MARK BEESON. Morrison’s surprising character defects: faith and optimism

Oct 2, 2019

Being a leader, even of a lucky country like Australia, isn’t getting any easier. To be fair, these are difficult times for any leader, even the most competent ones. It’s worth asking how FDR, Churchill or even Bismarck would have coped with today’s problems. Even though some of the current crop of international leaders are awful by any standards – Donald Trump and Boris Johnson being the quintessential cases in point – it’s far from clear that leaders from any other era would have coped with climate change in all its mind-bending complexity.

In such circumstances, it’s not unreasonable to cut Scott Morrison some slack. After all, we’re not at war (at the moment), the economy is going pretty well (ditto), and no one from his own party is actually conspiring to bring him down (as far as we know). Even more surprisingly, perhaps, he seems to be quite popular with the punters: his unpretentious Everyman style clearly touches a chord with at least some of the electorate.

Unfortunately, most of his supporters tend to be among the more senior elements of the population. This does not bode well either for the Liberal Party or – much more consequentially – for the future of the planet. Part of Morrison’s problem – as it is with much of his generation – is that he simply doesn’t get some of the concerns of the younger generation who have recently taken to the streets in ever larger numbers.

His recent comments about the need for young to avoid ‘needless anxiety’ by adopting the ‘right context and perspective’ only highlight how out of touch he is with the concerns of the young. Many of old guard in the Coalition will blame the supposedly all-powerful left wing media and the universities, no doubt. The latter are especially dangerous, of course, as they’re packed with people who actually understand the science behind climate change and its seemingly unstoppable consequences.

Morrison, on the other hand, is fortified by his faith and his apparently genuine optimism. Without wanting to get into an inconclusive theological discussion, if God’s around He (or She) seems to take an increasingly laissez faire approach to the world and prayers go unanswered, to judge by the empirical evidence, at least. We are consequently left to our own devices and the abilities of our leaders to understand and address the problems we collectively face. This is what makes Morrison’s ‘she’ll be right’ approach so dangerous and out of touch with both reality and the hopes of the young in particular.

Even though Morrison seems capable of compartmentalising his values and his policy principles at times – he was the minister for immigration and border protection, after all – his belief in the resilience and potential of Australia seems boundless and genuine. No doubt these are admirable psychological qualities for individuals, but they are less useful for those charged with addressing formidably complex policy problems with no obvious solutions.

Failing to recognise that there are problems to actually confront compounds the difficulties. It may be the case that Morrison and many in the Coalition really believe that the problems have been exaggerated or, like Mr Micawber, hope that something will turn up, preferably a technological fix that will allow business as usual to go on as normal.

Perhaps it will, but you wouldn’t want to bet the house on it, much less the planet. That is precisely what the Morrison government is doing, of course. The possible consequences of this failure to act are increasingly recognised by a smart, politically savvy younger generation who are increasingly disenchanted with the status quo. And why wouldn’t they be? If the overwhelming scientific consensus on the likely impacts of climate change is only half right, the future of the young looks increasingly bleak.

The problems are formidable and unprecedented. The solutions – if there are any in the time available – are equally unimaginable and will almost certainly require major changes to the way we live. Having the capacity to recognise this is an important start. The pessimists and ‘alarmists’ have some of the most compelling arguments. For the sake of the young we should listen to them before it really is too late.

Mark Beeson is Professor of International Politics at the University Of Western Australia. His latest books are Rethinking Global Governance and Environmental Populism: The Politics of Survival in the Anthropocene.

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