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Leaders must heed the bushfire experts and act

The burnt landscape in Sarsfield, East Gippsland, in December.

The burnt landscape in Sarsfield, East Gippsland, in December. Credit:AAP

The federal inquiry is tallying the cost of the horrific bushfire season of 2019-2020 – and not only when it comes to health. It has also heard that the fires triggered insurance claims worth $2.26 billion as a result of property loss. Threatened Species Commissioner Sally Box, meanwhile, said the “ecological disaster” had left 119 animal species in need of “urgent management intervention”, work that also carries a financial cost.

The risk climate change poses to the Australian environment – and how we can better respond to it – is a key part of the federal inquiry. When Prime Minister Scott Morrison proposed the royal commission in January, he did not shy away from the fact climate change had to be a part of the picture. It was a cautious but welcome shift away from years of vacuous parliamentary debate on the topic.

But it is concerning that former Fire and Rescue NSW commissioner Greg Mullins told a separate Senate inquiry this week that fire chiefs are effectively gagged by their “political masters” from talking about climate change.

Perhaps that is not a surprise. Climate change has been a political hot potato since John Howard was prime minister and has proved especially divisive within the ranks of the Coalition.

But the time for treading lightly is over. The revelations at the bushfire royal commission this week have made that clear. We need informed and honest discussion, from all contributors, about the risks climate change poses to our environment and communities and what we can do to mitigate them.

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Mullins is part of a group of former emergency chiefs that last April tried to warn the government of the looming fire disaster and impress upon it the need to invest in equipment and take action on climate change. He says his efforts to meet the Prime Minister were rebuffed, although the government claims the group was offered meetings with cabinet ministers. Either way, the opportunity to share information was lost. We cannot afford to make such mistakes.

The coronavirus pandemic has proved how effective government can be when it puts aside partisan politics, listens to the experts and acts in the national interest. Now it’s time to do that again.

The experts giving evidence at the royal commission are laying out in devastating detail the cost to Australia of last summer’s bushfires. The government must listen and use the commission’s findings in August to implement policy that ensures we never pay that cost again.

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