Room service or the nation’s service? It’s a tough time to be a leader

By Angus Smith | 08 Jan 20

I woke up this morning and my usual view of the city skyline was gone.

From my office window, you can normally see the mountains. Today they’re simply not there.

Australia is burning and if you haven’t seen the flames, chances are you’ve breathed in the noxious smoke.

Like most Australians, I’ve dodged my fair share of bushfires. And like many others I’ve also been caught in one.

Everyone is saying that these fires are different.

These fires are more intense.

As early as April 2019, 23 former Fire and Emergency Leaders banded together warning the government that the number of days of very high to catastrophic bushfire danger days were increasing and conditions were projected to get even worse.

Yet instead of planned resources and responses, we received key messages and talking points.

The government was armed with rhetoric for a climate change debate, but not prepared for any disaster a changed climate brings.

So far, this fire season, 25 Australians have lost their lives.

The animal death toll is expected to surpass 500 million in New South Wales alone.

More than 6.3 million hectares of our country have already burned.

Homes, farmland, livestock, wildlife and habitats: gone.

Firefighters and emergency service workers battling for our lives.

And in the middle of it all, the Prime Minister went on a family holiday to Hawaii.

The country was (and still is) burning and the PM put out the ‘Do not disturb’ sign. He chose room service over standing in the nation’s service.

The PM on holiday in Hawaii

The PM on holiday in Hawaii

Do you feel angry? I do. Being angry is your right. You should be angry. Angry for your fellow Australians who have lost their homes, lost their loved ones, lost their businesses. You should be angry at the absence of policy reform to protect our communities from the devastating effects of climate change. You should be angry that we’ve lost half a billion animals and what we typically know as bushfire season is not even close to over.

Right now, it all feels like the crisis came from nowhere. But it’s worth remembering, Australia has been burning since September.

Amongst our smoke shrouded cities this week was our nation’s capital.

The smoke crossing the border from NSW.  The giant flag on top of Parliament at times was no longer visible and on Sunday Canberra was rated as having the worst air quality of anywhere in the world.

Sydney residents have been suffering the smoke since November as fires raged to the north, west and south.

Everyone is concerned for family, loved ones and friends.

One of my relatives, Ray McNamara, texted:

“We are Safe.
We had to evacuate Metung yesterday arvo.
Staying at a beach house near Seaspray with friends.
Close enough to home to keep in touch.
Looking at the wind maps, I think our house will be ok.
But not taking risks.
However, if we get spared this time, we will have more dramas until it rains.
The situation up the whole east coast is grim.
It’s like war time.
No food.
No water.
No electricity.
No phones.
And we have a federal government that is clueless and leaderless about crisis management.
Thanks for caring.”

Everyone in this country has lived or heard stories like this. Many worse.

But the conversation always returns to leadership.

A leader that wants to talk about his unprecedented action, rather than the unprecedented crisis. The effect but not the cause.

In the void, volunteers, celebrities and sport stars — from Australia and all over the planet — have rolled up their sleeves and picked up the slack.

Australian comedian Celeste Barber has raised over $40 million through her fan base alone.

The fact that some in the government would prefer to look at the climate crisis through a political rather than scientific lens is understandable. To develop meaningful policy means you have to acknowledge the magnitude of the crisis. And once acknowledged, you have to take proportionate action. That’s when people start to notice the elephant-sized lump of coal in the room.

It’s no doubt difficult to look like a leader of the people when you’re leading for so few.

There are so many images now seared onto the national consciousness.

Orange, red and black skies when they should be blue.

Firefighters dwarfed by walls of flames. Families fleeing into the water.

Vanishing skylines shrouded in smoke.

A burnt Kangaroo limping. A singed Koala crawling for its life.

Images seared in Australians’ collective memories along with footage of the Prime Minister fumbling scripted one liners. The ruling political party saying ‘Climate change is real, but let’s not talk about it now,’ while choking on the smoke.

Stop trying to shake hands and making marketing videos. Start acting and talking on the issues at hand. If you can’t, we implore you to get out of the way and let others get on with the job.


How to help:

Victorian Bushfire Appeal 

Australian Red Cross bushfire Appeal

Wildlife Victoria

Country Fire Authority (CFA)

NSW Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service (WIRES)

Other NGOs such as the Environmental Defenders Office play an important role in advocating and acting on climate change.

Angus Smith is a former board member of the Environmental Defenders Office (NT).