The Australian Bushfire Crisis: Are Liberal Protests Undermining the Real Solution?

by Jessica Syed 

23 January 2020

Over the past two months, the Australian subconscious has been subsumed by images from the Bureau of Meteorology: topographic maps depicting the spread of uncontrollable bushfires across residential areas, or the spread of freak thunderstorms that leave mounds of hail in their wake. 

As the smoke from the bushfires on the northern coast of New South Wales began to engulf Sydney in mid-November last year, its effects seemed unenduring. Most of us felt that the smoke would linger for a few days, before the sky returned to its regular clarity. Instagram was littered with photos of the same blood orange sun from different angles, as if it was an anomaly, never to be seen again. Behind a thick veil of ashen smoke, you could stare right at it without squinting. 

As the weeks passed, however, this became the sun under which Sydney toiled and tanned as usual – only with the addition of protective face masks. With all this becoming the norm, it’s now common ground among most progressive minded-people that climate change is no longer a distant threat, but one that is very tangible.

In line with this, there is a mood of increased political engagement among both the young and old. Protests – organised and supported by student groups, unions and community organisations alike – have garnered extreme interest and mobilised thousands of people. Two protests in response to the bushfire crisis, taking place in Sydney’s town hall square in early December and January consecutively, have collectively brought together upwards of 40,000 people.

Those organising the protests have demanded, among other things, publicly owned renewable energy, just job transitions for workers in fossil fuel industries and land and water sovereignty for First Nations people. Those attending these protests, on the other hand, were likely more attracted to the populist titles of their Facebook events.

It appears more strategic to bring liberals into the fold of the climate movement with such cries as “Sydney is Choking!” or “Sack ScoMo!”. The focus on visceral smoke-induced health problems or the symbolic ousting of the prime minister – as opposed to political interests in the coal industry or dispossession of land from First Nations people – has no doubt fuelled enormous attendance rates at these rallies. 

Indeed, for many liberals who have become politically energised in response to this crisis alone, the act of protesting – being part of a crowd moving through the streets in unison – can feel radical in itself. 

But it is politically futile that the act of protest, in the context of the Australian bushfire crisis, has become limited to the painting of banners and placards that nod vaguely to the incompetence of a particular politician, or discursively involve the most recent widely-shared Twitter meme. 

This manner of political engagement turns the protest into an inoffensive social affair, subduing its potential as a vehicle for radical political upheaval in the midst of a climate emergency. It disallows the centring of the most crucial factor in the attainment of climate justice: First Nations sovereignty over the country. 

The issue of bushfires as connected to climate change in Australia is one that predates the investment of the political elite in fossil fuel industries in the past century. Colonial land management processes, implemented since British settlement in 1788, have entirely uprooted sustainable land management as practiced by First Nations people on this land – particularly when it comes to fire. 

Aboriginal writer Bruce Pascoe, in his seminal work Dark Emu, notes that bushfires at their current scale “were largely unknown before the arrival of Europeans”. Australian bushlands and their flora were in a continuous state of management under traditional Aboriginal fire regimes; relevant lands were burnt in a controlled manner in hot and dry weather to prevent catastrophic spread.  With the invasion of the British, the timing and intensity of such preventative burning has changed the nature of the vegetation over the last 230 years: creating more scrub, and making the land more prone to dangerous fires.

The causal link between climate change and colonisation of land in Australia is abundantly clear. In light of this, it feels not only logical but morally just to decentre calls for the ousting of the prime minister and reprioritise the energies of liberal climate protesters on the need for First Nations sovereignty over land and water. 

A climate movement that focuses on piecemeal bureaucratic changes and witty signs is innocuous. It is not threatening enough to the status quo and those who uphold it. We must instead cultivate a movement that openly and fiercely demands First Nations sovereignty and custodianship over the country. This is not only the most important step in confronting the climate crisis, but one that will unsettle the very structures of settler-colonialism that enable the crisis in the first place. 

Jessica Syed is a law student and writer based in Sydney, Australia.

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