It’s hard to estimate the eventual economic cost of Australia’s 2019-20 megafires, partly because they are still underway, and partly because it is hard to know the cost to attribute to deaths and the decimation of species and habitats, but it is easy to get an idea of its significance – the cost will be unprecedented.
The deadliest bushfires in the past 200 years took place in 1851, then 1939, then 1983, 2009, now 2019-20. The years between them are shrinking rapidly. Only a remote grassfire in central Australia in 1974-75 rivalled them in terms of size, although not in biomass burnt or loss of life.
The term “megafire” is a new one, defined in the early 2000s to help describe disturbing new wildfires emerging in the United States – massive blazes, usually above 400,000 hectares, often joining up, that create more than usual destruction to life and property.
Australia’s current fires dwarf the US fires that inspired the term.
They are 25 times the size of Australia’s deadliest bushfires, the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria that directly killed 173 people, and so large and intense that they create their own weather in which winds throw embers 30 kilometres or more ahead of the front and pyro-cumulus clouds produce dry lightning that ignites new fires.
The Black Saturday fires burnt 430,000 hectares. The current fires have killed fewer people but have so far burnt 10.7 million hectares – an area the size of South Korea, or Scotland and Wales combined.
The federal government has promised to put at least A$2 billion into a National Bushfire Recovery Fund, which is roughly the size of the first estimate of the cost of the fires calculated by Terry Rawnsley of SGS Economics and Planning.
He put the cost at somewhere between A$1.5 and $2.5 billion, using his firm’s modelling of the cost of the NSW Tathra fires in March 2018 as a base.
It’s the total of the lost income from farm production, tourism and the like.
It is possible to get an idea of wider costs using the findings of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission.
It came up with an estimate for tangible costs of A$4.369 billion, which after inflation would be about $5 billion in today’s dollars.
Tangible costs are hose easily measured including the cost of replacing things such as destroyed homes, contents and vehicles.
They also include the human lives lost, which were valued at A$3.7 million per life (2009 dollars) in accordance with a Commonwealth standard.
The measure didn’t include the effect of injuries and shortened lives due to smoke-related stroke and cardiovascular and lung diseases, or damage to species and habitats, the loss of livestock, grain and feed, crops, orchards and national and local parks.
Also excluded were “inangibles”, among them the social costs of mental health problems and unemployment and increases in suicide, substance abuse, relationship breakdowns and domestic violence.
The cost of inangibles can peak years after a disaster and continue to take tolls for decades, if not generations.
One attempt to estimate the cost of intangibles was made by Deloitte Access Economics, in work for the Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience & Safer Communities.
Deloitte put the tangible costs of the Black Saturday fires at A$3.1 billion in 2015 dollars and the intangible costs at more than that again: A$3.9 billion, producing a total of A$7 billion, which would be A$7.6 billion in today’s dollars.
This season’s megafires are, so far, less costly than the 2009 Victorian fires in terms of human life, roughly on par in terms of lost homes, and less costly for other structures.
But given that considerably more land has been burnt we can expect other costs to eclipse those of Black Saturday.
As of today, 25 times as much land has been burnt.
Scaling up the royal commission’s Black Saturday figures for the size of the fire and scaling them down for the fewer deaths and other things that shouldn’t be scaled up produces an estimate of tangible costs of A$103 billion in today’s dollars.
The Deloitte Access Economics ratio of intangible to tangible costs suggests a total for both types of costs of A$230 billion.
As it happens the tangible costs estimate is close to an estimate of A$100 billion prepared using methods by University of Queensland economist John Quiggin.
The reality won’t be clear for some time.
There are several weeks of fire season remaining, and we are yet to reach the usual peak season for Victoria, which is in the first week of February.
What we can safely say, with weeks left to go, is that these fires are by far Australia’s costliest natural disaster.
Paul Read, Climate Criminologist & Senior Instructor/Lecturer, Faculty of Medicine, Monash University and Richard Denniss, Adjunct Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been harshly criticised for being on holiday in Hawaii as the catastrophic bushfires were burning Australia.
Since his return, he has visited stricken communities – most recently, on Kangaroo Island yesterday. He has acknowledged the emotional toll on victims and promised practical support.
But the criticism continues. Every detail of the prime minister’s performance is being scrutinised via the 24/7 news cycle and social media. There is plenty of scope for perceived missteps, and little tolerance of them.
Disaster of any kind throws qualities of leadership – or the perceived lack thereof – under the spotlight. By what criteria, then, do we evaluate a leader’s performance at such times? What do we look for?
These are questions that have guided my research on how prime ministers have historically connected with Australians during times of peril.
During crises, people expect two things, broadly speaking. One is practical information, advice and support to minimise the risk faced by those directly impacted. The other is “humanistic communication” – or, the ability to offer comfort.
Last March, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern showed both of these qualities in her decisive response to the massacre of 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch.
She immediately provided detailed information and promised aid and tighter gun control measures. And she unambiguously aligned all New Zealanders with the Muslim community by what she said – “They are us” – and by standing with community leaders and comforting those in distress.
Importantly, Ardern also wore a headscarf when meeting the families of victims. This was seen as a strong and culturally sensitive statement of solidarity and support – a mark of good political leadership.
Australian leaders have long shown strength in times of need, but the way they do so has changed over time. Today, there’s much more emphasis on being visible.
Following the Black Sunday bushfires in Victoria in 1926, for example, The Age printed a speech by Prime Minister Stanley Bruce in which he promised federal government aid and praised the heroism and altruism of Australians.
When the Black Friday fires devastated the state 13 years later, The Age quoted an “appalled” Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, who promised aid and expressed his “heartfelt sympathy” to victims.
But nothing was said in the newspapers back then about either prime minister interacting directly with victims.
A leader wouldn’t get away with that these days. Since televisions became ubiquitous in people’s homes, it’s become necessary for leaders to be on the ground following a disaster, surveying damage and consoling victims.
Prime Minister Harry Holt, a savvy user of the media in the early years of television, travelled to Tasmania in the aftermath of the Black Tuesday fires in 1967. Holt said he had to go to see for himself, to better understand people’s experience and needs. A detailed study of the 1967 bushfire response notes that Holt’s visit, while short, “caught the imagination” of journalists, who reported his reaction to the devastation in vivid detail.
For a prime minister, such visits are also a chance to express those inherent qualities of “Australianness” that guarantee a full recovery. Everything that is said and done matters, which is why small details are heavily scrutinised.
People do not expect to be held at arm’s length on these occasions. Expressions of empathy are often reinforced by physical contact, even hugs.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd demonstrated this following fires in Victoria in 2009, as did John Howard in the wake of the fires that swept through Canberra in 2003. They shook hands, patted backs and embraced survivors and emergency service workers.
Others have got it completely wrong. Among his many missteps in his response to Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush delayed returning to Washington from his vacation by two whole days. An image of him surveying the damage from Air Force One then backfired – a decision Bush later called a “huge mistake”.
When Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas in 2017, President Donald Trump was likewise criticised for paying too little attention to victims when he toured the site. And after the Grenfell Tower fire in London, UK Prime Minister Theresa May admitted that not meeting residents on her first visit was a mistake.
Misjudging what type of response is welcome from a leader also risks being seen as symptomatic of poor leadership, of being out of touch with the people. As we saw recently with Morrison, not everybody appreciates a handshake.
Even what a leader wears may be important. First Lady Melania Trump, for instance, was widely mocked for wearing stiletto heels to tour the Harvey devastation.
And when Prime Minister Julia Gillard went to Queensland in early 2011 following extensive flooding and held a press conference with Premier Anna Bligh, some commentators focused on the differences in their attire. Gillard, with her tidy suit, was criticised for not striking the right note. Bligh’s more casual appearance, meanwhile, had the look of someone more in touch with the suffering of the people.
The reactions to Morrison’s handling of the bushfires shows how important these qualities are in our presidents and prime ministers and how they will continue to influence perceptions of leadership in times of crisis.
Just as every leader is different, every disaster also requires a distinct approach. Each demands quick and sensitive judgements about what’s appropriate for the occasion. Reaction to any perceived errors of judgement will be swift and will spread quickly.
Above all, we look for authenticity in these moments, rather than obviously scripted photo opportunities. And in times of crisis, we’re more attuned to those out-of-touch moments when authenticity seems to be lacking.
Some people find managing their medication difficult at the best of times. But in an emergency, like a bushfire or cyclone, this can be harder still.
As catastrophic bushfires burn across Australia, here’s what to think about as part of your emergency planning to make sure you have access to the medicines you need.
As part of your emergency plan, list your medications and where you keep them, along with contact details for your doctor and pharmacist and any other relevant emergency services.
If you have advanced warning of emergency conditions, check both your supply of tablets and any prescriptions you may need. Your prescription label will tell you how many repeats you have left. Try and keep at least one week’s medication on hand.
If you need to evacuate, know how best to store and transport your medication. Most medications for conditions such as blood pressure or cholesterol need to be stored below 25-30℃. These medications will be OK if temperatures are higher than this for short periods of time, while you transport them.
Medicines sensitive to temperature will need to be stored or transported with cold packs in an insulated container of some sort, such as an esky. Putting them in a ziplock bag will help protect them from moisture.
Insulin is one common medication you need to store cold. Your current insulin pen can be stored at room temperature. But store unused pens with a cold pack in an esky until you find refrigeration.
This also applies to thyroxine tablets. Fourteen days supply (usually one strip of tablets) is OK if stored at room temperature. But keep the rest with a cold pack. If you don’t think it will be possible to keep the rest below 25℃ for a long time, also keep these with the cold pack.
Many antibiotic syrups, such as cefalexin, also need to be kept cold. But check the dispensing label or speak to your pharmacist if you are not sure.
If you are caught without essential medication, doctors and pharmacists can help in a number of ways.
This is easier if you have a regular GP and pharmacist who will both have a complete record of your medication. Your pharmacist can call your GP and obtain verbal approval to supply your medication. Your GP will then need to fax or email the prescription to your pharmacist as soon as possible and mail the original script within seven days.
Pharmacists can also dispense emergency supplies of cholesterol medicines and oral contraceptives, so long as you already take them. Under so-called continued dispensing arrangements, pharmacists can dispense a single pack of these medicines once every 12 months.
If you cannot get in touch with your GP, in an emergency, most states allow a pharmacist to dispense a three-day supply of your medication. But this is only if the pharmacist has enough information to make that judgement.
Some medicines, such as strong pain medications and sleeping tablets, are not covered by these provisions.
People with existing lung conditions (such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or bronchitis), older people, young children and pregnant women are most likely to be vulnerable to the effect of bushfire smoke. They can also have symptoms long after a bushfire if fine particulate matter is still in the air.
If you have a respiratory condition, follow the action plan you will have already discussed with your doctor, which outlines what to do in an emergency.
This plan includes instructions on what you should do if your asthma gets worse, such as taking extra doses or additional medication. It also tells you when you should contact your doctor or go to the emergency department.
If you have a respiratory condition, such as asthma, and live in a bush fire prone zone, this action plan needs to be part of your fire safety survival plan.
You also need to make sure you have enough preventer and reliever medications, for asthma for example, to hand just in case there is an emergency.
If you don’t have an action plan, taking four separate puffs of your reliever medication may relieve acute symptoms. This applies for adults and children.
Being prepared for an emergency, like a bushfire, goes a long way to keeping you and your family safe. That applies to thinking about your supply of medicines well in advance, if possible.
But if conditions change rapidly and you need to evacuate, an esky containing medicines for a few days, and contact numbers for your GP and pharmacist, could save your life.
Emergency crews have retrieved six bodies on Friday and continue to search for two further victims of Monday’s volcanic eruption at Whakaari/White Island.
The people on the island were tourists and tour guides, including visitors from Australia, the UK, China and Malaysia, along with New Zealanders. Several of the tourists were passengers from the cruise ship Ovation of the Seas.
But the question being asked now is why tourists were allowed on such a dangerous island. This will probably feature prominently in investigations – both by police and WorkSafe.
White Island is privately owned, and only permitted operators are allowed to take tourists on guided tours. White Island Tours is one of the main operators in Whakatane, a township on the east coast of the North Island, and they had people on the island yesterday.
This operator has stringent safety checks and was even named New Zealand’s safest place to work in a workplace safety award last year.
But earlier this month, GeoNet had raised the alert level to two (out of five), due to “moderate and heightened volcanic unrest”. Should that have caused enough concern to discontinue tours to the island?
Hindsight is always 20/20, but any visit to an active volcano, or volcanic field bears a certain amount of risk, and usually it is managed by governmental bodies generally, and the tourism industry in particular.
The management, or lack thereof, varies by country and jurisdiction. Commonly, organisations such as GeoNet provide real time updates on volcanic activities and issue warnings of potential hazards. In the case of White Island, it falls ultimately to the operators to decide whether or not to send tours to the island on any given day.
Management strategies include multi-lingual signage, such as in Japan, and the closure of active sites, such as in Hawaii.
Often, volcanic geologists are able to read early signs of activity, and predict eruptions hours, if not days in advance. But this is not always the case, as we saw yesterday and in the 2007 eruption of Mount Ruapehu.
Volcano tourism is a subset of adventure tourism, and New Zealand has had its fair share of incidents in this sector. Many will remember the collapse of a viewing platform at Cave Creek in 1995, where 14 people died. After the collapse, the Department of Conservation (DOC) inspected more than 500 structures, resulting in the closure of 65.
A commission of inquiry found a number of shortcomings in the building of the platform and DOC took responsibility for the accident. Since then, New Zealand law has changed so government departments can be held responsible and liable for negligence in offences under the Building Act.
Worldwide, there have been several deadly volcanic eruptions, including Japan’s Mount Ontake in 2014. This steam-driven eruption occurred without clear warning and killed 63 people hiking the mountain, in what became the country’s most deadly eruption in nearly 90 years.
New Zealand promotes itself as the adventure capital of the world, and it is a fine balance for an operator to provide the (often advertised) excitement the thrill-seeking tourists are looking for, and the safety of everybody involved.
Research shows the majority of thrill-seekers are looking for risk, but in a controlled way. The adrenaline rush is paramount, but they don’t seriously want to be at risk of injury or loss of life.
The tragic events of White Island reiterate that we must be vigilant, and have excellent risk management strategies in place. Perhaps it is time for the tourism industry, government and volcanic experts to review current rules. We can minimise the risk, but we can never totally rule it out.
Any adventure tourist must be aware of the potential risk they are taking and should check the tour operator’s website for information about the risk they’d be undertaking, and how the tour operator plans to manage it. If the operator doesn’t have this information available – choose another one.
Five days after a sudden volcanic eruptions on Whakaari/White Island, off the east coast of New Zealand, on Monday, emergency crews have retrieved six bodies and continue to search for two further victims.
The island is a tourist destination and 47 people were on it when it erupted on Monday afternoon.
Volcanologists at GeoNet, which operates a geological hazard monitoring system, described the eruption as impulsive and short-lived, with an ash plume that rose to more than three kilometres above the vent.
White Island is one of several volcanoes in New Zealand that can produce sudden explosive eruptions at any time. In this case, magma is shallow, and the heat and gases affect surface and ground water to form vigorous hydrothermal systems.
In these, water is trapped in pores of rocks in a super-heated state. Any external process, such as an earthquake, gas input from below, or even a change in the lake water level can tip this delicate balance and release the pressure on the hot and trapped water.
The resulting steam-driven eruption, also called a hydrothermal or phreatic eruption, can happen suddenly and with little to no warning. The expansion of water into steam is supersonic in speed and the liquid can expand to 1,700 times its original volume. This produces catastrophic impacts.
The expansion energy is enough to shatter solid rock, excavate craters and eject rock fragments and ash out to hundreds of metres away from the vent. We know of sites in New Zealand where material has been blasted out over three kilometres from the vent by such eruptions.
The hazards expected from steam-driven eruptions are violent ejections of hot blocks and ash, and the formation of “hurricane-like” currents of wet ash and coarse particles that radiate from the explosion vent. These can be deadly in terms of impact trauma, burns and respiratory injuries.
The eruptions are short-lived, but once one happens, there is a high chance for further, generally smaller ones as the system re-equilibrates. White Island is an acute location for such activity, but it is not the only location in New Zealand where this can happen.
Mount Ruapehu (crater lake), Mount Tongariro (Te Maari and Ketetahi) and geothermal areas of the central North Island all have the potential to cause such events. We know there have been more than 60 hydrothermal eruptions in the last 100 years in New Zealand. Some of these have caused loss of life.
Monitoring and warning for hydrothermal eruptions is a huge challenge. We don’t normally see these eruptions coming, no matter how much we would like to. Many systems are already “primed” for such events, but the triggers are poorly understood.
The warning periods, once an event gets underway, are likely in the order of seconds to minutes. Our only hope for anticipating these events is to track potential vapour and liquid pressure in hydrothermal systems and to learn from their long-term behaviour when they are at a super-critical state. Unfortunately there are no simple rules that can be followed and each hydrothermal system is different.
In this age of technology and instrumental monitoring, it seems irrational that there should be little or no warning for such eruptions. The eruption is not caused by magma, but by steam, and this is much harder to track in our current monitoring systems.
We have seen several other fatal hydrothermal catastrophies unfold in other parts of the world, such as the 2014 eruption of Mount Ontake in Japan. New Zealand has been luckier than many other parts of the world, until now.
Calls are growing for a national bushfire plan, including from former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who says they are an issue of national security and the federal government must provide hands-on leadership.
It’s true that more people are living in high-risk bushfire areas, emergency services are stretched and the climate is rapidly changing. Future crises are inevitable. We must consider the prospect of a monstrous bushfire season, the likes of which we’ve never seen.
But bushfires aren’t the only catastrophe Australia must prepare for. If we are to create a national crisis plan, we must go much further than bushfire planning.
In the decade since Victoria’s Black Saturday fires, we have improved fire predictions, night-time aerial firefighting, construction codes and emergency warnings. All of these have no doubt saved many lives.
There are calls for more resources to fight fires, as part of a coordinated national plan. But few people have proposed an all-encompassing vision of such a plan.
Any plan must provide a strategic vision across these various facets for at least the next ten to 20 years.
Calls for a national firefighting force to supplement existing state resources are fundamentally short-sighted. A national force – quite apart from the level of duplication it would create – would spend much of its time idle.
Even during severe fires, such as those now raging, there would be limits to its usefulness. At a certain point, the size and energy of the fires means no amount of firefighting technology will extinguish them all.
Research conducted by Risk Frontiers, the Australian National University and Macquarie University through the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, has focused on better planning and preparedness for catastrophic events.
This research concludes it is unrealistic to resource the emergency management sector for rare but truly catastrophic events. It is wildly expensive to remain 100% prepared for the worst-case scenario.
Instead of simply scaling up existing arrangements, we need to think differently.
Bush firefighting could be improved by innovation and research. Future investments must focus on rapidly detecting and extinguishing ignitions before they spread out of control.
States and territories are traditionally responsible for emergency management in Australia. But almost by definition, a catastrophic disaster exceeds one’s capacity to cope – inevitably drawing on nationwide resources.
This means preparing for catastrophic disasters is everyone’s responsibility.
Existing plans allow for assistance across state borders, and between state and federal governments. But there is no national emergency legislation defining the Commonwealth’s role, or assigning responsibility for responding to a truly national disaster.
The Australian Defence Force has a well-defined support role in natural disasters, but should not be relied on due to its global commitments.
However, resource-sharing between states could benefit from more investment in programs that enable emergency services to work better together.
International help in massive emergencies also needs better planning, particularly around timing and integration with local agencies.
Non-government organisations, businesses and communities already make valuable contributions, but could play a more central role. We could look to the US, which successfully uses a whole-of-community approach.
This might mean emergency services help community organisation provide aid or carry out rescues, rather than do it themselves. These organisations are also best placed to make sure vulnerable members of the community are cared for.
The most important task is to reduce the risk in the first place. The vast majority of disaster-related spending goes on recovery rather than risk reduction. Calls from the Productivity Commission and the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) for more disaster mitigation funding have been largely ignored.
The federal government’s recent National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework highlights the need to identify highest-priority disaster risks and mitigation opportunities.
This would see priority investments in flood mitigation and strengthening of buildings against cyclones in northern Australia. (This will also help address insurance affordability.)
Land-use planning needs to be improved to reduce the chance that future developments are exposed to unreasonable risks.
Infrastructure must be constructed to the highest standards and, following a disaster, destroyed buildings should be rebuilt away from dangerous areas.
Finally, communities have the most critical role. We must understand our local risk and be ready to look after ourselves and each other. Governments at all levels must facilitate this spirit of self-reliance. Local leadership is crucial to any crisis plan and communities need to be involved in its construction.
Eastern Australia’s bushfire crisis has triggered emotional arguments for throwing resources at the problem. But planning must be careful and evidenced-based, taking into account the changing face of natural disasters.
In the aftermath of the tragedy at Whakaari/White Island on December 9, many are analysing the risks of adventure tourism, particularly volcano tourism, and asking pointed questions.
It is a sensitive time, with 15 people now confirmed dead, many hospitalised in critical condition, and two bodies yet to be retrieved from the disaster zone.
We question whether the tourists caught up in the events actually knew the risks they faced, and whether other tourist groups may be unaware of the potential risks that their travel decisions may carry.
Why were tourists allowed on White Island?
The websites for White Island Tours and the promotion pages on the Bay of Plenty website are currently not viewable. But the Trip Advisor site for Whakaari calls it “New Zealand’s most active volcano”. It mentions the need for gas masks and hard hats and describes conditions of a still active volcano, including steam vents and sulphurous fumes.
But it is doubtful that cruise ship passengers, such as those from the Ovation of the Seas, would have done such research. Cruises offer a variety of shore excursions when in port, ranging from passive sightseeing to adventure activities.
Many tourists will assume endorsed excursions have been properly vetted by their cruise company and assume there is negligible risk to personal safety. But this may not be the case.
Major cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean visit multiple destinations with very different regulatory environments. The assumption that shore excursions will be safe may be misplaced, both by the cruise line and the visitors they book on such excursions. This is now clear from the events at Whakaari but also in previous incidents, such as last year’s fatal bus crash in Mexico.
New Zealand is known as an adventure tourism destination, but its regulatory systems have undergone recent change. After 37 deaths over four years, then prime minister John Key ordered an urgent safety audit in 2009.
This resulted in a shift, from 2013, from a voluntary system under Outdoors New Zealand and the regulatory system under Worksafe NZ to the New Zealand adventure activity certification scheme. Some tour operators have found this audit system too onerous. Striking the right balance between risk management while allowing the adventure tourism sector to thrive has proved difficult.
But the case of Whakaari/White Island is unique in many ways. The island is privately owned. GeoNet monitors volcanic activity and rates the threat level. The tour companies then assess the risk and determine if visits can proceed or should be temporarily suspended.
Three companies have operated tours to Whakaari/White Island, including the Māori-owned White Island Tours (owned by Ngāti Awa). The other two are helicopter companies Kahu and Volcanic Air Safaris. White Island Tours was accredited under AdventureMark, which is a Worksafe NZ approved certification body.
We must await the Worksafe investigation to know whether it was reasonable to allow the tours to go ahead when volcanic risk rating had risen from level 1 to level 2. We also still await the full human toll, knowing that recovery for survivors may take years. It is also clear that the impact on Ngāti Awa and the Whakatāne community has been profound.
In laying out these complexities in which small private tour companies and large internationally owned cruise ships took thousands of visitors to Whakaari each year, we underscore how difficult an assessment of risk might be for some visitors.
Adventure tourists typically make an assessment weighing up risks against the thrills they seek to achieve. New Zealand’s reputation for adventure tourism is built in part on well developed policy settings and regulatory regimes, and an expectation among visitors of high adventure safety standards.
Risk – both perceived and actual – is carefully managed to ensure that perceived risk is high but actual risk is as low as humanly possible. The reputation of the sector and, indeed, the interests of the wider New Zealand tourism industry hinge on high safety standards. For example, bungy jumping appears to be very high risk, but its commercial viability comes from the highly controlled operation, which means actual risk is in fact very low.
Set against this are longstanding activities that take visitors into spectacular settings to experience firsthand the wonders of nature. Such environments do present inherent risk even if many decades may pass between natural events.
The Pink and White Terraces – the largest silica sinter deposit on earth – were a spectacular visitor attraction in the mid-19th century, and the centrepiece of Māori tourism development. That was until they were completely destroyed by the eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886.
New Zealand’s most stunning natural vistas – Aoraki/Mount Cook, the fjords of Te Wahipounamu world heritage area, towering glaciers and raging rivers – are the result of millions of years of seismic activity on the Pacific and Australian tectonic plate boundary. These environments are dynamic and, at times, very destructive.
These settings contrast adventure tourism activities. Risk may be perceived as low or non-existent given that these environments may be largely inactive for years.
In a complex international environment, the ultimate decision to participate in activities in dynamic and potentially destructive environments rests with the visitors.
Ultimately, visitor welfare depends on informed visitor choice. This case highlights the need for consent forms to be signed in many more cases, beyond those already used in adventure tourism and medical tourism.
Such documents should make clear the nature of the possible risks. Elevated risk levels on the day of the visit as well as changing risk levels in the days prior to the scheduled visit should be clearly communicated. Participation should only proceed after informed consent is secured.
Such an approach does not obviate the need for accreditation, audits, regulations and strict oversight by relevant authorities. But it does ensure that tourists play their part in deciding what risks are worth taking on their holidays.
We cannot undo the events that unfolded at Whakaari/ White Island, but we can honour lives lost by making absolutely sure that we learn from this tragedy.
The bipartisan parliamentary vote to transform the A$3.9 billion Building Australia Fund into a pot of cash to drought-proof Australia, the Future Drought Fund, should not be taken as universal endorsement.
Labor opposed the idea before caving in, saying it did not “want to be painted as a party that opposes support for farmers”.
Rather, it simply shows that Australian politicians coalesce on some things: few miss the opportunity to be photographed with an affectionate child, and even fewer are willing to be critical of public funds being handed to drought-stricken farmers.
But support something (or feeling too scared not to oppose something), doesn’t necessarily make it the right policy.
Drought is inevitable, Mr Joyce
Australian governments have sought to drought-proof parts of inland Australia through publicly funded irrigation schemes for much of the past century.
Whenever dryland farmers experienced drought, they were viewed as having experienced a natural disaster, even though the variability of dryland rains was well understood.
Then, from the 1960s, things changed.
First there was a growing realisation that public monies spent on irrigation were not the best means of dealing with a variable climate.
Second, governments started to describe drought differently, culminating in a 1992 National Drought Policy that required farmers to be more self-reliant and absorb the impacts of drought as something to be expected.
The decades that followed continued this trend with all states and the Commonwealth agreeing on national principles in 2013. Concessional loans and a farm management deposit scheme with taxation advantages were available to help farmers, but would only be useful to those that were viable in the long term.
A Farm Household Allowance, set at the level of Newstart and available for up to four years in return for setting out a plan to improve the farmer’s financial circumstances, was also introduced in 2015 and refined in 2018.
Part of the thinking was that climate change is expected to make droughts more common and severe, although there are good reasons for encouraging adaptation to the existing climate in any case.
However, getting the balance right between “supporting” farm businesses and encouraging them to adapt and be self-reliant isn’t straightforward, especially when the climate and political cycles coincide.
It’s hard to imagine politicians being fiscally prudent when they know they have access to a drought slush fund and are heading into an election during a drying phase.
First, there is mounting evidence that farm businesses can actually benefit from drought in the longer term. This seems to occur because businesses that go through a drought develop coping strategies that when invoked in good years produce much greater profits.
That is not to say that droughts are financially a good thing – but it does mean that shielding farm businesses from drought runs the risk that they will not adapt.
Second, an obsession with drought undoes much of the good work done in reclassifying it as something to be expected rather than a natural disaster. Nearly all of the natural disaster payments made in the decade leading up to 2012-13 – one of the driest on record – were spent on rebuilding after floods and storms rather than droughts.
Third, while repurposing the Building Australia Fund as the Future Drought Fund is designed to appeal to rural and regional voters, it is unlikely to help them. Agriculture simply does not generate the jobs that it once did and public pronouncements about drought-proofing will not change the underlying economics of farm businesses and regional communities.
Farming is generally helped by scale, and that means bigger farms with bigger machines displacing smaller farms. The upshot is fewer jobs and the shutdown of small towns, allowing only the larger regional centres to survive. Finding ways to manage this social phenomenon should be the priority rather than shielding farms from drought.
But it’s hard to be optimistic. Politicians love handing cheques to farmers as much as they love photographs with adoring children.