Scott Morrison’s Lacking Leadership in the Face of Crisis

After what seems like a decade worth of calamity, we’ve finally made it to May.

Just five months in, 2020 has already seen mounting crises of seemingly only increasing scope.

Amid an ecological disaster on home soil, Australians began the new decade watching on with bated breath as America and Iran had a near-miss with war. Just months later, we were faced with the beginnings of a global pandemic.

In the current climate of social distancing and restrictions, the bushfire crisis of early-2020 may seem like a distant memory.

But we can’t forget and allow some of our country’s darkest days fall into the abyss of the 24/7 news cycle. It’s important to reflect on our Government’s handling, or lack thereof, of Black Summer.

If the bushfire crisis showed us anything – it’s that our government is woefully slow on the uptake when it comes to managing large scale disasters, leaving Australians to bear the brunt of the work both then and now.

When the Black Summer began, there was little predicting the scale the disaster would take. Sure, experts had been warning our leaders and the public since 2008 that the effects of climate change – unprecedented heat in combination with the worst drought ever recorded in the country that would make even rainforest areas potential kindling – would change the way the bushfire season would play out.

But even so, no one really believed it would get as bad as it did.

Come December, the images pouring out of Australia were apocalyptic. By the time the bushfire season officially came to an end in March, at least 34 people had been killed, an estimated 18.6 million hectares burned, more than 5,900 homes and buildings destroyed, and many animal species pushed to the brink of extinction.

Outside of the burning areas, smoke haze blanketed the country for weeks – even reaching across the Tasman to New Zealand.

As postup reported, the disaster’s effects were widespread, touching everything from the deeply culturally significant pastime of sport to the mental health of people across the country.

Yet in the midst of this crisis, the government was notably slow to respond, sluggish to pledge monetary relief and disjointed in it’s cooperation with the states. The government response to both the crisis and resultant criticism was widely considered underwhelming and inappropriate.

This came to a head when – as the fires ravaged much of the country – Prime Minister Scott Morrison took his family on holiday to Hawaii.

Attitudes turned sour as the public became aware than Morrison had neglected to make the large-scale preparations needed despite expert advice given months before the fire season had even begun.

Conversely, it was the Australian community that rallied together in a show of mateship. Recently published estimates put the average donation from adult Australians at $122 each, with well over half of us donated.

It’s the biggest disaster relief fundraiser in Australian history, totalling more than $500 million.

Australians put their lives, time and money on the line to help their neighbours, while countries such as New Zealand, Canada, Papua New Guinea and the US pledged both monetary and military support, and famous faces all over the world sent messages of support along with their donations.

In stark contrast, the Prime Minister used his first press conference of the new year to urge a stressed and exhausted community to “be patient.”

“Let me be clear to the Australian people, our emissions reductions policies will both protect our environment and seek to reduce the risk and hazard we are seeing today,” he said in defence of an environmental policy unlikely to meet Australia’s Paris targets.

Now, as we grapple with a new public crisis, the government’s response has already been criticised as piecemeal and reactionary, rather than proactive.

Although Australia isn’t facing anti-isolation protests, our government’s response to COVID-19 has been far from smooth sailing.

Starting by banning gatherings of more than 500 people, then 100, before restricting gatherings to one person for every four-square-metres, even the most well-meaning among us struggled to keep up.

While countries around the world worked quickly to close schools and workplaces, shut borders, and make masks compulsory, and experts asked Australians to stay at home to help “flatten the curve”, the Australian government was slow on the uptake.

Public calls for rent and mortgage freezes have been rising as many casual workers, particularly the young and financially vulnerable, are laid off from work. Western Australia, for example, has already frozen fees such as electricity, water, and car registration.

The introduction of JobKeeper Payment was a welcome step in the right direction.

But once again, it appears to be the community that is stepped up to support one and other in the interim.

Some set up free home delivery services for people in isolation, others singing to neighbours isolated alone in quarantine.

“Just got this message from my landlord, immediately burst into tears,” one young renter posted on Twitter, along with a screenshot indicating that she would be “safe in her home” despite financial distress.

The ABC reported last week that neighbourhood groups were appearing all over the country, with people sharing support, information, and offers to help those in need. If the overwhelming response to the bushfires has shown anything, it’s that these examples of generosity and Aussie mateship are likely to continue.

Uncertainty remains, with no one sure when this new crisis will end, or what the effects will be to a community still reeling from the recent bushfires. But while we look to the future, our own government’s handling of crises mustn’t be forgotten.

Image by Rachel Darling