A Lucky Country – and a fatal lack of imagination

PM Scott Morrison hams it up with holidaymakers in Hawaii. Photo: Ben Downie/Twitter

Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people’s ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.

Donald Horne, 1964, The Lucky Country

Everyone always forgets that the nickname The Lucky Country was never meant to be a compliment to Australia. It was always a criticism – a criticism of our leadership.

With regard to the leadership, or lack thereof, being shown by our national government throughout this bushfire crisis, what we are witnessing is above all a lack of curiosity about the deeper reality of the world and the way that reality can radically change over time. It is a failure of imagination.

Put simply: a significant segment of our leadership, whether political, economic or media, cannot respond effectively to this crisis because they cannot conceive of the reality of this happening.

They know, deep in their bones, that the bedrock reality of our lives is never really threatened – disasters occur, but then stay within the bounds of historical memory.

For anyone with such a deeply unimaginative understanding of the world it is only ever a matter of time before the narrative returns to the familiar: the rain will come, the fires will go out, and we can return to normal. Such a worldview knows we have always had fires, but fires are something we understand and know how to deal with. The underlying realities of our lives are set.

Fires are part of life, right?

She’ll be right.

Change in systems

But our lives are entwined in, and sustained by, a web of complex systems, whether technological, logistical or ecological. Changes in one system can cause effects in others, and large scale and significant changes can come quickly as effects ‘cascade’ and the ripples spread quickly.

Things don’t always change gradually – they reach tipping points. This is when changes build up (heat, drought, lack of humidity) and the consequences are of a magnitude that we have never seen before.

When such tipping points occur, they can throw systems into new states, or ‘new normals’. What these mean, most frighteningly of all, is that you can’t always go back to that previous state… This is what ‘the new normal’ means.

For example, if it is true that half a billion animals have been killed in these fires then we may be close to species extinctions or a near collapse of the ecological systems in these areas. When the rains do come, the eucalypts will grow back, but for how long will that bush be silent?

A juvenile kangaroo was caught in a fence trying to escape. Picture: Brad Fleet Source:News Corp Australia

A lack of curiosity or imagination

But it takes some amount of curiosity or imagination to really understand our world as constantly changing and uncertain, especially if this goes against the worldview you already hold.

Experts, in the form of a group of retired fire commissioners, warned the Federal government months ago that this was coming, but you can only accept such advice if you have the imagination to understand the possibility of something that might be ‘out of the ordinary’.

If you cannot imagine a systemic social or ecological collapse ever occurring, even when the experts tell you repeatedly this is coming, then you will not be the right person to address it.

If you can’t understand that a changing climate causes cascading changes throughout all our systems, then you will never have been able to fully grasp what has been happening.

Indeed, you might go on holiday because that is the normal thing to do. Fires happen every summer, after all.

You might host a visiting cricket team at the Lodge because you know that cricket in front of the TV is what summer in Australia is all about. Fires are just part of that reality.

Indeed, you might release a marketing video at the height of the crisis because you see the problem as one of messaging, rather than a systemic collapse in the everyday reality of hundreds of thousands of Australians.

You will misread the nature of the crisis because you only have the frame of what has happened before. You view the world through precedence – but the most common description of these fires might be ‘unprecedented‘.

Systems collapse

So right now, we are witnessing a systems collapse across great swathes of Victoria and NSW, in part caused by the intrinsic fragility of our systems in the face of the fires’ disruptions.

Our access to energy (whether fuel or electricity) is being disrupted across the firegrounds around this country – and therefore many of our other systems (food, water, communications) have been disrupted as well. The longer they stay down, the further the disruptions may spread into others systems – and this crisis may still have months to run.

What is needed now is exactly what the incredible volunteer fire fighters, and a professional and competent emergency services leadership, have been doing for many months already. They have done an amazing job in the face of the overwhelming scale and ferocity of these fires.

But how different could have things been if our government had had the curiosity to listen to the experts, and the imagination to envisage the worst possibilities?

Leadership with a hose in hand?

I will finish with one of the few insightful things our PM has said over the course of this ongoing crisis:

I don’t hold a hose, mate, and I don’t sit in a control room

Scott Morrison, 20 Dec 2019, Hawaii

He is absolutely right, but then Napoleon was never one of the greatest generals in history because he picked up a rifle and fought alongside his men. He was revered by his troops because he led. He wasn’t on the front line – but he was always present, and was seen to be so.

And he had imagination. He could imagine what could go wrong, and could adapt his plans when it did.

What we have seen from our national government in both the lead up to this crisis, and throughout the crisis itself, has been a failure of imagination, in the deepest sense.