This is a three-part series on the democratic failures of the Australian Government through the lens of the current catastrophic bushfires. This piece focuses on the 2019/2020 budget cuts to the private sector, which placed the NSW Fire Department under severe stress.
We’re up in flames Australia, in every sense of the word. Since August, catastrophic fires have been raging mercilessly across several states, leaving behind millions of hectares of charred bushland. Over 500 homes have been lost and an estimated 80% of koala habitat has been destroyed. Experts are claiming the blazes will ‘reframe our understanding of bushfires’, but it’s already reframing a great deal more than that.
This isn’t Australia’s first brush with urgent symptoms of climate change- severe droughts have been grappling the nation for over a year now. The disaster – inclusive of a severe lack of rainfall, soil moisture deficits, worrisome dam levels and communities on the brink of running out of drinking water – has been met with public stir. Yet our public servants remain still, their stubby index fingers pushed far into their deaf, rich ears.
The last few months have undoubtedly reshaped our public dialogue. The cracks in our democracy are showing, with a political firestorm aimed at tossing soul blame to the Green Party, to our leaders deliberately gas-lighting us in the face of our era’s greatest disaster. The delightful Barnaby Joyce even said bushfire victims ‘most likely voted for the Greens.‘ While the fires are obviously an urgent symptom of climate change, we need to address the elephant in the room, too. Like the recent Amazon fires, the fiasco runs far deeper than the climate.
In April of this year, Greg Mullins, former Commissioner of Fire & Rescue NSW, sent Prime Minister Scott Morrison a letter. It represented the voices of 22 former fire and safety chiefs. They urged the PM to meet with them to discuss the increasingly concerning issue of climate change, and the “catastrophic extreme weather events putting lives, properties and livelihoods at risk”. They had hoped to speak with Morrison within three months of writing, scraping in just before the beginning of the early bushfire season. He rejected their request.
Meanwhile, the drought rages on. Let’s scoot to the middle of this year, just as the NSW government is handing down their annual state budget.
In June, the Berejiklian Government (NSW) announced a ‘$3.2 billion shake-up’ (note, budget cut) to the public sector. The ‘shake-up’ saw thousands of jobs, bonuses and long-service leave entitlements lost.
To add insult to injury, Fire & Rescue NSW (yes- the experts who sent the letter of warning to the PM) received a detrimental 35% budget cut (at $12.9 million). The Office of NSW Rural Fire Services (a service run by volunteers) also lost $26.7 million in funding, leaving the emergency front-line in shambles.
NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet assured the public that the ‘cuts pale in comparison to the investment in public services’, and specifically cited funding would be increased for emergency services. The figures don’t lie, but they also certainly don’t match Perrottet’s version of events. The truth isn’t hidden – it’s printed. It’s merely being camouflaged with expert greenwashing tactics. Let’s take a magnified look at the budget and the ‘improved investment’ in emergency services.
The 2019/2020 NSW state budget proudly introduced ‘The Stronger Communities’ cluster, compromising of services that support community safety, social wellbeing and justice. The general aim of the cluster is quite literally to strengthen the communities – but it’s clearly only torn the NSW community to shreds.
There are ten major state outcomes that aim to be achieved with the implementation of the Stronger Communities cluster. Let’s take a quick peek at number three, which reads: Resilient to disasters and emergencies: Delivering emergency management to enhance response and recovery efforts and build community resilience. See image below.
It’s clear this outcome has failed monumentally. A few pages down in the budget, the expense summaries and budget cuts for the Fire & Rescue NSW are documented. See image below.
The final kick is the budget highlights for emergency services. There are five ‘budget highlights’ for the aim Resilient to disasters and emergencies, and none relate to the emergency warnings that NSW Fire & Rescue issued three months prior. Three out of four highlights refer to an injection of funds for surf lifesaving. See image below.
It’s clear Perrottet’s version of events is based on the implication that most Australians won’t actually read the budget. It’s a blatant attempt at camouflaging the truth and manipulating words to save face. It’s very clear funding was not increased for the emergency services we needed. It’s hard to believe that while the country was suffocating in thick drought, the NSW Government deemed it responsible to remove over one-third of the total funding from Fire & Rescue. This decision was irresponsible on all fronts.
Soon after the budget was released, the Morrison government ignored former Fire Commissioner Greg Mullins in a second letter in September. This was mere weeks before the fires began raging. Mullins wrote “My fellow emergency service leaders and I are deeply concerned that we are not adequately prepared.”
Another service which has suffered greatly at the hands of budget cuts is the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. Over the past three years, over $200 million has been cut to the service, leaving rangers, conservationists and traditional owners to fear the worst for the future.
Parks and Wildlife helps to control fire hazards by conducting controlled hazard reduction burns in areas that are prone to bushfires. By clearing out deadwood with pre-emptive burning, fires are kept more manageable when they do occur. The burns have been reduced by around 26 per cent since the initial cuts were announced in 2016.
As the fires continue to rage, firefighters claim they are 120 front-line officers short due to budget cuts. According to Crikey, the funds that were cut could have paid the annual salary of 488 qualified firefighters. So why on earth are our emergency frontline services receiving funding cuts they aren’t equipped to handle?
The blame sits entirely upon the shoulders of our self-interested leaders. An emerging national crisis is taking shape, yet our representatives lack the capacity to act accordingly and democratically. In the same budget that imposed a 35% funding cut for NSW Fire & Rescue cut, a whopping $150 million was allocated to building new sports centres and stadiums across NSW. At least when our world goes up in flames and the sea levels rise, we’ll have a plethora of state-of-the-art sport facilities to bunker down in.
As these unnecessary sport facilities bloom to life, Byron Bay, currently up in flames, is still waiting for it’s promised $5.85 million for a new fire station. Personally, this is all the perspective I need to determine the priorities of our leaders. Coupled with a cluster of insensitive tweets (taking the cake is the PM’s view that the cricket test will be a great distraction for Australia’s bushfire victims and firefighters), it’s clear our representatives are absurdly out of touch with our society.
Our leaders received accurate and fair warnings at least three times before we went up in flames. Yesterday, the NSW Government announced a $48 million relief package for communities devastated by the fires. Had our leaders taken these three expert warnings seriously, this relief package would have been unnecessary. Their failure to act wisely has cost lives and threatened our democracy.
Stay tuned for part two of this series, which will address the climate change gag-order within our society.