Since Scott Morrison declared, back in November, that this was not the time to be talking about climate change, people have been talking about nothing else but the fires, and climate change, and Scott Morrison’s attempts to pretend (or pray) them out of existence. But in the past week or so its all gone wrong for him, through his own deeds and his own words. With just a little help from his political allies.
His worst error was his decision to take a highly subsidised (who else can get airline and accommodation upgrades like he can?) family holiday in friendly Hawaii. It wasn’t that people missed his leadership (his what?) or a show of empathy with everyone affected by the fires including friends and relatives; it was his demonstration that he believed his holiday rated higher than braving a national crisis. It seemed that living it up in luxury in a foreign holiday destination was more important than witnessing the impact of the most destructive fires in Australia’s history.
And having cut short his vacation by a day, he quickly showed he did not understand just why people thought that he had failed in his duty. Leaving aside his tortured metaphor in which he likened his decision to go to Hawaii with the decision of a plumber deciding not to do an extra job of a Friday afternoon, there was this:
‘I get it that people would have been upset to know that I was holidaying with my family while their families were under great stress,’ he said. ‘But I’m comforted by the fact that Australians would like me to be here, just simply so I can be here, alongside then as they’re going through this terrible time … and I apologise for that.”
Note: he would be comforted – presumably for sacrificing a day of his holidays. Wow. Oh, and let’s go back to that first sentence – ‘people would have been upset to know that I was holidaying with my family’ etc. Indeed they were. He also said he texted Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese before the trip and ‘everybody knew I was away’. That last statement was simply not true.
In fact the Prime Minister seems to have done (or condoned others doing) almost everything possible to prevent people knowing that he was holidaying in Hawaii. People in his office did their best to mislead journalists who asked about his whereabouts, and the official procedure for publicising that in his absence the Deputy Prime Minister would be acting in his place was not followed.
Having resumed command and demonstrated for the cameras his sympathies for victims and admiration and gratitude for those fighting the fires, the Prime Minister tackled some of the policy issues that had arisen – such as paying volunteers, and doing (or not) more about climate change.
On Christmas Eve, he was asked by a journalist: ‘Why not offer cash or cash for firefighters or some sort of reimbursement? Wouldn’t that help the volunteers on the ground more?’
The Prime Minister replied: ‘Well, that’s not the advice that I’m receiving from the premiers or the fire commissioners… I’ve been in discussions with premiers about the issues. What they need is for the focus to be on the things that they say the focus should be and I’ve got to back in the operational agencies that are fighting these fires.’
But just four days later it all changed. Eligible volunteers would receive $300 a day, and up to $6,000 in total, if called out for more than 10 days during (only) this fire season. Strangely enough, this decision was also based on advice from those same premiers and fire commissioners. Oh well, people can change their minds, and their advice (assuming that’s what happened?)– particularly if there is money being made available by the Commonwealth.
But even this scheme was botched. It was to apply only to NSW. Other states could join in, perhaps. Immediately there was a disagreement over whether Queensland had said it would do so or not (as the PM’s people suggested).
Meanwhile, on the bigger question of whether more should be done about climate change, Mr Morrison was reminded that in his absence the Deputy (and Acting) Prime Minister, Michael McCormack was asked by a journalist if he accepted that community sentiment and fear of climate change had increased as a result of the unprecedented bushfires and if further action should be taken.
“Yeah I do, absolutely — yeah I do agree entirely,” Mr McCormack said. When asked what more could be done, he said “we’ll have those discussions” while adding there has been “a lot of hysteria around climate change”.
But the Prime Minister rejected the suggestion that there would be changes. ‘We are saying the same thing … our existing policies have increased efforts, that’s the point.’
Really, saying the same thing?
It is worth returning to the question to which Mr McCormack gave an affirmative answer, whether he accepted that community sentiment and fear of climate change had increased as a result of the unprecedented bushfires, and if further action should be taken. The issue of community sentiment about the impact of the fires clearly separates the Prime Minister and his deputy. Mr McCormack, a long-time journalist, appears to recognise the facts. The fires have changed attitudes to climate change and its importance to everyday living in Australia. A huge proportion of the Australian population has been affected by the fires, directly or at a distance.
That could have enormous political ramifications. At the May election, according to the Australian election study conducted by the Australian National University, the environment (including climate change) was the most important consideration in the way 16 per cent of people voted. Just one percent voted for the coalition on this issue. And the main reason why a very small number (1.5 per cent) of former coalition voters switched to Labor was the environment. (Many more switched away from Labor on other issues, such as the economy and leadership.) If voters become more concerned about the environment and climate change, it would be bad news for the Coalition, unless its policies undergo major changes.
David Solomon is a former political and legal journalist.