Perhaps the biggest effect of the military's deployment in these fires has been psychological. That's not to diminish - in any way - either the necessity or effectiveness of the assistance provided. What's been vital, however (and especially critical for those sheltering on beaches or surrounded by relentlessly advancing firefronts; or even families just simply caught up in huge traffic jams watching their fuel tanks slipping ever closer to empty), has been the feeling that, at last, the extent of calamity hadn't simply been "understood", but that someone was acting. Doing something, anything, to assist.
From this point of view, it's mission accomplished.
Seeing the dull grey lines of the warship, sitting behind the television reporters' pieces-to-camera, demonstrated the government had finally "got" what was happening. By its presence the ship provided a critical piece of visual symbolism. It showed the country finally understood how devastating this disaster has been; something the Prime Minister appearing in selfies beaming in from Hawaii hadn't suggested. Watching soldiers unloading stores and ships offering refuge offered wonderful, vital, and much-needed reassurance to a vulnerable community. It was proof of things being done; action taken.
Military boots have actually been on the ground for months, helping out in fire-affected areas. But that's the key: assisting. The military isn't configured for this task and, although it's been willingly helping out and doing a marvellous job, this isn't and shouldn't be its role. If we want true disaster resilience (and we do) we need to organise for it properly and not mistake a stopgap measure for a genuine solution.
Take, first of all, the PM's much-trumpeted announcement that "for the first time ever" he'd compulsorily called out 3000 reserves. Great! Don't, however, mistake this for anything other than a PR exercise.
This was simply one of many options offered to Scott Morrison in the national security meeting - but it was one he seized on. Nothing says "I care" like ordering out the reserves. It resonated with the former marketing man because it demonstrated commitment. He was struggling, belatedly, to find a solution to his own growing political problem: this was like manna from heaven. "It puts more boots on the ground, puts more planes in the sky, puts more ships at sea, and trucks to roll in," Morrison declared, undermining his own initiative by mistaking deploying others for leadership and catchy rhetoric for genuine feeling. Within minutes he'd added a soundtrack and was pushing out a video promoting a muscled-up intervention. He was a wartime PM after all!
By spinning advertising off a crisis, Morrison sparked outrage. He'd made his announcements without even bothering to tell the fire commissioners what was happening. This is not to dismiss the commitment, simply to place it in context and understand its motivation. None of the 3000 reservists called out were firefighters; none possessed special training for this task. A week later, barely half had actually reported for duty, which is completely understandable. Some were overseas, others planning trips, and who can blame anyone for wanting to have a holiday like the PM? To put it another way, how can anyone who can't be bothered to "hold a hose" convince someone else to drop everything, just because their own political skin is finally on the line? The majority of the uniforms you've been seeing on TV have been worn by regulars called away from their long break.
Also fortunately, there have been no legal disputes, because the legal situation is questionable. Most of the law governing what's still quaintly called "aid to the civil power" dates from colonial days. It includes magistrates, warnings to disperse, warning shots and fusillades into crowds. If nothing else, this event shows the need for an urgent rewrite of regulations. There's a need to place the forces within a proper legal framework. More importantly, though, it shows the need for a dedicated civil defence organisation.
The incredible generosity ... of billionaires like Andrew Forrest should be commended and celebrated. But don't misunderstand this and think everything's OK.
Long before the Navy showed up at Mallacoota, Exxon Mobil had released the supply vessel Far Saracen, which brought 30 pallets of food, water, and, perhaps most vital of all, diesel to keep the generators working. Victorian police operated from the boat and it provided the crucial lifeline for many days before the forces mobilised.
The National Bushfire Recovery Agency will pump government money into the affected areas, which is great. Balanced against the need for speed, however, is the need not simply to rebuild but to admit that, in many cases new, sustainable solutions will be required. We need real thought about big issues.
The incredible generosity, for example, of billionaires like Andrew Forrest should be commended and celebrated. But don't misunderstand this and think everything's OK. Many of the rural communities worst affected by the fires are vulnerable struggle-towns, where people were so busy simply getting by they didn't put anything aside for the future. How are they to rebuild? They don't just need handouts.
Every Australian needs to recognise we are now engaged in a war demanding sacrifice. With the rain, there's been a sudden relief. People are daring to hope that perhaps the worst is over. We need to understand that this has just been one battle, the first campaign, and there's a long, drawn-out fight we all have to mobilise for in the future.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer and a regular columnist.