Scott Morrison began a radio interview on Saturday reminiscing about hot afternoons in his childhood "in the back of the Kombi van coming back from the Blue Mountains".
"They didn't have air conditioning in the cars back then," Morrison told the listeners, as though this bushfire crisis could be seen in the narrative of the cheerful misfortunes of life in a sunburned land.
Morrison's attempts to explain and message the crisis have left him looking facile and tin-eared. While it might feel too simple to dismiss him as "Scotty from advertising", he is making it difficult to do much else.
In an election campaign, his glib style and gift for sloganeering sung to voters only half listening. But in a bushfire crisis, a desperate population hanging on everything that is said needs more than contrived sets of words.
His surprise announcement that that 3000 reservists would be compulsorily called-up with a battalion of planes and boats was typical, coming complete with a seemingly prepared advertising campaign and an easy slogan.
"It puts more boots on the ground, puts more planes in the sky, puts more ships at sea, and puts more trucks to roll in," Morrison declared, undermining his own initiative by mistaking military might for leadership, and catchy rhetoric for genuine feeling. Within a couple of hours, he was tweeting a video promoting his muscled-up intervention.
We’re putting more Defence Force boots on the ground, more planes in the sky, more ships to sea, and more trucks to roll in to support the bushfire fighting effort and recovery as part of our co-ordinated response to these terrible #bushfirespic.twitter.com/UiOeYB2jnv— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) January 4, 2020
By spinning advertising off a crisis, he sparked outrage. And worse, the NSW rural fire service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, who has led the response, day after day, even as the prime minister was in Hawaii, revealed on Sunday that it came as news to him.
He had been disappointed and frustrated "on one of our busiest days" to have heard about Morrison's defence intervention through the media, and he had had to spend "a fair amount of the day" trying to "understand what the announcement was, what it meant, and how it was it expected to be integrated into what was already a high performing and a highly effectively integrated suite of operations", Fitzsimmons said. Morrison, never contrite, blamed defence for a breakdown in communications.
Morrison's move was confusing coming just a day after he was continuing to insist that states had control of the crisis without the need for commonwealth intervention.
"What the states are saying to us is "let us deal with the fires now, let us focus on that, give us every support that you can to help us with that".... That is the spirit in which we need to continue to engage this," he said.
Morrison's announcement of the defence intervention was in keeping with his handling of the crisis from the moment he patronised the population on his return from Hawaii by saying that anxious Australians "will be pleased I'm coming back".
In September when Greta Thunberg ignited the climate debate, Morrison responded to her passion by saying he didn't want Australian children to "have anxieties" about climate change. Rather, they should feel confident they would have "a wonderful country and pristine environment to live in, that they will also have an economy to live in as well".
He's singing from the same hymn book now, telling people over and again how he understands their anxiety, but bushfires have occurred "for a very long time in this country" and "Australia is the best country in the world".
Morrison should know that it is only irritating to have someone tell you they understand you are "anxious" but you don't need to be.
Especially when you are living in a red and black haze, stuck in an otherworldly scene where you can't get fuel or food, are or forced to sleep in your car as you try to make your escape, or where your house is threatened or razed by fire, or in Canberra where your children are in choking smoke and resort - who could ever have imagined - to wearing a P2 mask.
He is sticking to the political message - prepared to speculate about the drought, building regulations, hazard reduction and land clearing but only allowing climate change to enter the conversation if it is firmly linked to global emissions - in the midst of a crisis in which politics should be irrelevant.
You are a bigger fool than I thought you were Scott....can’t you see the political and personal stupidity in producing an ad like this at a time like this ...just do the work not the propaganda,the place is alight mate not the time to score points. #auspol— Tony Windsor (@TonyHWindsor) January 4, 2020
On Thursday, a journalist asked him, "Prime minister you keep saying don't panic ... be patient, have confidence, but when you look at all the deaths and all the people unaccounted for, all the homes lost, at what point should we start to worry or panic ... that we've got a real long term crisis starting to begin here?"
Morrison responded in what has become familiar style: "There is no doubt natural disasters are termed that way because that is what they are. They wreak this sort of havoc when they affect our country as they have for a very long time.
"I understand the anxiety and I understand the fear that is there for many and I understand the frustration but this is a natural disaster."
The same way he is dismissing the gravity and uniqueness of the crisis, Morrison is grabbing the hands of reluctant punters in bushfire zones, refusing to recognise that they don't want to shake his hand. And he is pretending that people are angry because anger is a natural expression of emotion in a time of disaster. He insists he is not taking it personally. It's probably time he started.
For God’s sake! On a day we have catastrophic fire conditions, in the midst of a genuine national crisis, Morrison, the marketing guy, does what? He releases a Liberal Party ad! He is no longer fit to hold the high office of prime minister. https://t.co/1OZqEZalOa— Kevin Rudd (@MrKRudd) January 4, 2020