Friday, February 13, 2009

Shaun Carney = a lame article

Tears on demand |
Tears on demand

* Shaun Carney
* February 14, 2009

Members of Yellingbo CFA fight a bushfire in Chum Creek which resulted in saving four houses.

Members of Yellingbo CFA fight a bushfire in Chum Creek which resulted in saving four houses. Photo: Craig Abraham

TWENTY-SIX years ago next Monday, fires swept across south-eastern Australia, killing 75 people and destroying almost 3000 buildings in Victoria alone. The Ash Wednesday fires came during the second week of the 1983 federal election campaign and at the lowest point of what was the worst economic downturn in 50 years. The interaction between politics and natural disaster was very different back then.

Two days later, on Friday, February 18, prime minister Malcolm Fraser visited some of the bushfire sites. In the morning, he visited the Country Fire Authority control centre in Kooyong, walked to a neighbouring sports oval and boarded a RAAF Chinook helicopter with a small group of reporters and camera crews. In the space of a few hours, he visited Upper Beaconsfield, the Warburton area and Macedon.

Fraser did meet victims of the fires but because he wasn't able to spend much time on the ground before taking off for the next disaster zone, he spent a good deal of his hour or so at each place talking to officials, getting situation reports. I was then a reporter for Melbourne's afternoon paper, the Herald, and accompanied Fraser on that tour. If he betrayed any emotion on that day, I didn't see it.

This was not considered unusual. He was, after all, the prime minister, a man of mature years. There had been no great clamour for Fraser to deliver himself to the victims, nor do I recall any public criticism of him for waiting a full day before visiting the fire sites in his home state. He was an official and it was expected that his would be an official response.

We've come a very long way since then. There are some significant differences between the political circumstances of 1983 and 2009. For one thing, when Ash Wednesday happened, normal government operations had been suspended because of the election campaign. For another, the campaign itself had been suspended for several days because of the fires. So Fraser had to show a light touch. All the same, there was little appetite both in the political world and in the media for political leaders to become a fixture of the disaster.

Now, when disaster hits, there is no time to waste and few rhetorical or physical barriers that cannot be crossed. By Sunday, when many Australians were just learning of what had happened in Victoria, Kevin Rudd was already on the scene touring the fire towns with the Premier, John Brumby. And it was no bounce in, bounce out visit. He stayed for several more days.

Other ministers, including the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the Minister for Families and Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, also showed up. Pretty much as soon as he heard of the fires, Rudd rang Brumby and offered the assistance of the military. Soon after, the army and material started arriving and the Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, followed. At any given time for much of this week, there were several federal ministers at various fire scenes and marshalling points for the survivors.

It is now standard practice for political leaders to be filmed listening to the stories of disaster victims and then hugging or attempting to comfort them. The lachrymose breakdowns by our politicians are also becoming more common, as are the inevitably inadequate attempts to articulate sorrow and horror — inadequate because nothing can convey fully the awfulness of events such as those of last weekend.

It was not always like this. In 1974, then prime minister Gough Whitlam was on holiday in Greece when cyclone Tracy hit Darwin. He refused to break his vacation to return to Australia. Whitlam faced substantial public opprobrium for doing so, not so much because he wasn't interested in empathising with stricken fellow Australians but because it underscored the rising judgement that his government was out of control.

In 2009, mobile phones, the internet and the relentless drift towards the personalisation of news will not wait for politicians to respond. They are expected to react — and to react now, because there is no such thing any more as a daily news cycle; each day is filled with a bunch of micro news cycles. Politicians also must feel with us and do it straightaway, in plain sight.

This is not altogether a bad thing. They are, after all, there to represent the community. That's not just the community's views but its attitudes too. It has always been the role of political leaders to try to crystallise and express the perspectives of their times, and to interpret and shape contemporary events. They are expected to be on the scene, too. We need to see them working, to know that they understand.

But there are downsides, too. Feeling and empathy can only take you so far. And just being in the picture can often mean, well, simply that you've made it into the picture. It doesn't necessarily mean you've got the picture.

None of this is to criticise Rudd for his quick response to the fires and the profound human tragedy they wrought. But it is an attempt to raise a caution against a process that increasingly values above everything else the questions "how do you feel?" and "what's your story?", and the willingness of today's political leaders to entangle themselves in that process.

Human drama is compelling, for sure. But within a few weeks, even this awful disaster will have been drained of its component of drama. For a lot of the media, it will be last month's story. Only the hard issues of rebuilding and administration and fire safety practices will be left. These will be tougher for the media to report and for the politicians to reconcile.

This was supposed to be the Information Age, but it hasn't quite turned out that way; politics and public debate are becoming more emotional. In the past few days, for example, some people writing to this paper have said Rudd will be to blame for any future bushfires because his carbon reduction targets are not high enough — as if Australia, acting alone, could have any impact on the specific effect of climate change on one corner of this continent. Conversely, the attacks on councils, state authorities and environmentalists for wanting to preserve trees and sheeting home the blame for last weekend's destruction to them have been just as bone-headed.

This is why politicians should tread warily when they step beyond policy into the realms of personality and "feelings". Emotions can be like wildfire. They can head in one direction and then, inexplicably, unpredictably, turn back the other way, consuming all in their path.

Shaun Carney is associate editor.

What do you write about when all has been written about a disaster? Tears on Demand?? This would have been at best a self engrossed piece about the stretches  some journo's take. However, this fool obviously did not see channel nine's Stefanovic cornering RUdd and basically forcing him to shed an emotion, just the way that Brumby did. Idiots.

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