Australasian Spartacist No. 240
Black Summer Fires Toll:
Product of Capitalist Greed and Neglect
We Need a New Ruling Class—The Workers!
MARCH 1: During the massive fires that swept across much of Australia’s coastal bushland and other areas in the last six months at least 33 people died, including 11 firefighters, and more than 3,000 homes were destroyed. Over 12 million hectares of land was burnt, including some 20 percent of Australia’s forests, an estimated one billion animals perished and large swathes of unique flora were lost. Gigantic firestorms created their own localised weather systems, including lightning strikes and winds that fanned flames and carried embers kilometres away, sparking new conflagrations. For months, Sydney and Canberra were repeatedly under a pall of hazardous smoke. No-one knows the long-term impact on the health of affected populations. More than once, air quality in these cities was described as the worst in the world. Subsequently, heavy rains along the east coast have led to water supplies being polluted as large amounts of ash and other debris wash into the river systems and dams.
Bushfires have been part of the Australian landscape for millenia. While climate change—raising summer temperatures and lengthening the fire season—is a factor in their growing number and intensity, it is the capitalists’ profit-driven system that greatly amplifies the risks. Indeed, the toll exacted by these recent colossal fires is directly attributable to the greed and neglect of the ruling class. Federal and state governments have slashed budgets, run down services and ignored warnings and recommendations for necessary measures in the lead-up to the fire season. This criminal neglect was only matched by their indifference and contempt towards those who fought the blazes and suffered through this crisis. From the time the fires began in September through to early January, the federal Liberal/National Coalition government—more interested in protecting its projected budget surplus than spending money on fighting fires—sat on its hands while the country burned. Thousands of unpaid and under-resourced volunteer firefighters (including retirees and many who had to use up their annual leave) were left to combat the fires, working around the clock, day in, day out. As the fires threatened coastal towns, populations largely had to fend for themselves, suffering food and fuel shortages.
When confronted in December with the desperate conditions facing volunteer firefighters, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, blithely replied that there wasn’t any more the government could do and they wouldn’t be professionalising fire services or paying volunteers. After all, he said, the volunteers “want to be out there.” Morrison, instead offered his thoughts and prayers to those facing the fires before secretly jetting off for a holiday in Hawaii. Facing a storm of criticism he had to cut short the vacation, rushing back to Australia to glad-hand firefighters and desperate communities.
In the face of mounting popular anger, the federal ALP “Opposition” leader, Anthony Albanese, pushed national unity, intoning that this was not a time to politicise events. In the interests of the capitalist order, Albanese sought to douse working-class anger, offering a sop to the firefighters by proposing a few crumbs of compensation. Also leaping to Morrison’s defence was Victorian Labor Premier, Daniel Andrews. He even backed police threats to shut down protests in Melbourne over the fires, ludicrously arguing that this diverted police resources in a bushfire emergency. In supporting Morrison and targeting protesters, Andrews doubtless worried that people might point their finger at his government’s criminal neglect in preparing for the fires. As for the bourgeois Greens, while attacking the Morrison government, they vacuously called on the federal parliament to declare a “climate emergency” to pave the way to their version of a “clean, green” capitalism.
The refusal of both federal and state Liberal and Labor governments to act on clear warnings about the dangers of the coming fire season underscores the destructive irrationality of the capitalist system based on production for private profit and the anarchy of the market. This system is deadly dangerous for us all. Budgets are cut instead of funding things needed to protect the population; much infrastructure is aged and/or poorly maintained, resulting in horrors such as the recent fatal derailment of a Sydney to Melbourne train; and fires are considered the individual responsibility of separate state and territory governments, with no nationally coorordinated response. Such irrationality, negligence and disregard for general safety are not new but are integral to the basic workings of the capitalist system. In Victoria, many of the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires (in which 75 people died) and the 2009 Black Saturday fires (which killed 173 people) were ignited by old and poorly maintained power lines.
To end the neglect and irrationality of capitalist class rule and clear the way for all-round social and economic progress will take a thoroughgoing socialist revolution. Under proletarian rule, workers councils would expropriate the banks, mines, industry and agribusiness without compensation, and organise a planned, collectivised economy built to benefit all and not for the profit of a tiny class of capitalist exploiters. Reorganising society on a socialist basis will allow humankind to utilise and further develop state-of-the-art equipment and technologies, including fire early-warning systems backed by highly trained, full-time firefighters, technicians and pilots, and take measures to mitigate the dangers and vagaries of nature. With production liberated from the profit motive, humans’ creative power will be unleashed to build a society in which war, poverty, malnutrition, social inequality and oppression are things of the past. As Friedrich Engels explained in his 1883 Introduction to Dialectics of Nature, such a conscious organisation of social production “will date a new epoch of history, in which mankind itself, and with mankind all branches of its activity, and particularly natural science, will experience an advance that will put everything preceding it in the deepest shade.”
Capitalist Profit System Breeds Neglect
For decades, scientists and government agencies, including the country’s national science research agency, the CSIRO, have warned that the warming of the planet combined with poor fire prevention measures was creating cataclysmic fire conditions in the country. This fire season was widely predicted to be extreme, given the years of drought and record temperatures. The threat was amplified by the dryness of the continent’s large eucalyptus forests that generate immense amounts of ground litter and highly combustible oils. However, both federal and state governments refused to heed advice. In late 2017 the National Aerial Firefighting Centre requested increased federal government funding to deploy large air tankers. This was rejected. In April last year, 23 former emergency services and fire chiefs provided the federal government with a detailed list of urgent measures, including proposing it lease additional aerial water bombers from around the world. These recommendations were ignored. In May last year, the government’s own Bureau of Meteorology reported that well-known drivers of year-to-year climate variability, such as the Indian Ocean Dipole, indicated it was unlikely that any significant rain would reach the already drought-stricken and tinder-dry east coast in 2019. This too was ignored.
The Victorian Andrews Labor government did not even attempt to achieve annual fuel reduction levels recommended by the 2010 royal commission into the Black Saturday bushfires. A decade later, the heavily forested foothills north-east of Melbourne have returned to pre-Black Saturday conditions. Meanwhile, the NSW state Liberal/National government has cut tens of millions from NSW national parks, reducing their ability to undertake measures such as controlled burns and fuel reduction. In 2018, it slashed close to $40 million from NSW Fire and Rescue and Rural Fire Service, leaving its fire trucks dilapidated, lacking the latest sprinkler systems, heat-resistant materials, self-winding hoses, roll bars and reinforcement. In NSW and across the country, volunteer firefighters have had to make do with ineffective breathing apparatus and clothing, poor radio communications and sub-standard technological capabilities. Outrageously some were forced to crowd-fund or reach into their own pockets to get effective masks and other equipment while receiving donations of food and water.
Not only are rural areas reliant on volunteer firefighters but so are large parts of heavily populated outer metropolitan Melbourne and Sydney. In the wake of the Black Saturday fires the Victorian United Firefighters Union (UFU) fought to increase the number of professional firefighters and put volunteers under the direction of this unionised force. They were met with a long and vicious campaign by the bosses and the volunteer fire brigade association, who in their hostility to “creeping unionism” spin this as an attempt by the unions to eliminate the “Australian way” of fighting fires. Many of the firefighters who have died this fire season might well be alive today if a properly resourced professional firefighting service had existed. But the state and federal governments are more than happy to continue with thousands of unpaid and under-resourced volunteer firefighters because it saves them millions of dollars while serving as a wedge against the unionised urban fire brigades.
For a Class-Struggle Leadership of the Unions
For weeks on end, working people in Sydney, including construction and waterside workers, bus drivers and garbage collectors, were choking on bushfire smoke. In early December, the Sydney branch of the maritime union (MUA) organised a work stoppage because of hazardous air quality. This powerful action cut through the sense of helplessness felt by the city’s beleaguered population. It pointed to the need for broader worksite stoppages. However, Unions NSW did nothing to organise the necessary actions, leaving it up to individual workers and/or worksites to take action and risk retaliation from the bosses. When the profit-gouging DP World stevedoring company vindictively tried to strip $120,000 worth of bonuses and dock MUA workers’ pay, the union tops looked to the capitalist rulers’ Fair Work Commission for arbitration. Only a few weeks later the MUA national leadership were promoting the government’s mobilisation of the military in response to the fires.
The refusal of the Labor-loyal misleaders of the trade-union movement to engage in class struggle is rooted in their fealty to the bosses’ courts and overall support to the capitalist profit system, repeatedly campaigning for it to be administered by an ALP government. The ALP is a bourgeois workers party, organically linked to the working class through the unions but with a pro-capitalist leadership and program. When in power it governs in the interests of the capitalists, carrying out union busting, cutting health, education and welfare budgets, attacking women’s rights, and oppressing vulnerable populations including Indigenous people and refugees.
Instead of the union tops’ patriotic commitment to Australian business interests, what’s needed is a leadership committed to mobilising proletarian power, independent of the capitalist state and in the interests of the exploited and oppressed. Addressing the justified outrage at government neglect over the fires, a class-struggle leadership of the labour movement would fight to organise union-run safety committees with the power to shut down unsafe worksites, and demand a massive increase in funding for fire prevention and firefighting equipment and machinery. It would seek to unionise and professionalise firefighting services with full union pay and conditions. It would fight for a public works program with fully unionised labour to repair the roads, bridges and other infrastructure and re-build housing in devastated communities.
Such demands will not be willingly granted by the capitalist rulers but must be wrested from them as part of the struggle for proletarian revolution. This poses the need for an internationalist revolutionary workers party. Such a party will be built in the course of class battles, by splitting the working-class base of the ALP away from the nationalist, pro-capitalist leadership. This will centrally occur through the fight to replace the social-democratic misleaders of the unions with a class-struggle leadership committed to sweeping away this brutal system and establishing workers rule.
Capitalist State Targets Workers, Oppressed
As the fires spread, thousands of working families saw their summer holiday—a few weeks of respite from the grind of wage slavery—turned into a nightmare trying to escape the fires, with long lines of cars clogging highways surrounded by acrid smoke. Capturing the mood within many communities hit by the fires, furious residents in the devastated southern NSW town of Cobargo cut short Morrison’s cynical attempt at a photo op, telling him to get the hell out and go back home to Kirribilli on Sydney’s well-heeled north shore. One woman shouted, “How come we only had four trucks to defend our town? Because our town doesn’t have a lot of money but we have hearts of gold, prime minister?” Soon after this incident, a NSW South Coast rural firefighter became a celebrity when he stopped his firetruck to engage a media crew in order to slam the prime minister’s response to the fires. This individual has become a hero for many, with locals and those further afield supplying him a $2,500 tab at the local bar. As the local publican said, “He only said what the rest of us were thinking.” Growing anger over government handling of the fires drew tens of thousands onto the streets in protest in Melbourne, Sydney and other cities on 10 January.
Among those severely hit by the fires were deeply oppressed Aboriginal communities. The South Coast town of Mogo was devastated, destroying the local land council office, an important social and cultural centre for Aboriginal people. The small Aboriginal community at Lake Tyers in Victoria’s East Gippsland region had only one small water tank on the back of a ute to fight the fires. One Aboriginal man who went to the relief centre in Bairnsdale in East Gippsland was turned away. He was told they had “helped enough of your people today.” Given the racist terror and neglect that Aboriginal people have been subject to since the beginning of white colonisation, it takes some chutzpah for that aggressive guardian of “White Australia,” the Murdoch press, to now espouse the efficacy of traditional Aboriginal use of fire to manage the landscape.
Outrageously, some people caught in fire zones reportedly had their welfare payments suspended. In one of his earliest speeches, Morrison, a Pentecostal devotee and believer in miracles, condemned welfare recipients as the “taxed nots.” According to Pentecostal “prosperity gospel,” material and financial success is a measure of one’s Christian faith and a recognition of God’s favour. Sanctifying wealth and privilege, this mumbo jumbo preaches that the poor and dispossessed are responsible for their own misfortune. These views align perfectly with the interests of the profit-gouging capitalist rulers, who accrue fabulous wealth from the plunder of resources and exploitation of workers’ labour power.
In this capitalist society, giant resource companies are gifted billions in government subsidies and the wealthy exploiters are considered to be deserving of massive tax breaks while welfare recipients are treated like criminals. Under successive Liberal and Labor governments, Newstart payments have not seen any real increase in 25 years. Those trying to eke out an existence on these payments are cruelly punished, forced onto cashless welfare cards and subjected to drug testing. Many welfare recipients have had their unemployment payments arbitrarily suspended. Tens of thousands have had false debts imposed against them by the government, impacting the mental health of many and driving some to suicide.
Following decades of Liberal and Labor government cuts, a significant minority of the population are spiralling into chronic unemployment, homelessness, poverty and misery, forced to depend on charities to survive. This, along with the ongoing systemic racist abuse of the Indigenous population (see article on page 12), the torture of refugees in hellhole offshore camps, and relentless attacks on workers, illustrate the barbarism of Australian capitalism.
“We Are One” Bourgeois Lies
With apocalyptic scenes of thousands of terrified holiday-makers stranded on smoke-filled beaches, images of charred kangaroos and koalas and blackened bushland, and facing widespread criticism including from overseas, the government seized the opportunity to mobilise the military at the start of January. The deployment of the troops was heralded with much rally-around-the-flag hoopla as the bourgeois media cynically lauded the great “Aussie” spirit of the unpaid volunteer firefighters and grooved on stories of horrible suffering to “bring us together.” ALP leader Anthony Albanese’s singular contribution at this time was to reproach the government for not calling out the troops much earlier.
Ominously Morrison later foreshadowed moves to ensure that in future “national emergencies” the defence forces would be quickly mobilised without waiting for a request from state governments. While the government seeks to accustom the population to the intervention of the military into civil society, the bourgeois media endlessly propagates the lie that the capitalist state is a force for good. In truth, the capitalist state is an armed repressive apparatus, consisting at its core of the military, police, prisons and courts, that exists to defend the interests of the capitalist rulers against the struggles of the working class and oppressed.
In the devastating aftermath of the fires, and with the tourism industry in a tailspin, the bosses fret that the impact of the fires (now combined with the effects of the COVID-19 epidemic) will plunge the economy into recession. The bosses and government spruik the need for a business-led recovery, with the government offering fire-affected businesses half-a-million-dollar loans. As for poor and working families, they might be able to access a piddling $1,280 from the government to supposedly rebuild their lives. At the same time, following the fires the government is already preparing for a royal commission to amnesty themselves and steer the anger of workers and oppressed into safe channels. Meanwhile they are preparing to make workers and the poor pay for their economic malaise, not least by revving up to get their union-busting Ensuring Integrity bill passed in the Senate.
Whether it is Liberal or Labor governments that administer this decrepit capitalist system, they serve the class interests of the tiny layer of filthy rich capitalist rulers and not the needs of working people and the oppressed. Thus, to the extent they can get away with it, they slash all manner of services, deceive and degrade an increasingly impoverished population, while spending hand-over-fist on prisons, police and military to clamp down on any resistance at home and prosecute Australian capitalism’s reactionary and exploitative imperialist interests abroad.
Today, while refusing to spend the funds to lease, let alone buy, the necessary large firefighting aircraft, the federal government lavishes tens of billions each year on the military as part of a U.S.-led military build-up targeting the Chinese deformed workers state, with the aim of overturning the gains of the 1949 Revolution in order to open up that country once more to untrammelled imperialist exploitation.
Eco-Socialists and “Clean Green” Capitalism
Throughout the bushfire ordeal, a reactionary cabal including from the Murdoch media and the Liberal/National Coalition peddled anti-science garbage to cover for the fact that the bourgeoisie refused to prepare for the extreme fire conditions. We were variously told that carbon dioxide emissions were not the main factor in climate change, global warming is “good for us” and the fires were mainly caused by arsonists or environmentalists, the latter blamed for the build-up of fuel in bushland areas. The deputy prime minister, and National Party leader, Michael McCormack, even attributed the increased incidence of fires to exploding horse manure!
On the other hand, the small-time capitalist Greens party and a growing section of the bourgeoisie lay the blame for the destruction wrought by the fires almost exclusively on climate change. Today, along with the likes of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, the Greens are promoting a Green New Deal (GND). Under this rubric the Greens push the fraud of a reformed “clean energy” capitalism, with a “fairer economy and a more equal society,” gibbering that a GND is a “massive opportunity to solve the climate crisis and to ensure everyone has a good life.” What a crock.
In thrall to the bourgeois ideology of environmentalism, the whole gamut of reformist groups from Socialist Alliance (SA) to Socialist Alternative (SAlt), the Communist Party (CPA), Solidarity and Socialist Action (formerly the Socialist Party) try to outdo each other in their clamour to ban coal and gas, shut down the fossil fuel industries, fund renewables and so forth. Their embrace of environmentalism reached new levels during the fires, albeit sometimes with a wafer-thin veneer of “anti-capitalist” rhetoric. For example, SAlt’s scribbling that “nothing short of revolution will suffice” is grafted onto their “climate activist” agenda that includes direct collaboration with the capitalist Greens.
The entire purpose of the climate activist movement is to advise/pressure the bourgeoisie on how best to fuel its economy. The meaning of this is made explicit by Solidarity who are gaga for a reformed “clean energy” GND-style capitalism. They declare, “[h]undreds of thousands of good jobs can be created right now through a public works program in renewable energy, public transport, housing, land management and reforestation.” The bill for this “transition” will be footed by the “rich and their corporations,” in other words by the very capitalist rulers who have looted industry, eroded health and education services, run down public infrastructure, and who refused to take preventative measures against the fires. The reality is the bourgeoisie and its government will build industry and employ people where it is profitable for them to do so.
The GND is a manoeuvre to give environmentalism a worker-friendly spin by looking for converts in the union bureaucracy and trying to veil its aim of slashing entire industries like natural gas and coal mining. This would result in the complete destruction of strategically placed unionised workforces, to be replaced by “green jobs.” Under capitalism the reformists’ calls for a “just transition” for fossil fuel workers into “green jobs” is utopian idealism, but more importantly it shows indifference to the destruction of centres of union power. Already, workers in the “green economy” suffer from low wages and no unions, posing the need for a class-struggle fight to organise the unorganised. Furthermore, Australia exports 75 percent of its coal, much of it to China and India. The immediate termination of fossil fuels would have a devastating impact on the living conditions of working people throughout the world, not least those in the Chinese deformed workers state and in neocolonial countries oppressed by imperialist powers such as Australia.
For Marxists, addressing the human-derived aspect of global warming is fundamentally not a technical but a social problem. We oppose environmentalism because it accepts the inviolability of capitalism, in which production is profit driven and society’s wealth is monopolised by a tiny fabulously wealthy bourgeois ruling class. While some eco-socialists lecture workers on the evils of “limitless” consumption, we fight for a society that will provide more, not less, for the working people and the impoverished masses of the world. Our goal is to eliminate material scarcity and qualitatively advance the living standards of all. To this end we fight for workers revolutions in the capitalist countries to expropriate the bourgeoisies and proletarian political revolution in China and the other bureaucratically deformed workers states, laying the basis for the construction of a planned, collectivised world economy. An international federation of workers states would marshal world productive resources to immensely raise the living standards of the impoverished masses of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, who today under imperialist subjugation are deprived of such necessities as decent housing, quality health care, clean water and education.
However, for the left-wing eco forces it is carbon not their own capitalist rulers that pose the biggest threat to working people. Thus, it is hardly surprising that numerous reformist groups regularly call on workers to vote for the bourgeois Greens. In October 2018, SAlt even featured NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge as the keynote speaker in their own public forum, “Police StateConfronting the Law and Order Agenda”. Along with the CPA and SA, SAlt echoed Anthony Albanese in chastising the Morrison government for not mobilising the repressive force of the state more quickly during the fires. This line is in lieu of fighting for a fully unionised professional firefighting service.
These reformists prettify the imperialist armed forces, peddling illusions that they can be repurposed to play a progressive role. This is a crystallised expression of the age-old reformist pipedream that the imperialists can be pressured to change their priorities in the interests of working people and the oppressed. The job of the Australian military is to enforce the predatory interests of Australian imperialism abroad. It is also deployed “at home” against any significant threat to capitalist profit-making, such as when the Chifley Labor government used the military to break the great coal miners’ strike in 1949.
The reformism of these left groups was on full display at 10 January protests they helped to build in Sydney and Melbourne. The main protest demands, including “Fund the Firies” and “Sack Scomo”, were framed to appeal to the broadest number of people on the lowest common denominator. The pro-capitalist ALP leadership and the bourgeois Greens could readily support these demands. “Fund the Firies” concedes to the Australian national ethos of volunteerism and deliberately deep-sixes the fight for a fully-funded and unionised professional firefighting service. As for “Sack Scomo” and SAlt’s infantile “Fuck ScoMo,” these demands are equivalent to “put the Liberals last” and/or elect the ALP or Greens. And there’s the rub. What these “left” swindlers are actually engaged in is not a fight to sweep away the capitalist system through workers revolution but for a “cleaner, greener” capitalism.
Fight For Socialism!
As the International Communist League has noted many times before, we are far from indifferent to climate change. But our primary concern is human civilization, and the main threat to that is the continued rule of the capitalists. Nothing good will come from advising these plunderers of the world on how to best generate energy.
Our answer to the eco-socialists’ demands to “leave it in the ground” is to expropriate all energy companies, of whatever technology, without compensation and run them in the interests of society, not for profit. A workers government would strive to generate and use energy in the most rational, efficient and safe manner possible, including by developing nuclear, solar, wind and other non-carbon sources. Even then, it will be likely necessary to harness fossil fuels for a period of time in order to lift everyone out of misery and to massively increase the production of things people need, as part of the struggle for a genuinely communist future of abundance where each will be able to work to his or her abilities and take from society according to their needs.
The devastating fires proved yet again that the capitalist rulers are a deadly danger to us all. Driven by competition for profit the ruling classes of the richest capitalist countries are compelled, through capitalism’s inner workings, into an unrelenting drive for new markets and ever-greater sources of cheap labour. Imperialist powers wage wars against their rivals for the division and re-division of the world, subjugating whole countries and regions in the process. It is the mission of the proletariat to overthrow this barbaric system.
The capitalist exploiters are incapable of maintaining this society, much less tackling global climate change. It will take successful socialist revolutions, collectivising the economies in Australia and around the world, to enable the international planning necessary to mitigate climate change and its effects, laying the basis for a global society of full equality for all based on abundance, not generalised want, poverty and war. For that to be achieved the proletariats of different countries throughout the world need revolutionary vanguard parties modelled on Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolshevik Party, which led the great Russian Revolution of 1917. We in the Spartacist League are dedicated to building a world party of socialist revolution that fights for international socialist revolution. Join us!