Of all the horrors that might befall the burnt out, the flooded, the cyclone ravaged and the drought stricken Australian this summer, perhaps none could be viewed with more dread than turning from their devastated home to see advancing on them a bubble of media in which enwombed is our prime minister, Scott Morrison, arriving, as ever, too late with a cuddle.
It’s fair to say that Morrison has pulled off other roles with more conviction – the shouty Commandant of the Pacific camps perhaps his most heartfelt to date, the Gaslighter-in-Chief his most audacious, his Mini-Me to Donald Trump’s Dr Evil not without tragicomic charge – but sorrowful Father of the Nation has begun to feel a firebreak too far.
In Australia we are all now being treated as children, quietened Australians, most especially on the climate crisis. While the climate crisis has become Australians’ number one concern, both major parties play determinedly deaf and dumb on the issue while action and protest about the climate crisis is increasingly subject to prosecution and heavy sentencing.
In Tasmania, the Liberal government intends to legislate sentences of up to 21 years – more than many get for murder – for environmental protest, legislation typical of the new climate of authoritarianism that has flourished under Morrison. As Australia burns, what we are witnessing nationally is no more or less than the criminalisation of democracy in defence of the coal and gas industries.
In this regard, the climate crisis is a war between the voice of coal and the voice of the people. And that war is in Australia being won hands down by the fossil fuel industry.
Which brings us back to that industry’s number one salesman, the prime minister, standing there in the ash in the manner of Humphrey B. Bear on MDMA, as, mollied up, he pulls another victim in the early stages of PTSD into his shirt, his odour, his aura – such as it is – and holds them there perhaps just a little too long. Sometimes, at his most perplexing, he lets that overly large head loll on the victim’s shoulder and leaves it there. Prayers and thoughts naturally follow.
Perhaps it is just his way. Certainly, the prime minister is an unusual issue of two stock types frequently derided in broader Australian culture: the marketing man and the happy-clappy. But in fairness to both tribes, he seems to draw on the worst in both traditions and make of them something at once insincere, sinister and vaguely threatening.
Perhaps it’s the slightly up and down smile, the uneven mouth and crooked teeth, a lack of symmetry that can be attractive in some here seems to suggest nothing more than an untrustworthy menace. After all Elvis made of his sneer an alluring smile. Scott, with his reverse magic, makes of his every smile a sneer. Still, his wisdom would seem to be that if he is seen to be very good at feeling our pain we won’t ask him what caused the wound.
And therein the problem.
The prime minister must accept that public men are judged by public acts. Real empathy would mean speaking honestly to our nation about what the climate catastrophe means for our economy, our environment, our society, and each of us and for each of us personally.
All this theatre hides a deeply cynical calculation: that Australians will keep on buying the big lie, a lie given historic expression last Thursday morning when on national radio the prime minister declared that Australia’s unprecedented bushfires were unconnected to climate change.
The same day the New South Wales government announced that Sydney dams had in the last 12 months received just 10% of the normal water inflows and declared Stage 2 Water Restrictions as numerous country towns face the prospect of no water.
And on this day, when Sydney was blanketed in bushfire smoke, when much of Victoria was declared Code Red, fires were burning out of control in South Australia, and climate emergency was declared word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries, Morrison said that “to suggest that at just 1.3% of emissions, that Australia doing something more or less would change the fire outcome this season – I don’t think that stands up to any credible scientific evidence at all.”
This is an argument entirely in bad faith.
Two days before saw the release of a major UN report that forecast Australia to be the sixth largest producer of fossil fuels by 2030. Between 2005 and 2030 Australia’s extraction-based emissions from fossil fuel production will have increased by 95%. By 2040, according to the report, on current projections the world’s annual carbon emissions will be 41 gigatonnes, four times more than the maximum amount of 10 gigatonnes required to keep global heating below 1.5 C.
Actively working through legislation, subsidy, and criminalisation of opposition to enable Australia to become one of the world’s seven major producers of fossil fuels makes Australia’s actions directly and heavily responsible for the growing climate catastrophe we are now witnessing in Australia. It gives the lie to the nonsense that we will make our Paris commitments “in a canter”.
It cannot be explained away. It cannot be excused. Australia is actively working hard to become a major driver of the global climate crisis. That is what we have become.
The same day Morrison went to the Gabba, got photographed with cricketers and tweeted: “Going to be a great summer of cricket, and for our firefighters and fire-impacted communities, I’m sure our boys will give them something to cheer for.”
To the question does he think we are that stupid, the answer was implicit in an interview the same day when the prime minister justified not meeting with 23 former fire chiefs and emergency services leaders calling for a climate emergency declaration in April, claiming the government had the advice it needed. He went on to say that: “We’re getting on with the job, preparing for what has already been a very devastating fire season.”
Only he’s not.
Getting on with the job would be calling a moratorium on new thermal coalmines and gas fracking. Getting on with the job would be announcing a subsidised transition to electric vehicles by 2030. Getting on with the job would be working to close down all coal-fired powered stations as a matter of urgency. Getting on with the job would be calling a summit of the renewable energy industry and asking how the government can help make the transition one that happens now and one that creates jobs in the old fossil fuel energy communities.
And getting on with the job would be going to the world with these initiatives and arguing powerfully, strongly, courageously for other countries to follow as we once led the way on the secret ballot, women’s suffrage, Antarctic protection, the charter of human rights.
We are not a superpower, but nor are we a micronation. We have an economy the size of Russia’s. Our stand on issues whether good or bad is noted and quoted and used as an example. And one only has to look at the global standing of New Zealand to see the power of setting a moral and practical example, and the good that flows from it for a nation and its people. Australians everywhere are ready to get on with the job of dealing with climate change. We just need a prime minister to lead us. In the meantime though we are left with a mollied-up Humphrey B. Bear.
That same day, news broke of a panicked attempt by the federal government to administer some desperate triage over the growing costs to ordinary Australians of climate change in the form of perhaps the most ill-considered piece of policy in recent political history: to underwrite insurance premiums in north Queensland where premiums on homes in cyclone-affected areas are becoming unaffordable.
Major insurers have been warning for years that many homes will no longer be insurable as the consequences of climate change are felt and have been demanding action on climate change. The government has done nothing and now wishes to use taxpayers’ money to hide the growing costs to individual Australians of climate change. If the government does go ahead with this panicked response the precedent established is pregnant with catastrophe for the public purse.
According to a detailed report by SGS Economics and Planning released at the beginning of this year more than 1.6 million Sydneysiders are at high risk of flooding or bushfires, about 2 million Brisbane residents face extreme risks from cyclones, and more than 4.4 million people in NSW and Queensland live in areas with extreme or high risk of cyclones. It will be impossible for any government to subsidise the premiums of Townsville residents with cyclone risk and not offer it to those in Huonville whose fire risk also increases yearly.
And yet the government will not act on the fundamental problem that leads to those risks, choosing instead to use the public purse to hide the growing evidence of its failure.
The man who brandished a lump of coal and told us not to be scared, the man who last October told farmers to pray for rain, the man who says there is no link between the climate emergency and bushfires, the man whose party has for 30 years consistently and effectively sought to prevent any action on carbon emissions nationally and internationally will finally have to answer for the growing gap between his party’s ideological rhetoric and the reality of a dried out, heating, burning Australia. And as the climate heats up ever quicker, and as the immense costs to us all become daily more apparent, that day draws ever closer.
Many political commentators tend to view Morrison as some political genius, the winner of the unwinnable election. But history may judge him differently: a Brezhnevian figure; the last of the dinosaurs, presiding over an era of stagnation at the head of a dying political class imprisoned within and believing its own vast raft of lies as the world lived a fundamentally different reality of economic decay, environmental pillage and social breakdown.
A corrupted, sclerotic system incapable of the change needed, surviving only by and through a dull repression of dissent and dissenters can, nevertheless, seem eternal – until the hour it crumbles. At some point something gives. Something always gives. The longer the impasse, the more denied the common voice, the greater and more terrible that future moment.
We still have other, better choices. We need leaders who will enable us to make them.
Morrison’s Pentecostal religion places great emphasis on the idea of the Rapture. When the Rapture arrives, the Chosen – that is, those Pentecostalists with whom the prime minister worships and their controversial pastor – will ascend to Heaven while the rest of us are condemned to the Tribulation – a world of fires, famine and floods in which we all are to suffer and the majority of us to die wretchedly, while waiting for the Second Coming and Scott and co wait it out in the Chairman’s Lounge above. Could it be that the prime minister in his heart is – unlike the overwhelming majority of Australians – not concerned with the prospect of a coming catastrophe when his own salvation is assured?
In any case, as a Christian whose faith is built on a direct reading of the gospels, the prime minister would know the most compelling and convincing form of betrayal has always been the embrace and kiss.