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.