return to letters list

Today we have again experienced reports and commentaries suggesting there is a connection between bushfires and climate change. As might be expected, The Age has promoted the myth with a front page lead (see below), an attack on Environment Minister Hunt for his claim in a BBC interview that “unseasonal” bushfires are not linked to CC (such early bushfires have in fact occurred in the past), and by obtaining further connection claims from the UN secretary of the Framework Convention on Climate Change who asserts that the IPCC report in 2007 “observed” this and that further summaries of the fifth report (still to come) would include the latest “science on wildfires” (!!) that will “likely” spotlight the connection. The Age has also given a run to that expert on Australian bushfires, Al Gore.

Meantime, it appears that the army and kids may have been responsible for starting a major proportion of these early fires in NSW.

More importantly, the Herald Sun has run an  interview with Prime Minister Abbott on a range of important issues, including climate change. I have emphasised Abbott’s reference to the latter below and note his description of the alleged connection as being “complete hogwash”. But while an appropriate reaction on this subject, some of Abbott’s reactions to other issues leave a good deal to be desired. I am aiming to have something further to say on these.

Des Moore

Andrew Bolt tackles the PM on the big issues
(Part 1 of a transcript of interview by Andrew Bolt with Tony Abbott published in the News Limited,
25 October 2013.)

Andrew Bolt meets the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott for an interview at the Prime Minister's office at Treasury Place.


AB: How does it feel to be Prime Minister?

PM: It's exhilarating. It's exciting. It's a little daunting, though, because, obviously, as the Prime Minister of Australia, there are some great strengths that we have as a nation, but there are also some serious challenges, and the Government has to come to terms with them very quickly.

AB: Has it proved to be as difficult as you feared?

PM: Well, we don't know, because these are still very early days … I think we've made a good start to repealing the carbon tax and the mining tax, to stopping the boats, to getting the Budget back under control, to getting our infrastructure under way. We've made a start, but that's all it is, it's just a start.

AB: It's been a slow start in some respects. You only announced this week a commission of audit, for example.

PM: It's been more important to get things right, rather than to rush them. If you are going to get something like the commissioner of audit, which was a one-off, you only get one go at it and you've got to get it right if you're going to make the most of things. It's important to get the right personnel.

AB: Isn't that something you should have decided before the election?

PM: Yes, but due process is very important too, Andrew. You see, one of the things that the former government got badly wrong was the due process of government. Now, if you are going to avoid making unforced errors and gratuitous mistakes, you need a proper Cabinet process. A proper Cabinet process ... has got to be a meeting of 19 people who are well informed and well advised … All of that means that in order to get a proper Cabinet submission up takes a fortnight, maybe three weeks, so you can't just leap into action on day one.

AB: So, not for you a Kevin Rudd four-man kitchen Cabinet?

PM: I thought about swearing in a kind of duumvirate (just two ministers, as Gough Whitlam did after the 1972 election) or quartet or something like that, and kicking off the day after the election, but then I thought, no, the best way to do it was to be steady, methodical, purposeful, calm.

AB: I was referring more to Rudd's four-man team…

PM: The problem with both Rudd and Gillard was that everything was micromanaged. They thought they could confuse announcements with real action. They tried too much all at once and ending up doing nothing very well … The great thing with John Howard was that he picked the best people he could to be his ministers and he allowed them to get on with being ministers. He allowed them to be, if not quite CEOs, then certainly general managers in their portfolios. Obviously the important decisions were supposed to come back to him and to the Cabinet, and that's as it should be. But the day-to-day management, even the strategic direction, was very much shaped and determined by the relevant ministers. And that's how it will be in this government.

AB: It's 50 days on Sunday since you were elected. You've done very little media management.

PM: One of the differences between the good government that I served and the poor government that I replaced, is that the good government didn't feel that its main job was manipulating the media. It understood that its main job was getting on with government…

AB: Well, give me an example. You've had the expenses scandal running for a couple of weeks. Very little has been said to rebut some stuff. It was left to run. What is the strategy there?

PM: Well, the Prime Minister should not give a running commentary on every issue under the sun.

AB: Well, here's something to say about it. Every MP claiming an expense saying it is business should in the statement say what that parliamentary business was.

PM: You are putting to me a change to the system, and I am not convinced that any of the proposals currently floating around are necessarily an improvement on the existing system … And what about if, for argument's sake, the purpose of your trip was to meet with someone to discuss something that was an important part of being an effective Member of Parliament, but wasn't something that you could disclose? You either trust people or you don't.

AB: You can't trust them, it's clear.

(Volunteering to fight) the fires. Was there an element of running away from the office?

PM: Ha! Mate, I got up to the station at 4pm Saturday and I got back to the station at 10 Sunday morning. So there's no question of running away from the office, because the office is closed then. The office is closed.

AB: I've been struck by the insanity of the reaction in the media and outside, particularly linking the fires to global warming and blaming you for making them worse potentially by scrapping the carbon tax.

PM: I suppose, you might say, that they are desperate to find anything that they think might pass as ammunition for their cause, but this idea that every time we have a fire or a flood it proves that climate change is real is bizarre, 'cause since the earliest days of European settlement in Australia, we've had fires and floods, and we've had worse fires and worse floods in the past than the ones we are currently experiencing. And the thing is that at some point in the future, every record will be broken, but that doesn't prove anything about climate change. It just proves that the longer the period of time, the more possibility of extreme events … The one in 500 year flood is always a bigger flood than the one in 100 year flood.

AB: The ABC, though, has run on almost every current affairs show an almost constant barrage of stuff linking climate change to these fires.

PM: That is complete hogwash.

AB: It is time to really question the bias of the ABC?

PM: But people are always questioning the "bias" of the ABC.

AB: Yes, but you're the bloke that is handing over $1.1 billion a year to the ABC to continue a bias that's against their charter.

PM: If we were starting from scratch we may not have the media landscape that we do, but we're not starting from scratch … The ABC is an important part of a pluralistic media landscape, and I'm not going to complain about it, Andrew. I will do what I can to ensure the ABC is well managed, has got a good board, a strong board, and…

AB: But would you agree that the bias of the ABC, as observed even by former ABC chairman Maurice Newman, is in breach of its charter?

PM: I would say that there tends to be an ABC view of the world, and it's not a view of the world that I find myself in total sympathy with. But, others would say that there's a News Limited view of the world.

AB: Taxpayers don't pay News Limited.

PM: But I'm a conservative, I'm a traditionalist. I'm not persuaded that we need radical change here.

AB: Does it disturb you that the ABC is venturing into new areas like the internet, in direct competition with Fairfax in particular, offering the same audience the same product for free?

PM: If the ABC were to come to us, this government, seeking more money to do things that took it into competition with the private sector, we'd say no.

AB: Talking about things that government is funding that perhaps it shouldn't. Your Commission of Audit is going to look into exactly that. Have you got a "for instance"?

PM: I'm just not going to pre-empt the work that it does, Andrew, but I would be amazed if, for argument's sake, we need as many public servants in the areas of health and education, for instance, that we have at the moment, given that we don't run schools, we don't run universities, we don't run hospitals, we don't run medical practices or pharmacies…

AB: Would that breach your commitment not to cut health funding?

PM: No, no. We're not going to cut health funding, but that doesn't mean that we're going to have the same back office systems that currently exist. We did say that we would reduce the Commonwealth public sector by 12,000, and that's going to be over and above the modest reductions the former government started to put in place.

AB: Talking about modest reductions, you've asked the Commission of Audit to find savings so you can finally return to surplus in a decade. That's rather leisurely.

PM: We'll get back to surplus as quickly as we can.

AB: It actually says, a decade.

PM: Well, no … I wasn't just talking about any old surplus, I was talking about a surplus of 1 per cent of GDP. Now, that's a $15 billion plus surplus. And I was talking about sustained surpluses at that level. Now I like to hope, I would hope, that not only we'd be in a position of delivering sustained surpluses at that level, but that far out, should we be in government for that length of time, we would also have delivered significant tax cuts over and above the tax cuts that we committed to delivering during this term of parliament.

AB: Do you really think it is acceptable not to return to surplus and start to repay all Labor''s debt plus what you'll add for another decade?

PM: We will get back to surplus at least as quickly as the former government claimed that it would get back to surplus.

AB: That's no standard.

PM: I said at least as quickly. I'm not going to give a hostage to fortune by making promises that we can't keep. And, Andrew, there's a difference between getting things done and rushing around like a blue-arsed fly.

AB: I assume you believe all Australians should be treated equally on the grounds of race and ethnic origin.

PM: Yes.

AB: Why do you then want the Constitution rewritten so that some Australians are given different status on the grounds of their racial ancestry?

PM: Well, that's not I want. I want to appropriately acknowledge indigenous people in the Constitution. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that we have two classes of Australian citizens, and any proposed amendment that did in effect create two classes of citizens wouldn't be put forward by me, and would deserve to fail if it was.

AB: But dividing people by race…

PM: Yeah, but you're assuming that anything along these lines will divide people by race.

AB: Yes, I do.

PM: Well, I don't accept that this is mission impossible.

AB: How much does your faith influence your position on gay marriage?

PM: Religious faith is and has been an important part of my life but religious faith should not - must not - determine anyone's political position in a secular society such as ours. If something cannot be justified on the basis of ordinary human reason it shouldn't be a political decision. As a traditionalist, I don't think we should lightly change patterns of behaviour, institutional arrangements, which have stood the test of time. And since time immemorial, as far as I'm aware in all cultures, marriage, or solemnised relationships, have been between a man and a woman. I am disinclined to think that all of that history should be turned on its head just because, at this moment in time, albeit a significant section of the population thinks that we could do things in a way which is in need of something different.

AB: There's a thing called impostor syndrome, this feeling of, 'My God, am I really up to this?' I think you suffered that early on as Opposition Leader. I don't get that sense of you now as Prime Minister.

PM: The short answer is no … I know exactly what you are talking about, but no, this is a position that I have every right to hold. And these are duties and responsibilities that I think I am more than entitled to discharge.

Climate change raising fire risk
(Article by Health Aston, political reporter with The Age, 25 October 2013.)

Climate change is increasing the probability of extreme bushfire conditions, a report by the nation's leading climate change advisory body has found.

The landmark study by the Climate Council - the independent organisation established after the Abbott government abolished the Climate Commission in September - warns of increasing days of extreme fire danger in future across south-eastern Australia.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt launching an environment app in Victoria. Photo: Angela Wylie

A summary of the report, obtained by Fairfax Media, will put further pressure on Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Environment Minister Greg Hunt, who are resisting international criticism and insisting the ferocious bushfires threatening lives and homes have no link to climate change.

''While Australia has always experienced bushfires, climate change is increasing the probability of extreme fire weather days,'' the report found.

''Climate change is making hot days hotter, and heatwaves more frequent and severe. Last summer, Australia experienced the hottest summer on record, and now has just had the hottest September on record.

Professor Will Steffen is researching the links between climate change and increasing bushfire risks. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

''South-eastern Australia is experiencing a long-term drying trend. In NSW, soil moisture levels have been at record low levels now for a number of months. More intense and frequent hot weather, as well as dry conditions, increases the likelihood of extreme fire weather days.''

The 25-page report, which will be released in full in November, is being written by Professor Lesley Hughes of Macquarie University and Professor Will Steffen of the Australian National University.

They have researched 60 pieces of peer-reviewed scientific literature on climate change and fire.

Helicopters drop water on a fire at Doyalson, NSW. Photo: Simone De Peak

Both are former commissioners of the Climate Commission, chaired by Tim Flannery, which was disbanded by Mr Hunt a day after he was sworn in as minister.

The commission was set up by the Gillard government to provide public information on global warming. The decision to abolish it will save the government $1.6 million a year.

The full report will examine the bushfire crisis in NSW, with lethal fire conditions influenced by the hottest 12 months on record and the hottest September on record.

''The severity and scale of the fires may be unprecedented although until the data is assessed we can't say for sure,'' said Professor Hughes.

She said it was an ''enormous shame'' that climate change had become such a political hot potato. ''It's too important an issue to be politicised,'' she said.

But the political storm over the bushfire-climate link shows no sign of abating, with international experts continuing to weigh in to domestic politics and Mr Hunt facing ridicule over using Wikipedia for bushfire facts. The head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, insisted a link existed between rising temperatures and bushfires.

The Fire Services Commissioner of Victoria, Craig Lapsley, agreed climate conditions increased fire risk.

''The facts are on the table that in Central Australia it was hotter than normal, hotter than any time on record,'' he said.

Launching an app for vegetable growers and farmers in Somerville on the Mornington Peninsula, Victoria, on Friday, Mr Hunt stuck to the government line that the Coalition has always accepted the science.

He criticised what he saw as attempts to use the NSW bushfires as an example of climate change.

''The debate this week has been an attempt by some to misuse tragedy and suffering and hardship and nobody should do that,'' he told reporters after the launch.

He pointed in agreement to the chief scientist Ian Chubb, who on Thursday said individual events could not be attributed to climate change.

However, when pressed to talk more broadly about the impacts of climate change and the scientific consensus that climate change will mean an increase in the intensity and frequency of bushfires in Australia, he declined.

''This is not a debate about the science, this is a debate about the carbon tax. In terms of NSW, nobody should try and misuse that suffering.''

He repeated that Australia has always had bushfires.

He defended his interview this week with the BBC World Service, in which he said he cited Wikipedia as a source.

''Whether you cite CSIRO or any other form, is there anybody who doubts that bushfire has been an annual experience for the Australian population of the last 150 years?'' he asked.

Hunt got his 'facts' from Wikipedia
(Article by Health Aston, political reporter with The Age, 25 October 2013.)

Al GoreEnvironment Minister Greg Hunt says Wikipedia, the online answer-to-everything, provides evidence that the unseasonal bushfires plaguing NSW are not linked to climate change.

His surprise hypothesis came as international experts pile into the Abbott government for denying any correlation between rising temperatures and bushfire.

In an interview with the BBC World Service, Mr Hunt said: ''I looked up what Wikipedia said just to see what the rest of the world thought.

''It opened up with the fact that bushfires in Australia are frequently occurring events during the hotter months of the year due to Australia's mostly hot, dry climate.''

Mr Hunt has found himself at the centre of a storm over climate change since Prime Minister Tony Abbott accused the head of the United Nations' climate change negotiations, Christiana Figueres, of ''talking through her hat'' on the issue.

''These fires are certainly not a function of climate change, they're a function of life in Australia,'' Mr Abbott said.

The rebuke prompted Ms Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, to release another statement in which she pointed out that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had already found a causal link between climate change and bushfire.

''Climate change is known to alter the likelihood of increased wildfire sizes and frequencies … while also inducing stress on trees that indirectly exacerbate disturbances. This suggests an increasing likelihood of more prevalent fire disturbances, as has recently been observed,'' she said, quoting the 2007 IPCC report.

''As part of its fifth assessment report, the IPCC will release two further summaries in 2014, one of which will cover vulnerability to climate change in which the latest science on wildfires is likely to be spotlighted.''

Climate change campaigner Al Gore, the former US vice-president, laid into the Abbott government, likening it to politicians who defended tobacco companies from scientific evidence that smoking caused lung cancer.

The government is also facing questions at home on its dismissal of a link.

Victorian Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley said on Thursday: ''The facts are on the table that in Central Australia it was hotter than normal, hotter than any time on record.''

In his heated interview with the BBC, Mr Hunt rejected an assertion that Mr Abbott had labelled climate science ''absolute crap'' and asked the interviewer, Razia Iqbal, not to be rude.

''In Parliament our Prime Minister has expressed clear support for the science,'' Mr Hunt replied.

The interviewer pressed him again: ''So [Mr Abbott] no longer thinks it's absolute crap?''

return to letters list