(Image: AAP/Darren Pateman)

You would have to be a pure soul indeed, to be of the left and not give a cheer to Senator Jordon Steele-John’s remark that both the Coalition and Labor are “no better than arsonists”.

Steele-John’s riposte came after a desperate National Party attempted to deflect attention from years of lack of preparation for rural fires on a new scale — a deflection bound up in a de facto climate change denialism, which insists on the “exceptional” character of what are becoming normal events.

Former Nats leader Barnaby Joyce made the observation that two of the people killed in the fires were — due to their location in the “alternative” corner of northern NSW — probably Greens voters.

He appears to have been trying to say that fire does not discriminate politically, and that focusing on the deeper causes of the fire is irrelevant. It came out as a disdain for the dead.

More people, perhaps many more, will die, and die horribly, in this bushfire season. Joyce’s remarks will return to haunt. The man spent most of a year putting out fires in his personal life, in a failed attempt to preserve his role as party leader, when he should have been attending to the new challenges facing his constituents.

But Joyce’s desperate remarks do not come from nowhere. Simultaneously, he has been expounding a nonsense theory about magnetic field changes in the Sun as responsible for climate variations. It’s crackpottery, much believed of a certain type of denialist — libertarian types, who are neither hoons, nor science deniers, and thus search for an explanation for temperature change that does not rely on human-caused warming.

His and the National Party’s recent interventions are emblematic of the party’s dilemma: a party whose legitimacy is founded on representing tradition and slow change now has a constituency that is experiencing epochal change earlier than anyone.

The plain fact is that “rural Australia”, if that meant something relatively specific, is over, and that part of Australia has to reconstruct itself with a new set of relations.

Refusing to face that has left the National Party resorting to magical thinking and the hunt for internal saboteurs, such as the entirely spurious notion that insufficient back-burning is to blame for ever-more serious whole-region megafires (we surely need a better term than the now clearly inadequate “bushfire”, which constructs a whole fire system as a single, limited event).

The “back-burning” excuse is the weakest and most destructive yet; the inquiry into the 1939 Victorian fires, which killed 71 people, established that excessive back-burning was the fires’ principal cause. Amazingly, if you start fires, fires start. When conditions are hotter and drier earlier in the year, back-burning becomes simultaneously more “necessary” and more risky. Eventually the lines cross, risk outweighs gain, and — like the point where the chemo that would save a patient would also kill them — the technique becomes defunct.

The relentless invoking of back-burning and other techniques is an example of the magical pseudo-religious thinking that the right accuses the Greens of. It is worshipping at an altar made in a clearing, in an earlier era, when there were things called “bushfires” that every 20 years or so, became mega-fires. Now we face regular events in which mega-fires throw off individual bushfires.

Ahead of much of the world, Australia, as a continent, has demonstrated that nature is a set of ever more complex systems, in which the unintended consequences of human action are setting off ever higher system effects — in this case (and in California), mega-fires which wholly overwhelm new world/settler communities constructed on the now false supposition of the inferno’s rare occurrence. 

Thus, what rural Australia faces is a mega-fire season followed by a “return” to drought, and then another mega-fire season in three or two years — or next year, with barely a pause. One suspects that we are only one more cycle away from a general collapse within rural Australia of the resistance to such a message, and a rapid transformation.

That would be best prepared for by the creation of a political rural network running from the seat of Indi in Victoria, up through NSW, to the Darling Downs in Queensland, anchored by the Indi Voices/Cathy McGowan/Helen Haines network and related independents in the southern half, Lock the Gate in the northern half, and an autonomous Indigenous affiliation in both.

Separate from the Greens, centrist on some economic policies, moderate leaning “progressive-conservative” on social issues, grounded in local independents, but with a common badging, the time for such a network to emerge is now.

Should that not occur, it is far from impossible that One Nation could complete an audacious crossover, accept the reality of human-caused climate change, and fiercely attack the Nationals as negligent and failed, as part of their general push to become the organic representative of rural Australia.

Amidst all that, having returned, erm, fire, the role of the Greens is to become the quietly rational voice of the inevitable: that nature must be managed as a complex system in order for sub-systems — i.e. human living — to occur, and that that is an inherently green position.

Politics has been green for some time; the current mega-fire is simply another stage in that inevitability. Hence the mad tantrums of the right, and the tragi-comical confusion of Labor, which has managed to render itself utterly irrelevant in the “debate”.

Now it’s time for the Greens to be the adults in the room, and for a rational, unified rural movement to make itself visible. Those two forces then surround the old city politics, with a post left-right biopolitics of life on Earth.

Where we live, from disaster, new growth comes — but not unless the seeds are there for the fire to bring them into life.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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