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Bushfire analysis and opinion live blog by Policy Forum

24 January 2020

In the face of disaster, misinformation can move quickly, and solutions can be hard to come by. As part of Policy Forum’s mission to generate relevant, fact-based, policy-focused debate on crucial issues, over the coming weeks the team is running a special live blog covering analysis and opinion on Australia’s bushfires.

What are the underlying causes of the crisis? How can authorities be better prepared for the next disaster? Read our daily snapshots below and stay across all of the bushfire analysis and opinion via the live blog.

Friday 31 January

Public interest in Indigenous fire management practices like ‘cool burning’ has grown significantly in the wake of Australia’s unprecedented bushfire crisis. But what is cool burning, and what does the attention it has received tell us about how Indigenous knowledge is valued in Australia? On this week’s Policy Forum Pod, the panel discuss whether policymakers are heeding the lessons of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people when it comes to environmental management.

Australian National University expert Sotiris Vardoulakis says the advice currently issued about dealing with bushfire smoke is impractical for dealing with long-term exposure. There are signs climate change could start outrunning our capacity to adapt, writes a University of Queensland economist. The weather pattern partly creating catastrophic bushfire conditions in Australia is also having a serious impact in East Africa, leading to massive locust swarms, writes Bridget Fitzgerald for the ABC. While some have criticised the fashion industry’s bushfire fundraising efforts as an irresponsible waste of resources, National Fashion Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, Melissa Singer, says the industry was actually able to make a difference. Two experts propose using ‘inoculation theory’ to prevent the spread of misinformation during future crises.

Thursday 30 January

Given the destruction caused by this summer’s fire season, it is high time the government invested in the technology it needs to fight the bushfire threat, Dr Bruce Forster writes for Policy Forum. The idea of engaging retired school teachers and principals to support students in bushfire-affected areas is currently under consideration. Griffith University’s Dr Peter Layton calls for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to take a lead role in disaster response, to be supported by volunteer organisations like rural firefighting groups. The impact of climate change must be explicitly considered by a national inquiry into the bushfires, Professor Ross Bradstock of Wollongong University says. ACT Emergency Services Agency commissioner Georgeina Whelan slams ‘disaster tourists’ who are slowing down fire crews.

The National Construction Code may be leading people to believe they can defend their houses during bushfires, and in doing so risk their lives, argues UNSW’s Geoff Hanmer. Ian Verrender, business editor at the ABC, says the supposed ‘tough choices’ faced by Australia in terms of its coal and energy policies “already have been made in boardrooms around the globe”. Residents of Wollombi in New South Wales observed the extraordinary sight of nearly 20 lyrebirds coming together when bushfires threatened the area.

Wednesday 29 January

A number of Australian Laureate Fellows, including Crawford School’s Professor Quentin Grafton, have written an open letter calling for deep cuts in Australia’s carbon emissions in the wake of this bushfire season. The Australian Financial Complaints Authority has warned people in bushfire-affected areas to be wary of signing with claims management companies. Approximately $30 million of the money donated to the Australian Red Cross in the wake of the bushfires will be distributed to those in need immediately, with much more to be donated in the years to come, according to a representative from the organisation.

Despite not being the only country to have volunteer fire services, Australia relies on these volunteers to a greater extent than any other country. The Victorian paramedics’ union is calling for paid leave for paramedics who have been deployed as Army Reservists to bushfire-affected areas. Australia’s ‘soft power’ is being damaged by the bushfire crisis, with international media making the link between the bushfires and our climate policy, says a Lowy Institute specialist. Separate academic studies have found links between bushfire smoke and cardiac arrests and respiratory issues.

Tuesday 28 January

Longer bushfire seasons are “a big concern” for vulnerable communities living in bushfire-prone areas, Western Australia’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services community preparedness manager Su Ferreira says. Regional communities in Victoria may have to wait another month for critical communications infrastructure to be restored, according to a report in The Age. Climate change is a serious threat to national security and Australia’s political class has failed to properly assess the risks, writes a UNSW Canberra academic. Tourism businesses in bushfire-affected areas have suffered major losses after visitor numbers nosedived as a result of the crisis. Authorities should burn five per cent of Victoria’s forests every year to reduce the risk of bushfires, says one bushfire expert.

This bushfire season has seen extreme pressure on water sources already under stress from drought, says The Australian National University’s (ANU) Dr Aparna Lal. This water contamination and shortage present serious risks to Australians’ long-term health, she writes in a new piece for Policy Forum. Former trade minister and now Distinguished Fellow at ANU Dr Craig Emerson warns Australia could become the target of tariffs if it fails to do more to reduce emissions.

Friday 24 January

Australia’s federal government is coming under increasing pressure to change course on its climate policies, but will it lead to tangible policy change? This week on Policy Forum Pod, our expert panel including Crawford professors Quentin Grafton and Frank Jotzo take a look at how the events of the last couple of months have shifted public views and how that might, or might not, translate into policy change.

Australia has been singled out for climate inaction by speakers at the ‘Doomsday Clock’ event in the United States. Dr Tom Beer, author of the first-ever research on the link between climate change and worsening bushfires, is “horrified” to be seeing his predictions coming true. While acknowledging the impact of climate change on worsening bushfire conditions, National Party MPs say hazard-reduction is one of the “vital factors” in recent bushfires in a recent letter to party members. “Stronger, fairer collaboration” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is needed to manage bushfire risks and the Australian landscape more broadly, says Vanessa Cavanagh from the University of Wollongong. Rising insurance costs for electricity networks could lead to rising power prices for consumers, says Energy Networks Australia (ENA). With bushfires set to increase in frequency and severity due to climate change, cross-border smoke as seen during Australia’s bushfires is likely to become a growing problem. While bold changes in Australia’s climate policies are unlikely, Scott Morrison has the opportunity to build a legacy by making incremental changes, writes Tony Wood from the Grattan Institute.

ANU Crawford School of Public Policy’s Professor Warwick McKibbin says “governments have not appreciated the extent of risk involved with climate change”. Crawford School’s Dr Siobhan McDonnell says climate and energy politics became “entrenched” in Australia’s Liberal Party once Malcolm Turnbull was toppled as prime minister in 2018.

You can read more in-depth analysis of the crisis from leading policy thinkers via Policy Forum’s special In Focus section.

An ANU Crawford School of Public Policy initiative, Policy Forum is Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy debate, analysis, views, and discussion.

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