Politics

Federal politics

A national disaster
On the PM’s catastrophically inept response to Australia’s unprecedented bushfires

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during an operational update at HMAS Albatross in Nowra. © Lukas Coch / POOL / AAP Image

Scott Morrison campaigned for the leadership of the country with little more than two thumbs up and a sunny disposition. His popularity rested on a persona of practical, upbeat suburban dad. He had no real agenda to speak of, but held out the promise that his government would shield ordinary Australians from tough realities, from any economic shocks, from illegal immigrants. Climate change would have to wait a little longer. No one trusts politicians and their promises anyway, so what did it matter if he didn’t have grand plans?

Implicit in Morrison’s promise, however, was that if disaster did strike, his government would handle it. He fell at the first hurdle. His government’s response reads like a catalogue of political failure.

The bushfires started in September, and by early November some 300 homes had been damaged or destroyed, the area burnt in New South Wales alone reaching 1 million hectares. Shane Fitzsimmons, the commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service, was warning it could be months before eastern Australia had the bushfires under control. Firefighters were already under stress. “There is no doubt they have flogged themselves silly,” Fitzsimmons said. “They are extremely drained but they are passionate and steadfast in their resolve to do the very best they can for their community.”

NSW was in a state of emergency and the fires in Queensland were also unprecedented. Australian Defence Force liaison officers were working with Emergency Management Australia, as Australia’s largest-ever peacetime deployment of the military was expected. A group of 22 former emergency services leaders led by former commissioner of NSW Fire and Rescue Greg Mullins, the Emergency Leaders for Climate Change, tried to meet with the prime minister (for the second time) to express their alarm at the scale of the threat, but were rebuffed. There was no movement at all from the Morrison government.

By early December, 2.7 million hectares had been burnt out; it was already one of the worst natural disasters in Australia’s history.

On December 10, amid growing panic at the complete lack of federal government response, Morrison, against the backdrop of the worst smoke in Sydney’s history, gave a press conference about… his government’s proposed religious discrimination bill. Responding to journalists’ questions about the fires, he rejected calls for more help for volunteer firefighters, who had been working for many weeks without pay, saying they “want to be there” helping their communities. As Morrison went to leave the building afterwards, the smoke set off a fire alarm, trapping him inside. The symbolism was ripe, but still Morrison refused to heed the signs. No federal government support was forthcoming. Natural disasters were, in his view, a matter for the states to handle.

On December 12, Morrison finally described the situation as a national disaster. Responding to growing criticism, he again sought to deflect blame and responsibility, assuring Australians that “the federal government is responding to all of the needs that have been presented to us by our state and territory authorities”, and again rejecting the calls to lend more support. A report by international think tanks had the day before named Australia as having the very worst climate policies among 57 surveyed, provoking the usual pat responses from the government. But criticism of the government’s negligence in both the fight against bushfires and climate change was becoming intense. Reporting on Morrison’s December 12 press conference, Peter Hartcher wrote in Nine Media that “the country is crying out for leadership. Instead it got excuses.”

“Having lost control of the discussion about bushfires and what to do about them,” wrote Laura Tingle on December 14, “there is little sign that Scott Morrison knows how to correct his language, or his apparent grasp of a response.”

On December 15, extreme temperatures were forecast, and over 100 fires burning across NSW were expected to worsen. And the prime minister went on holiday in Hawaii.

His office failed to inform the public of his absence, or that the country was now being led by Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, who, just weeks earlier, had dismissed concerns about the links between the fires and climate change as “the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital-city greenies”, after helpfully noting that “we’ve had fires in Australia since time began”.

While Morrison was in Hawaii, Australia experienced its hottest day ever, with average temperatures of 41.9C, a full degree warmer than the heat record set the day before. And on December 19, two volunteer firefighters, Geoffrey Keaton, 32, and Andrew O’Dwyer, 36, died fighting fires south-west of Sydney. By this stage, eight lives had been lost, 800 buildings had been destroyed and 4 million hectares had burnt in NSW alone.

The news that the prime minister had left his post – and worse, had tried to cover it up – at what seemed the height of a national disaster brought predictable public outrage. Morrison announced he would return from holidays (“I deeply regret any offence caused,” he later said, in typically passive language). He was away for a further two days, then gave a press conference in which he announced, among other things, that: “I am comforted by the fact that Australians would like me to be here simply so I can be here alongside them as they go through this terrible time.” He also made it clear that his government wouldn’t do anything to increase its efforts to fight climate change.

The federal government had still not put a single extra dollar into the national firefighting effort. Requests for an increase in annual funding to support aerial firefighting had been ignored since late 2017.

On Friday, December 27, NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons warned that the fire danger would become worse still in areas such as the South Coast and the Blue Mountains, as temperatures soared above 40 degrees. Major fires were already burning across the state, and now also in Western Australia, South Australia and throughout eastern Victoria.

Morrison wasn’t the only Coalition office holder to go AWOL when it counted. On December 27, the NSW emergency services minister, David Elliott, went to Europe on holiday. The following day, as fires tore towards Mallacoota in Victoria, federal defence minister Linda Reynolds went on holiday in Bali. Over the days of her absence, the Victorian government would call for defence force assistance to evacuate desperate Mallacoota residents trapped on the beach. It soon emerged that NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro was also holidaying overseas; he had tweeted a message arguing against the New Year’s Eve fireworks taking place this year, to respect “our exhausted RFS volunteers” – from London.

On December 29, Morrison finally announced some financial respite for some firefighters, promising up to $6000 in payments to volunteers, but only (at that stage) to those in NSW and, oddly, restricted to those who were self-employed or worked for small or medium-sized businesses.

On New Year’s Eve, as the eastern seaboard burned like never before, the prime minister hosted a party at Kirribilli to watch the fireworks, and on New Year’s Day he hosted a reception for the Australian men's cricket team. The next day, navy ships and army aircraft were dispatched in Victoria and, a day later, Linda Reynolds returned from her Bali holiday.

Amid fuel and food shortages, road blockages and power outages throughout the country, and after saying he didn’t want state and federal governments “to be tripping over each other in order to somehow outbid each other in the response”, Morrison finally announced on Saturday, January 4 that the ADF would launch an effort in response to the bushfires up and down the east coast. An advertisement written and authorised by Morrison and the Liberal Party accompanied the announcement within hours. Incredibly, RFS commissioner Fitzsimmons said the first he knew about the new deployment was when he read it in the media. It was “disappointing”, he said, that the prime minister didn’t inform him of the impending arrival of 3000 army reservists, and the timing of the announcement hampered the RFS response effort on a catastrophic day.

Minister Reynolds, trying to deflect blame for the miscommunication, told the ABC’s David Speers that it was the NSW state government’s responsibility to tell the RFS about the deployment. Yet, as Fitzsimmons had already said, this was not a fair account of events. “We spent a fair amount of the day yesterday trying to seek clarity from our Commonwealth liaison personnel embedded here in the state operations centre, our ADF people embedded here in the state operation centre,” said Fitzsimmons. “It’s fair to say they weren’t across the details either.”

It appears that Morrison’s office was trying to deflect blame onto the states in other ways too. Network 10’s political editor, Peter van Onselen, reported on Twitter that Morrison’s office was backgrounding journalists against state Liberal colleagues, claiming the delays were all the fault of the Berejiklian government, which hadn’t requested the extra resources, such as navy ships, to help with evacuations. This was duly reported as fact in The Daily Telegraph, only to be comprehensively refuted by both Berejiklian and Fitzsimmons.

In public, Morrison was calling for an end to the blame game.

Yet the prime minister had first shifted blame and responsibility entirely onto the states, then threw out token scraps of previously announced funding and support measures, and only after the damage to his personal brand became too great did he finally come to the understanding that it was his responsibility to lead. It all spoke of an underlying view that volunteer firefighters and state government agencies and private donations should carry the load. Morrison seemed to treat his role as merely ceremonial, like a national counsellor or cheerleader. The important thing was to preserve the impression that it was all under control.

All this is entirely in keeping with modern right-wing “conservative” thinking: small government, fewer services, individual responsibility. And for a long time, the Coalition media partners in the Murdoch press helped hold the line. After all, Morrison was a political genius, wasn’t he? And everyone’s entitled to a holiday, aren’t they? There’s nothing new about bushfires in Australia. What can little Australia do about “global climate change” anyway? Cutting our emissions wouldn’t prevent any fires, etc., etc.

The fires have now burnt out more than 6.3 million hectares, killed at least 25 people and over half a billion animals, and destroyed over 2500 buildings. They are the worst bushfires in our history, and it’s not even halfway through summer. Regardless of what happens next, the Morrison government will be tarred by its inaction and ineptitude over the past four months.

We’ll never know how many of these losses might have been avoided if action had been taken sooner, with proper resources allocated and proper planning carried out.

In moments of national disaster the flaws of modern right-wing governments become stark: try telling bushfire victims that you believe in lower government spending, fewer services and individual responsibility. But Morrison does believe in these. He remained mute for so long so that responsibility (and financial burden) would be taken up by others. Which it was.

Every reassuring generalisation from Morrison seemed like an evasion or a lie, which had a disorienting effect because it bore no relation to the reality in front of people’s eyes: the smoke, the devastation, the lack of water, fuel, communications and firefighting equipment, and the perception of inadequate support in many burning towns. Putting out a party ad in the middle of a crisis? How could he be so insensitive? This man of the people suddenly couldn’t even get people to shake his hand. His faults became obvious to everyone, and the reason was very clear. Massive national shocks have a tendency to reveal the true nature of leaders, and the Morrison on display was a one-trick pony. The strategic mastermind became Scotty from Marketing, whose strengths in “messaging” suddenly became weaknesses, evidence of a lack of substance. He lost more political skin in a shorter time than any leader in recent memory because he refused to address the true scale of the disaster, in case it brought with it responsibility and liability.

It’s not as if the evasions were anything new, though. As Sean Kelly pointed out in this excellent profile, Morrison has always been evasive. Keeping his own hands clean is his modus operandi. And a lack of planning around bushfires is an extension of his lack of an agenda generally. The slogans and the thumbs up and the positive-dad schtick were never a substitute for leadership.

And what could he really say, when everything his government had been warned about was suddenly becoming terribly true? What can you say when you’re the one left holding the coal? Everything that experts, fire chiefs, insurance companies, environmentalists and climate scientists had predicted – all of the warnings that Coalition MPs had mocked, minimised, ignored – was proven correct. These weren’t warnings the Coalition had dismissed for months, but for three decades. (Or as the Chaser headline put it: “‘No one could have predicted this’ says government warned about this in 1988, 1993, 1998, 2001, 2004, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019”.) Denial is now built into Coalition DNA, despite the ludicrous suggestion by the PM that his government has “always” accepted the link between climate change and bushfires. To the extent that they might take responsibility for it and do something about it, they never have.

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.

@nickfeik

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