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Yesterday, Scott Morrison called out his critics, saying that we’re expecting too much of him. History proves him to be the exception to the rule.
On Sunday’s Insiders, Scott Morrison defended his actions during the bushfire crisis, bemoaning the sudden change in the voting public’s expectations.
— Michael Rowland (@mjrowland68) January 11, 2020
Clearly, we’re the problem. After all, buggering off to Hawaii, ignoring fire chiefs and ruling out increasing resources for those fighting a fire the size of Belgium is completely acceptable. Now, we on the left-hand side of the political discussion can readily dismiss Morrison’s fuckery as the continuation of Coalition apathy, but we’d be wrong – Morrison’s complete lack of leadership, or even a modicum of forced empathy is something new.
Now, the more cynical would say that a national disaster is a stage, and the politician the actor atop it, and thus, requires a heaving load of salt, but when I was a youngling, we expected our leaders to show up to a disaster zone and look mournful, or better, busy.
The same blaze also unearthed a familiar figure, Tony Abbott, who was quietly snapped fighting a blaze in his retirement.
As someone who spent the morning of this millennium voting against the man, I felt an undeniable pang of ennui, a yearning for someone who did something beyond cornering firefighters and forcing people to shake his hand.
When Morrison famously espoused his uselessness, bemoaning his inability to “hold a hose”, I suddenly coveted the return of Tony, jingoism, speedos and all. Loss is a strange thing. We may have marginalised his exit, but he possesses the magic of hope. Even his inaction had a gusto to it, but his earnestness in a crisis should be saluted by those who eagerly bade him farewell. Tony also appeared in the same role as a volunteer firefighter in 2013 when he was leading the opposition.
Morrison choosing to travel to one disaster in New Zealand to avoid another at home furthers his narrative of conspicuous absence. Prior to his jaunt, many loudly wondered where the bloody hell he got to, as he disappeared from the public eye (and even Twitter) for an excess of three days while his state caught fire.
With the state facing yet another weekend of historic bushfires, the PM has again gone missing.https://t.co/JqdqqJA29z
— The Big Smoke (@TheBigSmokeAU) December 6, 2019
Back in 1983, the nation faced the Ash Wednesday fires in South Australia and Victoria, ultimately claiming 75. Fraser visited the site, and (in response to a journalist pressing him about funding fire relief efforts) said that “this is no time to quibble about money – people are dying”.
It’s worth mentioning that it was an election year for Fraser, with The Sydney Morning Herald at the time stating that “the bushfires melted his stony facade; human tragedy gave him a human face, at least for five days.”
Fraser lost the election to Hawke, but the empathy displayed bristles the modern cynical Australian in a way we don’t fully grasp.
The same goes for John Howard. In 2003, he, and God help me as I write this, cut his holiday short to visit Canberra during an unprecedented firestorm. Upon his arrival, he noted that “it is very important when things like this happen, no matter where, that someone in my position demonstrates concern and empathy.”
Even Harold Hold, the Liberal made famous by unexpectedly exiting, left us with enduring empathy, and a sentence to remember. In 1967, Tasmania caught fire, prompting the Prime Minister to drop everything and visit, as he “had to come to see for myself…’
So, have our expectations changed?
Dr Rosemary Williams believes that “disaster can quickly shift attention to the qualities of the prime minister at a time when Australians are most vulnerable. It can have us all – people and prime ministers alike – thinking and talking about the nature of leadership under extraordinary circumstances, and whether our leaders measure up…apart from promises of federal aid and co-operation with state governments, Australians no doubt will expect prime ministers to come and see for themselves, to demonstrate empathy and to instill confidence in recovery.”
It’s an extraordinary time yes, but our expectations are not.