As the last SEARCH News edition went to print, the Prime Minister was still in Hawaii, and the threat of bushfires was still nascent. The government was coming under pressure from the ‘sports rorts’ affair and perennial internal division over climate policy. Things have deteriorated rapidly since then.
Just as we are dealing with the political, psychological and physical fallout of the fires, a new threat in the form of novel coronavirus is exposing the ineptitude of the government, and the fragility of our economic system.
The government’s mishandling of the fires is sapping confidence it can deal with the impact of a pandemic. There are some foreboding signs in the panic buying here in Australia, but perhaps more worrying is the way Italy’s healthcare system is in crisis. If a ‘developed’ nation is pushed to breaking point, what might happen here? And just as climate change is hitting the poorest hardest worldwide, a global pandemic would be disastrous for people without access to good medical care.
We have every right to suspect the governing and economic elite are incapable of rising to the challenge a pandemic would present. Morrison has announced a $2.7 billion ‘health package’, that represents more of a band-aid than a permanent fix. Its stimulus package, worth short of $18 billion, may support lagging demand, but it certainly won’t get the Australian economy firing on all cylinders. The US Federal Reserve’s injection of $1.5 trillion into the financial system has benefited only the banks and makes a mockery of the claim that cancelling student debt or providing services would ‘be bad for the economy’.
Similarly the Morrison government’s $2 billion for a National Bushfire Relief Fund goes nowhere near meeting the cost of the devastation. Economist John Quiggin estimates the cost at $100 billion, based on previous fires such as Black Saturday in Victoria, making it Australia’s costliest natural disaster.
Harder to quantify is the psychological and political fallout of these crises. No doubt people in the front line - firefighters and health care workers - will be hard hit. Many of those not directly affected, except perhaps by the saturation news coverage, have ominous feelings that things have changed forever. Self-isolation and fatalism over the coronavirus has followed closely after the feeling that due to fires and smoke summer is no longer a time of fun and leisure but dread and loss.
What of the politics? In relation to the fires, the right started a disinformation campaign about ‘Greens stopping backburning’ and even ‘anarchists starting fires’. These had the effect of heartening the partisans on the right, and may have had some traction in regional areas, as Christopher Warren wrote for the SEARCH News website in January. One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts has claimed that the run on toilet paper is a taste of ‘Socialism!’, despite the very obvious reality that this is all happening under capitalism.
However the right have certainly not had it all their own way. The anger at ‘SmoKo’ for being in Hawaii merged with anger at inaction on climate change, and protests at Kirribilli House and on the streets in other centres were large and vocal. The fears of a pandemic are likely to dampen rather than rouse large protests, so any underlying anger may find other ways to emerge.
Whether this anger ‘sticks’ and leads to change in policy is still in question. The activist answer to that, is of course, ‘it’s up to us to make sure it does’. To that end, SEARCH is making climate and environment action our priority - see your emails for ways you can contribute, including to our next Members Discussion Bulletin on that issue. Also check in regularly on the SEARCH Facebook page for info on upcoming events and actions - many of which will now be online.
The best antidote to fear and despair has always been action and solidarity - we’ll need it now as much as ever.