Magazine of the Socialist Party, Australian section of the CWI

Socialist planning needed to manage bushfire threat

Australia’s southeast faced down a number of serious bushfires this autumn. It is extremely lucky that nobody was killed, but dozens of homes and thousands of hectares of land were burnt in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. The fact that fires were burning out of control so close to Sydney and Adelaide shows that the existing bushfire management systems are not adequate.

These bushfires are a warning of the potential for much more deadly blazes in the future. Climate change is lengthening the bushfire season beyond the traditional summer months. Fires are a natural part of Australian bush ecology, but it has previously been rare for major bushfires to occur as late as April. Hotter temperatures and higher winds, combined with the likelihood of more severe droughts, mean that an intense six-month-long bushfire season is becoming the new normal.

In spite of this, the major parties are recklessly engaging in a fossil fuels frenzy. The Liberals and Labor both back the Adani coal mine in Queensland, one of the dirtiest coal projects on the planet; they have announced a joint federal-state plan for a $500 million brown coal to hydrogen conversion plant in Victoria’s La Trobe Vallley; and the Labor government in the Northern Territory has just lifted a ban on natural gas fracking.

Each of these is a gift to the private energy industry and a kick in the teeth to anyone concerned about the impact climate change will have on the growth of bushfires.

Many parts of the country are mainly or entirely reliant on volunteer fire brigades and rescue services. This is especially the case in outer urban and rural areas, which are also some of the most vulnerable. While the efforts of volunteers are to be commended, it is outrageous that communities aren’t provided with state funding for professional full-time services. More resources and personnel would cut response times and improve fire prevention.

Instead, all around Australia emergency services have had their budgets slashed. In Victoria alone, the Napthine state government gouged out $66 million in cuts to firefighters from 2012, and the majority of this funding has not been reinstated by the Andrews Labor government. Similar cuts have been made in other states over the years, putting added pressure on the services that exist to make do with less.

These cuts are not inevitable. They are political choices. State and federal governments spend billions of dollars on corporate welfare every year: subsidies to mining and agriculture companies, inflated payments to private operators of public utilities, and infrastructure projects built for business interests. Right now the Turnbull government is pushing for a reduction in company taxes to 25% – which means an estimated $8 billion per year less in the public purse.

This is not the only way in which profit is placed before the needs of the community. Several of the recent bushfires were caused by poorly maintained power lines. A class action lawsuit against Powercor, the company responsible for managing power lines that caused fires in Terang and Garvoc on March 17, is already in the early stages.

When state governments began to break up and privatise Australia’s electrical grid in the 1990s, we were told it would lead to cheaper and more reliable electricity. In reality it has resulted in dangerous cost cutting by parasitic private operators seeking to maximise their returns. The most deadly of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, at Kinglake and Marysville, were started by faulty distribution power lines and resulted in compensation totalling nearly $800 million. These fires were entirely preventable.

The profit-driven logic of capitalism is a proven recipe for disaster. Immediate action is needed to plan for next year’s bushfire season and to mitigate the effects of climate change, or we risk much greater tragedies occurring in the future. A socialist planned economy, involving the whole community in deciding how to allocate society’s wealth, is the only effective way to prepare.

The Socialist Party demands:

– No more cuts! Tax the billionaires to fund major investment into all public services.
– All volunteer fire and emergency services to be upgraded with paid personnel, including part-time and reserve employees where appropriate.
– Massively expand funding for firefighting research, prevention and response. We need more firefighters, new equipment and vehicles, and community training programs.
– Kick out the profiteers and bring the electrical grid into public hands. A national maintenance review of all existing power infrastructure to ensure safety.
– Climate action now! Invest in renewable energy and public transport to create jobs and rapidly transition away from fossil fuels.

By Jeremy Trott