Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Why is the Australian bush fire disaster so bad?

Good article from a member of Socialist Alternative (Australia):

At least 173 people lie dead (and it's feared there could be as many as 250) and many rural towns have been totally destroyed in this week's catastrophic Victorian bushfires.

The tragedy is twofold - firstly, there's the enormous loss of life, but secondly, there's the fact that most of the lives lost could have been saved if we lived in a society that didn't prioritise profit over human lives. Just as cost-cutting on levies left New Orleans unprepared for the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina, leading to the deaths of 1300 people in the US a few years ago, cost-cutting and under-resourcing of emergency services is to blame for the carnage in Victoria.

The main problem is that under capitalism, profit is placed ahead of everything else. In the major cities, governments are prepared to fund some modest level of firefighting service (as they don't want their precious offices and factories to burn). But in rural areas, where there are only small amounts of property to protect and it's people's lives that are at risk rather than billions of dollars of capital, the ruling class simply aren't prepared to spend the money necessary for a decent fire service. As a result, over 99 per cent of the staff of the CFA (Victoria's rural fire brigade) are volunteers who have to work other jobs to pay their bills. This seriously limits the ability of the CFA to fight fires when they first start. In cities, when a fire is first reported, the local fire brigade can dispatch a truck in minutes or even seconds - in the country, volunteers may live an hour's drive from the site at which the fire truck is located, giving time for the fire to grow and get out of control. Additionally, few if any CFA volunteers can fly waterbombing aircraft or firespotter aircraft, in the rare occasions that these are even available.

It's not just cost-cutting in firefighting that's to blame, however. Despite the long history of devastating bushfires in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales, there is no warning system in at-risk areas other than the privatised telephone system - and as someone that has worked for Telstra and heard complaints about long service downtimes from many a rural customer, I've got no faith whatsoever in the reliability of that service even when there isn't an emergency.

There's plenty of money available to governments, however, that waste it on other things. What Australia spends on the military in just one week (around $400 million) could easily fund one thousand full time firefighters for a year, plus many new fire brigades and fire trucks. What was spent on welcoming war criminal George Bush to Australia at APEC in 2007 (around $350 million) could have funded the purchase of a dozen high-tech waterbombing aircraft and the training of dozens of people in their use. And a mere 2 per cent of the $6.2 billion granted in handouts to the car industry could fund a national early warning system that would see aerial monitoring of fire danger areas during medium and high fire risk periods, and infrastructure built to set off alarms in rural towns when evacuations are recommended. But to the Australian government, profit and military competition are seen as more important than doing these things that would save lives.

Full article continues here

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