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By The Way: Don’t grouse – our policies are prayerful

Duncan Graham

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Fri, January 31, 2020  /  01:21 pm
By The Way: Don’t grouse – our policies are prayerful

In the same boat: Soldiers help evacuate residents from the flood-hit Bojong Indah residential area in West Jakarta earlier this month. Cooperation between the central government and local administrations is key to solving the annual disaster. (JP/Donny Fernando)

At the Jakarta floods deepened, politicians praised the gotong royong (working together) values shown by residents struggling against the rushing waters.

Meanwhile in coastal towns around Sydney and Melbourne, the same cheer was being sent to citizens fleeing devastating bushfires:  Applause for “communities’ self-help spirit”.

“These natural events have happened before, and we’ve pulled through,” said the elected leaders in both countries. “Our thoughts and prayers are with you. Be patient.”

They larded sermons with statements about national resilience, cooperation and mutual aid as though these human qualities are confined within borders drawn on maps.

For a moment such declarations felt comforting until the victims realized what was missing: money and clear policies.  

Remember the fury of Florida student Sarah Chadwick demanding a review of gun laws after 17 people were shot dead at her school? In 2018, she told President Donald Trump: “I don’t want your condolences […] do something instead of sending prayers.”

Could the floods and fires have been prevented? Probably not, but their severity might have been lessened if the threats had been taken seriously long ago and responders better prepared.

Urban planners say housing should not have been allowed in Jakarta’s low-lying areas, while regular dredging of rivers and raising levees would have helped reduce damage and death.

In Australia’s federal system, the states have their own emergency services; the national government stepped in only weeks after what old-timers call “The Red Steer” had run amok.  Eventually Canberra ordered the army and navy to help and announced plans to buy more water bombers.

In a few more weeks the dry season will arrive in the archipelago and the winter rains start in Australia. The mud and ash will disappear. We’ll be busy celebrating 75 years of independence, covering the scars with red-and-white bunting.

Down Under, the resilient eucalyptus will turn black forests green; kangaroos that out-hopped the flames will repopulate the paddocks. Memories of the furnace times will dampen and with them the plans to ensure next year will be different.

Whether the natural disasters are linked to global warming has become a heavyweight debate, dividing both nations into climate change deniers and advocates. The issues are complex and clouded by partisan disinformation.

Both countries mine, burn and export coal, alleged to be the villain.  The power industry lobby is as strong and influential as its name suggests.  It’s difficult to tell who’s right when vision is impaired by smoke and mirrors, so the need for clear and factual information is even more essential.

So, who’s going to “keep the b--tards honest’, as Australians say?  Last year’s surprise win by the Liberal-National Party coalition has left the Labor Party in such disarray that it has yet to muster the energy to constructively criticize government policies.

In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo has brought so many parties into his government there’s no effective opposition left.

That leaves the media as the reminder of responsibilities.  Politicians who fear scrutiny turn to shooting messengers. In 2018, a new Indonesian law was passed threatening charges against anyone who “disrespects the legislature or its members”.

In Australia, a proposed “Integrity Commission” to investigate corruption won’t have the power to make findings against politicians and their staff. Which makes the elected members of both democracies protected species.

Politicians like Donald Trump urge the public to ignore the media’s nonstop nagging.   It’s boring, negative, depressing.  They want us to be distractors, screening vacuous celebrities and trite quiz shows.  These are easy to absorb – and cheaper to telecast.

Harry and Meghan only fled the queen’s displeasure but seem to have been getting more attention than those escaping nature’s wrath.

Roman poet Juvenal set the policy 1,800 years before TV: Panem et circenses (bread and circuses).  Keep the masses amused and they’ll forget crises.

Editor of The Conversation Misha Ketchell wrote: “The fourth estate has a crucial role in holding power to account […] pretty much every media organisation is struggling with precarious funding […] time they once spent scaring the wits out of politicians and business leaders is now spent fighting for survival.”

The Conversation is one bright hope:  It’s an Australian commentary website that also publishes Indonesian experts in Indonesian.  Academics write on political and social issues – then copy editors strip out the gibberish and make the gurus’ often prolix prose digestible. 

In the past decade more than 3,000 Oz hacks have been “let go” as newsrooms “downsize”.  Many end up as spin doctors; there are now more people in public relations than journalism.

In Indonesia, reporters lose more than their jobs: 10 have been killed since 1992, according to the international Committee to Protect Journalists.

Indonesia has numerous world-class media workers driven by the belief that the public has a right to know and are ready to risk all to tell the truth.  Others, in both countries, are beholden to proprietors waist-deep in politics.

Unfortunately, the republic has no equivalent to the independent broadcasting corporations in Britain, Australia, South Africa and Canada, and the US Public Broadcasting Service. 

Without independent and fearless journalists badgering the betrayers, standby for more floods and fires this time next year.  They’ll come with promises and prayers. At least these are being recycled.


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