The faith that has sustained the morale of Scott Morrison through many a dark period of his life is in for some further testing over the few months that will bring an end to this term of government. Last time about, three years ago during an election campaign few thought he could win Morrison saw an encouraging sign from above in the image of an eagle on a wall.
He read the message as a divine command to persevere against the odds and the doomsayer. He came to see in his "miracle" victory an indication of God's personal blessing on his policies and a cheerio on his campaign methods, perhaps including the diversion of money to Liberal marginal seats. With such support, who needs to take the advice, the feelings, or the wisdom, of others into account? Or to take the slightest notice of those who questioned his honesty, his integrity or his obedience to the law and conventions of government?
This time about, the entrails and the haruspices look even more grim. Nothing has seemed to go right for months. The only net positive for Morrison since Guy Fawkes Day has been appearing on 60 Minutes, to be outrated by Vera. Worse, disastrous occasions are repeating themselves, not least in the form of a trial occasioned by natural disaster - this time floods - which demonstrated that he has learnt nothing, even on the empathy front, since the bushfires of 2019-20. They have also reinforced one of the prime opposition lines against him: that Morrison is very slow to appreciate that he is a problem, that he dithers about, usually blaming others, for too long while the problem festers and becomes a crisis for the government.
He then makes decisions that are too little and too late, the worse for containing some defiant insistence that he was right on the issue all along. For those he ought to be listening to, including his ministers and a panicking backbench, it leaves an increasingly bitter taste, if only because they lack his faith that staying the course on its present bearing will avoid the landslide that the polls, and most people's gut instincts are suggesting. Even loyalists doubt his ear for public opinion, his nose for a problem, his feel for workable and popular solutions, and his vision for the sort of Australia the nation might expect if Morrison is re-elected. It is simply too late to change the helmsman, but it is not too late to seize some control of an election campaign that seems headed for a cliff.
Morrison and his more senior colleagues have spent months trying out lines and slogans that might hurt Anthony Albanese and the opposition generally. A few have been disastrous - including the try-ons about getting government out of our lives, and about the virtues of can-do capitalism. These are not for proclamation to Australian families flooded out of their houses, left for a week to their own resources and community volunteers, before an agonisingly slow, and initially very inadequate arrival of the Australian Defence Force. The ADF itself is not to be blamed - except for their habit of making public relations and marketing the top priority of any mission. They are getting the bad press because government was too slow, and initially, too unwilling to order them in.
We got a hint why only a few days after the crisis had reached its peak. Morrison announced plans to increase the size of our armed forces by about 25 per cent over the next 20 years. He's trying to make us anxious about war with announcements about Ukraine and submarines. He should be criticised not only for announcements with no action, but for trying to create a divisive electoral issue out of not much separating the parties.
In most cases, what is being announced are projects and promises which, even assuming they are implemented, will not make much difference to the budget bottom line in the next term of government. It is PR pie-in-the-sky, neither binding on future governments nor the present one.
An incoming government could have a review of defence decisions brought forward for crude election purposes and would have no problem in getting official advice about examples. It could well drop half of them (in crude dollar value terms) without having any serious impact on our defence posture, policies or capabilities. Even the decision to purchase nuclear submarines, probably for delivery sometime after 2040, does not require a host of immediate follow-up decisions. That's assuming we want the boats to have modern 2040 software and hardware, not those of the present generations of British and American nuclear boats already up to 40 years old.
Still less should the government be announcing decisions - not properly subjected to scrutiny - about buying at an expense of tens of billions, conventional battlefield equipment, such as tanks and armoured vehicles, that will never be used within 10,000 km of Australia, and certainly not in China, the "enemy" we are currently thinking about.
The poverty of the army agenda, reinforced by its complete lack of strategic or political success in any hostile engagement since the 1950 war in Korea, invites questions about whether any of the imagined extra defence regulars in the 2040 ADF should be special forces, cavalry or rifle-soldiers - in an army command, as opposed to in navy, the air force or any other body, such as space command. Perhaps they might be designated as marines and be the nation's first port of call for a supplementary emergency service for floods, fires and earthquakes.
There may be good reason for recruiting more military personnel - although the cost of recruiting and paying them is only a fraction of the cost of training them, retaining them, and looking after them effectively until death, especially after separation. We have an increasingly sophisticated and educated workforce, less used to operating in authoritarian environments, and rightly sceptical about the calibre of military management and leadership as well as uncomfortably aware of how politicians have been politicising the use put to defence, without sufficient resistance from military leadership. That's something compounded, of course, by evidence of the capture, by particular interest groups and ideological sects, of some intelligence, security, counterterrorism and police functions. Service to the nation, like public service, is supposed to be something altogether different from being a praetorian guard to and striking force for the political interests of the government of the day.
It was embarrassing to be watching the government dithering about over ADF assistance for a week after the floods were at their peak. It seemed there might have been some secondary agenda, with Shane Stone, a Liberal Party president and head of an emergency fund, as to whether the wretched inhabitants should be allowed to rebuild in such a dangerous place. It made me think of Darwin, the money sink over which Stone once presided, at least thrice levelled by the elements and always revived at public expense.
Even less convincing was the argument that defence services cannot be called upon at the drop of a hat, let alone when it is wet, or movement is difficult. Full deployment does take time, but the services are more than capable of putting boots on the ground - if they are asked to do so. Nor, for once, were they being embarrassed by over-extension abroad, although COVID duties were preoccupying a tiny proportion of the grossly over-staffed senior officer corps.
The less than stellar task of deploying the ADF to Queensland and NSW floods this week brought to mind a much more difficult job of 48 years ago, which had troops (and others) deployed within a day, people vested with unprecedented authority, and a confident and capable public service used great imagination to perform, at lowish cost and in quick time the major job of national reconstruction - rebuilding the ruined city of Darwin after it was levelled by a cyclone. The cyclone flattened the city. Almost all of the entire population of more than 50,000 people - was evacuated by air within a week - a shorter period than the full deployment of army resources to north-eastern NSW this week.
The two military officers in charge of organising initial emergency relief were General Alan Stretton and his deputy Colonel Van Vardenega, and they found out about the disaster at about the same time I did, early on Christmas morning. We compared notes of sketchy reports from different sources. Strictly, they were detached from the ADF. The National Disaster Organisation ran out of a smallish office on Northbourne Avenue.
But their military rank helped enormously in quickly cobbling together some emergency materials, loading them on to a Hercules and setting off, with General Stretton on board, for Darwin in the early afternoon. As a very young acting chief of staff (for a tiny Boxing Day edition) I sent a young reporter to interview Stretton as he was supervising the loading. He told the reporter, whose name I forget, that he could come along if he wanted. To our mortification, the reporter demurred; he had to get the car back to the office!
During Christmas morning, I spoke on several occasions to both Stretton and Vardanega, and over the next month or two to Vardenega almost every day. Their numbers - home and at the office - were both in the book and the Commonwealth Directory, and both thought it part of their duty to explain to reporters and the public what they were doing, and thinking, and why.
They did not behave, as does the massive, cumbersome and almost entirely useless modern successor, as if speaking to a reptile of the press was a prima facie breach of the Crimes Act. Nor did they hold back until anything they said had been cleared with the minister's office. Or demand questions in writing or use a thick screen - and separate empire - of public relations people to obscure the truth and promote the minister's view of the world.
The old arrangements, far more subtle and accountable, could involve far more Commonwealth people than were deployed even during the 2019-20 bushfires. They were far more effective, and many times cheaper than anything the Commonwealth manages these days. In theory the current body coordinates matters between Commonwealth agencies, and sometimes, whole-of-Commonwealth arrangements with individual states. The former task - once accompanied far more effectively by ad hoc arrangements between relevant public servants and the minister, now consumes whole battalions of Commonwealth officials writing memos to each other, and is done badly, as anyone watching could see while questions of emergency money distribution and entitlement got caught in the spin cycle this week. We also had the spectacle of the relevant minister calling on homeless and possession-less people to contact Centrelink via the internet, or by the notoriously incompetent, inhuman and inhumane phone service.
MORE JACK WATERFORD:
Back in 1974, senior public servants began arriving at work, unbidden, by lunchtime on Christmas Day, and began meeting and advising their ministers. Even junior public servants drifted in, recognising that the victims needed help. The prime minister, Gough Whitlam, was in Greece inspecting other ruins (though he got to Darwin and spoke to victims a jolly sight more quickly than Morrison) and the acting prime minister was Dr Jim Cairns, who was for the next few months the most popular man in Australia, particularly for his calm, compassionate and empathetic management.
Cabinet met while Stretton was still in the air to Darwin, and over the aircraft radio, Cairns promised him and his deputy, all the authority they needed to plan and implement a massive relief effort. That involved more than making decisions about what to do - which soon included, after advice from folk on the ground - the evacuation of the city. It involved planning, organising and implementing everything, finding out who had supplies, and where, and if or how they could be commandeered. Ships were chartered; by nightfall Admiral Tony Synott had organised a navy ship to set off from Sydney with emergency items, including food and tarpaulins. This was organised by nightfall on Christmas Day - a holiday of holidays - with most sailors on leave. And while communications with Darwin were completely shut off. No one was saying that they couldn't move with all deliberate speed.
It was soon discovered that the department of manufacturing industry had many of the resources needed, and in Tom Lawrence, its deputy secretary, one of the world's champion scroungers and organisers. If Stretton was running Darwin, Vardenega was in effect running the whole country.
Vardanega was organising the most massive peacetime diversion of resources Australia had achieved before (or since). Ordinary government continued but extraordinary government was being performed by Vardenega and a small, impromptu and ad hoc team of public servants. Ministers were kept informed, and their views - or at least those of Cairns and Whitlam in particular - were incorporated into decisions. But no one was sitting around waiting for authority to do things which were necessary, for ministerial signatures, or press statements to be checked by the media managers. There were few demarcation disputes. Many tasks - including recording the city of arrival of evacuees, their preliminary places of shelter, emergency dispensation of cash, counselling arrangements, and communications, were organised by public servants, social workers and volunteers, mostly from the department of social security and the social welfare commission.
A treasury official, Roy Daniels, sat close to Vardenega recording decisions that involved expenditure (there was no department of finance then). All decisions were recorded. Spending decisions had proper, if novel, signing off arrangements. Later, they would be subject to inspection by the auditor-general as well as parliamentary committees. Public servants and military - and the ministers at a distance - were focused on making things happen, not in obstructing anything.
Every man and his dog wanted to help. Many got in the way. Vardenega brought in his young daughter to create a switchboard and divert some of the timewasters.
No minister had his own personal photographer on official visits to Darwin. No-one claimed the right to exclude the media, and no one - least of all Whitlam - used back exits to avoid members of the public likely to be critical.
Van Vardenega thought that communications was a primary part of the operation. Not public relations. Not political spin. Information. Facts. And informed opinion and background detail.
And he did not concede control over the public's right to be informed by any of the political or bureaucratic empire builders who offered to take the burden away from him.
"I made it clear from the outset that, first, we would always tell the truth as far as we knew it, and secondly (18 years before FOI legislation) the media had free access to National Disaster Organisation areas and any papers involved in the disaster,'' Vardenega said. "In turn, I expected a fair go. ... they never let us down. No event in Australian history was ever so widely or accurately reported.''
Perhaps there's a lesson in that for Scott Morrison. And, perhaps, also for the public relations embuggerances at the department of defence, and the people doing heaven knows what, at Emergency Management Australia and the National Recovery and Resilience Agency. Supposedly the latter combines its "expertise" in natural disaster response, recovery and resilience, working with affected communities and all levels of government and industry. I'm awaiting their references from the people of Cobargo, many now into their third year of learning self-reliance from the Commonwealth, perhaps for want of a handshake.
It should be remembered that the Commonwealth does not do anything, as such, to fight bushfires, rescue people from floods etc, except in extremis when the ADF is invited. That may explain why states who actually fight fires, or perform emergency services are somewhat reluctant to accord leadership to the Commonwealth.
That does not greatly trouble people at the very ambitious department of home affairs, since it seems to be by paperwork, not results, that the organisation judges itself. Maybe there's also a lesson in that for Morrison.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
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