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Wake up, Australia: deceit and post-truth politics will not save you from the flames

With the country facing water and climate emergencies, the last thing we need is more spin from leaders in thrall to the big end of town

Smoke from bushfires filling the sky




‘Over the last week, Australians witnessed a full-scale retreat to the delusions of the past about the nature of the continent on which we live.’
Photograph: Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images

A mega fire from the Hunter region threatened our largest city while its residents sucked in polluted air and saw ash coming from the sky. An apocalyptic vision of what is in store in the now not-so-lucky country.

Do not be fooled. In a post-truth world our leaders would have us believe that the lack of water is all about the drought and the bushfires are part of a typical Australian summer (ignoring the thousands of years of sound water and land management by Indigenous Australians). The truth is that governments have mismanaged our most precious resource, water, and failed to act on climate change.

The facts are: Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions have been increasing since the carbon tax was abolished in 2014, our climate is warming, and CSIRO has concluded that southern and eastern Australia is “projected to experience harsher fire weather (high confidence)”.

It is high time we woke up and saw the world the way it is, not the way our leaders, stuck in their post-truth bubbles, pretend it is. We have a critical water emergency. We have a climate emergency. We have a public policy emergency. An emergency requires urgent and effective actions.

If you went to a hospital emergency department with a severe heart attack and were seen by a spin doctor, you would die. Yet parliamentary spin doctors are killing our future. If you do not believe this, then look out your window (if you can see anything through the haze), breathe in the smoke outside and read the media releases from our political leaders.

Our leaders’ solution to the water emergency is to build more dams that will not fill up in a drought. Our leaders’ solution to a climate emergency is to double down on policies that are proven failures.

Over the last week, Australians witnessed some of the worst examples of policy on the run and a full-scale retreat to the myths and delusions of the past about the nature of the continent on which we live.

Despite saying they want to listen to “quiet Australians”, it seems the government actually listens to the noisy Australians, at least those from the big end of town who come knocking on ministerial doors demanding more water. This is about clawing back the independence of the commonwealth environmental water holder. Contrast the self-serving “can the plan” protesters who want more water at the expense of other people’s livelihoods with the volunteer firefighters putting their lives on the line. Yet it is the protesters who got what they asked for while our firefighters struggle to stop Australia burning with insufficient equipment and a lack of water.

The federal water minister has given the noisy protesters an inquiry headed by a hand-picked and Barnaby Joyce-quoting interim inspector general to see if water can be reallocated to upstream irrigation. It is hard to imagine how Mick Keelty can resolve water disputes that stretch back to federation (and British settlement). But those who protested in front of parliament, and also New South Wales’ “rip up the Basin plan” deputy premier, are pleased with the inquiry. We, the people, should be very concerned.

Meanwhile, the First Australians, Indigenous peoples of this ancient continent, many living in rural and remote communities, are forgotten. Australia’s First Peoples live in struggling communities in the northern basin, suffering from little or no water and inadequate water services, conditions that many Australians in the big cities would be appalled by and would not tolerate. Have we just stopped caring? Australia’s First Peoples continue to be dispossessed from water resources in their own country: the First Australians own or control less than 1% of all water entitlements yet foreign entities own more than 10%.

Keelty, who described his boss, David Littleproud, as demonstrating “exceedingly good leadership” after meeting the leaders of the “can the plan” protesters for five hours, reported to parliament on 5 December on the northern Murray-Darling basin. Despite evidence to the contrary, including from the Productivity Commission, he praised the Murray-Darling Basin Authority as a “stand-out agency”. He also quoted a description of the largest irrigation property in Australia (Cubbie station) as “an example of the private and public sectors engaging with one another to develop new ways of helping to meet environmental objectives”.

Keelty’s post-truth does not agree with the facts on the ground (have we forgotten so quickly the massive fish kill in January, or the towns without water?) or with the authoritative findings of the Australian Academy of Science and the Murray-Darling basin royal commission (including its findings that governments need to address their failures in Aboriginal water engagement). The royal commission concluded that the MDBA was responsible for “maladministration” and that, in relation to the MDBA’s northern basin review, its actions were largely driven by “political considerations” and that this was “not only unlawful but deplorable”.

To add to the smoke and spin, the prime minister announced that the departments of Energy and the Environment would be subsumed into a super Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. A cynic might rename it the Department of Conflicted Interests. And which interests do you think will be prioritised in this “super” department when it comes to reallocating water?

Australian political leaders have been captured by vested interests. How else can we explain why it took so long to get a royal commission on the banking sector? Or why lumps of coal are used as props in parliament or auctioned while our planet slowly burns? And why tens of thousands of Australians are stuck, with very little legal recourse, with apartments in dodgy buildings that they were told were properly inspected and certified safe?

Wake up Australia, before it is too late. There really is a water emergency and a climate emergency. Our democracy is on life support.

Facts and choices do matter and spin won’t put out bushfires. Nor will responding to the big end of town deliver water justice. The voiceless Australians need to be heard and truth must confront post-truth. If not, we risk losing what we hold most dear.

Quentin Grafton, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University (ANU); Matthew Colloff, Fenner School of Environment and Society, ANU; Virginia Marshall, School of Regulation and Global Governance and Fenner School of Environment and Society, ANU; John Williams Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU

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