The understanding that prime minister Scott Morrison is a cunning political player yet lacks the leadership skills that are needed to run a nation is becoming a common sentiment around the country these days.
Labor MP Julian Hill helped popularise it when he charged the PM with being responsible for the short lockdown of Greater Melbourne in early June, for failing in his two pandemic responsibilities: the vaccine rollout and quarantine.
“He is a very cunning politician,” Hill told reporters at Parliament House, “but he is a failure – an absolute failure – as a leader.”
And this was before the current extended Sydney lockdown, as well as the recent brief shutdowns that have occurred in SA, WA, Queensland and again in Victoria.
Morrison released the national plan for opening up, which is based on scientific modelling, last Friday. This relies on the vaccination of at least 70 percent of the population to make lockdowns less likely, which highlights that the PM was wrong when he said it was not a race to vaccinate in March.
But the loss of faith in the PM is about much more than just his failing to coordinate the mass vaccination program promptly, rather it’s about his continuance to play the role of leader like it was a political chess game, when, in reality, those pawns on the board are real people.
The Hawaii Five-0 PM
When Morrison assumed office in August 2018, no one was aware that he would be the head of state to lead the nation into a new era of mounting crises.
That’s except for the scientists who may have had an inkling, after warning about extreme climate events and pandemics for decades.
But the new PM wasn’t too worried about the issue of climate change, despite the severe drought in the southeast of the country. Indeed, Morrison was the politician who boldly entered parliament swinging his big lump of coal around announcing to the chamber it was nothing to be scared off.
This buffoonery certainly was a sign of how off-key the Coalition MP was in terms of what changing climate had in store for us, as two and a half years later, when he was then at the helm, the nation suffered the greatest bushfire crisis it has ever seen with 20 percent of mainland forest perishing.
The bushfire crisis was in full swing when in November 2019 the PM appeared before a Queensland Resources Council lunch to advise the industry that he was drafting laws to prevent Australians partaking in secondary boycott actions targeting investment in climate destroying projects.
The following month, when the fires were at their peak, Morrison then flew to Hawaii for a prearranged family getaway, without informing the public. Photos began emerging of him sitting by the beach relaxing. And the subsequent chorus of outrage saw him fly back early.
But when he got back, the prime minister was seen to excuse his behaviour, as he dismissed the need for the leader of a nation to be present during such a crisis when he made the throwaway remark to a radio host: “I don’t hold a hose, mate. And I don’t sit in the control room.”
Who is at the controls?
The vaccine rollout has been a monumental stuff up. But instead of apologising to the nation for the situation it’s currently in, the prime minister initially tried to palm off responsibility for the failure onto others, such as the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation.
Morrison’s ducking to avoid providing adequate answers to questions, as well as his reluctance to use the word “sorry” may very well work when debating fellow MPs, but when it comes to dealing with a traumatised public, a leader avoiding responsibility is a sure sign of weakness, not strength.
After mounting pressure from the public, Morrison finally apologised on 22 July, stating, “I’m certainly sorry that we haven’t been able to achieve the marks that we had hoped for at the beginning of this year. Of course, I am.”
However, during this same press conference, Morrison was asked about the deaths of two Australians after having taken the AstraZeneca vaccine, of which the prime minister has been advising people to do since June, and he again provided answers that didn’t reflect his role.
“We’re all responsible for our own health,” the PM told the journalist asking the question. “People make their own decisions about their own health and their own bodies.”
While Peter Dutton has made it well known that it is not official policy to show compassion towards refugees, it might have been thought the PM would have shown some sign of humanity towards the deceased after they followed government advice, rather than throwing responsibility back on them.
A cabal of misogynists
The other major crisis that’s been playing out this year has been that relating to the treatment of women in parliament and by Coalition MPs. This has involved an alleged sexual assault in a minister’s office, allegations of an historic rape against a senior minister, and online harassment.
During this debacle, Morrison mislead parliament in relation to questions around the Gaetjens inquiry into the Higgins rape claim, which saw the PM deny his awareness that the investigation had been halted via some of his tricky political wording which meant he didn’t technically lie.
The Liberal leader yet again conveyed to the public that he was dearth of regular human emotions when he announced that he’d had to ask his wife about how he should react to the rape claims. Though, luckily, she was able to relate the situation to his daughters to kick start his empathy.
And this week, Morrison has further shown his prowess in reading the room, when he appointed Christian Porter to the position of acting leader of the House of Representatives.
The public wanted an independent inquiry into the historic rape claims that were made against former attorney general Porter, but instead Morrison has rewarded him with a temporary promotion.
A glimpse behind the podium
Politicians being concerned about their re-election is well understood. And so is the fact that they might say things publicly or act in certain ways to garner voter support. However, a show of inhumanity or inability to relate to others doesn’t bode well with the constituency.
And a short piece of footage capturing three senior ministers in the act of having a private conversation in 2015 shows the difference between what is said in the official capacity and what the pollies are saying behind closed doors.
Then PM Tony Abbott was standing between then immigration minister Dutton and then social services minister Morrison as they were waiting for a press conference to take place at Parliament House.
The trio were discussing a recent Pacific Islands Forum that took place in Papua New Guinea, which had involved the leaders of Pacific nations failing to convince the Australian government to set a climate target of 1.5 degrees.
When noting the event attendees on the day were running late, Dutton said it was “Cape York time”. And Abbott added that he’d seen “a bit of that up in Port Moresby” at the forum.
Dutton then replied, “Time doesn’t mean anything when you’re, you know, about to have water lapping at your door.”
Morrison stepped in to advise the laughing pair that there was a boom microphone hanging over their heads potentially recording them.
And while this does show our current PM switched on in terms of minding the public eye, it also shows his complicity in acknowledging changing climate exists but jovially ignoring it to the detriment of all.
Images: “Llegada de Scott Morrison, primer ministro de Australia” by G20 Argentina is licensed under CC BY 2.0. This is a representation of what the Covid-19 virus would look like under a powerful microscope by HFCM Communicatie is licenced under CC BY-SA 4.0. “Wildfire” by USFWS/Southeast is marked with CC PDM 1.0.
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.