We need Canberra to help put out these bushfires

Opinion piece published in The Australian, 4 December 2019


It’s time for the federal government to seize control of fire mitigation and management in our nation. The human, financial and environmental costs of bushfires are immense. The states have largely failed in this area because of the insidious green influence in our state bureaucracies, locking up vast tracts of land, destroying access tracks and refusing permission to reduce fuel loads. A new federal approach would prise the management of fire mitigation from the states and, if done properly, offer a counter-intuitive way to restore effective local control.

Now the most recent fires have abated, it is time to reflect on why we continue to allow them to devastate us and our landscape without proper mitigation strategies.

For the 2007 federal election I prepared on behalf of the Howard government a $10m bushfire mitigation fund, announcing it in the ruins of the Wielangta Forest in Tasmania after a massive burn. This was an area the Greens wanted “preserved” from forestry. With sustainable forest practices and a ready workforce, the devastating fire could have been extinguished before it took hold, with wildlife and habitat preserved. Instead, habitat and wood production were both lost. 

The important role of local mitigation strategies has been neglected in relation to the recent fires due to an exaggerated focus on climate change. Yet this interpretation fails to provide any explanation for the recorded history of fires in Australia from the first days of European exploration. Captain James Cook described Australia as “this continent of smoke” during his maiden 1770 voyage. My home state of Tasmania has the Bay of Fires, given its name by Captain Tobias Furneaux in 1773 for the obvious reason.

Since European settlement destructive bushfires have been a regular occurrence. The biggest remains Black Thursday, in 1851, which affected a quarter of Victoria and burnt five million hectares. This compares to 1.5 million hectares burnt in NSW in the most recent fires. Bushfire has been a constant menace in our history, as even the most casual examination of the record will reveal.

Even if we accept the mantra that the recent fires are principally due to climate change, however, then this surely suggests that more stringent mitigation activities need to be undertaken to reduce the risk. But that would require something the inner-city Greens don’t want to acknowledge — an uncompromising reduction of the fuel loads in our forests. Yes, the cold burns would put CO2 into the atmosphere, but the forest litter ultimately will be burnt in a hot fire or slowly decompose releasing the trapped carbon dioxide in any event.

There is no doubt that cold burns will reduce CO2 emissions over time and also preserve trees for sustainable harvesting, providing a much-needed, genuinely renewable resource and habitat for wildlife. I’ve seen “reserved forests” preserved for koala habitat, denying forest workers and their communities a livelihood, being turned into an eerily silent scorched landscape without a single ant or bird left, let alone a koala. Yet koalas had cohabited with forestry in the region for more than 100 years.

Recent experience proves that locking up our forests neither preserves biosecurity nor our native wildlife. In fact the opposite is true. Policies formed on a lack of basic understanding in our cities stifle locals from clearing their land, reducing fuel loads, removing trees from nearby houses, and so on. As a result, there is considerably more fuel for fires that break out, increasing their scale and severity.

The counter-productive impact of green and red tape imposed by state governments in the name of environmentalism needs to be acknowledged. Realistic and practical approaches should be the order of the day and the warm, fuzzy, feel-good policies leading to disaster after disaster, and which have led to so much destruction, need to be rejected.

When it comes to our approach to bushfires, we can no longer afford the status quo. The cost to taxpayers, not to mention the human cost, is profound. We need to pursue a coherent national approach that will combine the weight of the federal government with local knowledge and expertise. The guiding role played by the federal government under such an approach would enable a comparison of performance and practices in different areas, with the aim of compiling a national repository of knowledge local practitioners could draw on to learn from experience elsewhere. This will ultimately save the taxpayer, life, limb, property, wildlife and habitat.

It would be a far more impressive bottom line than the charred devastation with which we are left under today’s approach.

Australia needs leaders who stand up for our nation

Opinion piece published in The Mercury, 12 October 2019


The Prime Minister’s timely and cogent Lowy Lecture has sparked a lively debate among readers of the Mercury.

The speech surveyed a number of critical changes in the international environment that will shape Australia’s future, including strategic competition in our region, the rise of artificial intelligence, and the threat of terrorism.

As the PM declared, “a new economic and political order is taking shape”, and Australia must adapt in order to continue thriving in a changing global environment.

Some correspondents took exception to the PM’s criticism of “a new variant of globalism that seeks to elevate global institutions above the authority of nation states to direct national policies”. One reader, referring to the Government’s approach to border protection and climate change, fretted over Australia “losing its status as a respected international citizen”, claiming we are becoming a “pariah nation stuck at the bottom of the world”. This sense of shame associated with being Australian is so strong, we are told, that some feel compelled to identify themselves as New Zealanders when overseas.

Sentiment of this kind is a 21st century version of the cultural cringe — discomfort over how Australia may be perceived overseas. Yet the embarrassment felt by some of the cultural elite to our country is, increasingly, coming to define them. They are highly sensitive to the opinions of their elite peers elsewhere in the world, but not concerned about the views of our fellow Australians — those who overwhelmingly support the Government’s policies on border protection and rejected Labor’s radical climate change policies at the May election.

Most Australians are rightfully proud of our country. The ABC’s Australia Talks national survey, published this week, found that huge majorities agree with the statement: “Australia is the best country in the world in which to live”. I am one of them, and am always thankful to be able to call myself an Australian, especially when travelling overseas.

As Ron Cornish correctly pointed out (Letters, October 8), it makes no sense to claim that Australia’s international status is diminished when so many people are desperate to migrate here. Those who criticise Australia most harshly are invariably those who have the privilege of calling it home.

What I take particular exception to is the suggestion that there is something morally flawed about considering the interests of Australians. That is what the Australians want and expect us to do as elected representatives. The moral failing would be to not advocate for the interests of those who decide who will represent them in parliament, or to prioritise an ill-defined internationalism over real concerns of Australians.

Standing up for Australia’s interests on the world stage is not incompatible with pursuing an international order that promotes our values, including the rule of law and democracy. In the changing world we inhabit, there will be many areas in which we need to collaborate with international partners to solve common problems.

Australia must continue to work with our allies and partners on defence, trade, environmental and other issues. It is because of the greater need for co-operation that it is so important to assert our nation’s sovereignty, so our international engagement takes place on terms that do not compromise our national interests or democratic values.

It is our obligation to the Australian people as elected representatives.

Ruddock Review

Under Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the Federal Liberal Government is acting to protect religious freedom in Australia and to protect the rights of Australians to be themselves.

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Pensioners before Paris

For more than 18 months, I have been advocating for the central feature of our nation’s energy policy to be pensioners before Paris – that is to focus on reducing power prices, ensuring reliability of supply instead of slavishly driving up prices in order to meet an international target that all of the big international emitters have ditched or ignored.

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About Eric

Eric Abetz has been a Liberal Senator for Tasmania since 1994 and has served in a range of Leadership, Ministerial and Shadow Ministerial roles.

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