Yet leadership is about the bad times more than the good.
Morrison, a former managing director of Tourism Australia, has a background in marketing. Australians are now wondering whether they have elected a leader who is more skilled at celebrating the positive than dealing with a crisis. It’s a belief captured in the widespread use this week of the mocking hashtag #ScottyfromMarketing.
It’s hard to convey the scale of Australia’s ongoing wildfire emergency. In its most populous state, New South Wales, at least 16 people have died, more than 1,300 homes been lost since July 1, and 3.6 million hectares have been burnt. Millions of wild animals have also died. Further south, in Victoria, at least 28 people are unaccounted for and two are confirmed dead.
The area burnt is already much greater than the 900,000 hectares lost in the 2019 Amazon fires and the 800,000 hectares that burned in California in 2018.
In the past week, coastal towns in the country’s southeast have been attacked by flames, with holidaymakers forced to run toward the relative safety of the beach as the skies turned red and ash rained down. In holiday resorts such as Mallacoota, ringed by fire, the navy is now conducting a sea evacuation of thousands of people who have been cowering on the shoreline. Some — like 11-year-old Finn Burns, who was captured in a viral photo from Tuesday — took to small boats to escape.
Further north, in New South Wales, tens of thousands of people have now been ordered to leave coastal areas, with a day of strong winds and hot temperatures forecast for Saturday. It is among the largest emergency movements of people in the country’s history.
It’s hard to find anyone who is unaffected in some way. For me, a bush house I built with friends now has flames at the gate. For others, like those in the nation’s capital, the air quality is so poor that stores have sold out of face marks.
Local leaders — such as the premier of New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian — have worked every day of the crisis, directing operations and comforting those who have lost homes and loved ones. Berejiklian is part of the same political party as the prime minister, and yet the contrast has been stark.
A fortnight ago, as the fires intensified, the prime minister slipped out of the country to enjoy a family holiday in Hawaii. Amid mounting criticism, he returned home a day early after the death of two volunteer firefighters, essentially admitting the trip had been a mistake. He also rejected offers of advice from an expert group of former firefighters and refused to move up a proposed national summit on the emergency.
Instead, he has sung from his customary songbook. In a news conference this week, he argued the current crisis was nothing new: “They are natural disasters. They wreak this sort of havoc when they affect our country, and they have for a very long time. The best way to respond is the way that Australians have always responded.”
A day earlier, he spoke of the fires as a “time of great challenge for Australia,” but then urged Australians to watch the traditional cricket match against New Zealand and “be inspired by the great feats of our cricketers from both sides of the Tasman.” He also delivered a New Year’s Day television address telling Australians “there’s no better place to raise kids anywhere on the planet.”
By the time Morrison visited affected communities this week, people were furious. In one devastated town, the prime minister was jeered by locals, forcing him to quickly return to his car. A senior member of his own party said he got “the welcome he probably deserved.”
Morrison’s grudging response seems uncannily similar to that of George W. Bush, caught wrong-footed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Bush was slow to return from vacation and seemed unable to understand the scale of the disaster. Some say his presidency never recovered. With Bush’s example to consider, why is the Australian prime minister so eagerly flinging himself into the same trap?
The most obvious explanation: It’s a measure of how keen he is to avoid discussion of climate change and its role in increasing the ferocity of these fires. To admit that these fires are unprecedented in their scale, timing and intensity would be to admit that Australia is particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change. And that would, in turn, put pressure on his government to be a leader, rather than a laggard, when it comes to reducing carbon emissions.
For a man who once proudly carried a lump of coal into Parliament in order to sing its praises, that, it seems, is an outcome to be resisted at all cost. Even if the cost is his own popularity.