Inside Story

Outside the comfort zone

Twitter’s roiling, and even the real world is wondering how the prime minister burned through his political capital so quickly

Peter Brent 8 January 2020 1473 words

Prime minister Scott Morrison announcing on Saturday that army reservists were being called up to help with firefighting efforts. Rohan Thomson/Getty Images

Last Saturday the prime minister’s office released a glossy video, “authorised by S. Morrison, Liberal Party, Canberra,” depicting a masterful leader directing armed forces to save a grateful nation in a time of need. Rather than having the desired effect, it crassly played into perceptions that this prime minister is all marketing and no substance.

That brainwave was reminiscent of the Gillard government at its nadir in 2012. Widely perceived as fiscally incompetent and prone to trying to spend its way out of trouble, it attempted to lift its standing with a social media campaign on the new School Kids Bonus, incautiously hashtagged #cashforyou.

While so many Australians are still going through terrible suffering, and with the death and destruction still fresh in our minds, Morrison’s travails are trivial. Yet the prime minister seems to be the only thing that some folks can talk, write or tweet about.

The pile-on is happening not just on social media, though that’s where it’s most ferocious. Twitter, around the #auspol hashtag, is a sight to behold — so much energy devoted to one person. It all seems to be coming from people who never liked him anyway, and much of it appears driven by a determination to destroy him. His every utterance and facial expression is cited as further evidence not of mere incompetence, but of sociopathy. Finally, the general community will see what we’ve always known: that this man is totally unfit to lead the country.

Inevitably, the ferocity is having an effect in the real world.

Is the criticism of Morrison fair? In a way, this question is beside the point. Politics isn’t fair. Was it fair to win an election last May by misrepresenting the opposition’s policies? If you’re tempted to feel sorry for the PM at the moment — well that’s just life in the big city. How do you think Bill Shorten has been feeling since 18 May?

Morrison leads a government with a deep climate science problem. Too many of its MPs are immersed in the self-sustaining bubble of News Corp papers and Sky News After Dark. Most of all, and tragically for our policy-making, the events of 2009–10 taught them that campaigning against climate action is an electoral winner. (See Michael Pascoe in the New Daily on the vital role of News Corp, though I would add that the necessary ingredient was Labor’s capitulations to Tony Abbott during 2010, and most disastrously the leadership change. On the road not travelled — a comfortable Labor 2010 re-election with the carbon pollution reduction scheme as policy — we’d be somewhere quite different.)

Very few countries are doing their bit to bring down emissions, and Australia is among the worst of a bad bunch. (Rod Tiffen has laid out Australia’s long history of weaselling out of meaningful commitments.) If we were seriously doing our bit, we could lobby others to act as well. That might not count for much, but it would be something.

As far as the current disaster goes, the most substantial criticism of this government is that, despite warnings over the years, it has not taken the fire threat seriously. That inaction stretches right back to Malcolm Turnbull and climate-sceptical Abbott. It’s perhaps a function of the Coalition’s infestation by climate change denial, its attitude to the role of government, its reluctance to spend large amounts of money tackling something that might not happen for years anyway and, more recently, its determination to preserve the much ballyhooed 2019–20 budget surplus.

Turnbull told the Guardian Australia in November that Morrison believes in doing the right thing on climate but has been constrained, just like he himself was, by a small, mad right-wing rump (Abbott, Eric Abetz and Craig Kelly were the names he gave) who would rather see the party in opposition than take meaningful action. But Morrison still possessed an authority that Turnbull never had, thanks to last year’s spectacular against-the-odds election win. That should have enabled him to pull his party out of its comfort zone on matters he considered important. Perhaps he was too timid to use it, or doesn’t care enough about climate change. Or about anything. He’s never come across as a big-canvas kind of guy.

The PR nightmare was set rolling by last month’s Hawaiian holiday, and the attempts by Morrison’s office to keep it secret. Reports appeared along the lines of “Yes, he’s entitled to a holiday, but…” It was of those meta media memes in which the journalists have their cake and eat it: scolding politicians for being politically inept, but saying little about the substance.

An article appeared in News Corp papers under the PM’s name acknowledging the bushfire catastrophe but urging Australians to still try to enjoy the summer, the beach and the cricket. You can sort of see what he was trying to do — let’s keep our morale up, not let this get the better of us — but it was a fiendishly difficult mark to hit, requiring a writer in the league of, say, Don Watson. Which the PM’s current staff evidently doesn’t remotely possess.

Everything he does now is reported (News Corp aside) through a particular template. Such dynamics long predate the internet, but social media turbocharges them. Those scenes of people refusing to shake the PM’s hand and that firey yelling “tell the prime minister to get fucked!” probably stem from Hawaii. And they make for excellent television, much better than boring ones of the people who did accept his handshake.

It was, perhaps, a damning editorial from breakfast host Karl Stevanovic last Saturday that sent his office into the frenzy — if you lose the brekky crowd you’re finished! — that produced the misjudged advertisement and quickly upped the defence force’s role without consulting the fire chiefs.

One of the ironies now is that the fierce criticism is largely directed at the superficial: that he’s not striking the right note, that his mind seems to be on other things. The nation is crying out for a leader! So he succumbs to these demands for more spin and makes matters worse.

His fumbles are reminiscent of his first months in the job in late 2018. Having proven himself so crafty at manipulating the party room, he seemed clueless about the general public, relying on hokey ideas about connecting as the bloke next door with all those references to the wife and children and car trips. Such a try-hard, voters rolled their eyes. But he won the May election by buckling down and leading a very effective hip-pocket scare campaign.

During the Queensland flood disaster in January 2011, much was made of the contrast between the emotionally engaged premier, Anna Bligh, and prime minister Julia Gillard’s apparent woodenness and distance. Bligh lived the recovery exercise day and night, while Gillard was mostly doing her normal job. In the absence of the national framework being belatedly constructed by the Morrison government, it would be incongruous for a prime minister to try to create an ongoing national leadership role. It would be a recipe for dysfunction — like taking television cameras into a devastated town with nothing to offer and receiving abuse for lack of action by the state authorities.

Still, both the Rudd and Gillard governments were quick out of the blocks with assistance both in 2011 and after the 2009 Victorian fires, with Rudd engaging to a degree not necessarily appreciated by John Brumby’s state government. Meanwhile, this government has turned Centrelink, which played and will play a key role, into a Kafkaesque nightmare you wouldn’t inflict on your worst enemy. On this, again very late, it has announced amnesties of debt collection for people in affected areas. Did no one think of this before?

Every action taken by the government that was urged on it months or years ago is a belated acknowledge of earlier error. It is now accepting responsibility, and that precious budget surplus has gone.

In the real world, reports suggest that Morrison is out of favour with people in affected areas, which doesn’t necessarily extend to the majority of Australians. But the coverage must have damaged him. The rain will come and the fires will be brought under control, but the evidence of this tragedy will remain forever. And there are many more summers to come.

Morrison’s godlike status in the party room, which he neglected to employ to any meaningful end, is no more. Perceptions of his campaigning skills — never underestimate him, they’ll still say, recall what he did in 2019 — will endure. But if he had the authority last year to drag his party’s extremists towards a rational approach to climate change, that is no longer the case.

What a waste of political capital. •