The bushfires in Australia continue as I write this and so it may seem somewhat premature to think about their electoral consequences. Nonetheless, both the government and the opposition have already begun considering what the bushfires portend for the next election. So, I wanted offer some thoughts on how these disasters will impact Australian electoral politics. I say ‘disasters’ – plural, because I think the multiplicity of fires, some in semi-rural regions, others in rural and even very rural areas means that they should not be lumped together as just one thing. In addition, the fires are impacting different economic sectors in very different ways. The loss of agricultural capacity has very different effects than the loss of tourist days, for example. Starting in early September 2019 the bushfires have destroyed in excess of 8.4 million hectares. Putting this in context, the largest bushfires were in 1974-75 consuming an area roughly equivalent to Libya, and for the most part burned areas of lightly populated bush. The 2019-20 bushfires currently rank third behind 1974-75 and the 2002 bushfires in the Northern Territory. The current fires are easily the largest ever to hit the more densely populated southeast of Australia.
Of course, Australia is no stranger to bushfires. Tim Flannery, the Australian environmental scientist, has written extensively about bushfires. Flannery has commented on how aboriginal Australians managed fire and incorporated it into their lives, using it as a tool to be exploited. Australian historian Bill Gammage, in his book The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, has argued that aborigines used fire extensively to manage and prosper in the landscape. While Australia has an ancient fire lineage this year’s fires have exceeded most Australian’s past experience.
Already the messaging machines of the major parties have been in full swing, seeking to make political hay from the fires. These have included charges against the prime minister for being both literally and figuratively distant from the fires. He was on holiday in Hawaii during the major escalation of the fires. When he did return, he stumbled badly while visiting fire ravaged town of Cobargo on the NSW south coast. There hecklers from the local community mocked and ridiculed his leadership. The counter messaging from his government emphasized the failure to engage in controlled burns to reduce the fire load in the bushland. Others, like former PM Tony Abbott, accused some of being in the thrall of climate ‘ideologues’ who wished to use the bushfires to further their own agenda. Needless to say, the major political parties acted as if they saw the fire as a backdrop to their political messaging.
In considering the impact of the bushfires on the Morrison government’s prospects for re-election it may prove useful to examine how other incumbents have fared in the face of natural disasters, including fires. In 2010 vast stretches of Russian forests succumbed to fire. From July through September 2010 some 300,000 hectares burned, the proximate cause was widespread drought and record-breaking high temperatures. Many assigned climate change as the underlying cause (Hansen, Sato, and Ruedy, 2012). Just two months after the fires Russia held regional elections; the fires were still fresh in the minds of affected Russians. So, what happened to the incumbents? Lazarev, et. al. (2014) tested two hypotheses concerning natural disasters and incumbency. The first posited that “Exposure to a natural disaster causes more negative attitudes toward the government” (2014, p. 646). This hypothesis comes from the idea of blind retrospection. First coined by Achen and Bartels, blind retrospection posits that voters will reward or punish political office holders for events outside their control (Achen and Bartels, 2013). Achen and Bartels original exploration of blind retrospection considered the impact of shark attacks (exogenous events) off the New Jersey coast and their consequence for the 1916 election. Their original work showed that voters – irrationally – punished President Woodrow Wilson in his bid for re-election. Lazarev et. al. construe the forest fires in Russia as exogenous events and test whether they affected the outcome of regional elections. The other hypotheses tested by Lazarev et. al. were that “Exposure to the aid increases support for the government” and that “Satisfaction with the aid provision increases support for the government” (Lazarev et. al. 2014, p. 647). These last two hypothesis emerge from work on voter gratitude, in which voters reward political leaders for aid following a natural disaster. Bechtel and Hainmueller (2011) studied the effects of aid to German voters following the disastrous flooding of the River Elbe. Not only did voters reward incumbents by increasing their vote in the immediate aftermath of the floods, but even three years later in the next election voters continued to reward incumbents. What Lazarev et. al. found was that Russian voters did not punish incumbents as blind retrospection might have predicted, but instead Russian voters rewarded incumbents for their provision of aid. This finding echoes an observation made by an Indian politician who quipped, “a bad monsoon per se will not affect electoral fortunes, but its management definitely will” (Cole, Healy, and Werker, 2011, p. 167).
The Morrison government has announced $2 billion in aid for those affected by the bush fires. He left the door open for further aid noting the $2 billion was “an initial commitment” (Beech, Dalzell and Snape, 2020). As the Russian and German examples suggest that the prospects for a Morrison re-election may be either unaffected by or even strengthened in the face of the bushfires, and the provision of aid is key to the Morrison government’s re-election.
These conclusions do not rest easily with me when I talk to my family, friends and colleagues in Australia. Even sitting half way around the world it was not hard to get a sense of dread from the fires. The pictures and stories deliver a strong sense of threat and alarm. It seemed as if the Australian world – beset by the fires of hell – was on the verge of coming apart. The Australian writer Richard Flanagan penned a piece in the New York Times condemning the country’s political leadership and noting, “Such are those who would open the gates of hell and lead a nation to commit climate suicide.” This reminded me of the work of Ernest Becker as well as terror management theory by Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon. All four scholars were interested in the ways in which the threat of death motivates the behavior and beliefs of individuals. Becker won the Pulitzer Prize for his work, The Denial of Death in 1973. In that book Becker put forward the thesis that our symbolic world – also known as culture – serves as an elaborate defense mechanism against the knowledge of our ultimate demise. Greenberg, Pyszczysnki and Solomon further developed Becker’s ideas and authored terror management theory, the essence of which is that the clash born between self-preservation and the inevitability of death results in terror that must be managed. Not surprisingly, religion, belief systems and a host of psychological dynamics emerge in mitigating the resulting terror. Anything that reminds us of the tension between self-preservation and death’s inevitability attracts terror management. Bushfires, not surprisingly, would be visceral reminders of our mortality. Kastenmüller et. al. investigated the ways in which natural disasters intersected with terror management. In their research they found two relevant effects. First, they discovered that when faced with death anxiety from a natural disaster people will have heightened justice sensitivity. They define justice sensitivity “… as the tendency of how a person reacts when confronted with an unjust or unfair event.” (Kastenmüller et. al. 2013, p. 2101). Justice sensitivity, they also found, was felt not just by the victims, but by observers of the disaster as well. Broadly speaking, in the face of death anxiety, people have a heightened need for justice, both to be justly treated and so see justice done. Presumably, these people also have a commensurately stronger sense of injustice. The angry voices heard in Cobargo, referring to PM Morrison as an ‘idiot’ for example, were motivated from heightened justice sensitivity. Will government aid be sufficient to address this justice sensitivity?
Climate change has been acknowledged as threat to electoral incumbency. Nick Obradovich (2017, p. 135) studied “… data from over 1.5 billion votes in over 4,800 electoral contests held in 19 countries between 1925 and 2011, coupled with meteorological data… [and shows] that increases in annual temperatures above 21◦C (70◦F) markedly decrease officeholders’ vote share.” In other words, incumbency fares poorly in countries with an average temperature of 21C or higher, and this includes Australia. Legislation on climate change has vexed party leaders on all sides of Australian politics. For example, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who had said that climate change was “the most urgent moral challenge of our generation” offered in 2009 the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS), which required support of the opposition Liberal party if it was going to pass in the Australian senate (Crabb, 2018). After internal Liberal party battles over whether to support the legislation opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull lost to Tony Abbott, a self-declared climate change denier. It is fair to say that climate change policy has not been kind to Australian political leaders.
It is also fair to say that the face of natural disasters in Australia may well be changing. Bushfires, floods and droughts have long been construed as natural disasters, meaning that their causes stretch beyond our control. Yet, human agency and climate change are increasingly featuring as causal explanations for the intensity and scope of these disasters, they can no longer be said to be entirely ‘natural’. These newly construed disasters also act as harbingers of future consequences of climate change, and as such bring with them an existential threat. Taken together will this change in our understanding of causality alter the political landscape in which incumbents operate?
Achen, Christopher and Larry Bartels, “Blind Retrospection: Why Shark Attacks Are Bad for Democracy.” Working paper, 5-2013, Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, Vanderbilt University.
Bechtel, Michael M., and Hainmueller, Jens. “How Lasting Is Voter Gratitude? An Analysis of the Short‐ and Long‐Term Electoral Returns to Beneficial Policy.” American Journal of Political Science 55, no. 4 (October 2011).
Beech, Alexandra, Stephanie Dalzell and Jack Snape, “Bushfire recovery costs start at $2 billion but Government assistance can’t pay the bills.” ABC News, January 6, 2020 https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-06/scott-morrison-bushfire-recovery-bill/11844096 (accessed January 8, 2020).
Cole, Shawn, Healy, Andrew, and Werker, Eric. “Do Voters Demand Responsive Governments? Evidence from Indian Disaster Relief.” Journal of Development Economics 97, no. 2 (2012): 167–81.
Crabb, Anabelle, “Australia’s recent climate change policy: A brief history of seven killings.” ABC News, August 22, 2018. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-08-23/climate-change-policy-a-brief-history-of-seven-killings/10152616 (accessed January 8, 2020)
Hansen, James, Makiko Sato, and Reto Ruedy. “Perception of Climate Change.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109, no. 37 (September 11, 2012): E2415–23.
Kastenmüller, A., Greitemeyer, T., Hindocha, N., Tattersall, A.J., and Fischer, P. “Disaster Threat and Justice Sensitivity: A Terror Management Perspective.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 43, no. 10 (October 2013): 2100–2106.
Lazarev, Egor, Sobolev, Anton, Soboleva, Irina V, and Sokolov, Boris. “Trial by Fire: A Natural Disaster’s Impact on Support for the Authorities in Rural Russia” 66, no. 4 (October 2014).
Obradovich, Nick. “Climate Change May Speed Democratic Turnover.” Climatic Change 140, no. 2 (January 2017): 135–47.