Heroes of Green Wattle Creek (and the leaders who abandoned them)

As one of the longest and hottest days of the year dawned, Australians woke up to the news that two volunteer fire fighters, Geoffrey Keaton and Andrew O’Dwyer, are dead. The photos, published by the NSW Rural Fire Service, of each man smiling proudly and holding his baby for the camera are gut wrenching. They are western Sydney dads in their 30s, Aussie everymen.

Geoff is a Deputy Captain of the Horsley Park Brigade. He grins broadly, sunnies lifted to close-cropped hair, pride and just a hint of nervousness for the precious bundle in his arms. You have bought a meat tray ticket from this bloke. He helped you put up a tent in strong winds.

Andrew is also from the Horsley Park Brigade. He has taken his baby girl for a bushwalk. Their eyes are a matching deep purple blue. He has drawn her attention to the camera, she points and smiles for a father-daughter selfie. You can see his joy at showing her the great outdoors.

There is no doubt in my mind that fatigue played a role in the deaths of these two men. This is not jumping to conclusions. It is simple deduction. The fire season usually starts to hit hard in January and peaks in February. This year it began in September. In the past, it was not unusual for firefighters to hold the line until the rains come. This year there has been no rain.

Fire chiefs have repeatedly told the political leadership that action is needed, on the unprecedented length and intensity of the fire season, and the undeniable fact that climate change is the cause of this length and intensity.

The NSW Premier, on a photo opportunity fire ground tour with the Prime Minister, told journalists ‘not today’ when asked about the impacts of climate change on the catastrophe. The Prime Minister, asked about fire fighting resources and equipment at a press conference on religious discrimination, his pet culture wars project, said

And the fact is these crews, yes, they’re tired, but they also want to be out there defending their communities. And so we do all we can to rotate their shifts to give them those breaks but equally they, and in many cases, you’ve got to hold them back to make sure they get that rest.

Morrison has no role in shift rotation, so this claim is disingenuous at best. It is also evidence that he was briefed on crew fatigue before he jetted off for a family holiday in Hawaii. His overseas trip was repeatedly lied about by his office; and defended by friendly media on the basis that he has no operational responsibility for the fires. In fact, only the Commonwealth can authorise deployment of ADF personnel to fire support duties; and Morrison has repeatedly claimed he is in control of a ‘nationally co-ordinated effort’. So both the shift rotation claim and the operational responsibilities claims are, in typical Morison and his mates fashion, bullshit.

A litany of lies, which is no surprise

The woeful inadequacy of his response to the fires, to the fire chiefs and the press and the public, is matched by signature Morrison characteristics: gross inconsistency and self-contradiction, obvious dishonesty and post-facto rationalisation, deflection and distraction. A motor-mouth of jumblefuckery, he spouts thousands of words and says nothing of value.

Morrison has been like this for as long as I can remember him in the public sphere. He was crow-barred out of an extremely high-paying job at Tourism Australia for what was almost certainly corrupted no-tender spending of government money, as Karen Middleton reports here [$]. It is extremely difficult to get a Liberal Party operative out of cushy publicly-funded jobs, but then-Minister for Tourism Fran Baily somehow managed it, an indicator of just how badly Morrison conducted himself in the position.

He did not stop, though. Just continued from a position of higher authority. The practice of handing out public money to corporate mates without process or tender is a hall mark of his government and its predecessors, in which he was a cabinet minister. The preferred Coalition government unit of public cash handouts is around half a billion dollars: $423 million here, $444 million there, a shady $500 million worth of Commonwealth contracts everywhere.

Before ascending to cabinet and ultimately the prime ministership amid bullying so sexist that even the press gallery briefly noticed, the Morrison ruthlessness was in plain sight to anyone who cared to look. Spoiler: not the press gallery. They told voters throughout the election that Morrison was campaigning on his economic record without bothering to check how disastrous that record is, as I wrote here at the time.

So yes, the Morrison MO has been known since at least 2007 as he formally entered public life. Here are a few highlights.

His pre-selection is a case study in ‘faceless man’ backroom bullying. As shadow immigration minister he opined that then-Victoria Police Commissioner Christine Nixon should not have gone out to dinner during the catastrophic 2009 fires by saying it is ‘incumbent on all of us in public life to make decisions following that in the best interests of the ongoing nature of the program’. I mean. Look at it.

As Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, under a policy he co-designed with Jim ‘butcher of Falujah’ Molan, he refused to answer questions about asylum seekers who we have surely towed to their deaths. He called this ‘on-water matters’. Yet just this week I heard an ABC News24 panel say that the secrecy surrounding the Morrison family holiday was ‘out of character’. No, it isn’t.

The policy that drives Centrelink income support recipients to an early grave was championed by Morrison as Treasurer. In the dying days of the interminable 2016 campaign in which the Liberals lost 16 seats, he brandished his punitive cuts to social security payments as a sword, crowing about how tough it is to target the poorest people to pay for his budget bottom line. Robodebt has since been found by the Federal Court to have no legal basis, but the government is digging in. Why? Because its budget headlines are based on a fabricated figure that requires the forward estimates of Robodebt repayments.

Headlines matter more to this government than the Rule of Law. If they can not change the law to suit their political desires – most governments can and do – they simply ignore it.

Perhaps the defining characteristic of the Morrison prime ministership is his capacity to stare straight down the barrel of a camera and tell shameless and obviously disprovable lies. He calls emissions increases “reductions”. He claims to be “suspending” campaigning for the holy days of easter and then invites the press into his place of worship, a prime example of the moron magnet.

None of this is called out. If the defining characteristics of the Morrison government are lying and bullying, the defining characteristic of the parliamentary press gallery is an infinite capacity to bow to his alternative reality. They report contradictory pronouncements without batting an eye. The most recent example is the ludicrous headlines claiming that Morrison has ‘cancelled’ a holiday and is ‘rushing’ home. He hasn’t, and he isn’t.

All power, no repsonisbility

More importantly, defenders of the Morrison government have bought the fatuous line that the prime minister does not really have a role to play in responding to the catastrophe. According to Morrison on Friday morning, talking to a friendly broadcaster at the home of racist Sydney radio, he does not hold a hose, mate. He is not sitting in a control room. It did not trouble the press or, obviously, Morrison, that the prime minister has also said, and this is just in the last week:

Yes, they’re tired, but they also want to out there defending their communities. And so we do all we can to rotate those shifts to give them those breaks but equally they, and in many cases you’ve got to hold them back to make sure they get that rest.

It’s a national co-ordinated effort from the Commonwealth’s point of view, pursued through emergency management Australia, and the control centre there is also bringing in the involvement of the Australian defence Force and the many other agencies of government.

[national co-ordination is] led by a Cabinet Minister who reports directly to me and I deal with it directly with the premiers of the states and chief ministers of the territories. I don’t think it can any higher than that.

As is the case with all fire events, or as is the case with all flood events and other natural disasters, this actual national co-ordinated effort is desiogned to constantly look at these issues, post these events.

The Government has been working closely, as part of the national co-ordinated effort, to address the national disaster of these fires.

When I was speaking with the commissioner at the weekend out at Wilberforce where we have the megafire in the north west at the moment, we were talking through the crew rotations.

These are all direct quotes from the Prime Minister who ‘is not in a control room’ except when he is boasting about being in a control room, or you know, in control.

Now you would think that somebody would say, as I would and my mother before me, you can not have it both ways, prime minister. You seem to want your cake and to eat it too. But there is no matriarchal authority in this government, and none in the parliamentary press gallery. The Liberal Party is awash with toxic masculinity, and Morrison has done what the very worst leaders do: surrounded himself with yes-men. The gallery cows to his ruthless bullying and relentless lies. In the grand tradition of liberalism, they put their own interests ahead of the public interest.

As I write, multiple fires have been burning continuously since early November. The biggest of these, the Gospers Mountain megafire, is within my ‘watch zone’ on the north west fringes of greater Western Sydney. We get Fires near Me app notifications, sometimes hourly, as it moves in and out of the perimeter, as it is classified and re-classified from Watch and Act at the lower end of the scale to Emergency Warning at the top. We lose music from our lives as the radio is permanently tuned to tirelessly professional ABC radio emergency broadcasts, which deliver the most ominous status of all, Too Late to Leave.

The stress is difficult to describe. The volunteer fire brigades are not equipped to hold the line, and there is no relief – not rain, not higher shift rotations – in sight. Yes, they are tired prime minister. And this callous disregard for properly funding emergency services, and the self-serving hero narrative, has contributed to the deaths of two dads in western Sydney. May they rest in peace.

A dedicated fundraiser has been set up by the NSW RFS with permission from the families of Geoff Keaton and Andrew O’Dwyer. Details are available here.

 

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