In his handling of his country’s horrific bush fires crisis, the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has much to learn from his counterpart in New Zealand. Jacinda Ardern showed the value of true leadership in her response to last year’s terrorist attack that killed 51 people and injured 49, pushing through controversial new gun laws.
In contrast, Morrison has wavered and blundered throughout. Taking a secret holiday in Hawaii while the fires raged in New South Wales was a low point from which he may not recover. He should have stopped Sydney’s New Year fireworks display. He should have been seen on the front line of the fire zone rather than entertaining cricketers at his mansion in Sydney.
His overriding strategy has been to play down the crisis to prevent, as he puts it, “people panicking.” The residents of New South Wales and Victoria have every right to panic as the flames and deadly smoke overwhelm their towns and villages and fallen trees and power lines halt their escape, forcing them to hunt for food to feed their families. It is no surprise that one woman fleeing the flames refused to shake his hand because he had cut the New South Wales firefighting budget. At first he refused to compensate the volunteers for loss of earnings, then had to back down. Then he insisted that the payments applied only to New South Wales and had to back down on that.
His approach has been macho throughout, as if to say: “We’ve had bushfires before. We’ve had smoke hazards before. In the olden days the pioneers had to cope with much worse.” Such an attitude provides no comfort for people struggling to save their lives in the here and now.
So far the fires have destroyed an estimated 5.9m hectares* in New South Wales and parts of Victoria, an area bigger than Denmark or Holland and three times the size of Wales. In New South Wales alone, 10 million acres have been destroyed, compared with 280,000 acres in the bush fires of recent years. The damage is greater than that caused in the California fires of 2018 and in the Amazon rainforests last year. The death toll so far is 23, much less than the 173 victims of the fires in Victoria in 2009, but the number is bound to go on rising, with dozens of people still missing or stranded. Half a billion animals have died, including thousands of koala bears. Even outside the immediate fire zone, air pollution in Sydney and Canberra is 11 times higher than doctors regard as safe.
Morrison has stubbornly refused to allow the possibility that global climate change could have anything to do with Australia’s heating crisis, despite suffering the highest temperatures on record in 2019 and an expected figure this week of 41.9C degrees (107F).
For once the dramatic news headlines, such as Devil’s Inferno and Escape from Hell, are no exaggeration. At least the people on the ground – the firefighters, the volunteers and the ordinary citizens who are daily risking their lives - are demonstrating the resilience and courage associated with Australians, even if their leader has conspicuously failed to rise to the level of events.
*Data as of 4 Jan
Discriminating against whites
We all know that political correctness has gone mad. But I hadn’t expected the disease to have reached the governing bodies of public schools like Westminster and Dulwich College, which have refused an offer of £1.2 million for the education of poor white boys.
The offer was from Sir Bryan Thwaites, a rich scientist and mathematician who was able to reach his position in life by virtue of scholarships from both schools. He wanted to help poor boys like himself. No, said the schools primly, they could not accept funding with “religious or ethnic criteria.”
They had also been advised that accepting the offer might breach the law on racial discrimination. This fear was knocked firmly on the head by Trevor Phillips, the former head of the Equalities and Human rights Commission and himself the son of immigrants from British Guiana, who had helped to draft much of Britain’s race relations law.
By rejecting Sir Bryan’s offer, the schools were effectively implying that the offer from their distinguished former pupil was racist. Yet his reasons for making the offer were clearly based on valid criteria, mainly the undeniable fact that white boys from lower income groups are leaving school with worse qualifications than another other social or ethnic group.
An official survey in 2014 showed that only boys from Bangladeshi, Pakistani, black African and Chinese backgrounds were achieving higher than average grades. White working-class boys were below average in academic performance, only a quarter of them achieving five decent grades at GCSE and only a shameful number going on to university.
Speaking as a poor white working-class boy who managed to get to university, I think there is a case for saying that Westminister School and Dulwich College should be investigated for rejecting Sir Bryan’s offer – for blatant discrimination against whites.
Wise words on freedom
Sir Alan Moses, a wise man who has been chairman of IPSO, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, made a very important point when he said recently that freedom of expression includes the right to offend people. This is something that should be noted particularly by college campuses who have banned speakers with whom they disagree. Sir Alan, a former Appeal Court judge, said it was vital for a free society that there should be uncensored discussion of sensitive issues like religion and gender.
He also expressed his strong opposition to statutory control of what newspapers should be allowed to publish. It isn’t so very long since that threat was a very real one, with the Leveson report supporting it and Max Mosley offering to fund it. Thankfully, with its political proponent like Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband now powerless, and a journalist as Prime Minister, that wicked idea can finally be laid to rest.