The second stanza of Dorothea Mackellar’s My Country is widely known in Australia. In a summer which has seen catastrophic fires, dust and thunderstorms along with flooding our leadership has been tested to the limit.
The bushfires were so cataclysmic they even developed their own weather system. The estimated cost to the country is $5 billion in direct losses and a 0.2 to 0.5 per cent loss to economic growth. Billions of animals have perished, lives have been lost, homes and businesses destroyed.
The Federal Government has a number of financial relief programs in place for individuals, businesses, primary producers and the tourism industry. However, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government continue to face global scrutiny over his handling of the crisis, the economy and climate change policies. Mr Morrison’s approval rating bucked the trend of leaders going up during times of crisis, instead decreasing with voters seeing him as “out of touch and arrogant”. The premiers of states affected including New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s and Victorian’s Daniel Andrews performed strongly. Federal Opposition leader Anthony Albanese has sustained a 11-point increase in his approval rating.
The PM’s leadership style has made headlines internationally for all the wrong reasons throughout this crisis, while social media has mobilised millions, bringing greater debate around the coalition’s environmental policies. The Sco-Mo term of endearment has morphed into the patronising hashtag #Scottyfrommarketing, which has its made way into the Australian political vernacular. Furthermore, we have witnessed protests around the country demanding climate action.
Many claim the Morrison Government have been too late to acknowledge the reported link between our worst ever bushfire season and climate change. Others say the Federal Government ignored warnings of a horror season ahead. The coalition’s climate policies have also caused dissidence amongst its ranks with Science Minister Karen Andrews among those to speak out.
The Australian public and global community have continued to vilify the PM and the Coalition suggesting that they have failed to lead as what was seen as Australia’s climate D-Day arrived. Australia’s leading International aid groups joined forces to issue a plea with the government to address climate change, concerned it’s a human rights issue.
Dozens of national and global organisations, from the Climate Council to the CSIRO had predicted the perfect storm of elements to fan the blazes this season. In 2011 the CSIRO published a report identifying the “potential effects of climate change on fire regimes and fire management”, suggesting as environmental conditions change, so too should Australia’s preparedness and willingness to act. Furthermore, the 2008 Garnaut Climate Change Review found that without adequate action Australia would battle more frequent and intense bushfire season by 2020, sighting both the catastrophic economic and environment impacts.
Likewise, Australia’s scorched history has the luxury of hindsight. The Black Saturday Fires occurred only a decade ago with a Royal Commission held to mitigate the chances of a bushfire of this devastation occurring again.
In early 2019, the Lowy Institute reported that 64 per cent of Australians rank climate change as the top of ‘critical threat’ to Australia’s over the next decade. Ranked above international terrorism and North Korea’s nuclear program as a threat to Australia’s national security, the climate crisis has been dominating the public agenda.
Australian business leaders are also concerned about the fallout of climate change. Deloitte surveyed more than 2000 c-suite executives across 19 countries. It found 81 per cent of Australian executives believe their businesses will be adversely affected by climate change compared to an international average of 48 per cent.
However, looking beyond the carnage and media sensationalism, it is vital to remember the profound solidarity, generosity and compassion Australia has received from its own and the international community. Courageous leadership has been exercised each day the fires burned and in the aftermath. From volunteer firefighters, emergency service personnel to local citizens encouraging neighbours to evacuate, whistle-blowing scientists, and those organising fundraisers. There are so many stories of people who have found themselves thrust into leadership positions out of necessity and thrived.
From the experience we must all learn. For Australia to rebuild, recuperate and regenerate, it will require a form of collaborative leadership that looks to the long-term and strikes a balance between the environment and the economy. The ramifications of this disaster on communities and leadership will no doubt be felt for years to come.