Dear PM, here’s a Crikey guide to Matt Kean

The prime minister might not know who Matt Kean is, but he should.

The NSW environment minister found himself in Scott Morrison’s crosshairs after he told Sky News that prominent conservatives on the Coalition front bench wanted stronger action on climate change.

“Most of the federal cabinet wouldn’t even know who Matt Kean was,” Scott Morrison told ABC radio yesterday morning.

But the environment minister has become increasingly hard to ignore. Late last year, with swathes of the east coast burning, and Sydney blanketed under a cloud of ash, Kean made the seemingly obvious connection between climate change and the bushfire crisis. He’s been getting media attention at home and abroad ever since.

Any federal MP paying attention should know who he is. But for those who aren’t, Crikey has a brief rundown.

The perfect CV

Kean, leader of the moderate faction in NSW, has the CV typical of a Liberal rising star.

Raised in Sydney’s leafy upper north shore, he was educated at St Ignatius Riverview, the exclusive Sydney Jesuit school that counts Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce among its alums. Kean’s teenage political awakening came during a campaign against over-development in his local suburb of Hornsby.

Despite being wooed by the ALP, Kean was allegedly pushed toward the Liberals by Wendy Quinn, now his fiancee. 

What followed for Kean was a breezy ride along a well-trodden conveyor belt — student politics at University of Technology Sydney, a stint as an adviser for opposition leader John Brogden, management consulting at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and vice-presidency of the NSW Young Liberals.

In 2011, a 30-year-old Kean was elected member for Hornsby, becoming the Legislative Assembly’s youngest member. 

Unsurprisingly, “ambitious” is an adjective often thrown around when discussing Kean. It was used liberally by party insiders in a Sydney Morning Herald profile published late last year, in which federal Liberal president Nick Greiner touted Kean as a future premier.

Less friendly sources called him “reckless” and “immature”. References were made to an incident in 2018, when Keane’s (now ex) girlfriend caught him sending sexually explicit texts to another MP, and accused him of “predatory behaviour”.

But the revelations have done little to halt Kean’s momentum. By then, he’d taken over as joint head of the NSW moderates, after his mentor, long-term powerbroker Michael Photios, passed over the torch. And all the attention over the last few months may well have dialled up the “future premier” buzz even further.

Friends in cabinet

Even without the bushfire crisis, there are plenty in the federal cabinet, especially among the moderates, who know Kean.

After Morrison’s comments, Trade Minister Simon Birmingham told Sky News he knows Kean. Presumably Foreign Minister Marise Payne is acquainted with Kean too — he gave her a special shout-out in his maiden speech. Kean’s electorate overlaps with that of Communications Minister Paul Fletcher, also a NSW moderate, and the two have been photographed together several times. Perennially embattled Energy Minister Angus Taylor must know Kean, given the two cut a deal before the COAG energy council meeting late last year. Kean has been at exclusive factional dinners with Social Services Minister Anne Ruston. Minister for International Development Alex Hawke and Kean crossed paths during their younger years, when Hawke beat him for presidency of the Young Liberals.

The PM’s claims that most cabinet ministers don’t know Kean looks increasingly hollow. Still, 12 months ago, those ministers could perhaps be forgiven for their ignorance. But the bushfire crisis has put Kean front and centre.

In December, Kean called for urgent action to lower emissions, saying the links between climate change and the bushfires were undeniable. Those comments put a target on Kean’s back — within days, the Daily Telegraph called him a “hose poser” for not personally fighting any fires.

Meanwhile, Kean started getting overseas attention, with his footage of food drops for animals picked up by foreign outlets such as CNN and Reuters.

Kean is clearly a man on the rise, with plenty of ambition to match. Federal MPs can’t afford to ignore him much longer.

Morrison’s military response to bushfires sparks constitutional concerns

The prime minister has conceded that deploying the military in response to the bushfire crisis has “pushed, I think, the constitutional authorities for us to act to its very edge“.

What does he mean? And should we be worried?

On January 5, the Army Reserves were deployed to areas affected by the bushfires to assist. So far this is fine, constitutionally speaking.

Anne Twomey, Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Sydney, told Crikey the deployment of the reserves “may be done for defence reasons, but also for civil aid, humanitarian assistance, medical or civil emergency or disaster relief”.

“So even though I’m not a great fan of the nationhood power, I think this use of it is OK.”

But there is a give and take here. Power for the federal government to send in the military could be increased through cooperative legislation, such as the states referring their powers. But the states and the Commonwealth need to talk.

“The key thing is to avoid pre-emptive or uncoordinated action. It needs to be recognised that it is the states that have the knowledge and expertise regarding land management and bush fires,” Twomey said. 

“The Commonwealth defence forces, however, have the resources and expertise for dealing with disaster recovery and evacuation. Systems need to be worked out to ensure coordinated and effective action during a disaster.”

But when it comes to the deployment of actual army personnel, there are more worrisome powers the government could invoke, and the PM’s language has raised some concerns.

Morrison suggested to Insiders‘ David Speers that he wanted to expand the government’s power to send in the military: “To ensure that in the future it can be done in a way that I think is in a more preemptive posture, that we can do that I think more seamlessly.”

Section 51 of the Defence Act gives the federal government the power to call out the armed forces on domestic soil against perceived threats to “Commonwealth interests”, with or without the agreement of a state government.

These powers were originally rushed through the parliament by then-prime minister John Howard back in 2000, under the context of preparing for the 2000 Olympics. The powers were further expanded in 2006, this time in preparation for the Melbourne commonwealth games.

In both cases scrutiny was perfunctory — in 2000 the changes were not even announced before they passed. Labor waved the legislation through.

As Verona Burgess points out in The Mandarin, the powers to quickly deploy troops to Australian streets may not raise any eyebrows when it’s being put to use for disaster recovery.

But, once deployed, military officers have remarkable and worrisome power; able to order troops to open fire on civilians, shoot to kill someone escaping detention, warrantless searches, detainment without formal arrest and more.

Twomey said it was unclear whether the bushfires would qualify as domestic violence as per the Defence Act. Indeed, exactly what law authorises this has been a source of speculation since the deployment of the army.

Section 119 of the constitution provides for the Commonwealth to “protect every state, on the application of the state, from invasion or against domestic violence”.

The constitutional validity of Section 51 of the Defence Act is yet to be tested. Any further expansion of these powers would need close scrutiny, and history tells us it wouldn’t come from Labor.

Blowback: after the fires, will the politics of climate change actually change?

The last embers will still be cooling somewhere in some patch of ground in eastern NSW or Victoria. The first big fire of the 2019-2020 fire season is over.

It may be the last, since so much of the most high-risk areas have been burnt out. On the other hand, there’s a lot left to burn, if it all starts again: northern NSW, the forest areas around Melbourne, more of southern WA.

We have three months of high heat to come, and fire season is usually February-March. Since the seasons seem to have shifted back in recent years, that may well continue into April.

In the meantime, things will play out as they usually do. The devastated communities will be ignored, having had their brief, smoking moment in the sun.

Half the promised donations won’t turn up. The government money assigned to rebuild tourism and other industries won’t start for months, half of it won’t arrive, half of what does will be legally rorted by consultants, etc.

And in a few weeks it may all burn down again. Faced with such a conflagration, the common assumption, and expression, in the media sphere, has been that “this will change us”; that “something has happened”.

And it may have done.

Though this series of fires was less lethal than Black Saturday and Ash Wednesday, and other such hitherto once-in-a-generation fires — largely due to occurring in less populated areas — the total area and the degree of fire-joining was larger (though not as large as some other historic fires).

The sheer level of damage and habitat lost is vast, and weighs on our consciousness more than it once did. The assumption that things simply can’t go on as they are is widespread.

But it’s an assumption which is possibly confined to the knowledge class, and spruiked heartily by the media section of such, for all the usual reasons.

By that, I don’t mean the accusations of propaganda that the right is hurling. This is coming from a point where the right is now fully irrationalist; if actual science constitutes an opposition to the conservative-capitalist framework, then reality itself is held to be left-wing propaganda.

What I mean is that people living in the knowledge frameworks of said classes will see the fires as not merely evidence of, but the presence of, climate change.

Knowledge yokes abstract understandings to concrete events; the scientist in the lab “sees” the chemical structures of the materials they’re working with.

For everyone else, it’s just sludge and powder. That division has become, in our era, a political one.

As “black box” technology takes over more of our lives, and the structures of power, science — which was once taken up enthusiastically by working-class and popular movements as a weapon in their struggle — becomes, for many, the “master’s discourse”, the mode of control of those inheriting power from the old bourgeosie.

Scientific explanation makes the new knowledge class feel energised, surgent; it leaves everyone else feeling more powerless than they were a couple of decades ago.

Resistance to science thus becomes a form of class political resistance, a demand for recognition. The rise of anti-vaxx is one example of this. Vernacular climate change denialism is another. This is not the whacko “BOM did 9/11” stuff, or combover ruminations on the medieval warming period.

It’s the shrug of the shoulders denialism, which attaches to homilies “well the climate is always changing”, “how can we really know” and the kicker: “well I’m just a brickie/truckie/masseur, what would I know. But…”

As acceptance of climate change spreads wider, so too, in parallel, does this new form of denialism, or scepticism, or disengagement.

Such a phenomenon connects with deep human tendencies — particularly the manner in which we concretise and personalise abstract phenomena.

For traditional peoples the thunderstorm is thus obviously and naturally an angry God; for the modern cancer sufferer, with a terminal diagnosis, diets, spirituality, magical healing will take over many minds.

In the case of climate change-caused fires, the concrete and personalised “causes” offered by the right — evil greenies stopping backburning — will be attractive to people who would hitherto have been immune to them.

That is amplified by our deep tendency to see a background and a foreground within nature — that which is unchangeable and is the context one acts in, and that which one can change.

You can’t stop the raging river, but you can dam part of it, and catch the fish that gather therein. You can’t stop fires happening, but you can fuel burn, fight them heroicially on the day, etc.

To conclude that the background is now foreground — that we have transformed the structure of the atmosphere — evacuates much immediate action of its heroic and meaningful content.

To battle brute nature in the name of humanity is one thing; to deal with the shit we caused over and over again is another.

The temptation to shut down the category of climate change altogether is a powerful one indeed, and one that has been taken up by the “ignore it and carry on” brigade such as “Twiggy” Forrest and Barnaby Beetrooter.

There’s a lot of it about: Van Badham’s column on the fires in The Guardian is headlined “The bushfire crisis has shown a way forward for Australia” and then has practically nothing on climate change, but a lot about “community” and fireproof kit homes.

Doubtless all sincerely meant, but also usefully runs interference for Labor, as the party asserts a pro-coal-export policy. De facto, it’s a “left” version of right-wing climate change do-nothingism. How far will this go?

Well things only happen when they happen twice. A one-off doesn’t establish itself as a changed reality. But if this all happens again in February and March, and then again next year, well, a thing becomes its opposite in a moment.

If, after all the heroism, collectivism, and pulling together, the joint just burns down again, the mythologising that both Labor and the right want to call on will exhaust itself.

In the meantime, we are going to need, in the next few months, to find out what people in the burntlands actually think about it, outside media hypotheses (including this one), as the embers cool.

The face of Scomo’s climate evolution no stranger to party struggles

Science Minister Karen Andrews appeared to break ranks with many of her Coalition colleagues this week, urging Australia to stop wasting time debating whether climate change is real.

“Every second we spend discussing if climate change is real is a second we don’t spend addressing these issues,” Andrews told the Nine newspapers.

Andrews’ statement comes after Scott Morrison’s government has faced weeks of public fury over its perceived sluggish management of the bushfire crisis ravaging Australia, and its failure to put together a substantial climate policy. 

The prime minister attempted to save face this week by signalling the Coalition wants to “evolve” on climate change, but there is still plenty of division (and plenty of staunch deniers) within the party room.

But regardless of whether Andrews’ words were a challenge to the party room dinosaurs or an opportunistic whitewashing of the Coalition’s record, the previously low-profile minister is now squarely in the spotlight. 

The unwanted MP

Like many MPs, Andrews had an unspectacular life before politics. Raised in Townsville, she trained as a mechanical engineer. Then, after a stint in the Victorian oil industry, she worked as a consultant in industrial relations.

Andrews’ conservative political ideology was cemented through years of fighting against workers in industrial disputes. In the mid-1990s, Victorian premier Jeff Kennett — who was locked in a battle with unions over his public sector privatisation drive — hired Andrews to help negotiate with the health sector. 

But it was the state’s health minister Marie Tehan, mother of federal education minister Dan Tehan, who Andrews cited her as a key influence in her decision to enter politics. In 2004, after starting an industrial relations consultancy with her husband and moving to the Gold Coast, Andrews joined her local Liberal Party branch.

In 2009, she won preselection for McPherson — a safe LNP seat on the Gold Coast. But many in the party hierarchy never wanted her there in the first place.

When an electoral redistribution turned his electorate of Dickson notionally Labor, Peter Dutton, the Coalition’s ambitious young health spokesman, sought to parachute into McPherson. Despite the backing of party leader Malcolm Turnbull, John Howard, and virtually every senior Coalition politician, Dutton suffered a shock defeat to Andrews.

Dutton, whose hopes as a “future prime minister” were being prematurely written off, said Andrews’ gender and her ties to the community contributed to his defeat. Andrews, a party member since 2004, was state women’s vice president and chair of the McPherson federal division council — she’d had years to build a strong local support base.

Senior Liberals did not take the result well. Turnbull, was “deeply, deeply troubled” by the potential loss of Dutton. Prominent MPs lined up to support their colleague. According to another spurned candidate, Coalition men “cried like babies” when Andrews won. 

Rumours swirled through the media that her victory was the result of a sinister “Nationals plot” and a reflection of disharmony in the Queensland LNP (which had formally merged just a year earlier). But despite considerable pressure from the top to stand aside for Dutton, Andrews refused to budge. She was elected the next year. 

Opportunist or realist?

As an MP, Andrews has lived through a series of cabinet reshuffles. She was assistant minister for science, then vocational education, before taking up her current portfolio. Beyond that, she’s made few headlines since the tumultuous circumstances surrounding her preselection.

Her maiden speech largely focused on the need for better infrastructure on the Gold Coast. She has more investment properties (five across Queensland, NSW and WA) than any lower house MP. At one point, she was criticised for her office’s high turnover of staff, and her perfectionist management style. 

But in light of her recent words, it’s Andrews’ actual record on climate change that deserves more scrutiny. Unlike many of her Coalition colleagues, Andrews has repeatedly been unequivocal about the reality of climate change. She’s also talked openly about the climate-related risks to the Great Barrier Reef — a topic some Coalition MPs struggle with.

Yet Andrews’ actions tell a slightly different story. While an opposition backbencher, Andrews was one of the loudest voices calling for the repeal of the Gillard government’s carbon tax. And, in one of her first interviews as science minister, Andrews endorsed coal as a cheap, reliable future source of energy.

In a Sky News interview last year, she appeared not opposed to the possibility of nuclear power. And this week she confirmed the government would continue using Kyoto carryover credits to meet its 2030 emissions targets — a cheat-code roundly criticised by other parties as a move against the spirit of the agreement.

Andrews’ repudiation of the denialists may have cleared the low bar we’ve set for Coalition MPs on climate change, and signalled a slight rhetorical shift among party ranks. But whether those words amount to anything more remains to be seen.

News Corp is trying to dictate a broken climate debate

For a while, News Corp executives and editors thought they could brazen out the bushfire catastrophe.

They thought they could run the conspiracy theories that arsonists and a lack of fuel reduction (as a result of out-of-control Greens) were the real cause of the fires; pretend it had nothing to do with climate change; and demonise the criticism by other outlets of the coverage of The Australian, The Telegraph, Sky News and other Murdoch platforms for denialism as a kind of war on free speech and diversity of opinion.

Things fell apart pretty quickly.

The arson argument was rapidly exposed as a lie by police, and even foreign outlets like the BBC and Vox as well as fact-checking sites demolished claims advanced by The Australian and extremist websites. The claims about lack of fuel reduction were debunked by the most authoritative figure of all — NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.

He specifically rejected the idea, advanced by News Corp and the government, that a lack of hazard reduction burning was a key cause. Conspiracy theorists were also unable to come up with any actual evidence that Greens politicians at any level had stopped hazard reduction.

And even as News Corp defended its coverage, cracks were appearing there too.

A News Corp finance manager, Emily Townsend, went public with a damning email that nailed the “irresponsible, dangerous and damaging” coverage by the company. On Tuesday, a panicked News Corp announced a $5 million donation to bushfire relief (Australian journalists were the only people who retweeted its puff piece on the donation).

Five million dollars is a tiny fraction of the tax News Corp and its predecessor companies have dodged in Australia over the decades, but that was forgotten in the self-congratulation.

However, any positive reaction beyond “arsonist offers a fire extinguisher” was overwhelmed when James Murdoch slammed News Corp’s climate denialism, particularly its “ongoing denial among the news outlets in Australia given obvious evidence to the contrary”.

The Australian would usually respond to high-profile criticism with a holy war against the critic — dozens of articles running to tens of thousands of words smearing them. But this time, the calls were coming from inside the house. The high-profile rejection of thermal coal by BlackRock’s Larry Fink only added to the sense that denialists were increasingly isolated.

With its standard blatant climate denialism looking less sustainable by the day, News Corp had limited options. Then they remembered the old lesson: if you’re losing an argument, change the argument.

Thus the NT News, purporting to offer some sort of departure from the in-house denialism, declared it was time to discuss climate change — but not, it insisted, by “armies of keyboard warriors”. Australia needed “real, affordable solutions”.

Of course Australia had a “real affordable solution” in place with the Gillard government’s carbon pricing scheme, which drove down emissions with a minimal impact on inflation, but News Corp led the charge against that.

An idea of the kind of debate News Corp wants was indicated in The Daily Telegraph editorial yesterday. It noted that “Australia contributes only a very small amount of human-generated carbon dioxide” but that decreasing emissions would “demonstrate Australia’s global goodwill”.

The editorial went on to laud Scott Morrison’s climate strategy while criticising Labor for failing to have a policy.

So we have an idea of what kind of climate debate the Murdochs — James apparently apart — would accept: around “affordable” solutions that reflect the government’s woefully inadequate emissions targets and its current strategy (whatever that actually is).

Expect to hear a lot more about “adaptation”, which Scott Morrison is already pushing as the key theme of his allegedly “evolved” climate policy (an evolution that, as John Hewson correctly pointed out, has suckered press gallery journalists and no one else).

Adaptation is, of course, critical given that we are already experiencing damage from global warming and have set a course for a further, perhaps dramatically greater, increase in temperatures. As plenty have noted, Morrison’s new emphasis on adaptation is at odds with his abolition of adaptation programs.

But emphasising adaptation only — rather than mitigation — is the fossil fuel industry’s preferred framing of climate policy.

The message is, we can’t do anything about climate change, so we’ll just have to adapt to it as best we can — and therefore we need maximum economic growth and development to pay for it.

The self-serving fatalism pedalled by “adaptation” enthusiasts is at odds with reality — we very much can radically decarbonise our economies without massive economic dislocation. The all-too-brief experience with carbon pricing in Australia demonstrates it.

And we have to — no amount of “adaptation” is going to work on a planet headed for a global increase of four degrees in temperature. But that, of course, is exactly where News Corp doesn’t want any discussion of climate science to go.

Who speaks for us: Australia’s international bushfire reps are a mixed bag

Australia’s lost, burning summer has gained an incredible amount of international attention.

Haunting images have made their way around the world, the news has hit international front pages, and the crisis was used as evidence of a climate emergency at yesterday’s US Democratic debate by presidential candidate Tom Steyer.

It got us thinking: just who is representing us in these international discussions? It’s a mixed bag.

Craig Kelly

Liberal backbencher, coal fanatic and budget Tony Abbott Craig Kelly recently went on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, and, well, the rest is small but unforgettable blip on the timeline of media history.

He attempted to downplay the arguments linking the fires to climate change and was pilloried by meteorologist Laura Tobin and broadcaster Piers Morgan. He thus joined the rare company of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in the group of people who briefly make Morgan seem thoughtful and grounded.

Steve Keen

The London-based Australian economist has been happy to comment on the fires for various European outlets — most fulsomely on Deutsche Welle, the German state broadcaster.

He told DW that the government was dominated by “climate change trivialisers”, and that “they’ve always assumed that sea level rise would be the symptom, and Pacific island nations, who don’t matter, the victims. Now with the bushfires, the populace is realising that Australia may be the first victim”. Nothing much to quarrel with there, but we’re just not sure exactly why he’s being asked…

Latika Bourke

Nine’s London-based Canberra scoop-getter was brought in to comment on Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s various political missteps, pointing out particularly Morrison’s vulnerability with his climate change denying supporters, at the end of a thorough round-up by the BBC.

Michael Mann (?)

MSNBC was delightfully American about their choice of Australian representative. The network consulted Michael Mann, a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University, who just happened to be in Sydney at the time.

Benjamin Hall (???)

Fox News went a step further. They asked their frightfully British London bureau chief to comment on the conditions — both environmental and political — in Australia. From his office. In London. Penny-wise broadcasting.

Matt Kean

New South Wales Energy and Environment Minister Matt Kean’s strong performance during the crisis saw him getting a bit of international attention.

A raft of outlets — including CNN, Reuters and CBS — used Kean’s footage of food drops for stranded wallabies and accompanying statement for a cute story in the midst of all the horror. He is one to watch.

Who would you like to see representing Australia on the world stage? Send your comments to [email protected]

Most Australians ‘would hardly notice’ if we went coal free, say experts

Prime Minister Scott Morrison launched a strident defence of coal on Wednesday, saying the industry was worth $70 billion a year to the economy and vital to many communities around the country.

Asked about the world’s biggest investment fund BlackRock dumping half a billion dollars in coal shares, Morrison said transitioning away from coal could “[pull] the rug from regional communities”.

But experts say most Australians would “hardly notice” if we went coal-free, and that the transition was already well underway. 

“Life would go on as usual,” said Paul Burke, an economist working on energy, the environment and transport at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy. 

“We’re just talking about one input into the economy, and fossil fuels are substitutional for renewables, especially given they are now much cheaper and reliable than before.”

Burke said despite the polarisation of the climate change debate in Australia, the shift away from fossil fuels was not in fact a radical one, and “could happen in a way that most of us would hardly notice”. 

So what would the next steps be in terms of weaning ourselves off the black stuff?   

More job transition schemes

With a dozen coal-fired power plants already closed in Australia since 2013, according to some figures many local communities are already grappling with the issue of unemployment. 

But Burke says the number of people affected is small in economic terms, and that transitional programs are already operating in some states to great success.

The Latrobe Worker Transfer Scheme in Victoria, which is redeploying retrenched Hazelwood power station workers to other sites, has become a world-leader in regional labour adjustment. But more programs will be needed for NSW and Queensland. 

“Providing adequate retraining and a safety net for people in those areas is a very important part of planning for this transition.” 

Electricity

According to experts, coal is already making a much lower contribution to our electricity mix — down to 60% to from 80% 20 years ago. And Australia’s transport system is increasingly shifting to electricity and batteries. 

Dani Alexander, a research principal at the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures, said a grid powered completely by renewables was closer to reality than most people think.

“All the technologies already exist. We don’t need any technological breakthroughs to make it economically viable. If you built a new power station now, it would be renewable. All we’re missing is a comprehensive energy policy.” 

Exports

After iron ore, coal is Australia’s biggest export and has propped up the economy for decades. 

But Burke says Australia is already primed to export renewable energy to Asian markets.

Iron ore billionaire Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest and tech entrepreneur Mike Cannon-Brookes have invested millions in a $20 billion-plus Sun Cable project set to drive Asia’s transition to cleaner energy.

“This sector could be really ramped up,” Burke said. “There are lots of land and wind resources in the north of Australia, and there is the potential we could be exporting more in terms of energy content and making more revenue from these zero carbon opportunities.” 

The take-away?

While the transition away from coal might require political leadership and policy change, it’s happening already.

“The lights will still go on and we will continue to live our lives, and most of us will not even notice,” Burke said.

Will Australia manage to transition away from coal power? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication.

Decoding News Corp: NT News tells it how it is on bushfires

On Tuesday James Murdoch raised hopes his father’s media company might be about to pivot from its climate denialism. This morning, News Corp’s NT News responded on its front page. Below you’ll find the original, along with Crikey‘s attempt to decode it.

*Reverse ferret is a phrase used predominantly within the British media to describe a sudden reversal in an organisation’s editorial or political line on a certain issue. Generally, this will involve no acknowledgement of the previous position (Source: Wikipedia).

On the other side of the world, a zoologist is counting The Australian’s climate deniers

One cold and cloudy weekend in Cambridge, an Australian zoologist decided to take a break from counting invertebrates and start counting something equally spineless: letters to the editor in The Australian. 

Philip Erm, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, trawled through every letter to the editor published on Factiva — a news archiving database owned by News Corp — over the past six months to find out how many climate-focused letters denied climate change.

The result? Of the 306 letters addressing climate science, a whopping 67% were opposed to it. Just 16% supported it, and the rest were somewhere in between.

Source: Philip Erm/Reddit

“I’d be lying if I said I was surprised in the least,” Erm told Crikey. But, he said, the recreational analysis was still important. 

Erm was prompted by the Oz‘s recent editorial defending the publication’s “factual” coverage of bushfires and climate change. 

“News Corp have always been quite brazen about their hostility towards all matters climate, even if they’re trying to downplay their record now that the country’s turning to ash,” Erm said. “I suspected that even the most cursory analysis would show a strong record of hostility to climate science and action.” 

Erm added that the paper is “amongst our country’s greatest continuing contributions to fantasy literature”. So, while it might not be the most impartial analysis undertaken in a while, it’s still an interesting one.

Blaming arsonists? All the evidence points to a smokescreen

As bushfires continue to cut a devastating swath across millions of hectares, debate has turned to focus on the extent to which arson is to blame.

Social media has been rife with claims that the majority of the fires have been deliberately lit.

A number of prominent politicians and public figures have also suggested that arson, not climate change, is the main cause.

In a recent interview, controversial Liberal MP Craig Kelly said climate change had not caused the bushfires — but that unprecedented arson had.

“We know you need some form of ignition,” he told ABC Radio’s RN Breakfast.

“Now the majority of these fires, we’ve had unprecedented numbers of people being arrested and charged with arson offences. The arson is not caused by climate change.”

In a January 4 interview on ABC News Channel, Tasmania Liberal Senator Eric Abetz also referred to “unprecedented” levels of arson in relation to the bushfire crisis.

And Nationals MP George Christensen said in a Facebook post that the cause of the fires was “certainly” man-made, but “it’s just not man-made climate change. It’s man-made arson that, to me, almost borders on terrorism”.

Meanwhile, West Australian mining billionaire Andrew Forrest, having announced a $70 million donation for bushfire recovery and resilience measures, said while he did not want to politicise the crisis, he believed arsonists played the “biggest part” in starting bushfires.

Forrest subsequently issued a statement clarifying his position, saying he unequivocally accepted the warming of the planet as a primary cause of the catastrophe.

“I do not want people to think that criminal behaviour, while reprehensible, is the main reason for the devastation this bushfire season,” he said.

“Arson may be responsible for starting fires in some cases, but it is not the reason the fires have reached the proportions they have through this season and it is not the reason they have continued for so long.”

Is arson primarily to blame for the bushfire crisis? RMIT ABC Fact Check takes a look at the evidence.

What is arson?

As noted by the Black Saturday Royal Commission, in a legal sense “arson” is an indictable offence that involves deliberate fire-setting resulting in criminal damage to property, including a structure, a house, a vehicle or vegetation.

Arson also involves the “requisite intention” to cause damage or have no regard for the damage that might result from a fire.

Many bushfires, for example, are the result of negligent or illegal behaviour by people ignoring total fire bans or throwing away lit cigarettes and matches.

However, this type or behaviour generally does not meet the legal or technical definition of arson.

A difficult crime to detect and analyse

Assessing the extent to which bushfires are caused by arson is tricky.

Various jurisdictions and government agencies have different approaches to defining and recording fires that are deliberately lit.

As the Black Saturday Royal Commission report put it: “Some jurisdictions adopt a broad definition, deeming all suspicious fires to be arson; others might limit the term to those fires for which there is a prima facie, or even a proven, case of arson.”

According to experts contacted by RMIT ABC Fact Check, this inconsistency has changed little in the years since that report was handed down.

Identifying the cause of a bushfire can be difficult, given fires often start in remote or secluded places.

Melbourne University Associate Professor Janet Stanley, a leading expert from the National Centre for Research in Bushfire and Arson, said about 40% of fires had no assigned cause, and less than 1% of arsonists were caught and convicted.

“I don’t think we can know at this point how this current round of fires started,” Stanley told Fact Check.

“Unless people were there and picking a person up on the spot lighting the fire, arson is very hard to detect because it tends to be committed away from people in a quiet spot in the bush.

“Often the fire itself destroys any evidence, so it’s a very hard crime to detect, and getting evidence to prosecute and get a conviction is difficult.”

Australian research into the causes of bushfires and the extent to which arson is to blame is relatively scant.

A February 2008 report by the Australian Institute of Criminology estimated that, of bushfires with known causes, 13.3% were maliciously lit.

A further 36.2% were deemed “suspicious”. About a third, 35%, were found to be “accidental” — started, for example, by children or smokers.

“Difficulties exist in determining how the numbers of deliberate (incendiary and suspicious) fires have changed over time, due to changes in database collection methods, difficulties in integrating databases, the considerable uncertainty in the causes of many fires and complexities in delineating the specific cause of particular temporal variations,” the report noted.

Troy McEwan, an associate professor in clinical and forensic psychology at Swinburne University, said in an interview on ABC’s RN Breakfast that arson was responsible for a significant proportion of fires in Australia, although it was not helpful to attribute the majority to arson.

McEwan offered the example of the February 2009 Black Saturday fires, which killed 173 people.

Initially, four of the fires were thought to have been caused by arson, leading to 52 of the 173 deaths.

“Subsequently, only one of the fires on that day was actually attributed to arson and that caused 10 deaths,” McEwan said.

“And that’s obviously horrific and bad enough but we can’t jump to conclusions too quickly.

“I think we need to be open to the idea that it could be caused by arson but, equally, it’s not helpful to say these fires are always caused by arson or the majority of them are because the reality is, it seems, that most very large fires are not caused by arson.”

Has bushfire arson risen to an ‘unprecedented’ level?

In Victoria, the Crime Statistics Agency publishes information on offences in relation to bushfires.

The offence is divided into three subcategories: intentionally cause a bushfire; recklessly cause a bushfire; and recklessly spread a fire to vegetation.

The latest data is for the year to September 2019, with no official figures covering the current bushfire crisis yet available.

Over the 12 months to the end of September 2019, Victoria Police recorded 21 offences involving a person intentionally causing a bushfire.

Far from representing an “unprecedented” level of bushfire arson, that was the lowest level for at least a decade, and well below the 10-year average of 49.5 offences.

Victoria Police has also contradicted suggestions that the current bushfire crisis has been overwhelmingly caused by arsonists.

A Victoria Police spokeswoman said: “There is currently no intelligence to indicate that the fires in East Gippsland and the north-east have been caused by arson or any other suspicious behaviour.”

The Country Fire Authority (CFA) has also reportedly said the recent fires were not caused by arson.

The CFA incident controller in Bairnsdale, Brett Mitchell, pointed to lightning as the cause of most of the fires.

Likewise, in NSW, emergency services personnel have blamed lightning strikes for most of the fires.

“I can confidently say the majority of the larger fires that we have been dealing with have been a result of fires coming out of remote areas as a result of dry lightning storms,” NSW Rural Fire Services Inspector Ben Shepherd was quoted as saying.

queensland bush fire
(Image: AAP/Aleksandar Romanov)

The New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research provided Fact Check with unpublished data on the number of people suspected of bushfire arson facing police action.

These figures show over the year to September 2019, 56 people faced police actions in relation to alleged offences regarding the lighting of a fire, lower than the decade average of 68.7 people.

According to a January 6 statement released by NSW Police, since November 2019, legal action ranging from cautions through to criminal charges had been taken against 183 people in relation to bushfires.

However, it is wrong to suggest, as some people have done, that this figure relates solely to bushfire arson.

The vast bulk of this action related to other offences such as failing to comply with fire bans and the discarding of lit cigarettes and matches.

Of the 183 people who face legal action in NSW, only 24 (representing 13% of the total) were charged with deliberately lighting bushfires.

A further 53 people (29% of the total) faced charges or a caution for failing to comply with a total fire ban; 47 (26%) faced charges or were cautioned for throwing away a lit cigarette or match on land.

Fact Check was unable to access separate data for “bushfire arson” (as opposed to “arson” more broadly) in Queensland.

In a statement, Queensland Police said a taskforce had been established in September 2019 to investigate fires.

It suggested about 11% of bushfires reported in Queensland between September 10, 2019 and January 8, 2020 had been found to have been deliberately lit.

“As at January 8, 2020 there have been 1068 reported bushfires in Queensland since September 10, 2019,” the statement said.

“Of these, 114 fires have been deliberately or maliciously lit through human involvement and have been subject to police enforcement action.”

It said 109 people (including 36 adults and 73 children) had been dealt with by police across Queensland for offences relating to recklessly and/or deliberately setting fires.

Deliberately lit bushfires are likely to be smaller

Although not always the case, evidence suggests that so-called “natural fires” — generally started by lightning strikes — are likely to be much larger and more remote than fires started by arsonists.

University of Tasmania Professor of Environmental Change Biology David Bowman, a leading bushfire expert, told Fact Check that many of the big fires in the current crisis were known to have been caused by lightning strikes, having originated in remote areas after lightning storms.

“We know there are lightning storms that have caused these fires,” Bowman said.

“One of the signatures of arson is that arson [occurs] in proximity to people. Many of these fires have been burning in remote and inaccessible areas, so there is a significant lightning component.”

Swinburne University’s Professor McEwan told Fact Check that smaller fires on urban fringes were more commonly linked to arson.

“What we do know is that larger vegetation fires that occur further from urbanised areas are less commonly attributable to deliberate fire-setting than are smaller vegetation fires that occur on the urban-rural fringe,” she said.

This was backed by an Australian Institute of Criminology study, which analysed about 280,000 fire incidents attended by 18 different Australian fire services.

It concluded that natural fires tended to be much larger than deliberately lit fires, which typically occur nearer to populated areas and roads, meaning they tend to be contained more rapidly.

“[D]eliberate fires typically comprise a decreasing proportion of all fire causes as fire size increases, whereas natural fires comprise higher proportions of larger fires,” the report noted.

“Deliberate fires resulting from illegal burn-offs are on average larger than deliberate fires resulting from vehicle arson or other incendiary activities.”

The bottom line: Australia is getting hotter and drier

There is no doubt that arson is responsible for a significant number of fires in Australia.

However, the data does not yet exist to accurately dissect the current bushfire crisis. According to experts consulted by Fact Check, that could take some time.

What evidence there is, however, suggests it is highly unlikely arson has been responsible for most of the current bushfires.

Nor is there any evidence to indicate bushfire arson has increased to “unprecedented” levels, as some in the Morrison government have suggested.

In Victoria, the number of intentionally caused bushfire arson offences peaked in 2016, but had fallen to a level well below the 10-year average according to the most recently available figures.

Data provided to Fact Check by the New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research shows the number of people facing police action for deliberately lit bushfires was below the 10-year average in 2019, having peaked in 2014.

Regardless of how bushfires are started, hotter, drier conditions are exacerbating them, according to bushfire experts.

Bowman, of the University of Tasmania, said even if all of the unexplained fires were attributed to arson, it would not explain the current bushfire crisis.

“It can’t,” he said. “To try to criminalise the crisis as being caused by arson is not rational, and it also underplays the fact that the reason this fire crisis is so dramatic is because it is a climate and drought-driven event of heatwaves and extreme wind. There is a very strong background of climate and weather.”

Principal researcher: Josh Gordon, economics and finance editor

[email protected]

Sources

© RMIT University 2019