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.
The Queensland government’s in-principle agreement to pay A$190 million in compensation for the wages withheld from more than 10,000 Indigenous workers is a watershed moment for the stolen wages movement.
Indigenous people across Australia have been fighting for their denied and withheld wages for decades, both on the streets and in the courts. There have been some victories along the way and many setbacks.
The significance of the Queensland settlement (to settle a class action) is that it marks the first recognition these claims have legal as well as moral and political merit. Its ramifications are potentially limited, however, given the full injustice of how Indigenous wages were stolen.
Historically Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women found work in farming, mining, roadbuilding, irrigation, fencing, gardening, pearling, sealing, fishing and domestic duties. But they were most concentrated in the cattle industry of northern Australia, from Western Australia to Queensland.
Tens of thousands worked on cattle stations from the 1880s to 1970s. The beef industry could not have survived without them. In 1913, the federal government’s Chief Protector of Aborigines, Baldwin Spencer, noted that “under present conditions, the majority of cattle stations are largely dependent on the work done by black “boys”. In the 1930s, when the rest of the economy floundered in the Great Depression, Indigenous labour helped keep the industry profitable.
Indigenous workers were entitled to be paid two-thirds of other workers, but even then employers often paid them less. Sometimes the low value of their wages was disguised by being paid in food and clothing rations. Sometimes workers were provided “store credit”, which could only be used to buy exorbitantly priced items.
Station managers may have justified under-payment on the basis they were “caring” for workers through providing scant food, clothing and accommodation.
Governments, meanwhile, “withheld” income – often putting money into trust funds that Indigenous people were unable to access. The Queensland government’s $190 million offer is to settle a class action claim for it misappropriating such trust funds.
The fact Indigenous people were vulnerable to such exploitation for decades was made possible by an intricate legislative regime that gave the state expansive powers over their lives. In all states and territories, Aboriginal Protection Acts gave the government officials the power to control the money earned by Indigenous workers.
In Queensland, historian Rosalind Kidd has estimated that 4,500 to 5,500 Indigenous pastoral workers may have lost wage entitlements worth more than $500 million between 1920 and 1968.
There have been redress schemes in Western Australia, Queensland and New South Wales.
The Queensland government set up the first redress scheme in 2002. It set aside $55.6 million to compensate any individuals who could supply documentary evidence their wages or savings were taken by the Queensland government. If they could do so – and there was a deadline of 2006 on claims – the scheme provided an ex gratia payment of $2,000 to $4,000.
These conditions set a high bar, and $21 million went unclaimed.
Western Australia established its scheme in 2012. It also involved a small ex gratia payment ($2,000) with a limited window to make claims. Claimants called the scheme insulting and mean-spirited. The ABC reported a source that said state treasury officials agreed individuals were owed as much as $78,000, and the government kept the work of its stolen wages taskforce quiet for years, waiting for potential claimants to die.
In distinction to these two schemes, the NSW Trust Funds Repayment Scheme (2006 and 2010) matched the wages withheld in trust funds between 1900 and 1969. It paid $3,521 for every $100 owed, or an $11,000 lump sum where the amount could not be established. This was the closest model to a reparations scheme, though also inhibited by bureaucratic requirements and time limitations.
Due to the limitations of all these state redress schemes, in 2006 a Senate Inquiry into Stolen Wages recommended a national scheme. But no federal government since has acted on this recommendation.
Stolen wages claimants have taken their cases to court in Western Australia, New South Wales and Queensland – but it is only in Queensland that they have had some success.
One of those is the case of James Stanley Baird, who sued the Queensland government for withheld wages on the basis that paying under-award wages to Indigenous workers was in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. The state government compensated Baird and other plaintiffs the difference owed to them in damages and provided an apology.
The current settlement is based on a legal claim that the Queensland government breached its duty as a trustee and fiduciary in not paying out wages that were held in trust. The outcome is the most significant repayment for stolen wages plaintiffs in Australian history. Yet the benefits may be confined.
First, in Queensland there is a rich archive of documents (substantially unearthed and analysed by historian Rosalind Kidd) to prove the government misappropriated funds. Such a record may not exist elsewhere.
Second, the settlement only applies to wages placed in “trust accounts”. It has no implications for wages denied to Indigenous workers in other ways, such as by private employers who booked down wages or otherwise refused to pay.
For justice for all wronged Indigenous workers, there needs to be broad-based reparations for stolen wages. This requires truth commissions and a commitment by governments and anyone else that profited from that theft to restore what is owed.
Queensland Liberal senator James McGrath had said the ABC’s headquarters in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane should be sold, and the funds used to retire government debt.
In the latest Coalition attack on the national broadcaster, McGrath declared: “The ABC currently operates like a closed-shop, left-wing vortex with an appointments process more secretive than the selection of the Pope”.
The ABC has faced repeated criticism and claims of bias since the Coalition was elected in 2013. A year ago the Liberal Party’s federal council urged it should be privatised – a call immediately rejected by the government.
McGrath said it “needs to shift its headquarters away from the inner-city latte lines to where the ‘quiet Australians’ live, work and play”. It was long past time that it moved to the suburbs or regions, he said.
Questions on notice submitted under Senate estimates showed the ABC’s property portfolio was worth $522 million, he said. “Of the 37 properties in the ABC’s portfolio, Ultimo, Brisbane South Bank and Melbourne Southbank account for 81% of the portfolio’s value. That’s $426 million. What is this achieving for the taxpayer?”
McGrath said given modern technology, there was no reason why the ABC couldn’t operate out of places such as Cairns, Townsville, Mackay, Caboolture or Beenleigh.
“For the purposes of conducting interviews, the ABC could easily copy the Sky News model of a small booth close to capital city CBDs.”
He said this was part of a three point plan he proposed for the ABC “to return to its core duties of delivering accurate, factual and unbiased news services and content”.
“The other parts of the plan include calling for all ABC roles to be advertised externally to broaden the diversity of views within the organisation, and for the government to commit to a full review of the ABC’s Charter, taking into account the changing media environment.”
McGrath issued his statement off the back of comments by Nationals leader Michael McCormack who, when asked on Thursday whether the ABC, if it had more funding, could fill gaps left by WIN closures, suggested it could save money by relocating from Ultimo.
“I’m sure that there are plenty of empty shop fronts in Sale or Traralgon or elsewhere where the ABC could quite easily relocate to a regional centre and save themselves a lot of money and then invest that money that they’ve saved by not being in the middle of Sydney, where they don’t need to be, out at a regional centre.”
McCormack’s office later described his comment as tongue-in-cheek. McGrath’s office said his statement was not tongue-in-cheek.
WIN TV is shutting down newsrooms in Orange, Dubbo, Albury, Wagga Wagga in NSW, and Wide Bay in Queensland. McCormack, who formerly edited The Daily Advertiser in Wagga, said he was saddened by the decision.
“I appreciate that the market is tight and the margins are very slim. But I’m really disappointed that WIN has taken this decision. I’m really disappointed that those news bureaus are closing because they’ve done such a sterling job, in some cases, for up to 30 years.”
Of all the controversies to conceivably bring Pauline Hanson undone, private discussions about gun law amendments wasn’t an obvious candidate.
Yet her recorded comments about the 1996 Port Arthur massacre and subsequent gun law reforms are potentially destructive for her One Nation party. Only potentially, though; Hanson’s supporters have long shown a propensity to forgive or shrug off her party’s outlandish or shocking assertions.
Presumably some Hanson adherents will find that plausible – the party has made anti-Muslim rhetoric part of its regular platform. Other One Nation supporters might now question the principles the party claims to stand for.
Why would One Nation seemingly risk whatever political capital it possesses by flirting with changes to gun controls and seeking assistance (if not funding) from gun lobby groups?
The party’s nativist policy positions on refugees, immigration and foreign investment are well known and readily detailed on its website. Until now, gun law amendment has sat well behind these. One Nation’s listed policies on firearms regulations include increasing penalties for gun-related crime and “streamlining” weapon licensing requirements. Not exactly controversial stuff.
But it is important to remember that the party first emerged in the wake of the Port Arthur shootings and rural resistance to the Howard government’s gun ownership reforms. Hanson and her candidates campaigned in the party’s early years on relaxing John Howard’s laws. They also benefited politically from a mainly regional backlash against these – and against Howard’s National Party partners.
Recently highlighted connections between Australian gun lobby groups and minor parties, including One Nation and Katter’s Australian Party, bring the backdrop to this policy agenda into sharper relief.
One Nation’s original and more recent platform caters to disaffected, largely non-metropolitan constituents who feel the party’s anti-immigration, anti-foreign business and anti-government intervention policies “speak for them”.
In its recent incarnation, One Nation has tried – and found ready accomplices in sections of the media – to “mainstream” its appeal and some of its positions. It’s been observed that the party’s Senate members have regularly supported the Coalition government’s legislative agenda during this term, on matters ranging from the reintroduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) to reduced welfare spending.
The party’s suite of published policies covers matters of concern to many Australians, such as power prices, transport infrastructure, water supply and jobs creation.
In this respect, it was perhaps not so surprising that Liberal MPs should describe the party as “more responsible” than its earlier manifestation. Even former prime minister Tony Abbott, Hanson’s one-time political nemesis, endorsed One Nation owing to its “constructive” relationship with the government in parliament.
But this normalisation fails to mask the party’s extreme stances or inconsistent policy positions – even between its own members. One Nation adheres to curious policies decrying United Nations infringement on our sovereignty, as well as questionable claims about evidence-based climate policy.
Then there is the attention-seeking behaviour: Hanson wearing a burqa in the Senate chamber; or Queensland Senate candidate Steve Dickson suggesting the Safe Schools program involved teachers instructing students in masturbation techniques; or New South Wales upper house candidate Mark Latham proposing Indigenous welfare recipients undergo DNA testing. Stunts like these place One Nation firmly on the political fringe – though not without fellow dwellers. Notoriously, Coalition senators scrambled to backtrack on supporting Hanson’s Senate motion decreeing that “it’s OK to be white”.
This latest party engagement in seeking out overseas gun lobby assistance highlights another inconsistency, given Hanson’s vote in the Senate supporting new restrictions on foreign donations.
Considering this, why do One Nation’s policies seemingly still appeal to significant numbers of voters, particularly in Queensland? Traces of an entrenched conservative political culture thumbing its nose at “the establishment” partly explain the party’s appeal in Queensland (and perhaps some of Peter Dutton’s ill-judged, racially charged comments as immigration minister).
It’s a culture underpinned by a history of less diverse migrant influence than other parts of the country and arguably a more wary, paternalistic past regarding Indigenous and minority communities.
Another reason is the accentuated city-country divide in Australia’s most decentralised mainland state. Here, some agrarian-themed party policies – such as for dam building or vegetation management – directly pander to regional voters. As a minor party not in government, though, One Nation has limited opportunity to carry these through, beyond aiming to wield balance-of-power influence in the Senate.
More telling is One Nation’s claimed inheritance of an old National Party constituency. It is one that feels “left behind” – a sentiment the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party successfully tapped into in the NSW election.
As in the past, the Nationals will seek to differentiate themselves from their Coalition partners and marginalise One Nation and other far-right parties ahead of the 2019 federal election.
But that’s no easy feat in Queensland. Since the Liberal and National parties merged in the state to form the LNP in 2008, there has been no distinct outward National Party. Some rural and regional voters in Queensland have felt unrepresented to a certain extent, and their grievances have placed many in a resurgent One Nation camp.
The party’s identification with aggrieved outer-urban and regional conservative interests keeps its voters’ preferences an issue. Again, this is especially so in Queensland, where several LNP MPs hold seats in such areas on tight margins.
But following this week’s revelations, and particularly in the wake of the Christchurch shootings, the preference issue will bedevil the Coalition in this state and elsewhere.
The prime minister’s latest announcement directing the Liberal Party’s state branches to preference Labor ahead of One Nation sends a needed message, but not unequivocally. It apparently leaves Liberals free to place One Nation ahead of the Greens or others, and is ambiguous on how this will apply to all LNP MPs in Queensland, or possibly influence Nationals MPs elsewhere.
But the clamouring of Queensland’s Nationals-aligned MPs for new coal-fired power stations – mirroring One Nation policy – indicates their likely preference leanings in favour of the minor party (and presumably leaves the Greens last of all).
The recorded actions and comments of Hanson and her party colleagues could bring a political reckoning for One Nation at the coming federal election. Voters will soon judge if the party warrants their electoral support and decide if this new controversy is a bridge too far.
For its part, the Coalition is treading a line between getting its hands burned over preference “deals”, as happened at Western Australia’s last election, or doing as John Howard (ultimately) did and jettisoning One Nation preferences altogether.