Donald Trump’s attack on Congress

Treading in the footsteps of Hitler, Trump has desecrated the temple of American democracy.

In a beer garden scene in Bob Fosse’s 1972 movie of the stage musical Cabaret, set in Germany in the 1930s, a blonde teenage boy stands among the tables and sings in a pure, clear voice of sunny meadows and stags running free in the forest.

As the camera pans down from the young man’s face to reveal a uniform and a swastika armband, and the lyrics turn to glories ahead, charmed diners rise in ones and twos to join in. First an accordion, then brass and drums join a rising crescendo of voices. Everyone is utterly enraptured.

The scene is short but mesmerising. It grabbed my attention when I first saw it years ago, and has never left me. The pull of a group, the fear of not belonging, the power of a charismatic leader are all embodied here.

Regular German citizens in those times felt the nation under Adolf Hitler was in excellent hands. And so it seemed to many Americans early in Donald Trump’s presidency, impressed by his anti-Washington rhetoric, his election win, his strongman persona and a growing economy.

The neat, clean and confident Germany of that Cabaret scene lay in ruins 12 years later, with millions killed in a savage war and its Führer dead, victim of his own megalomania. Trump’s dream lasted just four years, cut short by COVID-19 – a dark cloud for the world but a silver lining for American democracy.

Trump was unlucky to be hit by a pandemic in his re-election year, but he made things worse by not taking it seriously, a failure he shared with populist leaders elsewhere. The shocking attrition rate in the US breached his aura of invincibility and killed his re-election chances.

But the death blow to his reputation was entirely self-administered. “Will be wild,” Trump tweeted ahead of his “Save America March”, and he was not wrong. But the invasion of Congress, stoked by Trump’s rambling speech to avid supporters, was his political suicide.

“We won this election, and we won it by a landslide,” he told his cheering, jeering audience. “We will never concede; you don’t concede when there’s theft involved… You will have an illegitimate president… and we can’t let that happen.”

“After this… and I’ll be there with you… we’re going walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going… to try and give [senators and representatives] the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.”

In his speech Trump regurgitated the same claims about voter fraud that formed the basis of 60-odd legal suits by the president’s lawyers. All were thrown out by state and federal judges – many of them his own appointees – because there was no evidence to support them.

The president didn’t go with his people to the Capitol as he said he would. Instead he was whisked away in a bulletproof car to a secure White House, where he watched events unfold on television.

It was well known many days ahead that the rally was happening. But amazingly Trump’s riotous mob was able to advance with relative ease through the Capitol’s front entrance and force its way into the Senate and House chambers, vandalising their contents and terrorising elected officials and others who worked there, before they were finally removed.

Trump claimed later that he “immediately” deployed federal reinforcements, but they arrived well over an hour after the breach, when the damage had already been done. The thing is, a government’s response to a riot is bound to be half-baked when its own commander-in-chief instigated it.

Reading the text of a Trump speech, including the one that led to this first breach of the Capitol in over 200 years, you wonder how it could inspire anyone. But watching it you can feel the cult leader’s extraordinary self-belief working on his audience. The rapt crowd wants what he says to be true, and so it is.

Trump leaves office in eight days, but this story has a way to go. After the riot House speaker Nancy Pelosi said he was “unhinged”, and Harvard psychiatrist Lance Dodes diagnosed a delusional psychopath who will become increasingly unstable in post-presidential life. But none of that absolves him from responsibility for the desecration of the Capitol.

Of all the options for his premature departure – resignation, Article 25 suspension, or congressional impeachment and conviction – only the latter stops him from standing in the 2024 election. For many, especially Republican senators who fear for their party’s future under Trump, that would surely have a lot of appeal.

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Saving forests to save ourselves

Multiple forces in play are all pointing to a radically different future for Tasmanian forestry.

It has been said many times that before spending a penny of public money on super-expensive technical solutions to get carbon out of the air and into the ground, we should just plant trees.

A major study published in October by Nature enlarges on that idea. It advocates “re-wilding” landscapes with local native species and protecting all natural forests. The Brazil-led study, also including scientists from Australia and Europe, found that nature-based measures were far cheaper and more effective ways to reduce atmospheric carbon than high-tech “solutions”.

“We find that restoring 15 per cent of converted lands in priority areas could avoid 60 per cent of expected extinctions while sequestering 299 gigatonnes of CO2 – 30 per cent of the total CO2 increase in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution,” the paper said.

Re-wilding would have less impact in Tasmania than elsewhere because of our high proportion of forested land. But we have a global responsibility to do everything we can to keep what natural tree cover we have, if only to hold the line against rampant deforestation elsewhere, especially in the tropical rainforests of Brazil and southeast Asia.

Sadly, that sort of high-minded, global citizen approach gets little traction in government. Shifting paradigms and sustaining action programs into the indefinite future, beyond electoral cycles, is really hard work. It takes far-sighted leaders and collaborative parliaments to achieve that, and we all know they are rare indeed.

Tasmania’s extensive area of native forest cover, most of it locked up in protected wilderness, is the dominant reason that successive state governments have been able to claim credit for a low-carbon economy. They would never admit it, but any substantial increase in non-plantation logging would send those low-carbon claims flying out the window.

The situation now is that Peter Gutwein’s government, with the broad support of Labor, wants a bigger forest harvesting industry. That was high on the agenda of resources minister Guy Barnett when he led a delegation to China just before the pandemic, in December 2019.

To change the old Tasmanian paradigm that our natural forests exist to be logged would seem to take more courage than either of the two major parties can muster. But other factors are now coming into play.

In 2019 the Tasmanian industry’s bid for prized Forest Stewardship Council certification was rejected because it did not adequately protect the tree habitats of threatened species including the grey goshawk, the wedge-tailed eagle and the swift parrot. Even so, China has continued to buy Tasmanian wood – until now.

Soon after China suspended imports of logs from Victoria and Queensland, early last month it did the same to shipments from South Australia and Tasmania, on grounds that the shipments were infested with “forest pests”. More likely is that this is part of China’s strategy to squeeze Australia’s export trade.

This is a big blow to Tasmania’s struggling wood export industry – but there’s more. A legal issue that has been simmering for a long time could conceivably end all native forest harvesting in Tasmania and throughout Australia.

Three years ago a small community group in Victoria called Friends of the Leadbeater’s Possum claimed that regional forest agreements (RFAs) were unable to protect biodiversity and other environmental values, and backed that up with a Federal Court challenge.

In May this year the court rocked the industry by ruling that a Victorian government timber company had breached environmental laws by allowing the removal of trees used by the critically-endangered Leadbeater’s possum, which happens to be Victoria’s faunal emblem.

Now the Bob Brown Foundation is arguing that by allowing the habitat of another critically endangered species, the swift parrot, to be destroyed, the state’s RFA is breaching the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

The government can be expected to defend vigorously what it says is a “world-class” RFA and forest practices system. But its persistent refusal to acknowledge a rapidly, radically changing world has left this island’s native forest logging industry in a precarious position.

Tasmanian wood production can still have a future, but it will be centred on plantations. The old clear-felling, firing and reseeding regimes have no place in a future native forest workplace, focused on fire management and other roles to protect the health of the forests we have.

It is futile for government to resist the disruption the industry is now going through. It is well past time our state prepared for a future in which the wood we can extract from our native forests is secondary to those forests’ intrinsic worth as a key defence against ecological and climatic disaster.

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Things to remember from our year to forget

We mustn’t let the hoopla around the New Year distract us from 2020’s real lessons.

Pretty well everyone on the planet, I would think, will be glad to see the end of 2020. It’s fair to assume that numbers of Australians, within pandemic rules or not, will gather in spectacular public parties in an effort to forget the past 12 months and dream of a fire-free, virus-free 2021.

I won’t be one of them. Years ago, New Year celebrations were just a street party, if that, and everyone loved the odd fireworks display. Now, as cities everywhere strive like idiots to put on the biggest show yet, the fireworks are as common as bombs in Beirut. I’m with the family pooch – over them.

Last year Sydney’s bridge show went ahead as planned while the rest of the city was under a fire emergency. In 2020 it’s happening in a pandemic despite the potential for super-spreader events. What does it take to stop the madness? Should addicted city authorities be sent into rehab?

Supporters of these events argue that they help people put past troubles behind them and get on with their lives. But they’re escapism writ large. 2020’s fires, pandemic spread and social and political upheavals are manifestations of much bigger things afoot, which we’ll never put behind us so long as we don’t face up to them.

Take race relations. Toxic anti-Asian sentiment was just part of the racial divide that festered through 2020. Most Australians ignore the dark side of our colonial past, but Indigenous people cannot. We won’t begin to address that history of violent dispossession and unfair, unequal treatment until governments meet Indigenous people halfway and yield some authority to them.

Or the inequality gap between rich and poor, which became worse during the pandemic. A Grattan Institute analysis last August concluded that negative impacts from community infections, public health measures and government financial relief in Australia fell disproportionately on poorer citizens, those in casual work and those living in public housing.

Author Stephen Duckett concluded: “The pandemic has shown that we have failed at protecting at least three quarters of the ‘quartet of the vulnerable’ – the widow, the orphan, the immigrant and the impoverished.”

In the US, a recent Institute for Policy Studies report includes the astonishing calculation that if Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos gave an end-of-year bonus of $88,000 to each of his 810,000 US workers, he would still have more money than he did at the pandemic’s outset. Yet Bezos pays less tax than the lowest-paid Amazon worker.

Before I’m accused of spoiling everyone’s party, there were positive things to take from 2020. The role of science in government got a huge boost here in Australia, as it did in every country where a serious effort was made to stop the virus’s spread.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison got a foretaste of the importance of this during last summer’s bushfires, when he was roundly condemned – to the point of people refusing to shake his hand – for missing or downplaying all the stark warning signs about an unfolding climate crisis.

When the coronavirus arrived, he was primed. In contrast to his attitude to climate science, he listened hard at the outset to pandemic advice. Apart from some false starts and sporadic resistance to state lockdowns and border closures, he allowed experts free rein to dictate what was to be done.

As 2020 draws to a close, global case numbers have passed 80 million and US cases approach 20 million – one case for every 17 citizens – while Australian cases number about 28,300, or one case per 900-odd citizens. Our COVID-19 death toll is just over 900, or one in 28,000 of our population. In the US about 340,000 people have died – more than one in 1000.

There it is, laid out bare in the data: the stark difference between acting on scientific advice and relegating it to a back room.

Sound, fearless, evidence-based advice about what’s happening around us is a treasure that governments spurn at everyone’s peril. It is a relief to know that Australian leaders are capable of receiving and acting on unpalatable advice when this has proven so elusive elsewhere.

Surely those solid rewards from heeding the science of disease epidemics are not lost on the PM. Surely he now realises the potential benefits of heeding what science says about the state of the planet.

Whatever is in his mind about a resolution for the New Year, it ought to include putting aside the fireworks, the growth forecasts, the political manoeuvres and other such fantasies, and giving his full attention to what’s real.

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