Fire sale? Neo-liberalism and the future of bushfires in Australia

  Fire sale? Neo-liberalism and the future of bushfires in Australia

29 November 2007

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by David Ritter

Australia — Last summer, in the Shire of Mansfield in the heart of Victoria’s High Country, the locals woke to the perennial Australian mid-summer nightmare as bushfires swept through the landscape, threatening a number of towns. Some small communities suffered actual property loss, while others were on and off high alert for weeks. This example is more or less selected at random, because Mansfield’s experience could have been anywhere in the bush. Everyone who has lived in rural Australia or on the city fringes, knows the dread fear of fire out of control. It is an apprehension mounting now, as the early summer deepens. Across age, ethnicity, religion, wealth and inclination, bushfires are a shared dread: it is the democracy of mass destruction.

Yet with all the horror and fear of the murderous devastation of bushfires, there is something of a silver lining to the eucalyptus smoke. The shared experience of facing a fire brings out community solidarity in the face of adversity and self-sacrifice in the face of danger. The disaster of a wild fire reminds us of our common humanity; that we are, after all, in this together. In Victoria’s High Country last summer, numerous community meetings were held in the affected locations throughout the period of danger. According to Mansfield Shire, “the sense of cooperation and community spirit was overwhelming”. Local councils in the Victoria’s north-east were reported to be inundated with calls from people wanting to support firefighting crews. Many of the fire-fighters were themselves volunteers.

Across Australia there are well over 200,000 volunteer firefighters providing the person power that each summer’s fire-fighting efforts could not do without. The fire-safety of much of our Commonwealth relies on these brave men and women who deserve proper place in the pantheon of national icons. It takes certain qualities of character to be a volunteer fire-fighter. Recent research with new recruits in Victoria conducted by Jim McLennan from La Trobe University shows that the top two reasons people join the local volunteer fire brigade are “to protect their community” and “to contribute to their community”. Coming in fifth was sensing the community’s need, because the “local brigade was short on numbers”. Mostly then, people volunteer to fight fires for selfless reasons.

Unfortunately, though, there is a problem: the numbers of new volunteers are declining and the veterans are getting older. The predicament of this diminishing volunteerism was the subject of a recent episode of ABC Radio National’s Background Briefing. Reporter Jane Shields summarised the problem this way:

Younger men and women with families just don’t have the time to give, and employers are, it seems, less likely to grant time off.

The pall of WorkChoices is present here of course, giving employers the power and capacity to deny employees the ability to have autonomy over their own time. Howard’s legislation deeply eroded the capacity of working Australians to be able to make the kind of reliable time commitment that voluntary service to the community requires.

However, the political problem is more than just WorkChoices. In a deeper sense, the difficulty is all about belief systems. The kind of selflessness that is required for volunteer fire-fighting is an anomaly in a world that is ever-increasingly dominated by the individualistic tenets of neo-liberalism. In a society where individuals are expected and encouraged to lead their lives as economic units, making decisions in the interests of self-maximisation and for whom both public welfare and the charitable sector are merely seen as “service provision”, the values of community, collectivity and service, that give rise to volunteer fire-fighting, are not fostered.

There is evidence to suggest that the rise of neo-liberal values is already contributing in the falling numbers of recruits to the volunteer fire service. According to Background Briefing, part of the problem is changing social attitudes: people are increasingly likely to choose voluntary causes that bring them “personal benefits, such as career enhancement and skills development”. Needless to say, if self-optimisation is the goal, then perhaps being a volunteer fire-fighter is not the best option, because there are safer and easier things to do with one’s time.

One seemingly oxymoronic answer is that volunteer fire-fighters should be paid. Some may take exception to this idea, worrying that it would be destructive of community culture and spirit. Ultimately, it might be suggested, the ethic of volunteerism is giving of yourself without thought of material return and people might instead start bringing an attitude to fighting bushfires that was lacking the appropriate ethic of service. There is also a hard-headed cost argument against paying “volunteer” fire-fighters. It has been estimated that it would cost around $2 billion a year to pay for the labour that is currently provided by volunteer fire-fighters free of charge.

However, paying “voluntary” fire-fighters would be a “solution” that is perfectly congruent with neo-liberalism. The existing community based system would presumably be regarded as just one more example of social solidarity getting in the way of efficiency and greater competitive flexibility. However, in order to properly commoditise the “service” of voluntary fire-fighting, of course, the wages should not come from the public purse.

Why not privatise and marketise fire services and then let everyone fend for themselves? Why should individuals be expected to voluntarily help others? Why should the state step in if people have failed to take their own precautions against fire? People choose to live in the bush. People choose their level of preparedness. There could be a two-tier system, with a basic state-funded emergency system retained, but with a second tier of private service providers for those who choose. Competition between different fire services would, after all, produce greater efficiency with “consumers” paying for the provider they better trust to assist them in an emergency. Shouldn’t individuals have the freedom to retain fire-fighting services of their choosing?

The “reform agenda” outlined in the previous paragraph might sound appalling, but that does not mean it could not happen. After all, many great public institutions in Australia have already been the subject of the neo-liberal schedule in one form or another. And neo-liberalism has no natural boundaries or limits; the “reform agenda” can just keep rolling along, commoditising the public, the natural, the voluntary and the domestic, with all the ugly consequences that may follow.

In the United States, the application of neo-liberal values to fire-fighting is already occurring. As Naomi Klein recently highlighted in the wake of her most recent work Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, exclusive private fire-fighting services were very much in evidence in the recent California wildfires. According to Klein, writing for The Nation earlier this month

Even as wildfires devoured whole swaths of the region, some homes in the heart of the inferno were left intact, as if saved by a higher power. But it wasn’t the hand of God; in several cases it was the handiwork of Firebreak Spray Systems. Firebreak is a special service offered to customers of insurance giant American International Group – but only if they happen to live in the wealthiest zip codes in the country. Members of the company’s Private Client Group pay an average of $19,000 to have their homes sprayed with fire retardant. During the fires, the ‘mobile units’, racing around in firetrucks, even extinguished fires for their clients…

Klein quoted one of the private fire-fighters who told a news reporter that there were some instances ‘where we were spraying and the neighbor’s house went up like a candle.’

Now apply Klein’s description of the US to Australia. After all, one of the points of Klein’s book Shock Doctrine is that disaster relief has become a very lucrative transnational market for big business. So imagine, if rather than the community spirit and self-sacrifice on show in the Victorian highlands last summer, there had been something more like the scenario in California. Ultimately the logic of neo-liberalism takes us down that road: one fire-hose for the rich; one for the poor. But there is a choice. As Klein concludes, rather than neo-liberal ideology, there is another principle that could guide our collective responses in a disaster-prone world: the simple conviction that every life is of equal value. For anyone out there who still believes in that wild idea, the time has urgently arrived to protect the principle.

In Australia, that means fighting to preserve civic institutions and striving for a political and civic culture that is not about everyone being out for themselves. We should cherish and nurture conceptions of community service, social solidarity and the public good, just like those on display in Mansfield last summer.

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