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The Australian wildfire disaster: Mad Max redux for the Lucky Country?

Updated: Jan 6, 2020

A political storm is raging around the wildfire response – or lack thereof – by the Australian government, personalized around the (in)actions of Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Remarkable footage of Morrison forcing a young, distressed, woman to shake his hand, and being snubbed by a firefighter, has predictably gone viral.

But governments are not always punished in an election for actual or perceived ineffectiveness in the face of a disaster. President George W. Bush survived Katrina. NZ PM John Key survived the Christchurch earthquakes (his party’s position in the munted city improved in the next election, although anecdotally many opposition supporters may have been forced by their housing situation to relocate to other electorates).

So, what does the research say? I did a quick Google Scholar search and pulled up some stuff.

First, a study published over 50 years ago by Abney and Hill (1966) made some interesting observations. Political scientists have traditionally assumed that political behavior is somewhat determined by their physical environment. We should not, for example, “expect a homogeneous political culture in a country sharply divided by mountains.” They go on to say that disasters have historically been considered ‘bad omens’ for sitting governments but note little empirical research on this: “political activity seems more determined by social environment than physical.” However, “such catastrophes place great stress upon the social framework and thus test the adaptive capabilities of the political system.”

Bien entendu.

Since then there have been a number of studies. Summaries of just a few…

Olson and Gawronski (2010) give a very useful overview of the issues. They ask “Why is it that some authorities, governments, administrations, and even entire regimes emerge from disasters more popular and politically stronger, while most appear to emerge less popular and politically weaker, sometimes fatally so?” They argue that the “often problematic political consequences” of a disaster can be seen as ‘‘Maslowian Shocks’’ (yes, that Maslow who drew in Native American philosophy for this hierarchy of needs). A disaster rips off the scab of governance (“strong revelatory components” as they put it) as the voting public analyze government performance along six dimensions: capability, competence, compassion, correctness, credibility, and anticipation.

Bodet, Thomas, and Tessier (2016) found support for the incumbent Calgary mayor increased after the devastating 2013 floods, albeit at a lower rate in those areas of residential flooding. However, they acknowledged flooded areas differed “systematically” from those areas not flooded “in ways key to the election outcome” (p.85): “When analyzed more conservatively, results show that the flood had no effect on incumbent support or voter turnout.”

Arceneaux and Stein (2006) looked at a Houston election (November) that followed their (June) floods of 2001. Voters did punish the incumbent mayor for the flood if they believed he/the city was responsible for flood prep. This expectation of responsibility was shaped by whether a voter’s neighborhood had been hit by flood waters, and their knowledge of local politics. Sainz-Santamaria and Anderson (2013) examined U.S. disaster preparedness spending between 1985 and 2008 and found increased spending in competitive counties. They advise caution in demanding increased DRR spending as the dollars may be put to electoral ends instead of public safety.

The literature seems to be dominated by US case studies. Vanderleeuw, Liu, and Williams (2008) provide a very interesting analysis of New Orleans mayoralty election, post-Katrina (a more reasonable scale of analysis than the race for president (pun intended…). They describe a 15.8% decline in registered African-American voters and a decline of white registered voters of only 5.1%. So, while a black mayor was returned, “whites clearly were in a better position than they had been to challenge black domination in New Orleans politics.”

(Strange language when taken out of context, so please go to the original paper if you wanna argue, and take it up with the authors. I’m just cutting and pasting…)

From the US again, Reeves (2011) identified a relationship between a state’s ‘electoral competitiveness’ and the likelihood and number of presidential disaster declarations. Reeves argues that “presidents use unilateral powers for particularistic aims to gain electoral support.” His findings are based on data drawn from 1981 to 2004, with this relationship existing since the 1988 Stafford Act which expanded presidents powers in declaring a disaster. (The Stafford Act also has implications for Native Americans on reserve. More on that another time). Reeves also argues the use of presidential powers in these events do have the intended electoral benefits: voters will reward presidents for declaring a disaster in their state, more than a one point increase in support.

But what about Australia?

MacLean (2016) in one of the more entertaining papers I have read, hypothesizes the processes and transition of governmental power in a Zombie apocalypse. He argues that, at least in the initial stages, a zombie apocalypse will see coordinated emergency management from the three spheres of Australian government. But as the zombies spread across Australia, he predicts “that both the rule of law and effective communication networks will break down”. In this situation, the Commonwealth government will struggle to “project its power” and resistance will default down to the “effective use of people and resources” at the State and then regional or local government levels. And like any B movie, “[i]n the worst-case scenario, all the current recognised forms of government may fail and survival will depend on new polities created out of desperate need.”

Cold comfort indeed.

In answer the question, ‘Will the wildfires lead to a change of government In Australia?’ I’d have to kick for touch and say maybe. The next election will undoubtedly feature climate change, and many new leaders will arise, as we have seen in NZ through the Green Party. I do think PM Morrison is on shaky ground and whether he survives to lead his party into the next election is another matter, and down to the seething mass of jealousies and aspirations within his own party. I like the six dimensions provided by Olsen and Gawronski: capability, competence, compassion, correctness, credibility, and anticipation. From a distance, I’d rate the Australian government as C+, C-, C-, B-, D, and D respectively.

Time to break out the Mad Max memes?


Abney, F. G., & Hill, L. B. (1966). Natural Disasters as a Political Variable: The Effect of a Hurricane on an Urban Election. American Political Science Review, 60(4), 974-981. Retrieved from doi:10.2307/1953770

Arceneaux, K., & Stein, R. M. (2006). Who Is Held Responsible When Disaster Strikes? the Attribution of Responsibility for a Natural Disaster in an Urban Election. Journal of Urban Affairs, 28(1), 43-53. Retrieved from doi:10.1111/j.0735-2166.2006.00258.x

Bodet, M. A., Thomas, M., & Tessier, C. (2016). Come hell or high water: An investigation of the effects of a natural disaster on a local election. Electoral Studies, 43, 85-94. Retrieved from doi:

MacLean, R. (2016). Unnatural Disasters: Emergency Management in a Time of Zombies Part I: Refereed Articles. Canberra Law Review(1), 47-62. Retrieved from

Olson, R. S., & Gawronski, V. T. (2010). From Disaster Event to Political Crisis: A “5C+A” Framework for Analysis. International Studies Perspectives, 11(3), 205-221. Retrieved from doi:10.1111/j.1528-3585.2010.00404.x

Sainz-Santamaria, J., & Anderson, S. E. (2013). The Electoral Politics of Disaster Preparedness. Risk, Hazards & Crisis in Public Policy, 4(4), 234-249. Retrieved from doi:10.1002/rhc3.12044

Vanderleeuw, J., Liu, B., & Williams, E. (2008). The 2006 New Orleans Mayoral Election: The Political Ramifications of a Large-Scale Natural Disaster. PS: Political Science & Politics, 41(4), 795-801. Retrieved from doi:10.1017/S1049096508081018

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