‘If Black Saturday had happened in Greece’ Nick Skrekas, a bond trader said to me ‘the government would have fallen.’ No fan of the radical left, who were bigging up the fiscal crisis into a political confrontation at the time in Athens, Skrekas was nevertheless amazed by the apathy in Victoria in the aftermath of the disaster. 15 people had died in Greece a couple of years earlier during similar conflagrations. Had it been 200, he was right – parliament would have been stormed, and not merely by anarchists.
The truth is that Black Saturday hasn’t really hit us yet. The enormity of what happened, the unnecessary waste of life, the hideous nature of the deaths, are something we shield from ourselves.
Quite simply, it is too awful to think about a woman and her two children burning to death on a road…..
…or banging on the windows, asphyxiating in a car, four hours after they realised that today might be going very very wrong – and some minutes after they realised that they were certainly going to die.
But try it for a few seconds. Then multiply it by a hundred.
What has happened seems to be clear. The reality of the deaths was too awful to contemplate — so attention was diverted to a koala being fed with a bottle.
And when an inquiry into what happened found that a similar process of reality avoidance had occurred before the event, and may have contributed to it, the avoidance of contemplating that horror was simply rolled over to it.
Even though it became clear that – however many deaths were inevitable on that day – some or many were caused by a fatal paralysis of action and initiative, a sheer lack of audacity and leadership, an inability to take control in a situation which has totally engulfed and undermined any notion of normality, nothing has really happened.
Don Watson has done the best work on this – pointing out the way in which managerialist language, of ‘populating the map with incidents’ rather than ‘finding out which towns were going up in flames’ – appeared to have infected emergency services in the same manner as it has done for less lethal bureaucratic areas.
But the weird thing is that, even while this was being rolled out and made visible during the inquest, the paralysis continued. SCs in ridiculous bow-ties, old Labour hack QCs – all appeared to be running it like a series of motor insurance cases in Doncaster court on a wet Wednesday morning. Chaos, stupidity, time-serving arse-covering emerged. Nothing happened. Maps were missing. Nothing happened.
And now we find that Nixon spent a total of three hours at the control room before going out to dinner because she ‘had to eat’ – thereafter ‘monitoring’ the situation – ie listening to the radio.
In other words, the leader was following the followers, who were clearly in need of some leadership – which is in essence, creating a new situation, imposing human collective will on an unfolding process.
Could dynamic leadership have saved lives? We don’t know, but we do know that there wasn’t any of it in place.
Right across the board there should have been resignations after Black Saturday – Nixon, the whole CFA leadership, others. Some might have been re-appointed, but the important thing was surely to acknowledge that something had happened, that there had been a breach in reality.
Instead we get the opposite – an elite and interconnected political class, made up of the higher echelons of the ALP, the police, the bureaucracy. Overwhelmingly conformist people, eager to fit in with whatever ridiculous managerialist mantra rules the roost, living in perpetual fear of a situation that others would welcome. Such groups become reinforcing – once they dominate a party like the ALP, the political leadership ‘populates the map’ with mirror-men and women.
Nixon has to resign, if she has a shred of decency – and even if she’s doing a good job in her current position. It’s about something other than finding 23 different reasons that things would have turned out the same if you’d done something different.
It’s about acknowledging the one possibility that they might have turned out different, very different, if someone had taken the situation in hand. The government should really have gone too, and offered itself to the judgement of the people (even with various inquiries still to run). Paradoxically, it might have been rewarded for its decency. Now, it is more likely to be punished for its cowardice. And it will deserve it.
Populating the map? Death on the road more like, for a rural population under-served and treated with contempt, by an elite off to dinner banging on the windows, before the restaurant doors had opened.