News Politics Why we should leave this Australia buried in the ashes of the bushfire crisis
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Why we should leave this Australia buried in the ashes of the bushfire crisis

John Birmingham: We used to be a nation punching above our weight, now we are a country of cowards. Photo: Getty
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One of the enduring lies of climate change deniers is the lie of futility, or pointlessness.

In its simplest form it relies on the reflexive Australian fear that we’re not very important. A little country, far away from everywhere.

Nobody knows about us and nobody cares.

A benign expression of Australian pointlessness, now mostly consigned to history, was the ritual interrogation of visiting celebrities with an old variation on an eerily modern refrain.

“How good is Australia,” we’d ask as they stepped off the BOAC Vickers VC 10, bleary eyed and blinking into the harsh antipodean sun.

If they were smart, they’d say they loved it, mate.

Modern Australian pointlessness is much less benign. Currently it is most often and most destructively used in arguments that, because we’re so small and so far away and because our greenhouse gas emissions are such a tiny fraction of the global total, it would be futile, damaging and even dangerous for us to contemplate unilateral carbon disarmament. Our carbon emissions keep us strong. We cannot afford to give them up before anybody else.

It’s a rubbish argument.

Oddly enough the same coal-fired demagogues are never backward in coming forward when the chance arises for Australia to make a contribution to some military adventure in which our token company of special forces or nominal contribution of an AWACs aircraft is framed as a vital commitment to burden sharing, or alliance management, or saving the world from whatever sub-Bond villains are currently choosing to menace it with forty-year-old Kalashnikovs from the dusty backstreets of far away Absurdistan.

Melbourne smoke
This is Australia – unrecognisable. Photo: AAP

When there’s a photo op to be had bravely committing other people’s loved ones to somebody else’s war zone, you never, ever hear the big mouths for a Little Australia say anything like: “Our defence budget is an insignificant rounding error in the total global spending on military forces, so we might just sit this one out because we are a tiny country, far away from everywhere and we can’t make a difference.”

No, you never hear that.

It’s all about doing our bit, and punching above our weight. It’s heavy lifting this and taking responsibility for that.

The stark difference between their arguments about Australia’s obligations, duties, and leadership role, depending on what end that role is directed towards, might give a cynical observer reason to believe that some measure of hypocrisy is at play.

How good’s Australia now, Scott Morrison? Photo: AAP

But let’s not be hypocritical, or defeatist, for a moment.

Let’s imagine that the Australia which helped draft the UN Charter, drove the creation of APEC and the Cairns Group of Trading Nations, the Australia which led the Intervention in East Timor and which was crucial to the UN mission in Cambodia, all while finding time to invent the electric drill, the wine bladder and penicillin, is the same Australia which cannot just get its own carbon emissions down, but which could help the rest of the world do the same.

There are 24 countries which contribute between 0.5 per cent and 1.5 per cent of global emissions. Together they account for 21 per cent of the world’s emissions. Taken as part of that grouping our ‘insignificant’ contribution begins to look a lot more significant and the futility argument a lot less compelling.

Once upon a time, but not so long ago, Australia would have been out there every day, pestering those other 23 countries.

An Australia which had not given up and embraced denial, ignorance and fear-mongering would have whipped those 23 minor polluters into a rock solid block, committed to lowering their emissions, to sharing clean technologies, and to assisting each other through whatever crises our rapidly changing climate presented.

That Australia would have been embarrassed that much larger, more heavily industrialised countries of the old world like France, the UK and Germany were all beating us in the race to a post-carbon economy.

That Australia would have seethed and plotted and worked without rest to show those Eurotrash has-beens what it feels like to get lapped.

The Australia we once were, no matter how few in number, was a mighty country.

The Australia of denial, of special pleading, of whining for indulgence by sectoral interests, that Australia is a land of cowards and liars.

It is not the Australia we used to be – and if we are to endure on this ancient continent it is an Australia we must leave behind in the ashes of January.