Doomed Planet

Signing off on This Year’s Scapegoat

In 1985, by a series of mischances, I found myself a senior officer in a government agency in Western Australia. One of my unexpected responsibilities was the drafting of “ministerials”. It worked this way: members of the public with a beef about something would write a letter to the minister (this was before the days of email, when people wrote real letters). These were never actually read by the minister, but were intercepted by one of the ministerial staff and sent off to the relevant department, arriving in a pink manila folder. Here a public servant drafted a reply and returned the draft to the ministerial office where (if the minister’s political adviser approved)  it would be typed up as a “final” on ministerial letterhead and put before the minister for signing. Experienced ministers would not even read them before scrawling their signature.

The process was simplified by the fact that the public service had long been drilled in the three immutable rules of drafting a ministerial. First, never admit the minister was wrong or had made an error; second, never commit the minister to doing anything; and third, if there was no possible way of denying that something had gone wrong, find a scapegoat.

Interestingly this ‘Ministerials Formula’ applied irrespective of which party was in power or who was the minister. Oppositions who sneered at it, and condemned public servants as political lapdogs, would instantly adopt the traditional approach the moment they came to power.

I was thinking about this when considering the current Royal Commission and the independent inquiries being carried out by the NSW and Victorian governments into the 2019/20 bushfires.  The submissions to these inquiries will fall into two main categories (well, there will be a third category, the nutters, but I will ignore them). On the one hand, there will be those recommending significant changes to the way we prepare for, and deal with bushfires. These will identify the serious flaws in governance, policy, strategy and land management whose consequence is recurring bushfire disasters, and they will suggest a new approach. On the other hand, there will be submissions from those who will feel threatened by change and advocate for the status quo. They will fall back on the ‘Ministerials Formula’: (i) admit no errors; (ii) make no commitments; and (iii) find a scapegoat.

The Big Scapegoat this time, the Ultimate Excuse,  will be climate change.  “We did all we could, we were heroes, but we were beaten by unprecedented weather resulting from climate change” is  a refrain that will be repeated ad nauseam by premiers, ministers, senior bureaucrats and green fire chiefs, i.e., anyone concerned that incompetence might be exposed. It will be parroted back by journalists and political commentators who will be looking for something to carry on about now that the C-19 panic is fading.

I have no faith in either the NSW or Victorian state government’s internal inquiries. For one thing, they are inquiring into themselves, and this will inevitably be done with a benign and forgiving eye. For another, no government can afford to admit to having been incompetent. Apart from political damage, it would have immediate legal consequences, with calls for compensation. I have already heard rumblings of class actions, and of law firms sharpening their litigation quills, and they would rub their hands over any findings, let alone admissions, of flawed governance. It won’t happen.

The Royal Commission, on the other hand, might be able to take a more independent stance and identify some of the real weaknesses in Australian bushfire management. For example, they might look at the failure of political leadership, the conflicts in policy, the absence of priority-setting, the lack of investment in mitigation, the over-reliance on water bombers, the local government authorities who prevent land-owners from protecting themselves from bushfires, the mis-directed research, the planning authorities approving residential developments icapable of being defended, the national park managers who close roads and fire trails and fail to reduce fuels, the centralisation of control, the sacrifice of rural Australia, the abandonment of native fauna, and the undermining of bushfire managers by academia.

If the Royal Commission fails to identify and find solutions for these factors, but focuses instead on climate change (something that nobody can “fix” in the short term, and so obviously a scapegoat for incompetence) it will be a travesty, a disgraceful waste of money, time and energy.

The unknown factor is PM Scott Morrison. I think he genuinely wants to see change, and that he understands the imperative to increase investment in preparedness and damage mitigation. I think he appreciates the need for a redirection of policies (especially at state and local government level) and a clarification of priorities. On the other hand he will be well-aware of the political power of the “bushfires-equal-climate-change” agenda. Obviously, this agenda cannot be ignored for the simple reason that it has been so heavily promoted by the “Fire Chiefs” recruited by Tim Flannery’s Climate Council, plus an uncritical media serving up green nostrums now accepted as fact by a substantial section of the general public.

Fortunately there is a way out. Irrespective of the way the Royal Commission reports, the PM can say that the government intends to adopt two parallel approaches. The first will be to fix the bushfire situation, but at the same time they will be promoting policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This will not satisfy the Greens and the Fire Chiefs but it might mollify the general public and get some positive play in the media.

Anyway, as I have said from the beginning, the biggest problem the PM and the Royal Commission face is not what to do, but getting the states and local governments to agree to do it. There is also a solution to this problem: a new financial model where the Commonwealth rewards the states for good bushfire management, rather than propping up incompetence.

It galls me to think that state government politicians and bureaucrats have to be bribed to do the right thing, but if it works, I will grin and bear it.

Roger Underwood is Chairman of the Bushfire Front in Western Australia

7 comments
  • ianl

    > ” … state government politicians and bureaucrats have to be bribed to do the right thing”

    Yes, but they don’t stay bought.

    Apart from that, an appreciable article.

  • Lawrie Ayres

    Unfortunately Roger’s worst fears will be proven as politicians at state and local level seek to alleviate their obvious mistakes. But there will be another fire season and the same disaster will happen and maybe people will remember those who stopped them from protecting their properties. It remains to be seen if Green councillors will be re-elected but that will give us a guide to the way people think.

  • Bwana Neusi

    Perhaps when the RC completes its lengthly considerations amidst the convected screams from the alarmists, the solar global cooling will have them focus on gathering wood from forests to keep warm.

  • jglmedia66

    ‘“Fire Chiefs” recruited by Tim Flannery’s Climate Council,’ It would be very interesting to understand the financial modelling for these organisations and how the funds are distributed.

  • DG

    I wonder how Flannery defines ‘normal’. The media often confuses it with ‘average’. Not so. Normal is a band around the mean. Let’s say 2 standard deviations either side. So last summer was in the normal range. Whew.

  • DG

    Ed – according to the AGPS Style Manual (my edition, the Snooks ed., is 2002, so almost current) it’s not ‘2019/20’, but ‘2019-20’, the solidus implies alternative, rather than continuity. Perhaps a wee edit is in order.

  • tbeath

    Roger, I don’t think much will change. As you noted in another article, we will probably have a few benign seasons, by which the real pressure to get back to scientific land management will fade. I’m not sure how many competent fire managers are left in the land manager roles these days. My take on academic training doesn’t fill me with hope. Maybe too many people are now embedded in the group-think of fanciful wildlife biology and use a combination of “climate change” and “species extinction” to block sensible action.
    By the way, here in Victoria, we have already had, at this early time, people complaining about the smoke from hazard reduction burns recently. Someone with asthma seems more newsworthy that several hundred houses being burned and people killed by wildfires. Trade-offs?
    Oh, and in NSW we used to get “Ministerial Urgent” with a very short time to provide an answer. The first big user of this in my experience was Jack G. Beale, Minister for Conservation and Member for the South Coast. Our fattest file as we were in his electorate! I could tell stories …

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