Capitalism: Inadequate in the face of bushfire disaster

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Australia is facing longer periods of fire danger. Catastrophic fires are becoming more likely as the climate changes due to global warming. The capitalist system is responsible for the climate crisis. It is also the reason the government has failed to prepare for this season’s widespread bushfires. As climate change makes natural disasters more likely, the shortcomings of capitalism only magnify the danger.

Emergency services have been under-resourced in the lead-up to these fires, resulting in the loss of lives and homes, and in extreme stress being placed on firefighters. A letter signed by six emergency services union heads, sent to the Minister for Natural Disasters, reported that crews responsible for preventative measures were two-thirds of the size they should have been.

In June 2019 the NSW Fire Brigade Employees Union wrote, “There are many growing communities, particularly in regional NSW, who do not have enough professional firefighters.”

They went on to say, “Our trucks are old. We need more specialist equipment, not less. Some of our existing stations desperately need updating. We need safe protective uniforms and safe equipment. We need training. We need support after traumatic events.”

A lack of resources has contributed to the damage done by the recent fires. In December, the Rural Fire Service (RFS) withdrew firefighting equipment from a regional town called Balmoral, against the wishes of the local RFS captain. This happened right before a fire that destroyed 10% of the town. The RFS may never have had to make such a decision if they had more equipment to spare.

In Braidwood NSW, the lack of resources led people to organise an unofficial firefighting team. Called the Mongarlowe Mozzies, it includes trained firefighters and operates with careful organisation. RFS members have credited them with providing vital support.

It is clear that firefighters are underfunded. At the same time, disaster relief payments for people who have lost their homes have been widely condemned as ‘too little, too late’. Payments so far have been as low as $1000, to people who have lost everything.

The Morrison government has belatedly allocated $2 billion to set up a bushfire recovery agency, but this is to be spent over two years. People are suffering right now, some with no relief in sight.

These funding failures happen because society’s wealth is hoarded by capitalists in the form of profit, depriving the rest of the community. Capitalism calls for cuts to public services, and refuses to fund them adequately to begin with, to pay for big business tax cuts. This is why emergency funding falls short.

If working people had control of society, we’d have a far better chance to prepare effective responses to natural disasters. Capitalism does not give most people the flexibility to volunteer, the power to affect decisions on funding, or the right to plan as a whole society for disaster.

Forced onto charity

These funding failures have led to an outpouring of charity. Ordinary people have been extremely generous. Comedian Celeste Barber launched an appeal that has, at time of writing, raised more than $50 million from over 1.3 million people, an average donation of roughly $40. This is just one of the many fundraising efforts that have appeared, and contributions have come from across the world.

A donation of $40 from a worker, during a time when many are struggling to make ends meet, can mean a real sacrifice. It undermines the myth that people are generally selfish – it’s clear that the majority want to step up and help.

But the need for donations has meant that ordinary people are being exposed to predatory scams, which take their money without passing it on to where it’s needed. More than 400 bushfire charity scams have been reported so far.

Donations from big business have been mostly token. Some of the richest companies in Australia have made 7-figure donations. This would be a lot in the hands of a normal person, but it is a small amount for a multi-billion-dollar company.

Corporate donations fall well short of what these companies extract from our society as profit. Many of the businesses that have donated have histories of avoiding taxes, contributing to global warming, and donating to politicians who oppose action on climate change. Their tax breaks lead to the continued underfunding of services, including emergency services.

Mining billionaire Andrew Forrest has committed to a $70 million donation, but only $10 million of this is actually going to affected communities. Yet all of this money was originally taken from the community to start with.

$60 million will go to a private volunteer fire service and a private research effort to develop plans to deal with bushfires. It is quite possible that this research effort will be compromised, considering that Andrew Forrest promotes the myth that arson has been the driver of these fires.

A fully funded, democratic, public effort would be much better than Forrest’s private research and volunteer organisations. If the largest Australian companies were taken into public hands under workers control, the amount of wealth available would be far greater than what the ruling class has offered up. There would be no need to depend on charity.

A socialist alternative is needed

The outrage of ordinary people has driven big business and the government to jump in at the last minute. Scott Morrison’s breathtaking public relations failures have served as a reminder to the ruling class that they must pretend to care. Some members of the ruling class, like Forrest, have realised that they now need to spend to buy some credibility.

Events have shown that we cannot depend on their support. The disaster has highlighted the enormous bravery of ordinary people, but also the horrifying failures of capitalism. This system does not work, and our lives are in danger.

Bushfires affect us in a deeply visceral way, which unites ordinary people. The government’s belated support is in response to the political pressure created by working people. Workers have set the agenda in an indirect way. But it’s not safe to hope that governments will always be frightened into action by our outrage. For the sake of our safety, we have to set the agenda more directly.

This means building a new party that is made up of working-class people, has no ties to big business, and pursues the interests of workers and the environment without shame.

Such a party should be based on trade unions and community campaigns, and must raise a socialist alternative to the capitalist system. It is clear that capitalism doesn’t just ruin our efforts to fight climate change, it also sabotages our response to climate-driven disasters.

We need better funding for landscape management and a plan to address climate change. We need fully resourced fire and emergency services. And we need the ability to plan our responses and direct them democratically, as a society. We can only do this by removing capitalism and replacing it with a socialist system.

By David Elliott