Then secretly went on holiday overseas. Only the rising fury of a frightened nation could rouse him from his tropical torpor. Worse, when he realised the depth of his negligence, he subtly tried to shift some of the blame onto his wife and children. He told us repeatedly that he had promised a Hawaiian holiday to “Jen and the girls”. The implication is that his wife and daughters are so selfish or ill-informed that they would insist on their own personal comfort and recreation in the midst of an unfolding catastrophe.
This was his lowest point. An abdication of leadership by a Prime Minister who is so small that he cannot give a proper accounting to his people without implicating his children.
Even some of his most senior allies in the government remain baffled by Morrison’s misjudgment in fire response and find themselves speechless in trying to explain.
Since then, he has worked hard to get active. The fire-fighting effort in which he was previously uninterested he has now designated as worthy of a full parliamentary day of tribute. Morrison has announced that the volunteer firefighters and emergency personnel, many of whom felt overlooked by their federal government, are now to get medals.
He has got some elements right. His government eventually committed the money and the energy to assist the states, boost direct aid to victims and townships, normalise disaster response as a primary mission for the military, and begin work on a full-scale recovery and resilience program. This week he identified perhaps the most important principle in transforming Australia’s energy system and cutting its carbon emissions: “technology not taxes”.
A carbon tax remains politically untenable in Australia. And they’re not doing enough of the hard work worldwide to halt the spiral of accelerating climate change. Even if the entire world delivers on its Paris commitments, we now know that Paris-scale carbon cuts are inadequate to the task of holding back planetary disaster. Governments around the world have failed, and are failing.
The practical course is for mass mobilisation of investment in transformative technology. Governments don’t have to do all the investment – the world is awash in an estimated $US50 trillion of private capital sitting idle because its owners cannot find enough returns and enough political certainty to invest it.
But governments are essential to mobilising capital. Because only governments can create policy frameworks that investors need.
Australia has had an enormous infusion of renewable energy investment under way, but it has stalled. Large-scale renewable energy investment has halved, from $10.7 billion in 2018 to $4.5 billion last year, according to the Clean Energy Council.
“The renewable energy industry no longer needs subsidies,” the council’s chief executive, Kane Thornton says, “but investors need some level of certainty.”
This is the challenge for Morrison and the states. The good news is that he’s alive to it. Morrison said at the National Press Club this week: “To guide Australia’s future technology investments, the government will next month release for consultation a new technology roadmap charting the way forward in areas such as hydrogen, solar and batteries, transmission and networks, large-scale energy storage, and carbon capture and storage.”
The bad news is that it’s beyond urgent. After Australia’s dismal decade of over-politicisation of climate and energy, all elements of Australia’s energy and climate policy are inadequate. The power grid is groaning under the strain of a hot summer, some major manufacturers are warning that power remains so pricey that they are considering shutting smelters and moving production offshore, and still emissions remain too high.
Morrison is working on other elements of Australia’s pyro-hydro-climate crisis. He has some dead wrong. And, as the fires still rage across a parched land, the drought still bites, the dams still fall and rivers still shrivel, he has a long way to go to try to redeem himself in the eyes of his country.
For most of Australia, Morrison’s fire failure was the first strong impression they had of the man. Recall that three months before he took the prime ministership, only 54 per cent of the population recognised his name, according to the Australia Institute’s ministerial recognition poll. Even after half a year in the job, that had risen to only 77 per cent. In other words, almost a quarter of the people didn’t know who their Prime Minister was. And of those who recognised his name, most had only scant knowledge and vague impressions.
Well, everyone in Australia knows Morrison now. You only get one chance to make a first impression. Morrison, for much of Australia, blew his.
And German Chancellor Angela Merkel will not any longer need to hold a photograph of Morrison in her hand to make sure she recognises him at international summits. The world knows who he is now.
The disaster has brought forth other leaders. The NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, has impressed millions with his tirelessness, selflessness, steadiness.
The iron ore entrepreneur Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest has emerged as the standout leader in the private sector. Not because he wrote the biggest cheque, which he did, at $70 million, but because of his purposefulness in creating a research centre, run by a scientist of standing, “to produce an Australian blueprint for fire resilience that can be shared with the rest of the world”.
Morrison may be Prime Minister but he has yet truly to emerge as a leader. He has put a narrow project of political self-interest ahead of the enormous needs of nation.
A true leader enables those around him to rise to greatness. A true national leader enables a country to rise to greatness. In the case of an Australian leader, he or she has the opportunity to lead a continent, a position of global privilege no other country’s president or prime minister can boast.
In their two-volume study of the Australian prime ministership since federation, the political scientists Paul Strangio, Paul ‘t Hart and James Walter found that “a fundamental lesson” is that “it is naive to expect too much of leaders alone”. The best governments have been strongly collaborative, the best leaders consultative and inclusive ones who can bring together broad constituencies for national improvement.
Even when Morrison is actually trying, as he mobilises in pursuit of fire recovery and future resilience, this remains his greatest deficit.
He seems to find true collaboration and consultation to be the hardest thing. At the outset of the fire disaster, he refused to call a meeting of the Council of Australian Governments so that the federal leaders and state premiers could co-ordinate resources. There was one set for March, he said, and that was good enough. This remains his position to this day, obstinacy born of political vanity.
When he announced that he was mobilising the army reserve to help with the fires, he didn’t even mention it to the firefighters. He continues to operate as if other leaders, other institutions, other people are there to be ridden over roughshod rather than included in the national project of recovery and resilience.
Australia’s hydro-pyro-climate crisis is an opportunity for a great leader to unite the country, not divide it with political pettiness and grabs for political vainglory. Properly done, Morrison can yet become the leader presiding over Australia’s economic and environmental renaissance.
Ross Garnaut has written the handbook, Superpower. Morrison’s technology investment plans can be the beginning. Who knows, he might even begin to earn his redemption from the Australian people. He says he believes in miracles.
Peter Hartcher is political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.