Socialist Views on Australia's Bushfire Crisis

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The dramatic and shocking scenes of the Australian bushfires could not fail to have moved anyone watching them on the news. Here are two commentaries by Australian socialists


by Katherine Bradstreet
From Green Left Weekly

The heatwave across south-eastern Australia in recent weeks has given a hint of what we can expect as global temperatures continue to rise: black-outs, fatalities and transport chaos as privatised infrastructure fails.

Throughout South Australia and Victoria, thousands of homes were left without electricity as demand soared, overwhelming the existing grid. Melbourne’s rail system collapsed into chaos as temperatures reached over 40°C.

Both states have seen a sharp increase in deaths as a result of the heatwave, with Adelaide’s central morgue quite literally overflowing — the “excess” cadavers were stored temporarily in a refrigerated freight container.

University of Adelaide climate scientist Barry Brook put this tragedy into perspective on his blog on February 3. He pointed out that more people are thought to have died due to heat stress in the last week than died in the infamous Ash Wednesday Bushfires in 1983.

This was before the bushfires that raged out of control in rural Victoria, described by Victorian Premier John Brumby as the worst ever in the state’s history. By February 8, more than 200,000 hectares had been affected in over 400 fires and the confirmed death toll stood at 65 people.

At least 650 homes have been destroyed, with the small town of Marysville being almost completely razed, with an estimated 80% of building burned down.

Climate change

What do such unusual and extreme weather events tell us about global warming? Climate scientists, activists and media sources like Green Left Weekly, among others, continue repeating that key climate tipping points are being crossed right now.

It’s not something we will only have to think about in the future. Urgent action is required immediately, because runaway climate change threatens life itself.

So can we say that climate change is at least partly responsible for those deaths? And do the politicians and corporate interests who are resisting sustainable change also bear some responsibility?

What we can say with certainty is that the temperatures reached are exceedingly unlikely based on past meterological data. Previous records tumbled across the south and south-east of the country.

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology released a report, Special Climate Statement 17, on February 4, which documented what it described as an “exceptional heatwave”.

Tasmania experienced seven of the eight highest temperatures on record; Adelaide reached 45.7C°, the third highest on record and had it’s highest overnight minimum temperature of 33.9°C; Melbourne peaked at 45.1°C, with the maximum temperature staying above 40°C and minimums staying above 30°C for three consecutive days — the first time this has happened since records were kept.

Extreme weather events have occurred in the past. It simply isn’t possible to attribute any one unusual event to climate change.

But at the same time, the scientific evidence for global warming is conclusive, and the predictions of its impacts include a far greater number of intense heatwaves.

Brook argues that the likelihood that climate change is responsible for Adelaide’s heatwave is very high. He pointed out that 10 months ago Adelaide suffered another unprecedented heatwave — 15 days in a row with the maximum temperature exceeding 35°C.

He calculated the chances of Adelaide having two such extreme weather events so close together. The odds are that it should occur just once every 1.2 million years.

Along with the heat-stress related deaths, the heatwave threw some of Australia’s most inefficient, privatised infrastructure into disarray.

Transport meltdown

In Melbourne, the private rail operator Connex was already blaming the heat for train cancellations on January 18, despite the temperature clocking in at a moderate 25°C.

Between January 28 and January 30, more than 1000 trains were canceled; including at one stage, all services on eight metropolitan lines. On January 30 alone, 740 trains — a third of those scheduled — did not run, leaving thousands of commuters stranded for up to an hour and a half on scorching hot platforms.

Dr Paul Mees, a transport planning lecturer at RMIT, told the 7.30 Report on January 29 that “privatisation is the culprit. We’re becoming the international benchmark for failed privatisation of urban public transport systems”.

Currently, Melbourne is the only capital city which has fully privatised it’s metropolitan rail system. The Victorian state government still maintains the network infrastructure.

Transport minister Lynne Kosky told the Victorian State Parliament on February 5, that the government spends $80 million a year on rail maintenance and that this would increase to $120 million by the end of 2009.

But this public spending is dwarfed by the annual government subsidy of $345 million per year made out to Connex directly — more than half of the $589 million revenue Connex took in 2007.

A 2006 report by urban planning academics titled Putting the public interest back into public transport, Victoria’s privatised public transport system cost taxpayers $1.2 billion more than if it had remained state-owned.

So not only is it outrageous that people have to put up with regular delays and cancellations, but Melbourne’s privatised transport is costing taxpayers more!

While the government has pointed the finger at the “once-in-a-century” heatwave as the sole cause of the problem, Connex executive chairperson Jonathan Metcalfe tried to shift the blame to train drivers in the Rail, Train and Bus Union.

In January, he accused drivers of causing up to 80% of train cancellations by refusing to drive trains with no air-conditioning, broken locks and other “minor” faults.

But his attempted buck-passing has not stemmed growing public anger at his company.

In the 1920s, trains left Flinders Street Station, one of Melbourne’s main stations, more frequently than they do today.

Public transport use in Melbourne has increased by 70% in last 10 years, but there has been only a 9% increase in services and hardly any new trains running in peak hours.

In fact, between 2002 and 2005, Melbourne’s excess trains were sold off for scrap despite increasing demand for public transport.

It is not just the public train system that is unable to cope with extreme heat; during the heatwave hundreds of thousands of homes in Victoria and South Australia experienced blackouts as the electricity grid failed in numerous places and supply was shut off for up to an hour to cope with the demand.

Five hundred thousand homes in western Melbourne and regional Victoria were left without power following an explosion at an electrical substation.

The power-failures may also have contributed to the significant increase in heat-related deaths. On February 3, the Victorian State Coroner announced that there had been almost two and a half times more deaths in the last week of January than the same time last year.

Jane Castle from the Total Environment Centre and one of the authors of the Rule Change Package, a proposal to reduce greenhouse emissions and electricity costs, has said the current energy system is hurting consumers and the environment Australia-wide.

“Regulators plan to approve a $17 billion spending spree in NSW alone by networks bent on expanding the grid. To pay for this, Energy Australia’s customers in Sydney and Newcastle are facing increases in network prices of over 70%”, she said.

Stopping climate change

This raises the question of whether privately owned energy and transport infrastructure is compatible with the need to transform our economy along sustainable lines. Can energy and transport be organised for profit and be sustainable?

Should the companies who profit most from the status quo be allowed to dictate the pace of environmental change, as they do today?

Increasingly, climate activists will need to confront these issues. Such is the urgency required to deal with the climate emergency, that direct government intervention and investment will be necessary to make the transition possible.

If essential services remain in private hands, then profit, rather than the needs of people and planet, will continue to determine what decisions get made.

The huge amount of money that privitisation costs taxpayers would be better put towards expanding and improving public transport, and to start a rapid transition to renewable energy sources.

Even if emissions were slashed tomorrow, the science indicates that there will still be a high likelihood of temperature rises and significant changes to existing weather patterns.

If the existing systems can’t even cope with the conditions we are seeing now, then it can be assumed they will fail even more disastrously in the future — unless we can organise and pressure the government to act.



by Anthony Main
From A Very Public Sociologist

The death toll from Victoria’s bushfires, in south eastern Australia, currently stands at 170 and could rise – this is Australia’s worst natural disaster, much worse than the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983 when 47 people died.

The dead include retired Channel 9 newsreader Brian Naylor and his wife. Dozens more people are suffering from serious burns and smoke inhalation. On top of the tragic deaths and injuries, more than 750 homes have been destroyed and at least 330,000 hectares of land has been burnt. Residents have compared the scenes to the aftermath of a nuclear war.

The bushfire disaster has shown some of the best examples of human solidarity coupled with some of the worst examples of the failure of a profit driven system. Heroic stories of ordinary people saving the lives of strangers are just starting to emerge. One off duty nurse has told of having to administer first aid to burns victims in a makeshift shelter because help failed to arrive.

Temperatures across eastern Australia soared into the high 40’s (degrees celsius) over the weekend. The heat was unbearable in the urban centres but it was like hell on earth in rural areas where one resident described it as “raining flames”. At one stage more than 400 fires were blazing in every part of Victoria and almost 60 fires were also burning across New South Wales.

The drought of recent years, and higher temperatures due to climate change, has led to a marked increase in the amount of bush fires. Victoria has recorded its lowest rainfall levels on record which has meant that bush undergrowth is bone dry. While there is no doubt that the drought has contributed to the bushfires, it is also true that much of the devastation could have been prevented.

The State and Federal governments have attempted to lay the blame for the fires on arsonists. While a few of the fires may well have been started by ‘fire bugs’ the vast majority were a result of the extreme conditions. The question is did the State and Federal governments do everything in their power to mitigate the worst effects of the fires?

For years rural communities like those in Gippsland, Kinglake and Bendigo have been hit hard by cuts to services. It has not just been cuts to health, education and transport but fire fighting and emergency services budgets have also been slashed. There is a severe shortage of doctors, nurses and emergency services staff in rural areas and this cost people their lives in a time of crisis.

At a national level government spending on bushfire research is less than $2 million a year. In Victoria the Labor State government only allocates a measly $252 million a year for rural fire prevention. For a country covered with bush and prone to extreme weather this is totally inadequate.

Cuts and Lack of Investment

On top of the cuts and lack of investment in prevention, rural fire fighting relies almost entirely on unpaid volunteers. The Victorian Country Fire Authority (CFA) website states that the “CFA is one of the world’s largest volunteer-based emergency services. There are around 58,000 volunteer members supported by over 400 career fire fighters and officers and more than 700 career support and administrative staff.”

While the work of these volunteers is nothing short of amazing, the idea that less than 2% of those who fight fires in Victoria are full time professionals is a sick joke. There needs to be a massive expansion of full time professional fire fighting staff. These skilled workers need to be paid decent wages to reflect the important work that they do. Those who do the job on a part time or casual basis should also be paid proper wages.

Many of the lives, homes and natural environment that have been lost could have been saved if proper resources were made available. Blaming arsonists is just a diversionary tactic by the government. The main reason that money is not made available is because, at the moment, decisions are being made on the basis of dollars and not sense. A system based on the short term, and geared to profit, is incapable of mitigating the worst effects of bush fires. In fact capitalism has made this disaster far worse than it needed to be.

That is why if we really want to reduce the risk of death and destruction from natural disaster, it is urgent we fight to put an end to the profit driven system of capitalism. We need a system based on human solidarity, co-operation and democracy, the types of qualities that working people have instinctively shown during this disaster.


  • After reading the results of the Brush Fires and results of Globel Warming it is discouraging, to say the least, to read the American press and realize there are some who refuse to acknowlege that we have a real and dangerous problem on our hands.

  • The Australian Socialist Alliance has also put out a statement on the fires:

    Victorian fire tragedy highlights scale of global warming emergency and need for real action

    Socialist Alliance statement
    February 11, 2009

    Like all people across Australia Socialist Alliance members have been devastated by the Victorian bushfire tragedy, the greatest disaster in peace-time Australian history.

    We express our condolences to and solidarity with all who have lost family, friends and homes in this shocking holocaust, made worse by the possibility that some of these fires were deliberately lit.

    We salute the efforts of Victorian Country Fire Authority workers and all volunteers who have sacrificed time, effort and security and done everything in their power to halt the ravages of the fires. Emergency service workers battled for up to 30 hours without sleep trying to control the infernos, help the injured, and attend to the thousands left homeless.

    The Victorian Labor government has called a Royal Commission into the tragedy. If that commission listens carefully to firefighters, emergency personnel and bush communities it will learn many truths, including that emergency services are severely underfunded, fire breaks and forest access tracks should be better maintained and high-risk areas better patrolled.

    The commission must also ask why, in the middle of an unprecedented heat wave, after years of drought and predictions of extreme climate events, little seems to have been done to prepare for a disaster that was waiting to happen.

    However, the commission will be a waste of time if it refuses to confront the underlying cause of the Victorian bushfire disaster—accelerating global warming and climate disruption.

    The reality of climate emergency, which has been explained for years by eminent scientists, has been denied or downplayed by the mainstream politicians, or “treated” with completely inadequate policies like the Rudd government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

    The record temperatures in Melbourne and in many parts of southeastern Australia last Saturday cannot be explained simply by natural variability. The hottest 14 years on record have occurred in the last 20 years.

    Far from being a “one-in-a-thousand-years event” claimed by Victorian premier John Brumby, bushfires like those in Victoria have been multiplying as average temperatures rise across eastern Australia. Extreme fire weather situations of mid-40s heat and strong winds have been increasing in frequency over the last ten years, and will continue to do so as climate change worsens.

    In the words of a Bureau of Meteorology colleague quoted by University of Adelaide climate scientist Professor Barry Brook: “Climate change is now becoming such a strong contributor to these hitherto unimaginable events that the language starts to change from one of ‘climate change increased the chances of an event’ to ‘without climate change this event could not have occurred’.

    The Socialist Alliance calls for greater resources for fire fighting and prevention, and appropriate land management, in the wake of this tragedy. However, the best and bravest fire-fighting in the world will be impotent before infernos like those that devastated country Victoria last weekend unless underlying causes are tackled.

    Along with a serious effort at all levels of government to assess and mitigate the impact of global warming on our bush and country towns, Australia needs to invest billions of dollars in a “green New Deal” to cut its greenhouse gas emissions and to lead the way internationally by following the lead of programs like Al Gore’s call for 100% renewable energy by 2020.

    The dreadful Victorian bushfires—like the disastrous floods in Queensland—are a dire warning that government cannot afford to ignore what the climate scientists tell them or to “balance” their views against those of the fossil fuel lobby. Global warming underlies this awful tragedy and the continued ignoring of scientific opinion about the climate emergency can only contribute to more such disasters.

    Information: Sue Bolton 0413 377 978