Floods, photo-ops, and the ghost of levies past

As I write, large areas of Queensland are underwater. Residents in Ipswich and Bundaberg are scrambling to evacuate before the expected flood peak – but already their homes and businesses are awash. Some houses are expected to be washed away by the force of the water. In the last few days, the areas surrounding Bundaberg were battered by no less than six tornadoes. The Brisbane River is rising, tearing away pontoons and boardwalks, sending boats downstream, and expected to peak around dinner time. Meanwhile on the Gold Coast, the tail end of Cyclone Oswald lashes the streets of Surfer’s Paradise and the Nerang River broke its banks a few hours ago.

And in the Lockyer Valley, people are isolated, some breaking down under the stress.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s not quite a carbon copy of the 2011 floods, but it’s pretty damned close. Back then, 78 people lost their lives, and countless others lost everything they had. The damage might not be as bad this time around, but it’s a terrible situation – and it’s almost impossible to imagine the trauma being suffered by those who have to go through this again. In some cases, they’d only just finished repairing the damage from two years ago.

To make matters worse, northern New South Wales is also under threat. Lismore residents have been told to prepare to evacuate, as the Tweed River rises, and rises.

Needless to say, the media are all over it. Wall-to-wall coverage on Channel 9 and Sky, frequent updates on ABC News 24, live blogs from newspapers – we can have it all. And that’s without following any particular #qldfloods or similar hashtags. Back in 2011, we saw then Premier Anna Bligh receiving constant updates from emergency services, holding frequent media conferences to deliver important information and urge people to keep their spirits up, and in general, doing what a Premier should do.

Today, we’ve seen the current Premier, Campbell Newman, grabbing every photo opportunity possible. In possibly the most egregious of these, he stood out in the rain clad in a regulation ‘Man-from-Snowy-River’ long coat with the local mayor. With rain dripping from his nose, he frequently interrupted the mayor’s attempt to answer questions about the situation on the ground, and how his constituents were handling things. Newman had his own message to get out – that his government had it under control, and was already looking towards the clean-up. This, before the scope of the disaster can possibly be known – and not without a swipe or two at the former Bligh government.

To back him up, Newman made what can only be regarded as an astoundingly stupid move, politically speaking. He invited Opposition Leader Tony Abbott up to Queensland to ‘tour’ the flood areas. And then we had photos of Abbott filling a sandbag. Of Abbott and Newman studying a map with fierce concentration. Of Abbott moving amongst ‘the people’ with patented handshake and clap-on-the-shoulder ‘you’ll be right, mate’ gestures. And why was Abbott there? Apparently, Newman thought it was important that the ‘alternative Prime Minister’ be fully informed.

Really, we’ve all heard the jokes about Queensland living in the 1950s, but has Newman never heard of a phone?

The stupidity wasn’t confined to Newman and Abbott, though. The Opposition’s Indigenous spokesperson, Andrew Laming, decided to make sure his boss got all the attention he deserved, and took to Twitter.

Indeed, where was the Prime Minister? Why, she was in Victoria with Premier Ted Baillieu, visiting emergency service personnel who had spent the majority of last week fighting ferocious bushfires. Those fires are contained now, but may still burn for months. Nonetheless, the immediate emergency was over – making it a far more appropriate time for a politician to be holding media conferences on site. Arguably, the best time for such an activity is never – but if such is inevitable in politics, then surely the time to make political capital out of disaster is well after the emergency is past?

But hey, that’s politics, right? Stupid MPs mugging for the cameras and popping on their Hi-Vis vests and hard hats for the sake of a good photo?

Maybe. But then there’s this.

Remember back in 2011, when the government introduced a flood levy to help pay for reconstruction from the disastrous floods? You know, the one Tony Abbott said was a cruel impost on the poor? The one he declared would put paid to anyone ever again voluntarily donating to any other disaster relief?

The one we all paid, and no one bemoaned the loss of an average of $1.74 each week?

Well, Abbott’s at it again. The floods haven’t even peaked, and already he’s raising the spectre of The Evil Taxing Labor Government. Oh, he’s being sneaky about it. He’s not going to come right out and say that there will be a new flood levy, but – and he hates to say it – ‘It doesn’t matter what the problem is; spend more, tax more is the Labor Party’s solution’.

Of course, he’s happy to quickly remind people that his Opposition fought the flood levy tooth and nail two years ago. Oh, but now’s not the time to bring politics into it, he hastens to add. Just as long as we’re clear on the Opposition’s principles, and we’ve had the idea planted in our heads that the government will bring in another levy after these floods.

His work here is done. Sandbag filled, soundbite delivered, poison injected. He can return to his high-and-dry home secure in the warm glow of knowledge of a job well done.

But hold on a moment. Suppose he’s right? Suppose the government does decide a new one-off levy is warranted? Or even – say it ain’t so – a Disaster Relief Fund, such as was proposed after the 2011 floods and Cyclone Yasi? How terrible, exactly, would it be?

Probably about as terrible as it already has been. A negligible amount taken from our salaries, in order to help those whose lives have been shattered by fire, flood, or cyclone. Something we wouldn’t even notice. That’s what Abbott – and by extension, Newman – wants us to fear. In the midst of disaster, he wants us to focus on how well he fills sandbags and how Labor is coming to take your hard-earned money away.

It’s shameful, and it shouldn’t go unanswered. For every shovelful of sand Abbott hefts, how many hundreds are being moved off-camera? How many thousands of emergency service personnel risk their lives to save people from drowning or burning to death, while he poses by a Rural Fire Service fire truck in his protective gear? And how many of those emergency services workers are injured, or even lose their lives, while he bleats about the evils of parting with $1.74 per week in order to give our fellow Australians just a little bit of help?

Do we know who they are, those people? Not unless they’re in the background, in which case it’s, ‘Hey, who’s that in the photo with Tony Abbott?’

It should be the other way around. ‘Hey, who’s that in the photo with Gary/Jen/whoever?’

Better yet, it should be, ‘Hey, look at those incredibly brave people putting themselves at risk to save other people, and they’re not even getting paid. Real heroes. Isn’t it great that the pollies keep out of their way and make sure they’ve got the resources to do their jobs?’

Yeah, yeah, I know. Tell her she’s dreaming.


One Response to Floods, photo-ops, and the ghost of levies past

  1. I really miss Anna Bligh, Bob Atkinson and all the great people from our last emergency.

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