Open mouth, insert foot: Bob Brown on the floods

In the last week we saw three-quarters of Queensland devastated by floods, with 20 lives lost and possibly more bodies still unrecovered. New South Wales and Tasmania were also hit, and Victoria is currently in the grip of its own flood crisis in the north and west of the state. Even Western Australia saw some flooding.

The damage bill is likely to be enormous – much of Queensland’s infrastructure will need to be rebuilt, and that’s without even taking into account private home repairs and rebuilding. Disruptions to industry will affect food production and export, as well as mining revenue.

During this time, politicians are taking care to watch their words very closely. Anna Bligh, Queensland’s Labor Premier, shows herself to be a competent and compassionate leader, completely on top of the situation and showing her empathy for the people of her state. As Liberal Party strategist Grahame Morris noted somewhat wryly, ‘It’s just as well for the Opposition that there isn’t going to be a state election any time soon.’

By contrast, Prime Minister Julia Gillard appears to periodically undergo personality suppression. Delivering announcements about monetary assistance from the Commonwealth, she looks robotic and aloof, especially comparing to Bligh. Nonetheless, she says all the right things – even if they do come off sounding a little like platitudes.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott sounded a bum note when he visited Brisbane late last week. Interviewed by Sky’s Kieran Gilbert, Abbott made a point of saying how important it was to have a healthy budget surplus to deal with crises like the floods. In itself, that skated right up to the point of political commentary – but he followed it up by saying this (presumably the floods) was why he had always been skeptical of the current government’s ability to bring the budget back to surplus. It’s probably just as well for Gilbert that he couldn’t see the Twitter feed at that point, which exploded with advice that boiled down to, ‘You’re standing on a balcony, toss him over!’ No one, it seemed, wanted to hear political spin while the Brisbane River was flooding the streets of Queensland’s capital and lives were being lost.

Later, Abbott was heard to quote a Bible verse in which the writer observes that God makes it rain on both the good and evil alike. Perhaps he meant it philosophically. It sounded flippant.

But the Foot-in-Mouth Award in the current situation really has to go to Senator Bob Brown, leader of the Greens. During an interview, Brown delivered a truly stunning argument that went something like this. Burning coal puts greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases warm the ocean – its temperature is demonstrably going up. When this happens, the weather gets more extreme. More extreme weather = the kind of floods going on right now. The solution? Institute the originally-planned mining tax right now, and make the coal mining companies pay for rebuilding the infrastructure.

Let’s leave aside the whole ‘is-the-climate-changing-and-is-it-our-fault’ debate right now, because that’s not really the point. It’s not about the truth or otherwise of Brown’s assertions. It’s about what many saw as – at best – an incredibly tactless comment, and at worst as a blatant political act devoid of compassion.

Brown’s motives were surely well-intentioned. After all, if you’re looking for a way to drive home the dangers of unchecked climate change, the floods are a perfect example. It’s difficult to deny that something extraordinary is going on. Perhaps if he’d simply observed that the terrible toll taken by the floods showed how important it was for us to address climate change to avoid the same kind of disasters in the future, he would have gotten a better reception.

By going further and suggesting what was obviously designed to be punitive action against the coal industry, Brown undermined his own message. Suddenly it wasn’t about dealing with current and future crises, but about sticking it to one of the Greens’ perceived ‘enemies’. He unwittingly confirmed every hysterical stereotype of the ‘greenie’ – more concerned about the ‘environment’ than human lives, seeing ‘global warming’ at every turn and willing to use tragedy to prove a political point and bash big business. At that point, any truth contained in Brown’s original message becomes lost – and the way is open for others to claim the moral high ground.

Ralph Foreman, representing the Coal Association, appeared on PM Agenda this afternoon to do just. Now wasn’t the time for ’emotional’ and ‘off-the-cuff’ rhetoric, he suggested. We don’t know that these floods are caused by climate change – we should let the scientists do their work. After all, the coal industry supports the idea of action on climate change – they’ll ‘work with anyone’ on a carbon price – but Brown’s comments are ‘not the sort of irrational thinking that we want to see introduced into this debate’.

Foreman went on to point out how much his industry would suffer as a result of the floods. It will take weeks to pump out the mines and an unknown time to make infrastructure repairs. All the time the companies will take ‘a substantial hit’ to their revenues – Queensland’s state revenues will be affected by the loss of royalties. Nonetheless, coal companies are already contributing ‘substantially’ to the Premier’s Flood Relief Appeal, and expect to give more money.

In that one interview, the coal industry managed to position itself as a rational and mature participant in the climate change debate, as well as a victim of the floods doing its best to pitch in and help everyone else recover. Brown – and by extension, the Greens – were successfully painted as callous and out of touch with reality.

Andrew Bolt and his ilk must have been fairly dancing for joy when they heard Brown’s comments.

Now, I’m not suggesting for a moment that Brown is the kind of mindless hippie fanatic certain news outlets like to suggest he is – far from it. But in calling for a tax clearly designed to punish the coal mining industry, Brown played into the hands of those very people. It was an extraordinarily naive thing to do, and I can only speculate as to what prompted it.

Maybe he was shocked at the extent of the floods. Maybe it was frustration – he looked at something that might have been much less dreadful if climate change had been tackled earlier. Maybe he was tired. Or maybe it was just a case of his mouth running ahead of his inner media advisor in the heat of an interview.

Whatever his reasons, Brown and the Greens now have to quickly move into damage control mode. They need to be out there doing the rounds of the media clarifying his remarks – and taking the hits. Brown needs to acknowledge that what he said was at least ill-advised, and show that he is mindful of how the floods nearly crippled one state, and badly disrupted others.

The Greens have made a huge tactical error. The coal industry has already capitalised on it – and when the time comes to look at the mining tax and carbon tax in Parliament, the odds are good that the Coalition will do the same thing. Abbott has a perfect opportunity to position his party as more ‘humane’ than the Greens – they care about people, not making cheap political points. (Yes, yes, I know, but how often have we heard that?) There’s real potential for central reforms of the Gillard government to be fatally undermined. The Coalition have already signalled their unwillingness to come to the negotiating table – the last thing the Greens should do is provide them with a justification for doing so.

Right now very few people want to hear theories about La Nina, or climate change, or whether more flood mitigation dams might have saved Gatton and Grantham from being virtually wiped out. People have been killed, lost their homes, their livelihoods, and whole communities are gone. Queensland in particular has only just begun to count up the cost of rebuilding. Some people at this point don’t know where they will live. In such situations, people want to hear that their elected representatives understand what’s happening and are doing everything they can to make things better. They’ll punish anyone who takes their pain and turns it into a political point, no matter what party they belong to or what they believe.

The human face of this disaster is what was lost when Brown started to talk about climate change and mining taxes – now he needs to bring it back.

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12 Responses to Open mouth, insert foot: Bob Brown on the floods

  1. […] Senator Bob Brown displayed astonishing insensitivity by using Australia’s flood disasters to bash the coal companies and promote the mining tax. […]

  2. Gordon Freeman says:

    This is an absurd post. Condemning Brown for what he didn’t say, instead suggesting he say something different and with clearer, concise language. Just like that lovely man from the Coal Association.

    Oh and Gillard is lacking emotion. Can you imagine if she suddenly got ‘all emotional’? Yep, that would go down a treat too…

  3. If what Brown *actually* said was so terrible, why did The Australian misquote him?
    If his reaction was so unconscionable, presumably, they could have achieved the outrage they sought from readers by quoting his actual words, not the 3rd-hand interpretation of his words they chose to go with.

    In 2006, I sat in a building in the Brisbane suburb of Milton where I heard someone from the water management area of Qld Govt [the people who manage the Wivenhoe Dam] say that climate change is expected to bring more severe weather events. As an example, he gave ‘floods of the 1974 size that even Wivenhoe might not save us from”.
    That building – three or four hundred metres from the river – became riverside last week during the flood.

    So, as another of your commenters wrote – why shouldn’t we discuss possible contributing factors to the floods? Why not discuss possible remedies? Why not discuss who should pay for those remedies?

  4. Jo Tenner says:

    Nicely done David Fawcett – thanks for the derogatory comment
    BTW i never professed to being articulate but regardless your opinion that i am not should not exclude me from participating in public debate.
    I am certainly not saying that Bob Brown should learn to keep his mouth shut.
    The way i read it – he did say what you suggest and more.
    i guess its all a matter of perspective and you, as i, am entitled to your views.

    • Hold on there Jo, I never said you were not entitled to you opinion and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t attempt to put words in my mouth.

      If you think Bob Brown was on the money with his criticism then fine but this discussion isn’t really about what he said it’s about the way he said it.

      There is a substantive difference between suggesting that a mining tax could have avoided the floods and suggesting that this is caused by global warming.

      Re-read the link that you sent us in your post about what he ‘actually’ said and here is a summary paragraph by paragraph:
      – Mining companies should be taxed.
      – Mining companies caused the floods.
      – We can make a lot of money by taxing mining companies.
      – Global Warming caused the floods.
      – Insurance companies should cough up too.

      Whether you believe he is factually right or wrong is irrelevant. There was no compassion for the victims, just attacks on Big Business and it appeared self serving and opportunistic.

      If you do agree with his stance then you should be even more annoyed that he stuffed up the opportunity to make his case.

      • Jo Tenner says:

        Hi David,

        First, and please slow down to read this:
        Bob Brown never said that the floods were caused by coal mining, to come to this conclusion from what he has said betrays a lack of capacity in basic logic. More on this later.

        Regarding compassion for the vicitms, as the tradegy was unfolding Bob Brown released this:
        http://bob-brown.greensmps.org.au/content/media-release/greens-join-people-across-australia-offering-condolences-brown
        And also sent out an email to everyone of the greens website subscribers encouraging them to donate to the appeal. This still sits at the top of his website http://bob-brown.greensmps.org.au/
        It is not hard to find.

        And finally, i find your interpretation of the link i posted bizarre at best.
        The key bit i think you missed is that his comments pertain to future extreme weather. How you conclude from this statement that mining companies caused the floods would have Socrates rolling over in his grave. I believe you have employed a logical fallacy of the non sequitur variety.
        Thanks for discussing this with me Andrew, it helped me figure out why i was finding this issue so frustrating, ie the logic thing, and that is really valuable to me.
        I fear that we may continue to go around in circles based upon what we believe here in any future exchange. Cheers Jo

  5. I’m glad to see that at least some of our politicians are successfully capitalising on this disaster.

    Nicely done Anna Bligh, we can all learn from your fine example.

  6. Jo Tenner says:

    Bob Brown never said what you attribute to him. For what he did say check: http://tinyurl.com/6fvoezk
    He was referring to how as a country we could resource our responses to future extreme weather events that will have the same or greater impact as the current floods.
    Prof Karoly from Melb Uni Earth Sciences says that whilst one event cannot be attributed to climate change, the scientific predictions of climate change are consistent with more events of this type.
    This means that we need to do something about climate change or see much more of this type of disaster. And given that the government and industry are dragging their feet on action, Bob Browns comments about the need to resource adaptation to more frequent and severe extreme weather events makes sense. I heard various commentators over the last few days discussing how we are going to pay for the current floods – some mentioned taking money from the NBN, others cancelling overseas aid. The reality is that it will cost money, the political question is where will it come from and who should pay. in terms of future climate change caused disasters it is clear that those who profited from generating the pollution in the first place have a significant role to play in dealing with its consequences.
    Maybe it could have been said better, but last time i had anything to do with the media they wanted bite sized nuggets, which is a pretty tough way to convey the above complexity.
    Regarding criticism of the timing, i note that in Victoria during the bushfires many who wanted to speak out about the relationship between extreme weather and climate change we silenced by concerns for not appearing respectful of those who were affected. They waited for an opportune time, a time that never came. The Royal Commission failed to address climate change adequately and has had zero impact on driving climate change policy. Unfortunately, now is the time that most peoples attention will be focused on this issue. We all know how quickly something becomes yesterdays news, Haiti anyone? But in the interests of an informed debate about how we should prepare and prevent future disasters of this kind, it is absolutely crucial that climate change is part of the mix. And people are debating these issues right now all over Australia and other parts of the world (Brazil). Climate Change must be part of these deliberations for all our sakes.

    • Jo it seems that you are suffering from a bit of the Bob Brown waffles yourself. 😉

      It seems you are saying Bob Brown needs to learn when to keep his mouth shut and needs to learn how to better manage the media? Which was Marian’s point if I’m not mistaken.

      Does it suck that a long speeches gets chopped down to sound bites? Sure it does however he know’s he is talking through a filter when he’s talking to the media. He has to be more aware that when he’s talking to the media he has to make his statements short, concise, hard hitting and clear as possible.

      What he should have said is this, ‘The fact that these floods were avoidable has turned a terrible natural disaster into a tragedy for this nation. Scientists have predicted flooding would be a result of the increasing temperatures of our oceans and it is the responsibility of our government to ensure that this does not happen again.’

      Brown is great at talking to his base. When it comes to generating energy with people who already agree with him I think he does a fantastic job.

      The issue is that he continually seems to put his foot in his mouth when trying to reach a broader audience. That is a serious issue for any professional politician, especially a leader of a party.

  7. I don’t understand this argument at all, as I argue here. Why shouldn’t we talk about possible contributing factors to floods and other natural disasters? Wouldn’t it be absurd not to? We talk about other contributing factors, even as the disaster occurs, without worrying about political fallout.

  8. Those comments were quoted over and over again on television media (specifically Sky and Channel 10) and radio (Triple J and ABC National) today.

    Quoted in an article here.

    Defended and repeated here.

    Further clarification here.

  9. durutticolumn says:

    Nice argument except I think you are verballing brown. Not sure he said what you claim he said. News ltd drew a long bow from him talking abt future disasters to say he claimed coal industry caused floods

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