ABC News

Home Politics Politics Features

Australian Politics Has a “Smoko” of a Leadership Problem

While Australia suffers through an endless barrage of bushfires, the eyes of the nation are on Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Over the past month, the only thing that’s been hotter than the bushfires that have been ravishing Australia has been the political discourse that’s accompanied them.

While emergency management has traditionally been the responsibility of the state governments rather than the Commonwealth, it’s primarily been Prime Minister Scott Morrison (whose bushfire response has seen him go from being labelled “ScoMo” to “Smoko”) who’s been learning the hard way that there’s few things which anger Australians more than watching elected leaders run from a major crisis.

Australians don’t expect their parliamentarians to pick up a fire hose or put in fire breaks in a bulldozer, but nor do they expect them to go sprinting off to the cleaner skies of Hawaii, Bali, and Europe on holiday while half the country is alight.

Nor in fact, do they expect those same parliamentarians to try to capitalise politically off fire related announcements in carefully produced videos, while not telling the New South Wales Rural Fire Commissioner that they were getting the Army involved in the firefighting efforts.

But perhaps most crucially, nor do they expect parliamentarians to go rushing into disaster zones for photo opportunities, then forcefully seizing the hands of both firefighters and heavily pregnant women from those areas, when they didn’t want anything to do with them.

Spin marketing, attempts at obfuscation and a lot of smoke with mirrors.

One could almost say that this has been a “business as usual” response from an Australian Parliament, which has now been immolating itself over climate change and environmental management for over a decade.

Since the 2007 Federal Election, the Australian political landscape has been littered with no less than five Prime Ministers who’ve been burned by their inability to address both the social, economic and natural environments in relation to climate change.

While John Howard was viewed as doing too little too late with his Emissions Trading Scheme policies, his successor Kevin Rudd came across as weak and dishevelled after being unable to force such a system through Parliament himself.

Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership on the other hand was sunk as a result of her perceived deals with the Australian Greens over the Carbon Tax (and a vindictive Kevin Rudd), while Tony Abbott’s student politics style leadership both burned bridges within his own party and highlighted that he was more focused on ideological purity than achieving real outcomes.

Last but not least, the final nail in the coffins of Malcolm Turnbull’s tenures as both Opposition Leader and later Prime Minister came on the back of supporting Emissions Trading Schemes and National Energy Guarantees, against the wishes of the “Hard Right” faction of his own party.

While Morrison, who has been a climate change skeptic in the past, has promised a Royal Commission into the bushfires, it would be unwise for him to think that he can then wash his hands of it and lay the blame for the current crisis at the feet of the state governments.

Australians don’t expect their parliamentarians to pick up a fire hose or put in fire breaks in a bulldozer, but nor do they expect them to go sprinting off to the cleaner skies of Hawaii, Bali, and Europe on holiday while half the country is alight.

Royal Commissions, like any form of public inquiry, have had a long history of bringing political leaders down in Australia, particularly ones from the conservative side of politics, which the Prime Minister belongs to.

In the same way that one former New South Wales Premier was forced to fall on his sword for accepting a $3,000 bottle of wine from a prohibited political donor a few years ago and then having that state’s standing anti-corruption Royal Commission uncover it, Morrison could be forced to fall on his own if the inquiry and its recently announced Chief Commissioner find any of his actions to have been inappropriate.

Take for example the number of warnings that were given to the federal government about the pending crisis, prior to the start of the bushfires a few months ago.

While the general public is familiar with the public warnings that were made by a group of retired fire and emergency services commissioners from across Australia during the early stages of the crisis and their calls for further firefighting resources at the time, few people are aware that the Commonwealth was also receiving similar warnings from Commonwealth-funded agencies, as far back as August.

Those warnings came from none other than the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, which list senior members of the Department of Home Affairs as both their board members and their data end-users. These reports, detailing increased volatility across specific areas of New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria, warned of catastrophic fire conditions as a result of the ongoing drought in Eastern Australia and the effects of climate change on fire behaviour.

Literally each of these areas have since burned out, which raises the question as to why the Morrison Government wasn’t more prepared to assist with the recovery of these areas and their residents, a lot sooner than what they were.

While the Australian Defence Force mightn’t be equipped to fight bushfires, there are few organisations better suited to providing sustained logistical support to the firefighters.

As one of the parliamentarians whose electorates have been worst hit by the crisis and a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Australian Army, few individuals know that more than the sitting Labor Federal Member for Eden-Monaro, Mike Kelly.

In a frank and detailed post on his official Facebook page, Kelly detailed what further contributions the Defence Forces could have made, if they’d been called up in greater numbers by the Commonwealth than their initial contribution back in November.

From carting water and other supplies through to leading evacuations, refuelling aircraft, clearing fire-trails with earthmoving equipment, coordinating heavy traffic, doing reconnaissance with drones, providing catering and ensuring that communication lines stay open, Kelly offered fair and constructive criticism of the Commonwealth’s delayed response to the crisis, while also offering some constructive solutions of his own.

Kelly, who was recovering from medical procedures throughout the Christmas period, said in a statement that bi-partisanship was crucial to helping the regions worst hit by the fires recover, while that everybody who needed help would get it.

“I am obliged to pace things out a little with my own recovery, but will eventually get to everywhere I need to across the 42,000 sq km of Eden Monaro, to ensure we are getting the help we need,” Kelly wrote on Facebook. “Next week I will be in the Snowy Valleys area and will be accompanied by some State and Federal colleagues to ensure the recovery effort is bi-partisan.”

But while there may be a sense of bipartisanship amongst the federal and state parliamentarians who’ve had their electorates go up in flames, the same can’t be said for the leaders of the states worst hit by this crisis and the Prime Minister.

Once the bushfires die down, even Premiers like Gladys Berejiklian from New South Wales, who is a member of Scott Morrison’s own party, will not be in the mood for any political games that Morrison might try to play with them in relation to taking the blame for the fires. Nor will their responsible officials, such as the NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons.

With reports suggesting that Morrison wants this Royal Commission fully completed by August – such inquires normally take years – this could be a serious possibility.

When that happens, all bets are off when it comes to whatever political skeletons there are of Morrison’s that are still in the closet, coming out to see the light of day.

This has already started to happen on some levels, with the State Member for Bega and senior Berejiklian Cabinet Minister Andrew Constance, temporarily stepping away from the New South Wales Ministry in order to work more closely with both sides of politics during the bushfire recovery process.

Constance, who has been one of the conservative Coalition’s stand-out performers over recent years, hasn’t held back from openly criticising the Prime Minister, for a perceived lack of empathy for the bushfire survivors, not communicating with elected officials and not making funds immediately available for those who have lost everything during the past few months.

During an interview with ABC Radio, Constance was frank about the immense impact that the fires were having on a human level.

“My life has changed forever because of this, I’m now looking at things differently. I am going to need trauma counselling and so are thousands of others in my community.”

A few months ago, the former US President Barack Obama made a few remarks on ideological purity in the face of real world issues and people with opposing views, such as those on both sides of the climate change and bushfire debates within Australia.

“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff,” President Obama said. “You should get over that quickly.”

“The world is messy; there are ambiguities,” he continued.

“People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.”

If the bushfires have shown anything, it’s that these words are just as reflective of both sides of Australian politics as they are of America’s, particularly in the wake of the current bushfire crisis.

Kate Doak is an investigative researcher for 10 NewsFirst in Australia. She’s also a political contributor for Rolling Stone magazine.