Australia: Disaster zone

Floods, fires and even earthquakes and volcanoes have become political events all over the world, polarising public opinion and sometimes contributing to the fall of governments. Now that the line between natural and man-made disasters has been blurred by a changed understanding of our impact on the planet, every disaster sets off a search for causes and culprits. This is made more contentious by arguments over the degree of human responsibility that have increased the tension between right and left in many countries. The inevitable result seems to be that political leaders are finding themselves more and more in the firing line when nature springs its nasty surprises.

The war over the causes of climate change, in particular, has been waged nowhere more fiercely than in Australia, a country whose knife-edge ecology makes it especially vulnerable. Floods in Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales, Cyclone Yasi, and now a dismal coda with bushfires around Perth in Western Australia, have made disaster control and prevention the issues of the day in what is normally Australia’s switched-off summer holiday period. Even so, it is surprising that support for the Australian government has tumbled so precipitately. If an election was held today, prime minister Julia Gillard and the Labor party would be swept from office, according to a poll published in the Australian.

From afar the prime minister has looked to be making not too bad a fist of it. She organised federal resources reasonably effectively, and has come up with a reconstruction tax on wealthier households that has won the approval of the majority of Australians. But they seem to feel that she has not sufficiently felt their pain, though the tears this normally rather wooden politician choked back in the Australian parliament yesterday may shift that view. She has not mismanaged the disasters – far from it – but she has not emerged from them as an inspiring figure in the way that Rudolph Giuliani did from 9/11, or even Gordon Brown did, briefly, from a combination of bombs and floods at the beginning of his premiership.

The broader context is of an Australian political class which has been timid in dealing with environmental matters. Lack of support in his own Liberal party for an emissions trading scheme brought down Malcolm Turnbull, while the former Labor leader Kevin Rudd lost his job to Ms Gillard for a similar reason. She has now taken up the cudgels for emissions trading in a determined way. But all the trimming and the U-turning has taken its toll. As Australians grasp how big the environmental challenge is, they may be indicating at some level that they want their politicians to be as big as the challenge.

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