Thursday, January 23, 2020

After fire, smoke and hail, can we hope to find common ground?

In the wake of the South Coast fires that ravaged Mogo and Cobargo and other towns, are stories about the lamentable loss of Aboriginal heritage sites.

When sympathetically raised with an Aboriginal leader, I was reminded that all Australians lost sites that mattered to them.

Whether it's pilgrim huts in the Alpine region, shell middens on the coast, or species brought to the brink of extinction, the bushfire carnage represents a shared loss, and one that can never fully be measured in dollars.

Across cultures, there is a deep sadness that children will not enjoy places of historic and natural beauty in the same way that their parents and elders did, recognising that all of us have spiritual connections to place.

The bushfire disaster and this coming weekend's Australia Day both happen to fall in the Christian season of "epiphany", a word which for Christians refers to the revelation or appearance of Christ, and in more common usage refers to a sudden and striking realisation.

This Australia Day/Invasion Day/Survival Day offers an opportunity for a sudden and striking realisation about common ground - as the ground has shifted for all of us.

This summer, when we should have been losing ourselves down by the coast, we have instead travelled in time and space and found ourselves landing and grieving in another country. There is no name for where we are now.

In the new country we will have to find a language to discuss and resolve our shared values if we are to protect what we love. Among other things we will have to consider adopting the wisdom of Aboriginal agriculture and fire management.

Across Canberra last Sunday churches marked "Aboriginal Sunday" - a day suggested by Aboriginal leader William Cooper to remember and celebrate Indigenous peoples in advance of Australia Day.

It's a reminder that the #changethedate movement isn't new, nor calls to adopt Indigenous land practice. Cooper put forward his idea in 1940.

Reconciliation follows acknowledgement and both take time because humans can be slow to recognise truths that shatter the world they've known.

Explaining why so many people continued to deny that the climate is changing, a senior public servant told me it was analogous to having the symptoms of cancer but refusing to see a doctor for confirmation. It would confirm the worst.

This summer has not only helped confirm the worst, it has provided an opportunity to talk about the shared future we want.

On climate, things cannot go on as they have been, just as how in school when I learnt about the displacement and massacres of Aboriginal people, I couldn't go on celebrating Australia Day as I had done before.

It's been said that what you study, you become.

Many of Australia's politicians have spent a lot of time studying how to win (with things such as sports rorts) rather than how to find common ground.

Finding common ground will mean rejecting false divisions: jobs versus environment, wildlife versus farming, keeping on the lights versus reducing emissions. The issues are connected, as are we to each other and trusted public services from the Rural Fire Service to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

It'll mean one government refraining from slapping down the environment minister of another. It'll mean abandoning the false divide between "enlightened and woke capital-city greenies" and Australians in the country. It'll mean checking tribal tendencies, including on social media.

Federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese has been using measured language, which is a good sign. Focused on a wicked problem, it's not naive to expect elected officials are prepared to give up something; combat with their opponents, even an addiction to corporate donations (by far the largest donors are miners). While there's a lot of talk about "adaptation", it's a smokescreen if the Coalition won't adapt itself.

The bushfire crisis might have polarised us further. Essential Media's analysis of its January opinion poll suggests we are "Trumpian": "when the leader is objectively at his weakest, his supporters lock in hard, grabbing on to whatever they need to maintain their worldview".

Our common enemy - climate change - demands we work together to find somber and sensible solutions. Finding them requires diverse voices and being open minded.

If not now, when the shock and stress of this bushfire season (and a freak hail event) is real, then when?

First published in The Canberra Times, Thursday January 23, 2020
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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Australia's bushfire emergency 'like world war three'

I've been glued to the news for days, restless, easily distracted, feeling helpless. I want to stay informed but at times, it's too much.

A bloke on the south coast of New South Wales summed it up on Sunday night. ‘It was like world war three’. With rising anxiety, the threat of losing the lot, blackened daytime skies and scared small children wearing masks and adults holding their breath, it was. The enemy, fire, has been acting for months but the last few days have been truly frightening.

These are difficult times, hours that have challenged and tested the very rhythm of everyday life - at a time of year when most of us are on holiday, usually snatching time for rest and play.

These days have demanded leaders with empathy, respect and wisdom.

Monday, exactly twelve days after Christmas is known as the Epiphany. It remembers the journey of the Magi - the three wise men - to Bethlehem.

Many of us have had our own very personal epiphanies this season; searing experiences that have moved the ground from under us. Australia feels like a different place. It's all so surreal.

Among many stories of courage and loss is a collective epiphany about our fragility living on the driest and most flammable continent; about our vulnerability in the face of not just fire but shocking and persistent smoke that burns the eyes, triggers headaches and numbs our lungs. You don't appreciate good air until it's gone.

Might Scott Morrison have had his own epiphany?

After his ill-judged Hawaii holiday and a slow start, he has committed large sums to rebuild devastated communities but there has been little or no discussion of what's needed to prevent further loss of health and life, moving climate health into the mainstream.

Will he now recalibrate his government’s approach on climate change? Truths he has struggled to own or found uncomfortable have become undeniable. As we’ve heard for years, if governments at all levels don’t act, the costs of acting later will be much greater. Hope of action with an epiphany will rely on distancing himself from his mining mates.

Morrison, I get, is not the fall guy. The disaster has been a generation in the making and the entire system, the way our democracy has worked against the collective interest, is a big part of the problem.

Public anger has been palpable.

But it would have been nice to have heard and seen humility at the outset -- 'I hear you, I feel for you, I will work with you' Maybe even, 'Sorry, I was wrong'.

Poor leadership is the kind that denies what is happening to people until it’s too late, it runs over them. Good leadership anticipates change, shares information generously and empowers people to take control of what they can.

As victims of these fires describe war-like conditions, is it too much to hope for what often happens in war — an emergency response that transcends political divides?

We need a federal government that is less about winning but one that values our democracy and understands our deep interdependence with the environment and each other.

The fires have also been a powerful reminder that we rely on each other.

It's shown that we are stronger together.

Friends living near Braidwood in New South Wales would not have had their house saved without the stoic volunteer work of fire fighters and the shelter of others’ homes to ride out their fears. Fire fighters can't do it without the support of their families and the generosity of those offering care between shifts. Donations flowing towards bushfire relief have been phenomenal.

Social media has connected us to vital information, been a lifeline to many, and offered a place to vent (whatever etiquette there was on Twitter disappeared in recent days). But the web-world has also contributed to a long and regretful trend that has hollowed out volunteerism, reduced our membership to real world and inter-generational groups from unions to school and parent groups defined by a spirit to give for a greater good. The trend has contributed to high levels of disconnection, loneliness and sadness.

Expressing rage on Twitter about the political class or clicking on an online petition without actual commitment or sacrifice only takes us so far.

The not-for-profit groups that we do have need more of us to work for the change we want to see, to make our communities safer, happier and fairer, to reboot our democracy. I have heard of a rush of applications from grateful people, seeking to join the Rural Fire Service, which is heartening.

Still charity and volunteerism is only part of the picture. It can be a proxy for people in power to avoid their responsibility. The mantra of conservative politics - smaller government, fewer services, individual responsibility - diminishes the responsibilities of the Commonwealth, and denies the importance of strong public everything. Good public health, challenged during heavy bushfire smoke, needs sustained effort at local and national level to ensure a quality of life for all citizens regardless of their wealth.

Natural disasters magnify existing social problems and inequalities.

As with earlier bushfire disasters including in Canberra in 2003, it is people already living with disadvantage who will suffer the most.

Study after study has shown that the capacity of households to recover from natural disasters is closely linked to its financial situation and access to resources including employment, healthcare, social support, legal rights and education.

It's up to us and our governments to ensure the gap between the haves and have nots does not widen and that we can we all grow the resilience we need for the challenging hours, days and years ahead.

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