How the pandemic is redefining leadership

Leaders are being called on to justify their mantle; some are being found wanting

In their hearts, all but the most hidebound members of Australia’s political and economic high command must know by now that the old days are gone.

After the pandemic, greed, partisanship and other bad behaviour at the top will still plague us, and the richest will remain rich because they’re best placed to look after themselves when things get ugly. But in ways we could not have imagined at the start of this year, the coronavirus has changed things, profoundly and perhaps permanently.

Early on, massive government assistance to industry and households raised the question, was the government abandoning the free market? Had it lost its marbles? Had the leopard changed its spots?

Of course not. Pandemic aid, prime minister Scott Morrison stressed, would be limited both in scope – millions of Australians were denied its benefits – and duration. This was to be a temporary solution to a temporary problem before an inevitable economic bounce.

Melbourne’s July outbreaks made clear there will be no bounce, at least not for a long time. This virus is not going to be accommodated within politics as usual. Political parties won’t win points by squabbling, only by working together for the long haul.

Partisanship has not disappeared, however. The decision of Victorian premier Dan Andrews to maintain a high level shutdown across Melbourne has been a special target of the PM, but he has also been bothered by closed state borders, especially those closed by Labor governments.

The political and financial leaders of our country and everywhere else should have worked out by now that this virus undermines a great many preconceptions about how the world works – about what is held to be important and what isn’t.

As it courses through our lives, the pandemic is stripping away the layers of meaning – or blather – that over the years we have allowed to accumulate around the notion of authority. Political and business people accustomed to having weight assigned to their words are seeing audiences turn away. They are losing relevance, and in the power game losing relevance is death.

In these difficult times we need political leadership more than ever. But this debilitating, deadly pandemic keeps pressing home the point that in a crisis, authority is less about appearances than in admitting a level of ignorance about the problem, seeking expert advice, and then acting on that advice to sort things out.

The pandemic has brought all this to the fore, but the problem of leadership disconnected from the real world has been with us a long time – perhaps for more than a lifetime, since the world was forced to confront the brutal reality of global economic depression and war.

For all its health implications, the pandemic does have a silver lining. Movers and shakers for a long time avoided hard decisions by operating within bubbles of spin. COVID-19 has forced them out of those bubbles and into the open, giving the world a chance to see what they’re made of.

Some leaders have risen to the occasion. In New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern decided early on to go for eliminating community transmission of the virus – and succeeded. Leaders in Tasmania, the ACT, and everywhere else except Queensland, NSW and Victoria have done much the same aim. The latter states have gone for sustained daily case levels in the single digits – very close to elimination.

Closed internal borders are frustrating the hell out of the Morrison government and the captains of commerce and industry, as well they might. Closed borders are unpopular with people who need to cross them for business and personal reasons, but for those who don’t they’re security. The same goes for the national border, but the PM has no problem with that being closed.

Unlike many economic indicators, measures for dealing well with the pandemic are unambiguous. It doesn’t take a genius to see that Australia has had outstanding success compared with most comparable nations, or that leaders prioritising the economy over medical science face resurgent infection rates and demoralised populations – and even more devastated economies.

The virus is just one global crisis crying out for big-picture leaders who really get what is at stake. Think climate change, extreme weather and wildfire, environmental degradation, species and biodiversity loss, water loss and threats to food production and governance.

Polls say the public agree with harsh pandemic controls. If and when they go a step further and choose governments on the basis of their response to those other real, substantial danger signs, we’ll really be getting somewhere. But that’s a whole other story.

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Endless summers, endless wildfires

If leaders can’t get their heads around the wildfire-climate link, we had better prepare for many more nasty summers

When I was a child the time between September and the summer holidays was an eternity. Now the months, seasons and years pile one on to the other, and summer is a blink away.

As time compresses, so does the world. We knew about America’s wild west then because we had Hollywood and the newsreels. We knew that like us they had bushfires (wildfires as they called them), because year after year they turned up on our cinema and television screens.

But those fires happened half a world away in our winter or spring, and like everything else on the silver screen seemed several steps away from reality: a good story, a thrilling spectacle. Not like the fires that afflicted us most summers, sometimes destroying homes and lives. Those were real.

Now, everything is merged into one, and greatly enlarged. In my youth the places I recall having summer fires were Australia, the western United States, and odd outbreaks in Latin America, Africa and Mediterranean countries. Now we hear of fires erupting in other northern lands, as far north as the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

Looking back at this year so far we could be forgiven for thinking the whole world is ablaze. Almost as soon as wildfires are extinguished on one continent they seem to be breaking out afresh on another one.

2020 began with Australia’s record-breaking Black Summer fires destroying millions of hectares of forest and capturing global attention. Within a couple of months fires had broken out in Ukraine, threatening the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear plant.

A month later, smouldering peat that had been primed by years of drying and warming began to spark vegetation fires in Siberia that would eventually number over 600, emitting more carbon in two months than any preceding year and producing a smoke cloud spanning an area bigger than Europe.

The Siberian fires were still burning in mid-August when forests in California erupted into flames, more than a month earlier than the start of a “normal” season in that part of the world and less than two years after its previous record-breaking year.

At the end of a relatively quiet Californian fire season, in 2019-20 Australia got the benefit of that state’s large water-bombing aircraft, one of which crashed in the Australian Alps killing its US crew. Now, with California suffering similar devastation, we are battling to respond to its desperate appeal for reciprocal help.

Add to all those the perennial fires accompanying rainforest clearing in Southeast Asia and Brazil. The Amazon Basin situation is dire. August-September is the land-clearers’ peak burning period, and this year, with legal constraints all but destroyed under president Jair Bolsonaro, the area burnt and smoke generated looks like being even worse than what triggered last year’s global alarm.

Last week saw release of the interim report of the inquiry into Australia’s natural disaster management, led by former air force chief Mark Binskin, which was set up by the Morrison government after the Black Summer fires.

As the Black Summer fires showed, the report said, “bushfire behaviour has become more extreme and less predictable. Catastrophic fire conditions may become more common, rendering traditional bushfire prediction models and firefighting techniques less effective.”

“Climate information and climate services” headed the report’s list of information products and services to be drawn on in a future disaster management plan. Decisions about land use, it said, will need to accommodate all the possible risks attached to future change.

No close observer of climate change would be surprised by the coronavirus pandemic’s global progress and the response to it of many political and vested interests. Those interests might wish it were otherwise, but this contagion operates without any reference to the things they hold dear.

Climate change, too, doesn’t recognise human boundaries. We set it off, and by failing to curb carbon emissions, we ensured its impact would continue to grow. Yet Australian governments, ignoring dire warnings from disaster experts, continue to behave as if it doesn’t exist.

This summer may see something of a reprieve. Weather authorities anticipate a wettish spring for eastern Australia. A moist understory is less likely to kindle fire from dry lightning, which has plagued recent fire management in both hemispheres.

But hoping for good weather doesn’t replace what the experts keep saying: a fire plan that doesn’t acknowledge the overwhelming influence of climate change is no plan at all. If partisan politics and vested interests prevent us acting on this, we’d better get ready for many more summers from hell.

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A few hybrids don’t make a transport transition policy

Peter Gutwein is proud of his hybrid vehicles, but where’s his real solution to transport emissions?

The wheels of government move slowly, but they do move. After more than six years in power and many claims of global climate leadership, Tasmanian Liberal ministers are finally committing to using electric cars.

Premier Peter Gutwein told parliament a fortnight ago that he would be the first Tasmanian premier ever to travel in a hybrid car – a vehicle powered by both electricity and petrol or diesel. The latter option helps drivers cope with a lack of charging stations.

Currently, hybrid vehicles make up just five per cent of the government’s fleet, but Gutwein wants to change that. In his next budget he promises “an ambitious target for electric and hybrid vehicles across the government fleet and a road map to get there”. That will build on about $2.5 million worth of charging infrastructure now being installed in key locations.

It took a while, but at least it’s happening. The biggest hurdle in our state’s push to lower carbon emissions is transport. A statewide all-electric car fleet powered by renewable energy could make Tasmania a genuine climate leader, rather than a pretend one.

But there’s a lot more to be said about this important transition. First question: why does the government want to bother with hybrid cars?

This complex technology – hybrid vehicles have many times more moving parts than pure electric ones – has value for transitional purposes when charging infrastructure is still being installed. But to acquire hybrid cars when that installation is well advanced suggests a want of confidence in the government’s own system.

Gutwein feels proud about travelling in a hybrid vehicle, but hybrids still use imported fossil fuels, which cost our economy around a billion dollars a year. How much prouder would he feel to be travelling in a car that runs solely on home-grown electricity?

In Europe, the US and China, current vehicle battery technology is mature enough to persuade drivers, manufacturers and governments that pure electric, not hybrid, is where the future lies. For instance, General Motors recently stopped making hybrid vehicles to focus on electric-only.

If the ultimate policy goal is a smaller Tasmanian carbon footprint, as it surely must be, a few more electric vehicles in the government fleet will make no discernible difference to our substantial transport emissions. Their value is symbolic.

What will make a difference is large numbers of people switching to electric vehicles powered by clean energy. Which gives rise to two more, much bigger, questions.

First, where is the additional power coming from to recharge all those vehicle batteries? Exactly how these vehicles can interact with a power grid is still being worked out, but as battery and smart-grid technology rapidly improves the amount of power needed won’t be as much as we might think. Even so, demand will definitely rise.

Unless Tasmania can develop new sources of renewable energy as electric car sales pick up, the power for their batteries would have to come from Victoria (mostly coal-fired) or the gas-fired Tamar Valley power station. That would seem to defeat the whole purpose of an electrified fleet.

The second big question is about how our island’s community can pay for the transition from current combustion-engine vehicles.

As electric transport technology improves and prices decline, today’s snazzy SUVs will become tomorrow’s unsaleable clunkers unless conversion to electric drive is within the reach of average households. Given that Tasmania’s median income is just 75 per cent of the national average, conversion should be a high government priority.

The government would by now be well aware that the 2008 Climate Change (State Action) Act, currently under review, is no longer fit for purpose and must be replaced. But its replacement will also fail if the government does not address this leading source of Tasmanian emissions, transport. The bottom line is that we’re ill-prepared for social and economic disruption on this scale.

Fixing that will be neither easy nor cheap. The new renewable energy needed, plus substantial measures to smooth the transition to electrified private and public transport, call for real commitment by successive governments prepared to work steadily to a plan over at least a decade.

We hear a lot about vision in political chatter, but today’s governments tend to respond to the moment. We can only hope that the pandemic has started them thinking longer term.

The addition of a few electric vehicles to the government fleet is worth noting, but it’s not a game changer. Without hard thinking and heavy lifting from Peter Gutwein’s government, those new hybrids will quickly lose their shine.

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