Morrison feels heat as nation battles fires

I LOVE Boxing Day. As a kid it meant ice-cold watermelon, mucking about in the water and just lolling about. As an adult it still means ice-cold watermelon, catching up on my reading and a little personal reflection on a year passed too soon.

I can imagine Prime Minister Scott Morrison also spending today with some cold fruit and a little self-reflection as to what went awry, and so quickly, for a PM who so recently seemed in complete control.

For most of 2019 Morrison could do no wrong. From his stunning election victory in May - defying the odds to increase the Coalition's after-preference vote and seat share in both houses - the PM hardly misspoke. While Opposition leader Anthony Albanese auditioned for the lead in the new Invisible Man movie (and as the Greens and One Nation were further marginalised), Morrison's unlikely electoral honeymoon seemed to stretch over the horizon. He was indeed 'Teflon Scott'.

 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison holds Blossom the baby wombat who was rescued by carer Monique Newson at Ilford/Running Stream RFS fire shed. He toured the bushfire affected regions of the Blue Mountains including Bilpin, Dargan and the Grose Valley. Picture: Wolter Peeters.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison holds Blossom the baby wombat who was rescued by carer Monique Newson at Ilford/Running Stream RFS fire shed. He toured the bushfire affected regions of the Blue Mountains including Bilpin, Dargan and the Grose Valley. Picture: Wolter Peeters.

 

But then something happened. About a month ago Morrison lost control of the water-cooler agenda outside the Canberra bubble - and, worse, the Question Time agenda inside the House of Representatives - when several controversies around Energy Minister Angus Taylor somehow got off the leash.

Already plagued by allegations that a farming company (in which Taylor owns an interest) sold $80 million worth of water rights to the Federal Government, Taylor later started a senseless spat with American author Naomi Wolf.

But Morrison's bigger problem was his refusal to stand Taylor down during a police investigation over allegedly fiddled travel figures regarding Sydney City Council.

Worse still, Morrison appeared to be genuinely shocked when criticised for contacting his friend, the New South Wales Police Commissioner, during the investigation.

But all of that was survivable because, for most voters, such controversies are just games politicians play. Now the atmosphere has changed - both literally and metaphorically. Literally because the continent bakes in record-breaking heat under smoke-blackened air. Figuratively because Morrison no longer looks like a bloke "in touch" with middle Australia.

And all it took to break that spell was a silly little Hawaiian holiday.

There are millions of Australians - Albanese, for one - who refuse to condemn Morrison for taking a well-earned break with his family who have seen little of him in a frenetic election year. After all, Australia enjoys a system of cabinet and not presidential government: no single person "runs" Australia, and even PMs can take vacations and the ship of state still sails.

But there are millions more who, while caring little about cabinet conventions or conflicts of interest, baulk at their leader's absence when their nation is in crisis. Remember the flak an overseas Gough Whitlam copped when Cyclone Tracey smashed Darwin 45 years ago?

Or the flogging US President George W. Bush received after his delay in responding to Hurricane Katrina in 2005?

Some are simply annoyed that paid politicians take time off. Others are envious of a vacation they themselves could never afford. Some might even accuse Morrison of hypocrisy given his attack on Victorian Police Commissioner Christine Nixon in 2010 over her dinner break during the Black Saturday bushfires.

But, most damagingly, many will see Morrison's poorly-timed break as evidence that ScoMo - the carefully crafted media image of the Australian everyman - is indeed a pollie, deaf to middle and regional Australia.

Given the Coalition's reluctance to splash the cash on drought-affected farmers, or to concede the link between drought and anthropogenic climate change, the PM has painted himself into a tight rhetorical corner.

This holiday saga is also different because it's about ordinary Aussies hurt by natural disaster.

While the PM has accepted the criticism and apologised for his absence, the whole sorry tale points to a leader whose honeymoon is over and whose teflon is visibly scuffed.

Worse, it points to a PM whose political antennae is blunter than we assumed. While Morrison is technically correct that, constitutionally, bushfires are a state responsibility, the PM is naive if he thinks that excuse for inaction washes with an electorate cynical toward politicians. But if the PM brings forward March's scheduled Council of Australian Governments meeting to early January to find a genuinely national solution to our climate emergency, Morrison can still redeem himself.

Only then can he relax with a slice of watermelon.

Dr Paul Williams is a senior lecturer at Griffith University



SPRING FALLS: Warwick school holidays off to rainy start

Premium Content SPRING FALLS: Warwick school holidays off to rainy start

Your forecast for the first week of school holidays, plus tips for keeping kids...

SUMMER OF SPORT: Junior cricketers join blazing line-up

Premium Content SUMMER OF SPORT: Junior cricketers join blazing line-up

From first-timers to budding Don Bradmans, Warwick’s rising cricket stars are set...