After the bushfire 23. October 2015 Ad astra Opinion pieces/current affairs (7) As you look back over the past two years in federal politics, I wonder do you feel like the survivors of a devastating bushfire who, with bloodshot eyes and irritated lungs, stand stunned as they survey the smoking ruins of what was there before the inferno? Do you wonder how such destruction could have been wreaked in such a short time, how just one man and his ‘team’ could have been responsible for lighting so many political fires, and far from trying to extinguish them, deliberately fanned the flames? We always knew that political fires fascinated him, but how many realized how obsessed with them he really was? When he displaced Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal leader in 2009, he already had a reputation for lighting political fires. He told us how much he enjoyed being part of a fire crew, but was it the fire itself, rather than putting it out, that fascinated him? Let me elaborate. Take ‘border security’, a concept conjured up to make us feel insecure and needing his protection. First there was the invasion. Armadas of leaky fishing boats bearing uninvited intruders from far away lands came in waves to assault our sacred shores, expecting us to welcome them, feed and house them, give them jobs, our jobs, educate their kids, comfort them with welfare. How dare they? “We will decide who comes to our country and the manner of their arrival” was a mantra he had learned long ago. He decided he would be the ruthless enforcer of this valiant doctrine. No matter how cruel he had to be, he would ‘Stop the boats’. And he did. Those that didn’t drown and got through he locked up in offshore detention: men, women and kids, and ‘threw away the key’. Whether such behaviour inflamed the fires of racial discrimination or hatred was irrelevant. He was able to boast, again and again, ‘I stopped the boats’, but the fires he lit among the asylum seekers, their advocates, Muslims and their leaders, and much of the general public burned on, sometimes smoldering, sometimes flaring into a threatening blaze. But there were even more profound threats that our ‘firefighter’ could use to frighten us. The ISIS fire burst out and from a small blaze threatened to engulf those nearby, in Iraq and Syria. Although we were many thousands of miles away, he insisted that ISIS was ‘coming to get us’. He called them a ‘death cult’, and with his every utterance condemned their barbaric ways. Although acknowledging that their behaviour was a perversion of Islam, he insinuated that Islamic leaders here could do more to prevent young people from following them. He poured fuel onto the gathering conflagration, alienated the very ones whom he needed to quench the flames, and time and again reiterated his inflammatory message, effectively fanning the flames of fear, and even worse, hatred. Then, like the firefighter he insisted he was, he told us he was coming to our rescue with tougher laws to strengthen our borders and put out the fire of radicalization. Take his first budget. He used a flamethrower to light a fire under the least well off: pensioners, those on low incomes, those receiving welfare, and the entire welfare lobby. They were the ones who would make the sacrifices that would enable him to reach his stated goal of a balanced budget. He insisted it was a dire necessity to ‘repair Labor’s debt and deficit disaster’ and the ‘fiscal emergency’ it had created. He used fire analogies to describe the situation Labor had left behind, reassuring us though that Coalition members were fire fighters and that its fire brigade, manned by ‘grown-up adults’, would come to the rescue and soon have Labor’s fire out! It was not until his second budget that he acknowledged that the subterranean coals of the fire he had lit with his first were still smoldering, and that he had to do something to quell them. So he brought down a less inflammatory budget with goodies for small business. Suddenly the ‘emergency’ was no longer threatening to burn us all, and we could relax, put down our firefighting equipment, and begin to spend. Few believed this sudden turn around was for any other reason than the adverse polls. How could Labor’s fiscal bushfire, about to consume us all, suddenly disappear for no cogent fiscal reason? Take the GP co-payment, part of his disastrous first budget. He lit a fire under the poorest in our community and under the medical profession, inflaming antagonism not just among them, but the entire community who saw this imposition, indeed the whole budget, as mean and unfair. The Senate crossbenchers agreed. Even many of his supporters saw it this way. Eventually he attempted to extinguish the blaze for fear of alienating his own. The smoke is still settling, and the embers glow quietly, needing only a modest breeze to fan the flames. He sought other ways of keeping the GP co-payment on the back burner, but time seems to have almost, but not completely, extinguished it. Take tertiary education. He lit a fire under students at tertiary and secondary levels, and under many academics. Uncertainty, and student concern about their HECS-HELP debts spiraling out of control far into the future, fanned the flames. Student and public anger made him hose that down too, but the embers still threaten to flare with the least provocation. Take the environment. He fanned the flames of the fires he lit here, there and everywhere among environmentalists and all those citizens who are concerned about global warming. In Beaufort he declared: ‘Climate science is crap’, thereby inflaming climate scientists. He tried later to put out that fire of denial, but never succeeded, such was the insincerity of his efforts. He added fuel to the fire with: ‘Coal is good for humanity’ and ‘Wind turbines are ugly and cause ill health’. He even boasted that he had restricted the expansion of wind power. He lit a fire under the renewables industry, one that could have expanded onto the global scene. Businessmen and their workers had to lay down their tools. Billions of investment dollars were lost for fear that investors in renewables would be burned. He was a strong advocate of the Indian-sponsored Adani Carmichael mine in far west Queensland. He inflamed landowners threatened by loss of their land, and environmentalists concerned about the dangers the mine posed to subterranean water and to threatened species. Rather than quell the flames, he accused opponents of the mine of using the law to threaten the project; his Attorney General called it ‘lawfare’. His faithful sycophant Greg Hunt has now approved the mine again despite objections; the fire is burning again. His successor has done nothing to quell the flames of dissent. Take his multiple broken promises. With each one he lit spot fires among the myriad of people adversely affected by them - in health, in education, in social services, and in the ABC and SBS. And after anointing himself as Minister for Women, he ignored the substantial female talent on his backbench, appointed only one more to his frontbench, and thereby kindled fires of resentment among female politicians, advocates and feminists. Take his wedging. His favourite political tactic was to wedge his opponents at every opportunity, to make them squirm as he lit political fires around them, hoping to burn them and their political position. Sometimes he did this in anticipation, knowing how much more difficult it is for politicians to achieve an objective with a fire pursuing them. Perhaps his most grotesque attempt at wedging was in March this year when he perverted what is normally an apolitical document, the Intergenerational Report, to deliberately paint Labor as profligate incompetents who were propelling the nation to irredeemable debt. Even after he was replaced, he tried a back burn from the backbench to unsettle his successor, using his faithful print and radio shock jocks to try to convince the public that he could have won the next election, leaving the question hanging: ‘Why then did the Liberals bother to change their leader at all?’ If he thinks his firefighting prowess will persuade his colleagues that he deserves a second chance, as was afforded Kevin Rudd and now Malcolm Turnbull, he is sadly deluded. Delusion seems to be endemic though, if one can judge from his Treasurer’s valedictory speech. After the way his successor has doused many of the fires he lit, who would be brave enough to risk giving this man with his flamethrower a second go? The nation is grateful to see the back of the one who has lit so many political fires, fires that have threatened so many. Their eyes are still irritated by the lingering smoke, their lungs still choked by acrid fumes from smoldering embers, their energy sapped by the constant threat of more fires breaking our here, there and everywhere. In a few weeks they have seen how much more comfortable political life is when fires are not deliberately lit, when small fires are quickly extinguished, when fuel reduction burns diminish the threat, when the leader pours water on the flames, not fuel. After the bushfire, everyone is breathing easier as the threat eases, except of course the fire lighter himself! What do you think, or more importantly, how do you feel now that the smoke is settling? We would like to know.