Last week saw an unprecedented outbreak of large, intense fires stretching from the mid-north coast of New South Wales into central Queensland.
The most tragic losses are concentrated in northern NSW, where 970,000 hectares have been burned, three people have died, and at least 150 homes have been destroyed.
A catastrophic fire warning for Tuesday has been issued for the Greater Sydney, Greater Hunter, Shoalhaven and Illawarra areas. It is the first time Sydney has received a catastrophic rating since the rating system was developed in 2009.
No relief is in sight from this extremely hot, dry and windy weather, and the extraordinary magnitude of these fires is likely to increase in the coming week. Alarmingly, as Australians increasingly seek a sea-change or tree-change, more people are living in the path of these destructive fires.
Large fires have happened before in northern NSW and southern Queensland during spring and early summer (for example in 1994, 1997, 2000, 2002, and 2018 in northern NSW). But this latest extraordinary situation raises many questions.
It is as if many of the major fires in the past are now being rerun concurrently. What is unprecedented is the size and number of fires rather than the seasonal timing.
The potential for large, intense fires is determined by four fundamental ingredients: a continuous expanse of fuel; extensive and continuous dryness of that fuel; weather conditions conducive to the rapid spread of fire; and ignitions, either human or lightning. These act as a set of switches, in series: all must be “on” for major fires to occur.
The NSW north coast and tablelands, along with much of the southern coastal regions of Queensland are famous for their diverse range of eucalypt forest, heathlands and rainforests, which flourish in the warm temperate to subtropical climate.
These forests and shrublands can rapidly accumulate bushfire fuels such as leaf litter, twigs and grasses. The unprecedented drought across much of Australia has created exceptional dryness, including high-altitude areas and places like gullies, water courses, swamps and steep south-facing slopes that are normally too wet to burn.
These typically wet parts of the landscape have literally evaporated, allowing fire to spread unimpeded. The drought has been particularly acute in northern NSW where record low rainfall has led to widespread defoliation and tree death. It is no coincidence current fires correspond directly with hotspots of record low rainfall and above-average temperatures.
Thus, the North Coast and northern ranges of NSW as well as much of southern and central Queensland have been primed for major fires. A continuous swathe of critically dry fuels across these diverse landscapes existed well before last week, as shown by damaging fires in September and October.
High temperatures and wind speeds, low humidity, and a wave of new ignitions on top of pre-existing fires has created an unprecedented situation of multiple large, intense fires stretching from the coast to the tablelands and parts of the interior.
Many parts of the NSW north coast, southern Queensland and adjacent hinterlands have seen population growth around major towns and cities, as people look for pleasant coastal and rural homes away from the capital cities.
The extraordinary number and ferocity of these fires, plus the increased exposure of people and property, have contributed to the tragic results of the past few days.
How a bushfire can destroy a home
Communities flanked by forests along the coast and ranges are highly vulnerable because of the way fires spread under the influence of strong westerly winds. Coastal communities wedged between highly flammable forests and heathlands and the sea, are particularly at risk.
As a full picture of the extent and location of losses and damage becomes available, we will see the extent to which planning, building regulations, and fire preparation has mitigated losses and damage.
These unprecedented fires are an indication that a much-feared future under climate change may have arrived earlier than predicted. The week ahead will present high-stakes new challenges.
The most heavily populated region of the nation is now at critically dry levels of fuel moisture, below those at the time of the disastrous Christmas fires of 2001 and 2013. Climate change has been predicted to strongly increase the chance of large fires across this region. The conditions for Tuesday are a real and more extreme manifestation of these longstanding predictions.
Whatever the successes and failures in this crisis, it is likely that we will have to rethink the way we plan and prepare for wildfires in a hotter, drier and more flammable world.
With the re-election of the Berejiklian government, New South Wales now has a minister for public spaces, Rob Stokes. This portfolio was first mooted in February, when the premier announced one of the new minister’s tasks would be to identify and protect publicly owned land for use as parks or public spaces.
As important as this task is, we need even more ambition in this portfolio. Public space is crucial to the social, economic, political and environmental life of our towns and cities. As well as increasing the quantity of public spaces, we need to improve their quality.
Here are ten priorities for government action to make our public spaces more plentiful and more accessible to all.
1. Rein in privately owned public spaces
From Barangaroo to Bonnyrigg, public spaces in new urban developments are often owned and controlled by private developers. The public has little say over the rules that govern these spaces and how those rules are enforced. Restrictions are often excessive, and private security guards are known to overstep their powers.
The minister for public space should map the extent of privately owned public spaces and ensure these are governed by the same, democratically determined laws that cover publicly owned public spaces.
2. Strategic purchases of private land
As well as identifying publicly owned land that could be used for parks or public spaces, the minister should identify privately owned land that could be acquired for the same purpose. The gradual purchase of harbour foreshore property in Glebe has resulted in a wonderful and well-used foreshore walk. Similar opportunities to create public space networks should be identified and planned.
3. Unlock the gates
Too much publicly owned public space is under-utilised because it is locked up. Across the city, ovals and public school playgrounds are fenced off from the public for much of the year when they are not in use. We own these spaces – when they’re not in use for sport or school, we should have access to them.
As minister for education, Stokes recently trialled a program of opening some school playgrounds during school holidays. This should be done across the city. And councils should be required to show cause if they want to restrict access to any public spaces they own.
4. Stop the temporary enclosures
A growing number of park authorities and local governments are doing deals with private companies to temporarily fence off public spaces for commercial activities. Sometimes they do this for days, sometimes for weeks and even months. They do it because they’re short of funds and need the revenue.
While programming events in public spaces can help attract crowds, we must halt the creeping logic of commercialisation, which results in us being charged money for access to our own spaces. The minister for public space should ensure park authorities do not need to depend on commercial funding for survival.
5. Maintain footpaths
The quality of footpaths makes a world of difference for many people. Think of parents with prams, little kids, people with mobility issues, and older people for whom falls are a big health risk. Our footpaths need to be wide and their surfaces even. They also need to incorporate places to rest.
The capacity of local governments to maintain footpaths is highly uneven. Public spaces in wealthy areas are gold-plated, while in other parts of the city footpaths are too often in poor condition or non-existent. The minister must think about the role that state government can play in evening things out, assisting local governments where required.
6. Provide public toilets
As with footpaths, the provision of public toilets can make the difference between going out or staying at home for many people. The minister should use existing data to audit the provision and accessibility of public toilets in public spaces across the city, identify gaps and fund improvements where required.
7. Less private advertising, more public expression
While advertising on the Opera House generated controversy, the creeping spread of commercial advertising in public space is also of concern. All this advertising is commercialising our public spaces and crowding out other forms of public expression – from neighbourhood notices about community events and lost cats to murals and street art.
The minister should work with local governments to limit the amount of advertising in public space, and extract more public good from any advertising revenues raised in public space.
Is there any way to stop ad creep?
8. No more sniffer dogs and strip searches
The policing of public spaces makes a huge difference to its accessibility. Exclusionary policing strategies – especially the use of drug sniffer dogs and rising use of strip searches – should be stopped.
These tactics are not only put to work at festivals, but also around train stations and entertainment precincts. They are ineffective in leading to prosecutions and are too often used to shame, intimidate and harass people without basis.
The minister for public space needs to challenge the minister for police about this form of policing.
9. Care not control
This is not say that safety is unimportant. We know that fear of harassment and assault stops some people using public space, not least women who often experience this.
However, we must not equate “feeling safe” with “more police” and “more surveillance cameras”. Indeed, sometimes these can have the perverse effect of making people feel less safe, by producing atmospheres of threat.
We feel safer when there are others around caring for the space. So, the minister should investigate ways to encourage these forms of care. Simple measures like later opening hours for neighbourhood shops, or staff on railway platforms and train carriages, can make a big difference.
10. Plant more trees
We need more trees in our public spaces – not just in parks, but on residential and commercial streets too. This is especially important in parts of the city where summer temperatures are already extreme for weeks at a time. Not only do trees help to cool these spaces, they also encourage more biodiversity and combat carbon emissions.
The minister should establish, and fund, a meaningful target for tree planting in public spaces.
This list of suggestions is far from exhaustive. But these reforms and others ought to be on the drawing board as the minister for public space sets about his new work.
It must be hoped this new portfolio is more than a tokenistic attempt to create the appearance of action on public space, in the face of criticism of this government’s record on privatisation of public assets.
“It’s not a game of SimCity,” NSW treasurer, Dominic Perrottet assured viewers on the ABC’s NSW election night coverage. “Sydney’s under construction”, he added, acknowledging the Coalition government’s unfinished infrastructure projects are causing grief, but noting, “I don’t sense any baseball bats”. He was right.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s Liberal-National government was returned to office on Saturday night, albeit on a slender margin. With the victory came some wreckage, and largely unexpected beneficiaries. This poll was predicted to be decided in the bush, and that’s where the movement occurred.
The Nationals lost the long held seats of Murray and Barwon on swings of around 27% and 21% respectively. And it was the Shooters, Farmers and Fishers that swept the field, capitalising on internal Nationals strife and pledging to act on the fish kill, water security and the drought.
The Shooters also consolidated the slender claim they had on Orange after the 2017 byelection, securing a 37% swing to make the central west firmly their own. A possible tempering of the Shooters vote in light of events in Christchurch didn’t eventuate, with victorious Orange candidate, Phil Donato, telling Channel Seven, “there wasn’t a real lot of talk about it”, adding, “it’s unfortunate it was politicised by the government.”
NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro remarked that his was “not a party of ideology” but a “party of geography”. He wasn’t wrong. While they incurred considerable drops in support in parts of the central, southern and outer west of the state, the Nationals actually attracted a swing of, on average, 5.6% across the seats of Clarence, Cootamundra, Monaro, Northern Tablelands and Oxley. Nevertheless, their Coalition partners were clearly concerned at the federal implications. Progressive Liberal Trent Zimmerman reserved particular scorn for Barnaby Joyce, arguing the NSW result confirmed, “he should spend more time in Tamworth and less time on TV”.
Newly-minted independent, Joe McGirr, has made Wagga Wagga his own, retaining the seat he won from the Liberals at last year’s byelection and building his buffer to over 15%. Long-standing Lake Macquarie independent, Greg Piper has put the one-time Labor stronghold squarely out of reach, picking up a 12% swing in the process. Depending on the flow of votes in the lower house, there is talk Piper will be approached for the speakership.
Affirming this election’s broad trend away from the major parties, Alex Greenwich retained Sydney with a roughly 3% swing in his favour. While still in doubt, independent Mathew Dickerson is making a very close run affair of Dubbo, nudging the high profile Nationals’ candidate, Dugald Saunders, a former ABC radio host.
Unlike the independents and the Shooters, One Nation was never going to secure lower house representation. But it did make notable inroads in urban areas. At last count, the NSW arm of Pauline Hanson’s party was odds on to usurp the Greens as the third force in Sydney metropolitan seats like Camden, Holsworthy, Penrith and Wollondilly.
Despite their recent internal turmoil, the Greens made a strong showing in lower house voting. Jamie Parker (Balmain) and Jenny Leong (Newtown) substantially grew their base, securing swings of 6.4 and 5.1% respectively. While in the north, Tamara Smith expanded her two-party preferred vote to over 57%.
The struggle to take neighbouring Lismore is going down to the wire, with former federal Labor MP, Janelle Saffin a chance to pull ahead of the Greens and Nationals in a complex three-way preference contest.
The outcome for the Greens and the Coalition in the upper house won’t be determined for some time. The trend towards minor parties and independents in the lower house, however, suggests that they will feature substantially in the 21 Legislative Council spots in play.
One Nation’s Mark Latham looks to have secured the required 4.55% vote share, with his party a chance for a second. At last count, the Coalition had just over seven spots, Labor six the Greens two and the Shooters one. The eventual upper house composition will almost certainly see the Coalition required to deal with a significantly expanded and unwieldy crossbench; a change from their current, more predictable arrangements, usually with the Christian Democrats.
This election will be remembered as a contest of clear delineations for the Coalition. While their partners, the Nationals, took substantial hits in the bush, the Liberals managed to hold the line in the city, losing Coogee, but retaining marginal East Hills, against the odds.
Labor leader Michael Daley’s “schools and hospitals before stadiums” message may have found traction in pre-election polling and with parts of the electorate, but it wasn’t sufficient for a relatively untested leader to take down a government pledging to “get it done” on infrastructure programs worth over A$80 billion.
Getting it done is the task now for the Berejiklian government, who will be looking to deliver on the large scale but delay-plagued infrastructure projects it has undertaken. Pressing ahead with that agenda won’t be easy for a government skirting a possible minority in the lower house and an unknown quantity in the upper house.
As for Labor, Daley is seeking to stick it out. Barring the stumbles of the last week of his campaign, he has performed remarkably well for a leader in the job only four months, fronting a party that only eight years ago suffered one of the worst electoral defeats in Australian political history. That might not matter to those seeking a new leadership direction after Saturday’s result.
Scott Morrison couldn’t wait for NSW opposition leader Michael Daley’s concession speech on Saturday night. Morrison leapt to the stage at the Liberals’ function, speaking ahead of Gladys Berejiklian, to hail the victory of her government.
For the federal Liberals, the night was a vital morale booster, though the result had been determined mostly on state factors.
Consider what could have happened. Months ago all the talk was how the NSW government feared that going to the people ahead of its federal counterpart meant it would take a serious knock from voters wanting to protest against the Morrison government.
That knock (and attendant backbiting) didn’t come. The polls suggest it is in the pipeline, but if it had been delivered prematurely it would have blown away Morrison’s messages.
The Liberals would delude themselves if they took too much heart from NSW. But at a psychological level it will lift the spirits of their MPs and campaign workers, and provide a better climate in which to launch the April 2 budget than if Labor had won or done significantly better.
Some in Labor are concerned the NSW result breaks the momentum for the federal opposition – that feeling of total inevitability about a Bill Shorten win. If, on the back of this result, the next Newspoll saw a tightening, there’d be a sharp intake of breath in ALP circles.
Both the NSW and federal Liberals have had change at the top since their previous elections. But the difference is dramatic. The federal Liberals tore down a leader in a coup driven by ideology and revenge. The NSW Liberals saw Mike Baird exit and a smooth handover to Berejiklian. The nature of the succession helped set her up for this election.
The Liberals are making much of the fact Berejiklian becomes the first woman to be elected as NSW premier. But that piece of history doesn’t offset the reality that women are thin on the ground in the federal parliamentary party and will remain so after the election.
The failure of NSW Labor has reinforced the message that the actual campaign matters.
Perhaps the ALP wouldn’t have come close even with a better final week. But until then the commentary judged the Berejiklian campaign as poor. Then the video emerged of Daley saying Asians were taking local jobs. He had another own goal when, questioned at a people’s forum, he couldn’t recall the detail of his own policies.
The contrast was stark: a premier who knew what she was doing, and an opposition leader who wasn’t sure what he was promising.
Federally, the 2016 election showed the importance of the last few weeks before voters make their choice. Malcolm Turnbull performed poorly on the hustings and nearly lost.
Indeed, campaigns may matter increasingly. The contemporary electorate is very volatile. And are some voters so disgusted with politics they refuse to listen to the noise until close to election day?
The NSW results also underlined that local campaigns are pivotal. The performance of individual MPs and the quality of candidates can be critical when voters are often focused as much or more on what is happening in their own backyard as on the central messages coming through the media.
The Nationals have been big losers out of the NSW poll, with huge swings in some areas. Two of their seats have gone – Barwon and Murray, won by the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers – and a third, Lismore, is in the balance but likely to be lost to Labor.
In the first two, water was a crucial issue. More generally, the Nationals are having trouble convincing their constituencies they can deliver for them; they’ve become hostage to regional voters’ belief they get a worse deal in services than city people. The siren call of protest parties is potent.
The federal Nationals – who are taking a little comfort from modest positive swings in some other areas – don’t have to worry about the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers winning seats in May.
But, coming against the background of destabilisation in their ranks, the state losses will further unnerve them as they face their test with weak leadership and doubtful prospects.
Michael McCormack is safe until the election but he struggles to manage an unsettled bunch. It seemed very deliberate that Liberal senator Arthur Sinodinos on Sunday went out of his way to give a shout-out to McCormack.
“Let me make it very clear: Scott Morrison, Josh Frydenberg, Arthur Sinodinos for what it’s worth, and all the other members of the Liberal-National coalition back Michael McCormack as the leader to go into the election,” Sinodinos said on the ABC.
The Nationals have several lower house seats vulnerable in May. They’ll need to differentiate themselves from the Liberals – as they did in 2016 – but how effectively McCormack can execute this is another matter.
Former leader Barnaby Joyce, a campaigning asset for the Nationals – and by extension the government – in 2016, now runs off the leash, often sounding quite wild. His aggressive performance on Seven was the talk of the election-night TV coverage.
In a clear signal to Joyce, Sinodinos said his campaigning ability should be “used to the greater good of the Coalition”. NSW federal Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman put it more bluntly – Joyce should “spend more time in Tamworth and less time on TV”. But the man who declared on Saturday night “we’ve got to stop taking our political advice from the ABC” is unlikely to be tuning into those who want him to turn his volume down.
The NSW outcome probably puts even more eggs in the budget basket.
Sinodinos highlighted its tax cuts as a campaigning counter to Labor’s line on wages.
“When the ACTU and others are out there talking about ‘we need a wage increase of X’, that’s a pre-tax wage increase. You can get an equivalent effect through a proper tax cut for low and middle income earners,” he said. “So we’ll be saying that until our policies kick in to help lift wages even further, the way to do this is through tax cuts focussed on low and middle income earners”.
As is so often observed, people distinguish between their state and federal votes. For the federal battle, this NSW poll has not thrown any switch – it has just made some readjustment to the temperature.