The absurdity of extreme bushfire politics is out of hand

 

COMMENT

To be described in the same day as both a left-wing apologist for bushfire arsonists and a climate-denying right-wing nut job who's part of some disinformation campaign was an interesting experience.

It's not a new thing to upset the left and the right simultaneously, especially in recent years when just about everything in modern life is hyper politicised.

My first editor many years ago told me that if coverage of a contentious issue disappoints both ends of the ideological spectrum, you've probably done something right.

But in the emotive and divisive climate of the bushfires crisis, while large chunks of the country continue to burn, the politics feels entirely different and without reason.

My own experiences last week illustrate this.

While Australia burns, unhinged politics on both ends of the ideological spectrum is spiralling out of control. Picture: Getty Images
While Australia burns, unhinged politics on both ends of the ideological spectrum is spiralling out of control. Picture: Getty Images

I wrote a story on Wednesday about the volume of misinformation and bizarre conspiracies about the bushfires circulating online.

I highlighted some of the craziest ones - that the Government lit the fires to clear land for high-speed rail, that environmentalists are working as firebugs so they can spread climate change propaganda, or that Muslims are responsible in some sort of jihadist attack.

An academic I spoke to explained how some of these theories begin and spread, but the bulk of the story was devoted to the views of a decorated firefighter named Drew.

Drew sought to "myth bust" some of the common ones, including environmentalists blocking backburning efforts and that climate change plays no role longer, hotter and more unpredictable seasons.

For that effort, I was accused by many of inventing the firefighter - that he doesn't exist and is a character in my own warped narrative - because I didn't include his last name.

I didn't, at his request, because he anticipated a flurry of abuse and trolling from certain groups. He was right.

I received my fair share of unpleasant emails and comments too.

Some accused me of being a mouthpiece for the coal industry while others described me as a shill for the Greens Party.

My favourite email was from one climate change denier kindly described me as a "soy boy f****t" in bed with environmentalists to push some leftie agenda.

I hate soy milk, just for reference, and probably don't rate as important enough a reporter to be on any lobby group, corporation or political party's radar.

Climate Change protesters gather outside The State Library before they march. Picture: Ian Currie
Climate Change protesters gather outside The State Library before they march. Picture: Ian Currie

In that piece, I included details of new analysis by a Brisbane academic who revealed last week that a proportion of Twitter accounts active within the #ArsonEmergency hashtag, spreading the line that arsonists are behind the bushfires, are bots.

And that me brings me to the other story I wrote that day.

On Monday, New South Wales Police issued a media release containing data on arrests for fire-related charges over recent months.

"Police take legal action against more than 180 people so far during 2019/2020 bushfire season," it was headlined.

That figure of 180 was seized on by both the left and right-leaning factions currently preoccupied with examining all things bushfires through a political lens.

On social media, the hashtag #ArsonEmergency exploded with activity, blaming the majority, if not the entirety of bushfires on firebugs. The figure of 180 charges or referrals by police in NSW was used to cast doubt on the link between climate change and fires.

As one Brisbane academic revealed last week, a proportion of the accounts spreading that line are bots engaging in a clear misinformation campaign.

But on the other end of the spectrum, those calling for urgent action on climate change in light of the bushfires used the figure to demonstrate the nefarious tactics employed by their opponents.

I was curious about the actual scenario at play and dug into the data, in NSW and every other jurisdiction bar the Northern Territory, to see what's going on.

Bushfire ravaged forest in Wairewa, where blazes have destroyed half of the tiny farming hamlet. Picture: Getty Images
Bushfire ravaged forest in Wairewa, where blazes have destroyed half of the tiny farming hamlet. Picture: Getty Images

I made the decision to play a pretty straight bat given the tension in certain circles about that data.

I went through the number of people charged with deliberately lighting bushfires, but also broke down the data to differentiate between those cases and other non-malicious activities, like failing to comply with total fire bans or flicking a cigarette butt out the window.

I wrote about the special taskforces initiated in many states in the past few months to catch firebugs, as well as those who act recklessly during bushfire season.

The headline of the story contained a description of the "shocking" number of people charged with deliberately lighting bushfires this season.

In NSW, it's 24, in South Australia it's 10, in Tasmania it's two, in the ACT it's one and in Western Australia it's 12.

In Queensland, the situation is less clear because the data doesn't yet distinguish between deliberate and non-malicious reckless behaviour, but there, 101 people have been charged.

In Victoria, data only goes up to the year ending September 2019, but in the previous period the number was 21.

In any case, that's 49 individuals excluding Queensland and Victoria who police allege went into the bush and maliciously lit a fire this season and I'd argue that's indeed a shocking number of people endangering lives and property.

I didn't blame the bushfires on arson. I also didn't discount the number of people charged with being firebugs in the bush.

There was some interesting research about the number of bushfires sparked as a result of arson in an examined period - about eight per cent - and I thought that was important context.

But I included a reference to another finding of that research - the 20 per cent that are deemed suspicious and the 40 per cent that have no identified cause - as well.

The academic I cited has looked at that 40 per cent and explained that when examined by fire investigators, there were suspicious circumstances.

That's important when it comes to the discussion of firebugs, but it's this part where things get tricky politically.

Those who push the arson angle accused me of downplaying the issue, while those who consider arson a misinformation effort said I'd overplayed it.

The story contained no real opinion at all. It presented the data, broken down to the clearest point possible, with expert commentary from those who specialise in bushfires, as well as a clear response from the NSW Rural Fire Service about human-caused bushfires.

It wasn't enough for either side.

The right wanted me to definitively blame arsonists for the current bushfires, while the left wanted me to ignore the number of people charged for deliberately lighting fires altogether.

Images taken during the ongoing bushfire crisis are projected on the sails of the Sydney Opera House. Picture: Getty Images
Images taken during the ongoing bushfire crisis are projected on the sails of the Sydney Opera House. Picture: Getty Images

There are important discussions to be had about the bushfires regarding the response to them, the role of climate change, how we tackle our changing climate, the preparedness of authorities, funding for emergency services and management of the land.

But if we conduct those discussions with unhinged raving and senseless screaming, what's the chance we'll achieve anything meaningful?

The better approach, for now at least while the emergency continues, is perhaps to read stories without looking for an agenda when there isn't one.

Or in the very least, perhaps we can read beyond the headline before hopping on email to share our fury with a "soy boy f****t" just trying to present information without a slant.


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