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Slow burn – Australia’s summer of bushfire crisis

TJ Ryan Foundation Research Associate, John Quiggin, writes in Inside Story (1.1.20) about the bushfire crisis threatening communities across Australia, and how the danger to life and property will extend beyond this fire season.

‘At least eighteen people have already been killed by this season’s bushfires – and, with most of January and all of February still to come, that number is sure to rise. But these dramatic deaths are far outweighed by the hundreds, perhaps thousands, that will ultimately result from the toxic smoke blanketing Australian cities.

‘The most dangerous component of bushfire smoke are tiny particulates, no more than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, known as PM2.5. Over the past twenty years, studies have shown that high levels of PM2.5 have contributed to millions of premature deaths in highly polluted cities like Beijing and Delhi. Sydney, Canberra and other Australian cities have recently joined this list. In 2016 alone, exposure to PM2.5 contributed to an estimated 4.1 million deaths worldwide from heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, chronic lung disease and respiratory infections.

‘Even before the current cataclysm, air pollution was a major health hazard. While Sydney’s prevailing average of 6 micrograms per cubic metre (6 μg/m3) is within international health standards, it is above the levels observed in most European and American cities. A study led by the Sydney Public Health Observatory’s Richard Broome estimated that particulates and associated forms of pollution already account for between 310 and 540 premature deaths annually.

‘… We might hope that the scenes we have witnessed would shock our political class out of its torpor. So far, there is little sign of that happening.’

The summer Scott Morrison’s leadership broke

Historian Frank Bongiorno writes in Inside Story (3.1.20) about how the bushfire crisis has shown Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s leadership to be lacking when it’s most needed.

‘The late political psychologist Graham Little saw strong leadership as the default position for conservative politicians. Strong leaders value structure, order and discipline, offer stark moral alternatives, and promise to protect the community from internal weakness and external enemies. Margaret Thatcher seemed the most obvious model when Little was writing on this subject in the 1980s. But, were he still alive, Little would have had much to offer on the rise of the Putins and Trumps of this world.

‘Scott Morrison is not a strong leader. I offer this judgement not in a pejorative spirit, but as a simple description of political reality. He is neither a Putin nor a Trump, each of whom likes to project himself as a spectacularly successful version of his adoring followers – an image that wouldn’t work in a culture such as ours with its strong tradition of social egalitarianism. Nor is Morrison a Boris Johnson (who has also been holidaying on an island, in his case in the Caribbean).

‘… Morrison’s political authority has fallen away more quickly than anyone could have imagined even a fortnight ago, and is unlikely ever to be quite the same again. The giant-killer and performer of miracles of May 2019 is no more. Instead, we have a prime minister whose inability to respond to the bushfire crisis has resulted in widespread national loathing, international ridicule and sharp questions about his capacity for national leadership.’

The TJRyan Foundation does not guarantee the accuracy, currency or completeness of any information or material available on this website. The TJRyan Foundation reserves the right to change information or material on this website at any time without notice. Links from this site to external, non-TJRyan Foundation websites should not be construed as implying any relationship with and/or endorsement of the external site or its content by the TJR Foundation, nor any commercial relationship with the owners of any external site. Should any TJRyan research project be funded by an individual or organisation the source of funding will be stated beside the research report. In all other cases contributions are provided on a pro bono basis.
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