Scott Morrison's desire to mobilise the forces and give them a role fighting bushfires and other emergencies is absolutely understandable. It's also a radical strategy to seize back the climate change agenda and position the Coalition for success at the next election.
So what's Morrison's proposal? With the enthusiasm of a revivalist preacher, he announced a new mission for the forces: fighting fires. In doing so he's pulled off a "bait and switch" so fast that Labor still doesn't understand what's happened.
First he dangled a lure. Dropping comments like "Australia, on its own, cannot control the world's climate", he incensed the opposition. But then, at the Press Club, there was a subtle switch. This was the transposition, a startling move that suddenly and completely changes the debate. We've moved onto new terrain.
Instead of being about emissions (where the Coalition's going to lose) it's now about how we act (where Morrison thinks he can win).
Instead of picking a fight he was bound to lose over emissions targets, Morrison reframed climate change as a national security issue. After all, that's the Coalition's strong suit. The military is now standing front and centre in the fight against global warming, just as he used it as a tool to "secure the borders" back in 2013.
"An enhanced and proactive role for our Defence Force in response to domestic natural disasters," Morrison proclaimed, "will have implications for our force structure, its capability, development, its command, its deployment and training."
What the PM is proposing is, in fact, a complete revamp, dramatically changing the military.
Faster than a rugby player swerving as they head for the try line, Morrison has changed the whole context of climate change as a political issue. He's conceding global warming is bad but insisting he's the one with a plan to keep us safe. And who cares about long-term plans to reduce emissions when the beds are burning?
Labor is about to be outflanked. Again.
It's instinctive, heartfelt, brilliant politics; so what's the problem?
It's instinctive, heartfelt, brilliant politics; so what's the problem? Well, if you want to fight a fire, call the fire brigade. It's what they do. Jet fighters are great but don't drop water and nobody should expect them to. Don't confuse jobs, or you'll get columnists pretending they can run things and marketing men pretending to be Prime Minister.
Most important, of course, is that the proposed revamp will change the very nature of the forces. Giving them some sort of vaguely defined, local defence role is essentially incomparable with the way they're currently structured - which is to fight. The military can take on this role, but it doesn't make sense. Morrison seized it because it's the only tool ready to hand. A better way would be to simply properly fund and revamp the existing, tried, proven and perfectly good State Emergency Services. But the PM wants to look dynamic, hence the military option.
The biggest irony is that back in 2001 Emergency Management Australia was split from Defence's Support Command precisely because it was the wrong model for this sort of civil defence. It's understandable governments don't have long memories. It's unforgivable that nobody can Google these things and see what's been tried before.
A central part of our political narrative is the idea that national structures such as the armed forces are adequate and appropriately designed to properly protect us from the challenges we face today. The forces do protect us from armed attack, but soldiers armed with rifles can't fight fires. Home Affairs is busy protecting our borders. What we need is a new nationwide, locally based organisation specifically designed to deal with these challenges. With the SES we're halfway there. The way forward is to build on that base, not discard it.
Even just 40 hours of training can dramatically increase individual readiness to face disasters. Importantly, it also helps people rebound psychologically by providing them with a sense of agency and helping them to feel in control. These are the traits we need to encourage, not solutions from above. This sense of control and resilience will not be fostered by relying on some external organisation to come in and "save" us.
Labor's Mike Kelly has come up with a solid plan for a Civil Defence Corps. He admits "the current model of response is not adequate or sustainable" to deal with new challenges such as climate change, and concentrates on reinvigorating this community model. He's spot on. Critics have piled on to attack minor aspects of his proposal (like high-school leavers undertaking a year's compulsory service using a "gap year" model, or awarding medals and letting them march on ANZAC Day), but they're missing the wood for the trees.
Recently, as fires threatened Canberra, volunteers nearby in NSW were waiting to be called to help battle the blazes across the border. The call never came. The point is if the threat is national, we need a combined approach. The complication is that the exact opposite is also true. Only local, detailed knowledge, built up over years of experience, will ensure our efforts are properly focused. A nationally led, locally oriented body can achieve this balance. The military is great, but it's not the correct institution to run this organisation. It needs to be robust enough to face far more than just fires.
We've been lucky when it comes to containing the hugely contagious coronavirus so far - nevertheless more than 40,000 people have been infected globally and at least 910 people have died from the disease. How would we cope with a similar outbreak originating here? We need an SES well-resourced enough to deal with much more than fires. Dealing not just with climate change but also terror attacks, influenza, pandemics, fuel security, and internet resilience will be vital as we move into the future.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer and a regular columnist.