Some of the legion of Scott Morrison haters have given their Prime Minister a new nickname this week: "Scotty from Marketing." It contains the image of an insubstantial person interested primarily in public relations fluff, rather than in actually doing anything.
Perhaps it is unfair, and, in any event, it comes from a section of the population - biased towards those living inside the so-called "Canberra bubble" who have always despised and underestimated Morrison, frequently to their cost. Yet the jibe has seemed particularly appropriate to the past few weeks in which the Prime Minister has seemed in a bubble of his own, completely disconnected from reality, but also from the mood, the apprehension and the fear that the bushfires and the evacuations have caused.
He has responded to natural emotion with words appealing to the head rather than the heart, but not from the logic of evidence but the moral self-certainty of ideology and, perhaps, religion. He has just not seemed to connect with a discernible change of public mood, not least among those for whom he claims to govern. People not only terrified by the rush of events, but also about what these portend for the further climate change in the years ahead.
He has seemed constrained, manifesting that mean-minded straitening spirit that has defined his government, rather than sunny optimism or a calm determination to make Australia better. With a sudden tin ear for feelings among the public, an inability to find natural and human words of fellow feeling, and an embarrassing use of expressions, such as it being "tremendous" to be at a funeral. With a seeming incapacity to seize the political and economic opportunities now open to him, he has seemed closed when he should have seemed open; his body language has seemed awkward and defensive rather than warm, expansive and properly empathetic.
He has seemed to have an especially cack hand in searching for positives. He's become a master of the "but" that perpetuates the meanness and refuses to give ground, least of all to any criticism of him personally. He resists any lifting of the national mood at a time of genuine public apprehension, spreading well beyond the actual victims of the fires to those who are transfixed by events and constantly reminded of them by the gloom, the dust, the smoke, the smell and the atmosphere.
While hundreds of Australians were losing their houses in extraordinary fires, being rendered homeless and without immediate resources, he was reminding them that they lived in a lucky country. Those hundreds of Australians had thousands of relatives worried about whether and when the fires would come to them, even inside big cities.
As weary firefighters - men and women, mostly volunteers - worked some of their longest and most desperate days, he was hosting backyard cricket at Kirribilli House and enjoying his balcony seat - care of the taxpayer - at a New Year's fireworks event which, whatever the calm logic of the Sydney Lord Mayor, seemed particularly inappropriate for the moment.
And even more so for a prime ministerial photo-op, whether with children or professional sportsmen. The world, like much of middle Australia, was marvelling at the disconnect between the lie that Australia is fighting above its weight in combatting climate change and the fact that millions of Australians could be seen to be choking in the reduced visibility of smoke, heat, winds and dust, with the sense and smell that flames might be just over the much-reduced horizon.
What a metaphor for his government's wilful blindness, mindless ideology and reckless disregard for scientific evidence and business and economic common sense. It's an image that fits us ill, here and abroad, the more shameful just after we have played premium bad citizen at a world climate conference.
It might be simply bad luck that the music has stopped while Scott Morrison has been in charge. But then again, he has been a key player in successive governments, and a personal winner on every occasion in which policy paralysis and divisions have caused Coalition leadership changes. He has been one of the most stubborn ministers in insisting that Australia was willing to give its all to fight climate change, as long as it did not hurt anyone, particularly Liberal Party mates and donors in the mining and fossil fuel industries.
Morrison, and most (but not all) ministers have altered the script a little in the past few weeks. There is now a gruff acknowledgment that climate change has played a role in causing the bushfire season to start much earlier and conclude much later, with much more severe fires in between. That's a grudging concession followed immediately by words of limitation - insisting that the length and severity of drought are not closely associated with rising temperatures and climate change. And, as a standby, that while climate change may be - probably is - a factor in extreme weather, it cannot be proven to be responsible for any particular incident. A local fire might, for example, have been started by lightning or an arsonist. And, of course, there have always been bushfires, or droughts, floods, or other natural disaster -, some of appalling ferocity, duration and effect on human lives.
The supreme optimist might think she discerns in the cautiously shifting language some evidence of a slow, if reluctant, conversion by Coalition politicians to a view that has long existed within the Australian political mainstream. The realist will recognise that there has been little shift at all. The government recognises that there is a political firestorm, separate to the actual bushfire, and is allowing for a certain amount of drift in the political climate. But the anchors are out, and the government has no plans at all to actually do anything new - least of all to upset key constituencies, geographic as well as economic.
It is usually claimed that politicians interested only in marketing and slogans will do or say almost anything to get elected or to stay in power. Morrison might be proof to the contrary. He's not a reed that bends to the wind.
Polls consistently show the electorate rates climate change as a very important issue. It thinks the Coalition government should be doing much more than it is doing. That gap between "do more" and "do nothing more, or do less" is about the size of that for and against same-sex marriage - another issue where Morrison was blithely out of step with public opinion. Among those who want more now are most of the cluster of "silent Australians".
Morrison was patiently "explaining", long before the bushfire crisis, that Australia is doing enough - indeed more than could be expected, given Australia's allegedly insignificant place among world sources of pollution. He was not shifting general public opinion. Fire and smoke, and images of disaster and evacuation, have galvanised public perception, with fresh emotion, fresh fear, and fresh anger against wilful politicians.
Labor may have worsened its electability by trying to be all things to all people over coal mining in central Queensland. But the election was not a referendum on climate change, and Labor did not lose on that account. Nor does the spectre of post-election Labor "pragmatism" on coal mining seem to have much influenced the settled Australian middle ground. The middle ground - among Labor and Liberal, even National Party supporters - is that climate change is real, that Australia is more vulnerable to its effects than nearly any other nation, and that we are doing too little and acting too slowly to meet the threat.
Those who have seen Morrison's repeated stumbles, and his seeming incapacity to get up, should remember that it is the Christmas holiday season. There is less news about. The significance of fresh events is often exaggerated. Most Australians are on holidays, and not very interested in day-to-day politics. But the sleepiness of the silly season stops if major disaster - natural or national, or, as in this case, both - occurs. It quickly takes public attention away from the beach, the barbecue and the cricket, particularly if, as with events this week, it threatens all three. When that happens, public impressions about the government's nimbleness and fitness for purpose are likely to be more lasting.
Indeed, one, if only one, of the reasons for the excellent coverage of the fires by the mainstream media has been the number of Canberra-based journalists on the South Coast with their families suddenly yanked back into action by the crisis. What they are writing about fits, better than usually, a settled narrative of a leader having chickens come home to roost, who doesn't "get it" and is "in denial". One of Morrison's ill-timed distractions - over "freedom of religion" - has also again invited questions of how his own religious beliefs - well outside the mainstream of major religions in Australia - influence his political behaviour.
Leaders at the state or federal level usually scrub up pretty well at natural disasters, just by showing up. But Morrison has seemed inept, either in understanding the mood, or in "providing comfort" - a phrase he used on Friday. Morrison has seemed unable to surf on the combined efforts of the firefighting teams, the coming together of the community that is so often the aftermath of major disaster, or even the visibility and passive good publicity of being squired about in the centre of the action. He has seemed so anxious to deny responsibility that he has missed the sombreness, the grief, the anxiety and the gravity of the occasion. Bitter social media comments have also made him seem diffident (in a way that Tony Abbott, ever a remorseless and shameless partisan abuser of flags and uniforms, never was) about being seen to be in the way, or of hogging the publicity.
But it has not stopped the suggestion that he is horning in, generally unwelcome, the daggy dad or embarrassing uncle who just can't find the appropriate word or hug, let alone provide comfort. This has not been because this man, steeped in marketing, does not know how to get publicity. It is rather from a sense, accurate enough, that his presence only excites animosity. And this with a man who publicly interpreted vehement criticism of his family holiday in Hawaii as a signal that the public expected that their senior leader wanted him there during a national emergency. Perhaps instead they felt insulted he had abandoned his post.
What Morrison ought to be doing, of course, is announcing a major revision of climate change policies.
I do not criticise his decision to take a holiday, even (though I would not have done it) abroad. But he and his office managed it with rank incompetence, with evasion, deception and, ultimately gracelessness. It was virtually inevitable, under Sod's law, that the holiday was taken just as it was disclosed that his last holiday abroad (to Fiji) involved massive upgrades, by rent-seekers to government, of aircraft seating and accommodation, worth many thousands of dollars, for all of his family. Honestly, would any future prime minister ever think to pay for more than cattle class with so many public-spirited businesses keen to give him, and the children he wants to be creationists, a better holiday experience?
As Morrison has seemed unable to play the leader, it is odd that the alternative reflection of Australia back to itself, Governor-General David Hurley, has been inconspicuous. Hurley is not a glutton for publicity. But like many of his predecessors, he is a practised and dignified hand with the gesture and the appropriate word, conveying empathy, understanding and the solidarity of other Australians. I cannot help wondering whether the Prime Minister's office has tried to limit his role. It would be in line with its general judgment of the past fortnight.
Is Morrison on a death roll? By no means.
But he badly needs to do something that shrugs off the slapstick and shows him as a purposive leader and administrator focused on the national interest, instilling public confidence rather than derision for being out of touch.
Actually, he has a perfect opportunity with the crisis itself. It does not need to have him eating old words, or doing the thing he does so badly - admitting that he was wrong.
He could focus not on one of the factors of the disaster - government inaction on climate change - but its immediate local consequence. The drought and the bushfires have been devastating in many communities, particularly on the country's south-east coast, from Queensland down to South Australia. People have died. Families have been disrupted. Houses have been destroyed. So have community facilities - the sort like clubs, shops, and schools - that cement people together. And so too with public social and physical infrastructure, the sources of jobs, the commercial relationships that sustain local economies, and the stock, crops and tourism and recreational facilities that bring in dollars so communities can become self-sustaining (in many cases for the first time in decades). The social and economic effects have rippled out into the cities among people not yet directly threatened by fire itself.
Morrison should announce that the scale of the disaster has been such that the Commonwealth will become a partner in a new and positive initiative in local and regional reconstruction. He should make it clear that he is not elbowing the states, or regional or local government, out of such efforts (or the expense of service provision). Instead, he should say, he wants a new and better co-ordinated "national" effort, with all Australians putting their shoulders to the wheel, through all layers of government and community organisations, upgraded for the times and the circumstances.
The Commonwealth has often worked constructively with local administrations after major local disasters, including fires, floods and droughts. As Morrison says, there are agreed roles and responsibilities, and trigger points for Commonwealth intervention, or the taking out of the federal credit card. None of that prevents Morrison declaring that the dimensions of this year's bushfire disaster (which may continue for three months) are such that the Commonwealth is now prepared to do more. More to help restore what has been lost. More to rebuild and reinvest in physical and social infrastructure that create fresh opportunities for victims without setting them up, as we so often do after fires and floods, for the same thing again. A partnership in which the Commonwealth takes a lead role in helping individuals and families, but works co-operatively in a common effort to rebuild damaged lives, help damaged families, restore not only roads but also schools and public facilities, and provide help, if not handouts, in rebuilding homes.
What Morrison ought to be doing, of course, is announcing a major revision of climate change policies. But he won't do that - if only as a matter of pride, or because his ideology trumps evidence. The most one can expect is a grudging admission that the impact of climate change, and its implications for policy, can be included in a review of management of the present and coming bushfire disasters. That will not look like the public relations image of leadership, or grasping the nettle, that he needs. Nor will it give him the air or space to reinvent himself at leisure.
But taking some ownership, or some stewardship, of a national reconstruction could. It could even take away some of the visible resentment and anger.
Morrison shouldn't be wasting the crisis, particularly as it represents a crisis of confidence in his leadership and fitness for purpose. We could see the Commonwealth again as a standard-setter, rather than a body seeking to continually lower public expectations of government. We could see his actions integrating with general structural change, a part of rebuilding Australia to meet challenges of the future.
It's not a new role. National efforts, as much as state-based ones, got people off the ground after monumental cyclone disasters such as those in Darwin or Townsville, or past major fire or flood catastrophes in Victoria, NSW, Tasmania, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia.
But, as countless communities can attest, the practical help, and the public appropriations, that followed such disasters followed no consistent principle. It's time they did. Even at the risk of helping Morrison out of a mess of his own making.
Cynical Canberrans might remember that they got not much more than Commonwealth effusions of sympathy after the 2003 fires. Our reconstruction was pretty much a local effort. No doubt the same would occur if a generally prosperous part of Sydney - say, the Cronulla-Sutherland area - was beset by fires beyond the capacity of local families, politicians, self-help organisations and charities to manage.
I've not observed that Australians are so selective in their fellow feeling for other citizens, indeed for non-citizens, that they want to dole it out through raffles, fundraisers or public money laundered through friendly churches. Scott Morrison, who has spent a good deal of his career showing leadership in dividing people and making them resent each other, could set an example by unifying us. It won't be with hackneyed words about our common love of cricket.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.