Fire and viruses did not cleanse bad government

The past year was a terrible year for Australia and Australians and in many ways the worst globally since World War II. And at least for Australians, a terrible year for good, decent and honest government.

It ought also to have been a terrible year for the government. But, perhaps in the nature of the perversity of catastrophes, the Morrison government’s prospects of survival past the next election probably improved. If they did it was without any foreseeable improvement in the quality of leadership or decisions, or their consequences for the social and economic health of the nation.

Natural disasters and catastrophes are not necessarily the fault of the politicians in charge nor are they always predictable. We judge leaders on how they mobilise morale, people, money and resources to meet the threats presented, and, where possible to make opportunities and advances, rather than excuses and complaints, out of the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Australians will give some credit to its prime minister and its government for the way they implemented existing plans to cope with an unexpected outbreak of a deadly respiratory virus. They pragmatically junked ideology and fetishes about debt and deficits as they sought first to cope with the human consequences of social and economic lockdown and second to restart the economic engines.

Some of the success came from premiers who ignored the prime minister and were proven right, but the reputation of politics as a whole benefited from the sight of politicians of all stripes agreeing on the urgency and importance of the issues, acting with clear goals in mind, debating, mostly civilly about competing choices, and responding sensibly, and generally in accordance with the advice to fresh events.

That was a response far better, and far better coordinated than to the bushfires that swept down eastern Australia a year ago, even if bushfire has been a far more constant feature of Australian life. These caught the prime minister unprepared — indeed out of Australia on a family holiday — and, for a significant period, seemingly completely without empathy or understanding, or with a feel for the national mood. The intensity of the fires, and the damage they caused, was unprecedented, largely as a consequence of climate change.

In normal times, coping with natural disasters is first a matter for the states, with the Commonwealth providing assistance only when resources are locally exhausted, and the damage exceeds that amount that states are, in effect, required to self-insure. Once  Morrison found his bearings, he threw money and the defence forces at the disaster, effectively nationalising it. The defence mobilisation was a useful practice run for handling the coronavirus pandemic, which came soon after. But before that, Morrison had shown all of his chronic limitations and weaknesses. If full of flim-flam and marketing expertise, his substance is more elusive. He has seemed unable to articulate a unifying national message, or describe an uplifting common mission. Rather than broadening Australian aspirations for a better and fairer society, he has constantly sought to limit any vision or ambition and to douse hopes and expectations.

His apparent nationalisation of the emergency-management response saw a series of public relations gestures giving the impression that the government was also going to take charge of the recovery — helping to rebuild ruined communities, families and social capital, and housing and community facilities as well as the destroyed infrastructure of the state. He sought to defer discussion of the impact of climate change on the fires. He announced a royal commission into the causes and policy implications of the fires. In the event, of course, the Commonwealth took virtually no action before or after the report, whose findings, emerging at the height of the coronavirus crisis were simply ignored.

But just as problematic was a slow, halting, and poorly coordinated approach to rebuilding communities. It became apparent that the Commonwealth had no grand plans for reconstruction at the community level. Burnt-out communities found themselves mostly on their own. Governments, state or federal, conceived little real role in re-establishing vibrant communities, though sometimes involved in restoring things. Government, increasingly remote from human conditions on the ground, was not even particularly efficient in doling out handouts for some categories of physical losses, or in recapitalising local enterprises that were sources of jobs as well as goods and services.

Leave aside for the moment any questions of ideology about the role and functions of government, or the limits of support that the state should accord citizens encountering hard times. Morrison has never seemed hidebound by such considerations. He had never shown restraint in doling out money to favoured constituencies, even in a frankly partisan way, as the sports rorts scandal demonstrated. Even if not the sort of community-minded volunteer to “hold a hose,” a bushfire emergency ought to have belonged within his narratives about self-reliant decent Aussies doing it tough but “having a go”. He has seemed very reluctant to be any sort of long-term saviour of the communities — even their electorates.

A more inspired politician might have sucked in the sense of bravery and dignity in defeat of so many of the survivors. He might have jumped nimbly in associating himself with the individual and collective heroism that crises always produce. Himself unaffected, except for a broken holiday, he might have seized on that common sense of national struggle born from the choking smoke and grit involving 80 per cent of the population. There was a national sense that something had to be done, particularly about climate change. John Howard, with guns, and Kevin Rudd, with floods, owned similar disasters and made them platforms for change.

But Scott Morrison and his government appeared to have no time for the opportunities presented to re-imagine policy, let alone change course on a seeming determination to do nothing much on climate change.  Nor could they see the political opportunities or the practical good from helping affected communities, or how new public infrastructure might be combined with good planning, new technology, communications and close consultation with affected people to create communities united around 21st-century facilities and services, and scope for new types of employment.  If there was any vision to be articulated, it was to be confined to a task of re-establishment of vulnerable facilities in the same geography, mostly at the personal expense of the victims. The role of government involved at best a restoration of old services — or sometimes, the taking of the opportunity to close them down and centralise them elsewhere.

Australia was diminished by the response of the government to the bushfires. A year on, we have not expanded to fill the gaps. The fires have strengthened communities, but not their faith in government.

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John Waterford AM, better known as Jack Waterford, is an Australian journalist and commentator.

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