this work. Between 2011 and 2019, the NSW government slashed the number of park rangers from 289 to 201, and in 2017 it cut the Parks and Wildlife budget by $121 million.

It has also ignored calls to fund traditional back-burning practices run by Aboriginal people, which have been proven to reduce the severity of fires, or to employ Aboriginal people as rangers on their traditional lands.

Requests by the fires services for more resources, including the expansion of its aerial fleet, went unheeded for years.

Disgracefully, the majority of fire-fighting has been carried out by unpaid volunteers. Many have worked for weeks without pay and five have died in the blazes so far. Bowing to public pressure, Morrison eventually agreed to compensate volunteers by up to $6,000, but many are unable to access this.

And yet, when the reserve army was deployed, Morrison was quick to reassure businesses they would be compensated for any losses incurred by absentee staff as a result.

Detention centre

Despite its insistence on the need to reduce spending, the government has managed to find billions of dollars to incarcerate refugees both onshore and offshore over the years. In the last year it has spent more than $26 million holding a single Tamil refugee family in a detention centre on Christmas Island.

It is clear the Australian government is more concerned with ensuring the profits of businesses and maintaining its racist border regime than it is with protecting people’s lives and the planet.

Far from pulling back from carbon intensive industries, the Federal government subsidises the fossil fuel industries in Australia to the tune of $29 billion a year, according to an IMF report. It has continued to approve new fossil fuel projects and now wants to extend the lives of dirty coal-fired power stations.

The ruling Liberal Party is still full of climate deniers. Federal minister Craig Kelly, who founded ‘Parliamentary Friends of Coal’, appeared on the BBC denying a connection between the fires and climate change.

And in a sickening display of the government’s racism towards its Pacific Island neighbours deputy PM, Michael McCormack, said last year, “I also get a little bit annoyed when we have people in those sorts of countries pointing the finger at Australia and say we should be shutting down all our resources sector so that, you know, they will continue to survive.”

Unfortunately the Labor opposition has been unwilling to call for serious action on climate. But a call for a transition away from fossil fuels is not only necessary – it could be enormously popular. Publicly owned renewable energy, an expanded public transport system and proper land management could generate thousands of new jobs.

But the truth is, the Morrison government is in thrall of a powerful fossil fuel industry that is hardwired into Australian capitalism. Mining companies exported $26 billion worth of coal and $49 billion of gas last year and they want to export more. Around 75 per cent of Australia’s energy comes from coal, the biggest polluting industry by far.

To get real action on climate change — to prevent catastrophes like we have seen with the fires — we will need to build a movement powerful enough to confront Australian capitalism and demand that the future of the planet comes before corporate profits.

Caitlin Doyle is a climate activist and a member of Solidarity in Sydney, Australia