Mercury (Hobart)

ScoMo took deep hit from inept initial response to bushfires

Randall Doyle says PM faces fate like George W. Bush after Hurricane Katrina


THE Australian bushfires claimed the lives of three Americans as their Lockheed C-130 Hercules crashed in the Snowy Mountains in NSW on a water bombing mission.

They had volunteere­d to fight this catastroph­ic fire that has destroyed an area equal to Austria. They perished performing, with thousands of other firefighte­rs and volunteers, a heroic effort to stop Australia burning.

With thousands of homes destroyed, thousands of Aussies are displaced in their own country. Like millions of refugees around the world, these people are desperatel­y seeking comfort and stability.

Australia has been shaken to its core. Anger and disbelief are as intense as the fires.

How could this happen? I am afraid the answers may be too painful to acknowledg­e. Huge swathes of southeaste­rn Australia now resemble the Western Front in WWI. Many communitie­s have been transforme­d into no-man’s lands. Australia is the latest victim of climate change.

Yes, bushfires are historic and a natural occurrence in Australia. However, there is something different about this recent catastroph­e. Why did the fires get out of control so quickly? Why was government in a state of denial for so long? Suddenly, human arrogance, ignorance and hubris are the prime suspects in this disaster.

Can anyone or anything curtail the rampaging malevolenc­e that has a strangleho­ld on southeaste­rn Australia?

Scientific evidence and research have shown a steady rise in the earth’s temperatur­e. In May 2006, former US vicepresid­ent Al Gore’s academy award-winning documentar­y film, An Inconvenie­nt Truth, was released. It dramatical­ly sounded the alarm about the looming global crisis. Unfortunat­ely, in America, we became too distracted by other domestic and global maladies such as poverty, populism, war, inequality, gender and race issues, immigratio­n, trade and geopolitic­s. As a result, climate change simply lost its place in line.

America is as guilty as anybody on the planet for its lack of imaginatio­n, initiative and seriousnes­s on global climate. Many Americans live in a state of denial. Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 nightmare, struck Florida and Louisiana, in August 2005. In the end, 40 per cent of New Orleans was permanentl­y destroyed, and an estimated 1200 to 1500 Americans died.

Initially, the US government’s response displayed a breathtaki­ng incompeten­cy due to it being paralysed with indecision. It took days for freshwater and food to be delivered to survivors of the worst storm to strike the American South in half a century.

Over seven years later, in October 2012, Hurricane Sandy struck. It flooded and damaged communitie­s, including portions of New York City and its famous

subway system, killing 75 people and causing about $70.2 billion — 650,000 homes were damaged or destroyed and 8.5 million were without power for days, some for weeks. Luckily, Hurricane Sandy was only a Category 2 storm when it struck the US east coast. The damage and death would have been much, much higher if a New Orleans-type monster had hit.

President George W. Bush’s credibilit­y was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The US government’s lack of preparedne­ss for such a calamity was shocking and, during the worst days of the post-Katrina chaos, Bush refused to visit New Orleans. Instead, he flew over the city in his presidenti­al helicopter. Most Americans never forgave him. In the end, Bush’s presidenti­al legacy was based on two specific events: the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina. Need I say more.

In contrast, during the immediate post-Hurricane Sandy period, President Barack Obama had learned from Bush’s Katrina disaster. He quickly had food, water and other supplies delivered to communitie­s directly affected. A month later, President Obama was easily re-reelected to a second term.

What fate awaits Prime Minister Scott Morrison? As the bushfires grew in intensity and volatility, he flew to Hawaii for a vacation. What? Who advised him to do this? Did any of his aides take the time to inform him that such a trip would damage his standing with Australian­s? While the PM was body surfing at Waikiki Beach in Hawaii, his country was burning to the ground. Need I say more.

The political fallout for the PM will be painful. His decisions through the crisis will haunt him. Like the Bush administra­tion and Katrina, the Morrison Government’s response will be interprete­d by most as inept and tragic.

Professor Randall Doyle teaches US history, government and internatio­nal relations at Mid-Michigan College. He is author of The Australian Nexus: At the Center of the Storm and is a regular visitor to Tasmania.

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