Bushfires a turning point for the regional working class

There is a vast swathe of the population out there who have been left behind by Australian capitalism. Relatively economically disadvantaged and geographically peripheral, these communities are assailed by various forces. We now see that the pain of the climate crisis is hurting them first and most severely.

Watching the residents of Cobargo give Scott Morrison a rightly deserved haranguing illustrates something important - the regional working class is consistently an overlooked group in Australian society. It is also a group that gets the short end of the stick within Australian capitalism. 

This bushfire crisis is being interpreted differently by different groups. There is a broad consensus across Australia that Scott Morrison has failed to appropriately respond. However, there appears to be two discussions about the causes of the fires. Many interpret the fires as a signal event that the climate crisis is upon Australia. However a substantial fraction of the regional working class appears to interpret the fires as arising from excessive fuel loads and an insufficiency in hazard reduction burning - with some extending that to apportion blame to people with green politics, suggesting that Greens oppose hazard reduction burning.

This is unsubstantiated. Of course, the Greens’ policy on hazard reduction burning is not to oppose it - but to incorporate the knowledge of First Nations who have been undertaking this practice for millennia. It is also not within their power to implement any restrictions on hazard reduction burning, as they are consistently a minority party with no legislative power.

This has not stopped Miranda Devine and Barnaby Joyce peddling such theories. We should wonder if Australia’s regional working class is analogous to America’s rust belt - an economically disaffected group that feels condescended to by what they perceive to be metropolitan elites. We should worry how dark forces such as the hard Right and their well-financed propagandist friends in News Corp intend to take advantage of such disaffection.

We know that wealth and incomes tend to be lower in the regions, and we know that public services are more limited. We know that job opportunities are much scarcer, and that the regions have been hurt by Australia’s manufacturing decline over recent decades. We know that those impacted by regional industrial decline are subject to punitive conditions to receive unemployment benefits. We also know that public health outcomes are poorer in the regions. We know that many communities have aging demographics and stagnant or declining populations as the young people from these communities are forced to leave in search of greater opportunities. There is spatial inequality between the cities and the regions in terms of wealth and incomes, and there is a two-speed economy in terms of growth.

Now the climate crisis bears down on these communities harder than anyone else, their geographical position exposing them to the new fire regime. It is easy to see how the climate crisis amplifies spatial inequality - regional businesses destroyed or closed for weeks, tourist locations deprived of essential holidaymakers in the summer season. Homes and property destroyed, rendered uninsurable or insurable at a very high premium. Even for communities at low risk of fire damage, drought impacts severely on regional communities that function as agricultural hubs. This opens up the possibility of regional communities falling into (or further into) localised recessions and depressions.

Any person on the centre left to the radical left of politics with a sense of both history and the gravity of the climate crisis should see the risk here. We should consider why young neo-Nazis have felt that the NSW Young Nationals is an opportune space for them to pursue entryist tactics.

Part of addressing this is articulating a policy strategy that speaks to the needs of the regions. A Green New Deal speaks to a just transition for communities dependent on fossil fuel industries, and it could also speak to spatial inequality and the two-speed economy in general. We must have a vision to invest in regional communities on an unprecedented scale. It must democratically involve local voices as to what specific needs and hopes that investment addresses for each specific community.

Beyond policy, progressive organisations interested in building and supporting movements for social change need to be in direct dialogue with regional communities. Where possible, they should develop and empower people from regional communities in their own internal structures. People are more open to messages and ideas when they are shared by people who come from communities like their own.

This is a serious issue. We should devote attention to it. There is a vast swathe of the population out there who have been left behind by Australian capitalism. Relatively economically disadvantaged and geographically peripheral, these communities are assailed by various forces. We now see that the pain of the climate crisis is hurting them first and most severely.

To witness the proliferation of baseless conspiracy theories that argue the Greens hold moral responsibility for the 2019/2020 bushfire crisis within these communities should terrify us. Inversely, we do see regional communities correctly identify that Scott Morrison and the Liberal Party have deprived their communities of the aid they require and Rural Fire Service of the public investment it needs to meet the challenge.

I posit that the following are important questions for Australia’s progressive and socialist left to consider: as we continue through the 21st century, what set of ideas will the majority of the regional working class adopt to explain their experiences? What action might they take?

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    commented on Bushfire crisis 2020-01-13 23:45:55 +1100
    Thanks Chris. This is a terrific discussion starter. There is a regional labour council network that may be keen on a discussion like this.
    published Bushfire crisis in SEARCH News 2020-01-09 13:10:55 +1100