How Fire Hurt Our Firms - Op Ed, The Canberra Times


The Canberra Times, 3 June 2020

When coronavirus hit, one thing many Canberra households didn’t have to rush out and buy were N95 masks.

That’s because we already had plenty in the cupboard from summer, when Canberra’s air quality was 22 times the hazardous rating. On some days in December and January, air quality in the bush capital was the worst in the world. People debated how many cigarettes you would have to smoke to do as much lung damage as just breathing our air. Was it half a pack, one pack or two?

The effect of the summer bushfires on Canberra was brutal. For weeks, outdoor activity was almost impossible. Restaurants, hotels, arts events, and the sporting sector were hit hard.

While the ACT Government stepped up to assist, Canberra households and businesses were excluded from federal assistance packages, which were focused on those affected by fire, not smoke.

Coronavirus shouldn’t make us forget the summer fires. We need to learn the lessons of how governments and the community handled the fires, so we can do better next time.

To assess the impact of the bushfires on Canberra firms, I conducted a survey of businesses on the northside, writing to ask them to answer a handful of questions about how the fires affected their revenue and staffing. Eighty-two businesses replied.

Asked about turnover, 65 per cent of firms said that they’d suffered a downturn of more than one-tenth. Only 9 per cent increased turnover. The impact was largest for smaller companies. Among Canberra businesses with annual revenues below $50,000, 75 per cent saw a drop in turnover of more than one-tenth.

For employment, the story was only a little better. Forty-four per cent of Canberra businesses told me that they had shed more than a tenth of their workers as a result of the bushfires. Just 18 per cent increased employment over summer. Again, the effect was worst for smaller companies. Among businesses that employ between 1 and 19 workers, 48 per cent said they had shed more than a tenth of their staff. Among those who employ more than 200 staff, 33 per cent said they had shed more than a tenth of their staff.

All this was before coronavirus hit.

We know that climate change makes bushfires more frequent and more severe. Global warming dries out the underbrush and the soil, while drought and heat create tinderbox conditions. The summer fires burned an astonishing 1 per cent of the Australian land area, and sent smoke floating across New Zealand. Australia’s conflagration followed California’s 2018 fires, the deadliest and most destructive fire season ever recorded in that state.

With atmospheric carbon concentrations at 416 parts per million and rising, the problem is unlikely to get better. In his book The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells observes that what we used to call ‘natural disasters’, we may soon just be calling ‘bad weather’. For Canberra, this means that the smoky summer of 2019-20 may not be our last. Indeed, it may not even be our worst.

The cost to Canberra’s businesses of last summer’s fires is massive. If all the firms in Canberra suffered the same downturn as those in our survey, then it would represent an average of a 5 per cent drop in turnover. Even taking account the possibility that our survey overrepresents firms that were hardest hit, the cumulative impact on ACT businesses would be millions of dollars.

Those who talk about the costs of dealing with climate change often ignore the cost that unchecked climate change is already imposing. Between 1913 and 2006, temperatures in Canberra topped 40 degrees on just nine days – about once a decade. In recent years, 40-degree summer days have become a regularity.

From heatstroke to flooding, coastal erosion to crop failure, there is no advanced country more vulnerable to climate change than Australia. That’s why Australia should be at the vanguard of international efforts to reduce carbon emissions; not undermining global efforts, as the Morrison Government did at last year’s Madrid climate change summit. It is in Australia’s interests, and Canberra’s interests, to act on climate change, particularly given the economic opportunities for a renewable-rich country like Australia.

To those Canberra businesses and workers that suffered losses over January, please know that your federal Labor representatives – Katy Gallagher, Alicia Payne, Dave Smith and myself – recognise the damage that was done by the summer of smoke. The coronavirus shutdown may have hit harder, but we recognise that for many it was the second shock of 2020, not the first. If we can assist you in any way, please reach out to our offices.

Andrew Leigh is the Federal Member for Fenner, and his website is


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.