GEORGE GRUNDY.- The Leadership Vacuum

On 25th April 2006 the Beaconsfield gold mine in Tasmania collapsed. One man was killed and two others trapped nearly a kilometre below the ground

Recognising the incident as a moment of national importance and tragedy, then-AWU leader Bill Shorten flew back from Canada to get to Beaconsfield. Although Shorten wasn’t involved in the mechanics of the rescue effort, he understood that one key aspect of political leadership is presence – being there allowed Bill Shorten to understand what was going on, use his profile to communicate with the press and above all show that the people he represented were on the ground, physically and emotionally vested in trying to manage a story that captured the nation.

Politics is politics, but leadership is often symbolic. When tragedy strikes, leaders need to be there representing the nation, showing basic empathy with a hug or a shoulder to cry on. No-one expects a leader to man the pumps or the fire-hoses. Being there tells a nation ‘we’re with you’. But the nation needs leadership.

For politicians, this should be simple. When New South Wales experienced horrific fireTony Abbott donned a fire-fighters outfit. When Queensland was floodedKevin Rudd waded into the water.

Which makes Scott Morrison’s performance this summer all the more remarkable.

Australia is experiencing its worst and most intense fire season in living memory. Although matters have dramatically intensified in December, the East coast has been experiencing fires since early August. To date, at least eight lives have been lost, along with over 700 houses. Fires have burned over 3,000,000 hectares,

The fires have emitted 250-million tons of CO2 – nearly half of the nation’s annual carbon emissions. Perhaps that number should be factored into the already cooked books the government has been spruiking in an attempt to prove that our nation is a leader when it comes to addressing climate change, rather than a pariah.

Fire is a fact of life in Australia, but climate change is real and it’s here and now, and this year’s fires were both predictable and predicted. Fire chiefs asked Prime Minister Scott Morrison for an urgent meeting back in April. The invitation remains yet to be taken up.

Natural disasters often require emergency funding. $11m extra funding was recently announced, which sounds substantial, but compare that to the $500m spent on a war memorial, $27m to keep one Sri Lankan family on Christmas Island or $250m for the Prime Minister’s plane. Australia is spending forty-five times as much money memorialising the dead than defending the living.

When Australia’s students marched to protest climate change in September, Scott Morrison said they should have stayed in school, and that climate concerns give children unnecessary anxiety. Two months later kids were being sent home from school because the air wasn’t safe to breathe. Which might have made them anxious.

Perhaps Morrison is more symptom than cause here. As I’ve discussed previously, he almost certainly owes his position to the intervention of a coal magnate in the recent election. As Upton Sinclair noted, ‘it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it’. The dysfunction of our political system is being laid bare by this stress test, but when energy companies and fossil fuel interests are among the nation’s largest political donors (many of whom pay little or no tax), you could hardly expect any other outcome.

Despite this, its hard to escape the idea that much of what is happening revolves around the conduct of Scott Morrison, the man who brought a piece of coal into parliament to taunt the Labor party and their flimsy concerns about climate change. As the fires have ravaged the East coast, Morrison has found time to defend his embattled  energy minister, go to court to try to allow the government to deport aboriginal people, announce a huge increase in anti-terrorism funding at our airports, cut off medical care to people trapped in offshore concentration camps and tried to weaken unionised labour. Who would ever have believed you would read a sentence like this….

“As smoke brought the city’s air quality to more than 11 times the hazardous level, Scott Morrison spoke in Sydney about the religious discrimination bill.”

Imagine these were your priorities. Imagine holding the highest office in the land, seeing your nation literally on fire, and thinking today would be a good day to discuss religious discrimination.

If you want an opinion on the political malfeasance on display here, perhaps we can turn to Scott Morrison in 2010, who excoriated Victorian police chief Christine Nixon for eating dinner at a gastro-pub during the Black Saturday bushfires. What might Morrison have said had Nixon got on a plane for a family holiday overseas instead of stopping off for an evening meal?

Perhaps if Morrison had been seen to take Australia’s fire emergency seriously before he left, we would begrudge him his holiday less. But that hasn’t been the case. Instead, with the nation ablaze, the Prime Minister has left the country to be led by Michael McCormack, whose party received 4% of the votes at this year’s election and who just a month ago said that ‘climate is only an issue for inner city loony lefties’. When two people died in the fires, his predecessor callously suggested that the victims were probably Green party voters. The lunatics are taking over the asylum.

Behind all this is Scott Morrison’s chronic refusal to acknowledge that climate change is linked to this year’s events. Morrison has said that Australia could ‘increase our emissions without making the current fire season worse’. This extraordinarily disingenuous statement has proved axiomatic – the worst fire season on record has dramatically increased Australia’s emissions. The Morrison government remains firmly encamped within the 3% of scientists who dispute the link between CO2 and climate change – as recently as September, the minister responsible for drought and natural disaster questioned whether climate change is manmade.

Sceptic or believer, the smoke that engulfed Sydney these last few weeks has made no distinction. The smoke was so thick that smoke alarms in buildings went off spontaneously. Five million people in the nation’s largest city were affected by air quality eleven times worse than official hazardous levels. And Scott Morrison chose to hold a press conference about his religious discrimination bill.

The argument that Australian CO2 emissions (around 1.3% of world totals) are so small that nothing we do can will make a true difference is belied by Australia’s proud history of getting involved in world problems, a gutless and cowardly abrogation of our duty to take moral leadership on the world stage. We can and must do better.

When disaster strikes, the Prime Minister turns up. Leaders put on hard hats or waterproof boots. They give people a hug or a shoulder to cry on. They go on television and tell people that the country is united in shared grief, and that everything is being done to address the tragedy.

What leaders don’t do is disappear on a nice family holiday overseas and refuse to tell people where they’ve gone. Scott Morrison’s already disastrous summer has become abjectly negligent and illustrated this man’s profound unfitness to lead the country. Morrison has abandoned his post as Australia burns.

George Grundy
Independent Journalist and Blogger

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