I’m looking for Prime Minister Scott Morrison during this fire crisis. I’ve been expecting to see him by the ruins of houses, meeting and talking with survivors, visiting towns and even answering questions of journalists.
I thought he’d go into overdrive trying to be present in the worst hit areas, since disappearing for an ill-timed overseas holiday during those horror days prior to Christmas.
But here we are and the disaster’s gotten even worse across multiple states. More lives lost. More homes and businesses ruined. Entire towns now unrecognisable.
The Prime Minister’s still yet to be seen in any meaningful way and conclusions are that he’s either afraid of what questions might be asked — videos shared via social media are easier — or he doesn’t care enough to believe the physical appearance of national leadership is needed beyond what the states can offer.
But that response and the questions required of it, is needed now.
I saw the small South Coast town of my in laws’ house that we visited over New Year turn to night at 4pm on New Years Eve. Circled by fire, it thankfully didn’t come under direct threat but the terrifying approach of skies filled with black smoke, the falling ash and burnt leaves, were sickening symbols of what was being lost just a few kilometres away, and then further South again stretching all the way into Victoria.
This is the situation in Mallacoota at the moment. A mother and her kids are sheltering in their boat on the water. People are reporting the sound of gas bottles exploding in town and quite a few homes have been burnt. @abcmelbourne #gippsnews #gippslandfires pic.twitter.com/XhS5SVvgqX
— Nicole Asher (@Nic_Asher) December 31, 2019
With multiple fires in those areas still burning (only significant rain will put these monsters out), these towns and the wider region are now bracing for another day of extreme heat and horrendous conditions this Saturday. We saw panic buying in supermarkets, people waiting in cars in lines to turn down roads that we were told would not open for days. Communications cut off.
Over the past two days we’ve now heard brilliant responses from town mayors, local and state fire authorities, and from emergency response teams. On our televisions and radios, we’ve seen the reporters — the ABC somehow has them everywhere — we’ve seen various state premiers over and over again, and of course the fire chiefs.
But what we haven’t seen is anything significant from the Federal Government.
There was the New Year message from Morrison, what appeared to be a smart phone recorded video shared on how we’ve “faced this” before, where a year of drought and fires were acknowledged but we should celebrate living “in the most amazing country on earth”. I counted six tweets from Morrison on December 31, but nothing on January 1 as the true extent of the day’s destruction became clearer.
We need substance. We need a willingness to get in front of reporters, a desire to see firsthand the devastation.
We need more than marketing spin that aims to placate people into believing there’s nothing to worry about, and more than sad attempts at reassurance.
We need more than photo opportunities, more than references to ‘mateship’ and lines that aim to spin out the ‘how goods’ of Australian life.
“Whatever our trials, whatever disasters have befallen us, we have never succumbed to panic. And we will not do this now in the face of the current fire crisis,” Morrison said.
“The generations of Australians that went before us, including our First Australians, also faced natural disasters, floods, fires, global conflicts, disease and drought.”
It’s not enough. We need strong national leadership during this crisis. Leadership that’s visible, not hidden behind social media and smart phone screens. Leadership that can not only answer questions regarding the immediate response and relief efforts, but also questions about why this is happening now and what, if anything, can be done to mitigate the worst of this in the future. Questions about how our unique and precious landscapes might be succumbing to the worst of the changing climate before our very eyes — and why that should finally be enough to step out onto the global stage and declare this new decade is the time for real action.
If now’s not the time to “succumb to the panic”, when is?
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As the year closes the devastating impact of the terrible bushfires continues. Last night we lost another brave volunteer firefighter, Sam McPaul from the Morven Brigade. Today I have extended my deepest sympathies to his family and assured them of the support of all Australians. We are expecting more difficult news out of the Victorian and NSW fires today. We thank all those who continue to show their courage and selflessness in protecting our communities.