February 19, 2020

Federal politics

The fraught politics of Fire Fight Australia

By Russell Marks

Source: Twitter

The imperatives of commercial media mean that the bushfire crisis is unlikely to be a tipping point for denialism

For a brief moment in 1989, John Farnham’s public image became politically radical. Ish. In March that year he found himself in Moscow – behind the curtain – to promote the second Greenpeace album, Rainbow Warriors, which includes “You’re the Voice”, the song that went to number one in Germany and Sweden and rescued his reputation from “Sadie” in a way that his time in the Little River Band never managed.

Farnham didn’t write “You’re the Voice”, though. Nor did he write the other main songs in his “political” cycle, “Age of Reason” and “That’s Freedom”. Perhaps it’s more accurate, then, to say that for a brief moment thirty years ago, environmental politics became commercially popular. Julian Lennon’s “Saltwater” was, after all, number one on the ARIA charts for four weeks in 1992. When that moment passed, Farnham levelled out (via a series of farewell tours) into his current status as a statesman of Aussie pop, and “You’re the Voice” became an end-of-a-big-night anthem.

On Sunday night, Farnham – at 70 and still very much The Voice – closed the Fire Fight Australia concert at Sydney’s Stadium Australia with his political cycle. He didn’t say anything remotely radical, but it’s difficult to conclude that it was a performance devoid of politics. He could, for instance, have performed a Grease duet with Olivia Newton-John; he didn’t. He shared the stage during “You’re the Voice” with Mitch Tambo, who recently sang his version in the Gamilaraay language on Australia’s Got Talent. Farnham was introduced by comedian host Celeste Barber (“please welcome – holy shit! – John Farnham!”) who had made a series of not-so-veiled digs at Scott Morrison throughout the ten-hour concert (“as Aussies we have to look after each other, because it turns out people at the top don’t”). And Farnham’s performance came minutes after Russell Crowe’s pre-recorded piece to camera asking Australia to please start listening to the climate scientists (“our taxes have already paid for their bloody education! It’s time to utilise that knowledge.”)

Is environmental politics making a commercial comeback? Barber, Crowe and music promoter Paul Dainty, whose role in making Fire Fight Australia happen seems to have been similar to that of Bob Geldof ahead of 1985’s Live Aid, would no doubt like to believe it is. Crowe owns 400 hectares around Nana Glen, north of Coffs Harbour, and has done as much as anyone over the summer to globalise both images of destruction (“absolutely fucking smashed” was one tweeted remark) and the link to the climate emergency. Fire Fight wasn’t a global event like Live Aid was, but it did include Alice Cooper, Michael Bublé, k.d. lang, Ronan Keating and Queen (reprising their entire Live Aid set), as well as video messages by celebrities from Katy Perry to Prince William. International attention is important to a national commercial culture still beset by the Cringe. There’s a sense, in some quarters at least, that this summer’s fires and the terrifying, iconic pictures that came out of places like Kangaroo Island and Mallacoota must be a tipping point in places of denialist climate politics like Australia and the USA.

The big barrier to a tipping point in commercial culture, though, is its media guardians. On Sunday, Channel 7 wanted – needed? – to turn the whole show into an Oprahfied ode to bushfire bravery. But it even did that badly. Sitting in a studio some distance from the action, David Koch and Samantha Armytage brought the awkward, almost studied vacuity of breakfast TV to what might have been conversations of depth and pathos. You’re touring now? they ask k.d. lang. No, she’d flown in especially for this from Alberta, where she’d been spending time with her mother. Was the mateship significant? they ask firefighters. They’d only just met each other when they were sent out to battle blazes. Were these the worst fires you’d ever seen? He’d only been fighting fires for a week. Commercial TV is hard to do well, because of the sheer range of audiences that need catering to. But Working Dog could barely have written a better version of commercial TV parodying itself than Kochie and Sam at Fire Fight. More people watched Married at First Sight over on Nine.

When Barber pointed at her T-shirt and its image of Morrison holidaying in Hawaii, news.com.au’s stream of live updates ignored it. It also ignored Crowe’s appeal to climate science, as did most of the reports of Fire Fight in Murdoch papers. These politics weren’t ignored on news.com.au’s comments feed, though. “Celeste Barber’s politicization of the event was very disappointing and divisive,” wrote Francis. “Yep, its a pity she couldn’t rise above it all but instead,” worried Allan, “she probably and inadvertently made some people turn off who may have donated.” This was the inevitable take by Andrew Bolt on Sky News Australia. “This should have been a day of people coming together,” he lamented. “Dozens of musicians and tens of thousands of Australians turning up to raise nearly $10 million for victims of the bushfires. But there was host Celeste Barber, who just had to have yet another childish shot at the prime minister.”

Guardian Australia, meanwhile, barely mentioned Fire Fight, limiting its coverage to a one-minute YouTube highlights package and a link to Crowe’s full speech. In the Guardian/ABC/Monthly world, the idea that anyone could truly believe Morrison’s leadership during the fires was adequate would come as a surprise. As would the idea that it’s possible to speak of the fires, their victims and the devastation the fires have caused without also at least mentioning the climate emergency. But in commercial-media world, these propositions are still radical, unsettling. This is Australia’s dual-pole media culture. The poles are now so far apart the people around them are hearing different facts and occupying different moral universes. Fire Fight wasn’t for Guardian Australia readers, and many barely knew it was on. To the extent that media culture has such an important role in reflecting, imagining and re-creating discourses of nation, it’s no wonder that it’s no longer possible to speak sensibly of a single coherent national culture.

Australia’s commercial media often reflects an imagined national culture that feels about 30 years out of date. Perhaps this is why Fire Fight seemed so anachronistic. I’m not thinking here about appearances by ageing pop idols Farnham, Newton-John, Iva Davies, Daryl Braithwaite, Lee Kernaghan, Tina Arena; through nostalgia, they provide continuity with their newer counterparts such as Jessica Mauboy, the Hilltop Hoods and Amy Shark. And they’re fun. I’m more thinking about the Live Aid–telethon format, which raised under $10 million in 10 hours, while Barber had earlier raised $50 million with what began as a ‘modest’ Facebook fundraising campaign – which was far too much, it turns out, for anyone to know how to distribute it. The commercial media began the digital era with a massive advantage, but it loses share all the time. For the first time last week, abc.net.au pipped news.com.au as Australia’s most popular news website.

I’m also thinking about the commercial aesthetic and the moral and political universe of commercial culture to which Fire Fight had to conform. I don’t know why Peter Garrett and Midnight Oil were absent. Perhaps they were unavailable, perhaps they weren’t asked. But their absence spoke volumes. Commercial media is not apolitical. Its politics are firmly resistant to any change to current structures that support the fossil fuel industry and consumerism built on cheap materials, cheap transport, cheap wages and minimal accountability. Mostly this status quo politics is passive and indirectly expressed, via advertising and infomercials. News Corp, of course, takes a more direct approach.

What do the summer’s fires mean, culturally and politically? Commercial media culture wants to locate their meaning in the individual heroism and bravery of firefighters, victims and communities, or in the evil of arsonists. Grief, fundraising, punishment, recovery and moving on is the model here. But nothing fundamental needs to change. Perhaps the strangest thing about the political contest is the inability of the elected political leaders to provide any leadership on the fires, and on climate. The right, having belatedly rediscovered conservation techniques like backburning, sees a silver bullet in even more land-clearing and “hazard reduction”. Labor is caught hopelessly between protecting both the environment and coal-industry jobs. And the Greens, who really should be having their moment in the sun, have no language with which they can speak to the nation.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an honorary research associate at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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