Catastrophic Wildfires Leave Lasting Scars — and Lessons — on the Continent

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Imagine arriving in Washington, D.C., for your first ambassadorial (or even diplomatic) posting during one of the most unpredictable presidencies in modern U.S. history — in the midst of an election year no less — all while an unprecedented crisis rages back home. Oh, and a month after arriving, the entire world is reeling from a global pandemic.

It’s enough to unnerve the steeliest of public servants.

But Arthur Sinodinos, Australia’s new ambassador to the U.S., isn’t easily rattled — at least not after facing down a diagnosis of stage-four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that had him fighting for his life for nearly two years.

Yet Sinodinos, a former senator in the Australian Parliament, is thoughtful and measured — even at times matter-of-fact — about his battle with cancer, never once describing it in life-or-death terms.

“I never got to the stage of thinking I’m gone, this is the end,” he told us as we sat with him in his official residence for his first media interview since arriving in early February. “I did worry initially, but then I just kept going through the treatment, just put my head down, and I suppose the attitude I took was just to get through each day.”

At the same time, the ordeal reminded him to appreciate each day — a message he imparted to his staff on his first day at work. “I said, as you go through life, just try and enjoy every day as well. It’s about the journey, not just the destination, because too often people [get so focused on where] they want to go that they forget to appreciate the way there.”

Sinodinos — who has been in remission since late 2018 after receiving a bone marrow transplant — was reminded of how fleeting life can be just one day after landing in Washington, D.C., when he greeted the widow of one of the three American firefighters who died battling the recent wildfires that consumed large swathes of Australia.

“I arrived on a Tuesday and on Wednesday afternoon I went out to Dulles Airport to meet the widow who’d come back with the coffin of one of those three firefighters,” he said.

That firefighter, Paul Clyde Hudson of Arizona, had served for 20 years in the Marine Corps. The ambassador noted that Hudson had just retired, was only in his early 40s and that he and his wife Noreen “had the rest of their lives together — and suddenly it’s all taken away.”

“He died in a foreign land, doing what he loved,” Sinodinos added, “but that doesn't take away from the tragedy of what happened. And it was very moving to be with her and I made sure she understood that whatever support she needed in the future … we would provide that because these firefighters create an enduring link with our country by what they did.”

A National Tragedy

It was another somber reminder of both the physical and emotional toll of the catastrophic wildfires that tore through parts of Australia in late 2019 and early 2020, scorching over 12.6 million hectares, killing at least 34 people and destroying over 3,000 homes. To put that into perspective, Australia itself is over 760 million hectares (the same size as the continental U.S.), with around 143 million hectares of forest, equivalent to 17% of its total land mass.

While fires are a regular part of life in the Australian bush, a prolonged drought, strong winds and record-breaking temperatures — at one point described by a government official as a “blast furnace” — fueled a hellish wildfire season that began last September.

As fires coalesced in the southeastern states of New South Wales and Victoria, the scenes that unfolded stunned both the country and the world: blood-red skies hanging over towns and tourist destinations; rescue workers on the side of the road pouring water over semi-burnt koalas; shell-shocked evacuees staggering off naval ships during the country’s largest military deployment since World War II; burnt wasteland littered with the charred corpses of kangaroos, cattle, horses and other animals that hadn’t been able to escape the flames; once-lush forests blackened and bare; once-busy neighborhoods desolate or decimated; smoke in Sydney so thick it clogged hospital MRI machines; and a cloud of ash so large it could be seen from space and even turned glaciers over 1,000 miles away in New Zealand brown.

While the shock of the fires has subsided — as have the fires themselves, thanks to torrential downpours in mid-February, another manifestation of the extreme weather patterns plaguing the country — Australia is still collectively mourning one of the worst natural disasters in its history.

“It has affected I think the psyche of a lot of Australians,” Sinodinos told us. “I know when people go through bushfires, or are near bushfire events, they can be very affected by them. I was in Canberra in 2003 when there was a major fire that went through in January of that year. And the fire in effect stopped about a street up from where I was living at the time,” he recalled. “[W]hen you see mother nature in its full fury, it’s really humbling for us as human beings.”

The same can be said of all living creatures. The University of Sydney shocked the world when it put out an estimate that more than 1 billion animals were killed by the fires. Professor Chris Dickman said that Australia already suffered from the world’s highest rate of extinction for mammals —  a process the fires may have accelerated.

“I was quite taken aback when I heard estimates of 1 billion animals affected in one way or another. I shouldn’t have been. It was a reminder that given the nature of Australian flora and fauna, given we have mammals that you don’t have in other parts of the world, and the extent of our forests and natural areas, I should have realized how big an issue it was going to be, but initially a lot of people were focused on the people being affected,” the ambassador explained. “But then you start to see the images of koalas and others being affected, and you see the impact on their habitats. There’s clearly a lot of work that will have to be done on that as well. It’s not just about the people. It will be about the animals as well.”

To that end, the government will provide resources to wildlife rescue groups now, with an eye on how to help threatened species moving forward. It’s part of the multipronged approach the government is taking to address both the immediate needs after the fires and the longer-term recovery.

“The government’s priority at the national level has been to back up the state governments, which bear the frontline responsibility for emergency management. And that has meant essentially providing grants and assistance to communities, to businesses and to individuals and families who are affected by the fires,” Sinodinos said. “And then the more long-term support is through the National Bushfire Recovery Agency, which has been set up with an initial $2 billion to oversee the recovery of these communities, and that will involve things like rebuilding infrastructure, finding ways to make communities more resilient, more able to cope with these sorts of emergencies in the future.

“So it’s very much a short-, medium- to longer-term approach that the government is taking,” he added. “And one of the most important parts of that is to encourage people to go back into those communities because the fires are largely out now … visit those communities as tourists, start to get business as usual going again.”

Under Fire

But it may never be business as usual again for Australia given the far-reaching impact of the fires. In fact, long before the smoke even cleared, the recriminations began, most of them directed at Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s clumsy handling of the crisis.

Morrison first drew the public’s wrath when he quietly went on vacation to Hawaii as the fires escalated back home, prompting hashtags like #Wherethebloodyhellareyou.

Morrison expressed “regret” for the decision, but he came under increasing criticism for what many saw as a hands-off, tone-deaf national response to a crisis that pushed local resources to the brink — notably Australia’s predominantly volunteer firefighting force.

Several firefighters were killed by the blazes and hundreds went months working 12-hour shifts in deadly conditions without pay. Morrison, however, initially said that compensating firefighters was not a priority, sparking widespread anger.

Sinodinos told us that there are a lot of misconceptions about Australia’s state-based firefighting service, which is composed of nearly 200,000 volunteers.

These volunteers operate mostly in rural areas (career firefighters generally work in the cities) because they’re familiar with the bushfire season that happens annually in their backyards — and thus, Sinodinos says, have a “volunteer ethic” whereby they manage the fires themselves.

“I think because the ethic of the rural fire services has always been a volunteer ethic, there has been in the past a hesitation about trying to create a different sort of force because the volunteers have been very passionate and very successful at what they do, and they’re well-trained. The main challenge has been to make sure they have the resources they need. So there was some hesitation about the idea of compensation,” the ambassador said.

But with fire seasons becoming  longer and more severe because of climate change, Sinodinos said the federal government “is looking at our disaster management arrangements to see what changes need to be made so we’re better prepared for future seasons.”

Morrison has launched an inquiry into the government’s handling of the fires that will presumably examine issues such as compensation. He’s also set aside $58 million to support families in traumatized communities, and he’s acknowledged “there are things that I could have handled on the ground much better.”

Learning Curve

Morrison seems to have learned a lesson from the previous disaster that he’s carrying over to the current one: coronavirus. Last month, his government moved to quickly approve a $17.6 billion stimulus package to cushion the blow from the global pandemic, which he said could be a greater economic shock than the wildfires (forecasts indicate Australia could go into recession this year — its first in nearly three decades).

The package includes a one-off payment of $750 for 6.5 million lower-income Australians; up to $25,000 in tax-free cash-flow assistance for small- and medium-size businesses; incentives to encourage businesses investment; and $1 billion to support regions most affected by the virus.

The quick response gave Morrison a slight bump in his approval ratings after they plunged in the wake of the fires.

Sinodinos said he understands what he calls the “outrageous fortunes” of politics, having spent over 40 years serving in prominent roles such as senior economic advisor and later chief of staff to Prime Minister John Howard; cabinet secretary; assistant treasurer; minister for industry, innovation and science; and, most recently, senator for New South Wales — the region hit hardest by the fires — from 2011 to 2019. He said that as a longtime politician himself, he can relate to the difficulties of responding to fast-moving crises like the fires.

“My impression is that because the states were always at the frontline of this, I think we’ve all been caught a bit short by how quickly the flames not only developed, but joined up to create more of a national emergency than we had anticipated,” he told us. “But having now absorbed that fact, the prime minister and the government are moving quickly to do whatever we can to help to address that. So yes, it’s been a learning experience.”

He added that “the big lesson we’ve taken out of all of this is that the severity and the extremity of these events is going to be increasing potentially over time because of climate change and other factors…. So from an Australian government perspective, the thinking now is there’s this initial phase of helping communities recover, but then we have to make them more resilient over time.”

Proverbial Canary in the Coal Mine

The mere fact that, barely a few minutes into our interview, Sinodinos acknowledged the role climate change played in the fires is in and of itself notable considering that for years, his boss was loath to mention climate change — except perhaps to mock it.

In 2017, the future prime minister famously came to Parliament and tossed up a softball-size piece of coal in the air, telling lawmakers, “This is coal. Don’t be afraid! Don’t be scared! Won’t hurt you.”

The theatrics were meant to illustrate Morrison’s argument that coal is essential to the Australian economy, providing it with jobs and affordable energy.

But the prime minister’s unapologetic embrace of coal has come back to hurt him. The bushfires intensified calls for the government to speed up the transition away from fossil fuels — a hugely sensitive issue given that Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal.

Therein lies Australia’s climate quandary. As Chris Richardson, the chief Australia economist at Deloitte, succinctly put it in a Jan. 3 article in The New York Times: “[O]ur economy is vitally dependent on fossil fuels, and yet our landscape is relatively exposed to climate change.”

Indeed, Australia is often referred to as the proverbial canary in the coal mine — a bellwether for the world if it doesn’t curb the greenhouse gas emissions heating the planet.

There’s no denying Australia is feeling the effects of manmade global warming. It experienced its hottest year ever in 2019, which capped off the hottest decade ever (including a record-setting temperature this January of 120 degrees Fahrenheit in a Sydney suburb, making it the hottest place on earth). Before that, three years of extreme drought laid the conditions for the recent inferno.

Yet Australians aren’t in denial about what’s happening around them. Unlike in the United States, where some Americans still doubt the existence of climate change, there is no such debate in Australia. The overwhelming majority of the country accepts the scientific consensus that climate change is driven by fossil fuels. Even Prime Minister Morrison acknowledges as much.

Rather, the debate is over how to deal with the problem — and that’s where things get dicey because any solution would entail weaning Australia off the fossil fuels that have powered its stellar economic growth over the last three decades.

Sinodinos used to track attitudes on climate change for the respected Lowy Institute. He told us that for Australians, it’s not a question of science; it’s one of sacrifice.

“What we found over time is that even though people were concerned about climate change, their willingness to pay to do something about it tended to go down over time, particularly in the context of the [2008] global financial crisis and other factors,” the ambassador told us. “And I think one of the things we have to be upfront with people about is that there are costs of change. Yes, there are costs of not changing, but often what happens in politics, people tend to say, ‘Don’t worry, the cost isn’t too much.’ You can’t deal with the public like that. You’ve got to give the public the facts and let them make up their own mind.”

And up until now, the public has punished politicians calling for more aggressive climate action. The center-right Liberal Party came to power in 2013 after voters rejected the idea of a carbon tax. Morrison himself won a surprise victory last May, propelled in part by voters from mining-dependent regions who feared that the opposition’s climate policies would endanger jobs. The election also revealed a growing divide between younger, urban Australians who want bolder climate action and their older, rural counterparts (who paradoxically are more affected by extreme weather patterns).

‘Tipping Point’

Still, the fires may be shifting attitudes. Even before they broke out, a poll by the Lowy Institute released last May found that 64% of Australians ranked climate change as the top threat facing the country in the next 10 years. More notably, 61% said global warming should be tackled even if involves “significant costs.”

“I think for the public, there has been a tipping point because of the extent and the severity of what’s happened,” Sinodinos said. “What it’s done for the government is underline the need to continue taking actions to implement our commitments around climate change — mitigation, but also a focus on adaptation and resilience, recognizing that it’s not business as usual.”

 

But like the prime minister, Sinodinos said change must be gradual to avoid jeopardizing Australia’s strong economy.

 

He argues that the government cannot “close the coal industry down overnight.” Rather, it needs to invest in renewables such as hydropower and technologies such carbon capture and storage, while also relying on less-carbon-intensive fuels like natural gas. (According to the U.N., Australia is the fifth-largest investor in renewable energy worldwide.)

“So what we’re trying to do here is have a path of least economic cost where possible, and that involves making adjustments to the economy but in a way which the economy can digest, while transitioning to this low-emissions environment,” Sinodinos said.

That means controversial projects like the Carmichael Mine, which will tap the world’s largest reserves of thermal coal, will go ahead, even though critics say it poses an existential threat to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Sinodinos said that as long as projects like the Carmichael Mine meet the country’s environmental laws, they will move forward. “But the future of those projects will be in a more carbon-constrained world,” he said, suggesting that the onus is on other countries to curb their appetite for coal and that “the future of the industry ultimately will be a function of market forces.”

“Therefore, the issue will be [whether] our major trading partners and others in the future have the demand that they’ve had in the past. And every indication is, going forward, that’s going to be a very changing environment and a very challenging environment for fossil fuel industries.”

In the meantime, Morrison has said Australia will stick to its Paris pledge to reduce emissions by 26% to 28% from 2005 levels by 2030. Environmental groups, however, say the government is not on track to meet those targets and that they are too low anyway. The ambassador said Morrison is open to increasing those commitments — an idea he’s resisted before — although he does not want “to provide a target without the program of how you get there.”

But critics counter that Morrison’s cautious approach is an excuse to avoid tackling climate change and that his conservative government is beholden to the powerful fossil fuel industry.

The prime minister’s own words suggest he has little interest in upping his Paris commitments.

“We don’t want job-destroying, economy-destroying, economy-wrecking targets and goals, which won’t change the fact that there have been bushfires or anything like that in Australia,” he said in the wake of large protests denouncing his climate policies.

The prime minister insists that because Australia is only responsible for a tiny fraction of the world’s emissions, reducing those emissions would not have made any difference in the recent wildfires. But environmental activists say that argument is misleading.

While it’s true that Australia only accounts for about 1.3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, its carbon footprint is much larger because its coal feeds energy-hungry Asia, the region most responsible for warming the planet (and by extension Australia).

Morrison’s longstanding argument that coal supports the nation’s economy is also increasingly being challenged in the wake of the huge economic toll that the fires wrought on industries such as tourism, agriculture and insurance — costs that experts warn will only increase as fires and droughts become more ferocious.

Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull — who lost his job to Morrison — told the BBC earlier this year that at some point, Australians will have to reconcile themselves to the fact that more greenhouse gases simply means more extreme weather.

“The fundamental problem that we face is that in too many places — the United States in particular and also in Australia — is that this issue of global warming … has been turned into an ideological issue or values issue when it’s simply a question of physics,” he said, adding that President Trump is the world’s “leading climate denier.”

Trump and the China Conundrum

Of course, Turnbull and Trump weren’t exactly on the best terms (the two clashed early on when Trump angrily refused to abide by a refugee swap negotiated by President Obama).

In sharp contrast, Trump and Morrison, an evangelical Christian, share plenty in common, not only on climate change, but also on issues such as curbing immigration and social spending.

At his credentialing ceremony on Feb. 6, Sinodinos said Trump asked how “his friend” the prime minister was doing and mentioned that he’d just been on the phone with Australian golfer Greg Norman.

Unlike his boss, though, Sinodinos doesn’t at first glance appear to have much in common with the U.S. president. The former Liberal senator (who’s not big on golf) has long been a proponent of free trade, globalization and the international rules-based order that Trump has railed against.

But the ambassador insists there is no contradiction between his stance and the president’s, saying that while he still believes in the benefits of globalization, Trump has shined a light on those who have yet to see those benefits.

“I think the president’s been very skilled at being a voice for those people who felt they had been left behind,” he said. “And I think it’s been a wakeup call not just to Australia, but to countries around the world — that when it comes to things like globalization, you can never take it for granted that there will be linear progress. You always have to keep making the argument about why it’s important for the world to be open.

“The other thing I think that’s happened on [Trump’s] watch is … his muscular approach to dealing with China. That’s something which I think reflects a concern on both sides of the aisle here. And he’s taken action about that,” Sinodinos said, noting that “that there are many areas where what the president is doing is now becoming conventional wisdom.”

Sinodinos himself has forcefully called out China for not playing by the global rules. But he cautions that Australia’s relationship with Beijing is complicated.

China is Australia’s largest trading partner, so while Australia should “push back” when China is overreaching, Sinodinos says it also needs to find ways to collaborate and “not throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

As for Trump’s tariff war against Beijing, “while it was a tough approach, [it] did bring China to the table and get a more explicit debate about some of the issues around how China … participates in the global economy and on what terms,” Sinodinos said. “But the important thing is to keep engaging because a strong and prosperous China is important not only to the Chinese people, but to the world.”

The ambassador said Australia is still monitoring the spillover effects of the trade war, but for now, coronavirus is the more immediate concern given Australia’s close ties with China, not only in terms of trade, but also tourism, student exchanges and other areas.

On that note, Sinodinos acknowledges the risks of becoming too dependent on Beijing. “So we’re also looking at our prospects in the region, including with fast-growing economies like Vietnam. India is also a big potential market for Australia — just as the Chinese would be looking to diversify their sources of supply for commodities and other things,” he said. “I think it’s a natural thing. I think we both recognize it’s not always prudent to have all your eggs in one basket.”

It’s a delicate balancing act because Australia’s prosperity is so closely tied to China, yet its security is so closely tied to the United States.

So far, Australia is sticking with its longtime ally — at least when it comes to the dispute over Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant that the Trump administration is urging other nations to exclude from their 5G networks because of the security threats it allegedly poses (also see “5G Geopolitics: U.S. Hammers Huawei, But Struggles to Catch Up to China in ‘Race’ to Dominate 5G” in the February 2020 issue).

Australia is the only member of the Five Eyes — the intelligence-sharing alliance among the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand — to have completely banned the use of Huawei in its 5G rollout. Recently, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the U.K. will allow Huawei equipment in “non-essential” parts of its 5G infrastructure, drawing the ire of Trump, who has threatened to withhold intelligence sharing with allies who use the Chinese firm.

Huawei argues that it is being unfairly caught up in Trump’s trade war and that the U.S. has yet to produce any tangible evidence of its supposedly malicious behavior.

But the ambassador counters that just because the proof hasn’t been made public doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Sinodinos said Australia based its decision to ban Huawei on the advice of its intelligence agencies — information that remains classified — and that it didn’t take the decision lightly.

“Now, clearly the U.K. believes based on I guess its professional advice that it can go another way. That’s their sovereign decision. But we have been, from early on, on the front foot in dealing with what we regard as foreign interference, and as part of that, this 5G decision was inevitable given the security advice.”

Looking Up to the Wonder Down Under

When it comes to immigration, though, both Johnson and Trump may be looking to Australia’s skill-based system that awards points based on various criteria and only permits foreigners who meet certain thresholds in terms of education, age and adaptability.

A major component is to attract people who can address skill shortages in certain professions, the ambassador explained.

“It’s not a way of absolving the government from its responsibility for training the domestic population, but it’s acted as a bit of a safety valve,” he said, adding that the country’s immigration-fueled population growth has increased demand and productivity. “It’s a good way to transfer overseas know-how and technological capacity into the economy as well.”

Sinodinos said Australia has been able to accommodate this population surge because the government adopted reforms to make the economy more flexible and resilient, “so it can absorb external shocks.”

That in turn has helped Australia experience a record-setting 28 years of growth, earning it the nickname “Wonder Down Under.”

But Australia’s hardline stance on refugees has come under fire from human rights advocates who say the government regularly turns away boats carrying asylum-seekers or packs them into crowded, unsanitary detention centers in Papua New Guinea, Nauru and Christmas Island for indefinite amounts of time.

Even former Prime Minister Turnbull, a moderate, once said that, “If you try to come to Australia by boat, even if we think you are the best person in the world, even if you are a Nobel Prize-winning genius, we will not let you in.”

After a global outcry, the government shut down Christmas Island, but Morrison has flirted with the idea of reopening it.

Sinodinos argues that hardline immigration policies actually encourage the public to support more immigration.

“What’s been important about that is if you want the public to support a generous or high-immigration program, you’ve got to demonstrate that it’s under control. And it’s not under control if you're allowing a situation to develop where people can get to Australia by boat and claim refugee status that way,” he said. “There are millions of people in camps overseas who are waiting to be processed, so people getting into boats to get around that process is unfair to those other people who are trying to do it by going through the system.”

From Politician to Patient

Sinodinos’s predecessor, Joe Hockey, was widely praised for touting Australian policies that fit with the administration’s agenda, forging bonds that withstood the ups and downs of Trump’s presidency. (Australia, for example, was one of the few U.S. allies that was exempt from Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs.)

In a Jan. 31 article for the Lowy Institute, Alan C. Tidwell wrote that Hockey “has been an extraordinary marketer of ‘mateship.’ His access to the inner circle of the White House has been impressive, but also a hard act to follow.”

Tidwell described Sinodinos as more of a policy person, but that doesn’t mean Australia’s newest ambassador won’t add his own unique touch to the position,  especially given his powerful personal story of cancer survival.

That story began innocuously in 2017 when, on his way to a cabinet meeting in Canberra, Sinodinos “noticed that my lower lip was numb — a bit like when you go to the dentist. I was at an airport in Sydney and I thought, ‘Am I having some sort of a stroke?’” he recalled. “I got to Canberra and I felt anxious. I could feel my heart beating more quickly … so I admitted myself to Canberra Hospital.”

After running tests that came up empty, the doctor advised Sinodinos to go on a diet and lower his blood pressure.

“But over the next couple of months, I found I was feeling quite weak. My appetite was starting to go, and I was losing more weight than you could attribute just to the diet. And I said to the doctors, ‘Look, I think there’s just something wrong. I don’t feel right.’”

Sinodinos was right. Further tests confirmed he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma along the trunk of his body. The doctor told him that, paradoxically, the prognosis was good because his cancer was aggressive, meaning it might be very responsive to the right treatment.

“So pretty quickly I went from being a fully functioning minister and politician to being a patient and having my first round of chemo.”

What followed were the setbacks and successes that many cancer patients are all too familiar with — including a bout of septicemia that landed Sinodinos in intensive care.

While a bone-marrow transplant would eventually put him into remission, it took a year of essentially having zero immunity for the transplant to take hold.

“It was a pretty rigorous process,” he said, admitting that he wondered whether he’d still be around for his wife Elizabeth and their three children. “I suppose looking back, I feel a bit exhausted thinking about it. But when you’re going through it, you’re just sort of so focused on getting through it.”

And he did, returning to Parliament in February 2019. Shortly afterward, Sinodinos was offered the ambassadorship in Washington.

“I think it’s good to have a new job, a new challenge,” the ambassador told us. “Politics was fine … but it’s good to have a job where you’re not on the frontline of politics and subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

“I feel very privileged to be here,” he added. “I also recognize that sometimes you get judged by how your previous ambassadors did the job. But in that regard, I think you can learn the lessons of the past, but everybody has to do the job in their own way. You’ve got to be true to yourself, for better or worse, and you just act on that basis.”


About the Author

Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on April 1, 2020