TONY SMITH. Gladys for Prime Minister? Winning friends in a crisis

It has been interesting to watch the various leadership styles on display during the bushfire crisis. In contrast to the Prime Minister’s pathetic attempts to dominate, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian has displayed integrity, administrative ability and empathy. Indeed it seems a pity that she is not Prime Minister.

There appears to be some tension between the New South Wales and federal Liberals. Some years ago, when the feds had plans to repeal the Racial Discrimination Act because people had a right to be bigots, Premier Barry O’Farrell dared to comment that racism is always wrong. Within a matter of days, the Independent Commission Against Corruption received testimony that O’Farrell had received a gift of Grange Hermitage which he had failed to declare.

While the Prime Minister referred to miracles after the May election and some fans described him as Messiah from the Shire, not all of us were surprised by the result. In March the Berejiklian Government had resisted a predicted swing away from it, and New South Wales has one third of members of the House of Representatives. While many factors were in play in both elections, Gladys’ personal appeal should not be underestimated. And now, in Monty Python season the Prime Minister has shown in his aggressive handling of the fire emergency – and of some fire victims – that he is not any sort of Messiah but resembles more a naughty boy.

When the Prime Minister visited fire-ravaged Cobargo, he was abused and shunned. Local state MP Andrew Constance later commented that he probably got the reception he deserved. While Mr Constance was clearly distraught about the crisis in his community, his was an honest comment. Mr Constance has remained in his community and is clearly with and of the people suffering loss and trauma. The Prime Minister was like an interloper. The way he summarily grabbed the hand of a Cobargo woman will remain an enduring, negative image. His claim that he does not take the insults personally suggests a distinct emptiness of personality.

The federal government’s modus operandi is to shun responsibility and accountability. It is a terrible bother having to answer questions in parliament, respond to FOI requests from journalists or otherwise admit that the buck stops with them. Privatisation is a traditional Liberal Party tactic for shifting responsibility away from government. Its most recent employment of this process is clearly designed to avoid some of the recommendations of the Aged Care Royal Commission. To divert criticism for the slowness of assessment of applications for aged care assistance, the government plans to privatise the process. Then they can plead that they are not, not, not responsible.

Unfortunately the feds are terrible communicators. New South Wales Health Minister Brad Hazzard had no idea that this move was likely. He needs to be careful. If such an admission proves damaging to the advertising guru in Kirribilli House, ICAC might have another customer. And of course, the bushfires have made it clear that the Prime Minister does not care to communicate with the appropriate authorities. He announced that Military Reservists would be deployed in the aftermath of fires but failed to inform, let alone consult with, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioned Shane Fitzsimmons.

Throughout the crisis, Fitzsimmons’ knowledge and plain speaking has inspired confidence. He showed appropriate emotion when commenting on the death of a young firefighter. He has been tireless and sincere and stated simply the frustration caused by federal failure to communicate. When the feds were exposed, they resorted to an attempt to blame the Premier, who they claimed had been informed. When the feds then said that the state had rejected offers of assistance their claim was unequivocally rejected when they were challenged to specify what offer had been made. It was all very weasely.

Unlike the Prime Minister, but like other Premiers Gladys Berejiklian has been available constantly and taken no holidays. Nor has she patronised the RFS by thinking she knows better than the experts. The teamwork in New South Wales has been exemplary. When she has toured the fire grounds, it has been clear that she does empathise with the victims and does appreciate the full time emergency personnel and volunteers. What a pleasing contrast she has provided. How glaringly inadequate the Prime Minister appears. What a pity the feds are unlikely to enlist a woman to lead them. She could restore some integrity and respect to the office of Prime Minister. That is long overdue.

Dr Tony Smith is a former Political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics.


Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics.

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13 Responses to TONY SMITH. Gladys for Prime Minister? Winning friends in a crisis

  1. Avatar Megan Benson says:

    Gladys has out performed our PM in the media by far. But … both have failed their constituents – the “integrity” of their decisions to ally themselves to on going fossil fuel industry exploitation (particularly in NSW) belies their “administrative ability and empathy” to deal with the climate crisis we all face. At the end of the day, Gladys is no ‘better’ than Scomo – she’s just presents better.

  2. Avatar Jennifer Herrick says:

    I find this a rather extraordinary assertion of her ability to lead, given the clear difference between the Berejiklian Government’s failure to “request” timely assistance from the ADF leaving thousands panicked, stranded, lacking water, food, petrol and safety in contrast to the Andrew’s Government acting swiftly to “request” timely assistance. Whilst Glady’s personal demeanour has as you say, been respectful and heartfelt, it seems from where I sit, that she has been out of her managment depth in being able to act early enough; not to mention her key Emergency Minister holidaying overseas. Both Morrison and Berejiklian appear to be culpable in not acting early enough to avert some of the escalation of the crisis we are all witnessing and enduring.

  3. Avatar john austen says:

    Dr Smith: thank you for that post. However, I would need more and better to be convinced. In my view the political leadership we need is at least as much about having a decent strategy as being popular.
    Given the excellent efforts of firefighters and their supervisors, to the extent the fires are a problem (i.e the results were avoidable) they show a failure of strategy.
    The relevant strategy is the sole responsibility of the States. As such, the appropriate stance is to hold the States to account. Not let them weasel out by pursuing tangents.
    There are blameworthy Commonwealth actions: sabotage of international climate mitigation efforts and possibly – with State acquiescence – partial dilution of political blame for any State fire failures. These need to be pursued vigorously.
    However, the rule of law says the NSW bushfire buck stops at Ms Berejikian’s desk Not Mr Morrison’s. And like transport it is her responsibility no matter how big, close to Sydney, or impact on ACT holidaymakers the effects might be e.g.
    On the question of holidays, the NSW ‘team’ were for some time two players short – the Emergency Services Minister and the Deputy Premier. Both on holidays in Europe/UK. The former said his absence from NSW was ‘inexcusable’. The latter called for abandonment of Sydney’s New Years Eve fireworks – from somewhere in London. The NSW leader’s response to these fine examples? The even finer nothing in public – excusing the inexcusable . And in a bipartisan, biState gesture the Queensland Premier reportedly also was on a cruise at some relevant time – her excuse was it was in Queensland.
    Onto NSW Government integrity, honesty etc. Perhaps these are characteristics for bushfire management etc, and perhaps the current presentation looks convincing. However, you might wish to look again at the Pearls posts on Sydney Metro, Newcastle Port, WestConnex etc. before signing-off on the whole-of-Government performance.
    In conclusion: I am unconvinced.
    Happy new year in any case.

    • Avatar Albert Haran says:

      the Emergency Services Minister and the Deputy Premier. Both on holidays in Europe/UK. The former said his absence from NSW was ‘inexcusable’. The latter called for abandonment of Sydney’s New Years Eve fireworks – from somewhere in London. The NSW leader’s response to these fine examples?

      As well as questioning the Premiers position of authority (as she will not sack them) one may well ask about the credibility of the position of the G.G. who has the authority to appoint ministers and as such must have powers of dismissal, so will the G.G. also turn a blind eye to the ministers abrogation of their responsibilities (which I am sure would require them to be around in a crisis) .
      One forgets sometimes (I’ll never forget) it is only Labor that can be sacked by a G.G. State or Federal.

  4. Avatar J.Donegan says:

    Thank you Tony. The comparison you draw between the two leaders is pertinent, the more so given the ‘empathy-free’ zone surrounding the PM. Also, with the amount of criticism of the PM – both as person and politician, one could easily conclude that the job is too big for him. Perhaps when the smoke finally clears we may find ourselves with a different Coalition leader.

  5. Avatar Bob Mills says:

    Better in a crisis than Scotty from marketing. Well, I guess that’s a plus. But PM? Really? After the disasters Berejiklian has visited on NSW in transport, stadia, environmental protection, and free-for-all property development maybe do-nothing-at-all Morrison has some plusses, if only in direct comparison.

  6. Avatar Sandra Hey says:

    Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, would make a good Prime Minister.

  7. Avatar Mary-Anne Deacon says:

    Maybe Gladys has shown empathy and been present throughout the fires in NSW but she is still a creature of the Liberal Party mentality. Look no further than her governments cutting of funding to the RFS and national parks budgets in the face of the known fire danger in the state. She still avoids any discussion of climate change as a threat multiplier. Look at the corruption rife in the building and construction industries in NSW under her government. No, another do nothing corrupt Liberal at the helm is not what this country needs. Why not promote Daniel Andrews as someone who could restore some integrity and respect to the office of Prime Minister. He has displayed admirable leadership qualities in Victoria throughout this climate fueled catastrophe and is taking meaningful action on climate change.

  8. Avatar Rex Williams says:

    Yes, I agree. RFS boss Shane Fitzsimmons has been an inspiring communicator and leader. Well done.

    But the fact that “Gladys Berejiklian has been available constantly and taken no holidays” is hardly qualification enough to even be considered in any way for the role of Prime Minister. What a cock-eyed suggestion. She has serious failings and rules over a party that has little to recommend it in any way, as well.
    She has little to recommend her as well.

    Quite frankly, if Tony Smith could remove his blinkers to overcome his allegiance to the Liberty party, federal and state, he would see quite clearly that the best performing politicians in Australia today are all totally independent of the two corrupt major parties, naturally with the odd exception.
    Hopefully, that is where out future success lies. Independent members representing their electorates (not their party), independent foreign policy (Australia not the USA and apartheid regimes like Israel) and independence from bribery and corruption, rampant in such circles in the last decade.
    The alternatives are frightening. More of the self-serving ego-maniacs like the Morrison’s of this world.

    One should not judge likely replacements for the current self-promoting Hillsonging and singing PM of this country, an even worst choice than Billy McMahon, for those whose memories back that far.

    • Avatar Charles Lowe says:

      You know – I think Tony Smith’s undoubted contemporary excellence as Speaker is principally motivated by his (intensely covert) commitment to boost and to bolster the structural desirability of constitutionally enshrining the Speakership as non-artisan – as truly independent.

      I deeply admire his undisclosed commitment.

  9. Avatar Michael Tierney says:

    If being good in a crisis is the main criteria for being PM, then Ms Berejiklian just may be a possible candidate. Personally, I prefer someone proactive in dealing with predicted crises rather than someone who reacts well when such crises eventuate. In this regard, the environmental record of Berejiklian and 8 years of LNP government in NSW is arguably poor. As evidence I refer you to Kate Smolski’s assessment in Independent Australia of 22 March, 2019,,12501

  10. Avatar Peter Dixon says:

    watch our for your ICAC call Tony

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