Sexual assault in minister’s suite: just another day at the prime minister’s office

Scott Morrison approaches politics like the medicine-show spruikers of old. The key to survival for those wily peddlers of miracle elixirs was to keep moving, staying one step ahead of outraged villagers, going on to transfix the gullible of some other unsuspecting locale with their bogus claims, half-truths and practised patter.

For the very best of these charlatans, such was their mesmerising charm, so fickle were their audiences, that even the angriest and most cynical denizens were willing to forgive and forget the next time the medicine-show caravan showed up.

That was the secret to the longevity of the medicine-show flim-flam men: just keep moving.

Scott Morrison has made a career of moving on, whether it’s flitting from one job to another, leaving behind him a detritus of failure and unmet expectations, or as prime minister, mastering the art of deflection, denial and distraction. Morrison routinely resorts to denunciation to silence or mock critics. He uses announcements, slogans and photo ops to beguile his audiences. With breathtaking opportunism he adjusts his persona to suit the occasion or objective and he is without shame in his resort to homespun platitudes, clichés and cant when called on to demonstrate empathy.

Morrison is a salesman of the showman variety. He is a marketing man who believes it’s all about the sizzle. It has defined his working life and it has certainly defined his prime ministership.

And he has been getting away with it, much to the apoplectic rage of his detractors who cannot understand how his flim-flammery is overlooked, and worse, rewarded. The Morrison government is the most scandal-prone federal government since the Whitlam government, but without its vision or achievements.

It’s unlikely that most Australians – diehard Liberals aside – can’t see through Scott Morrison. The true puzzle is why they are so willing to excuse his inauthenticity and dissembling.

But as our American friends would say, the jig may be up for Scott Morrison.

Text-book Morrison

And the catalyst is the harrowing and damning story of Brittany Higgins, the young Liberal party ministerial staffer who alleges that in March 2019 she was raped by a senior colleague on the couch of a minister’s Parliament House office – the office of their employer, the then-minister for Defence Industry Linda Reynolds, who is now Defence minister. Higgins was 24 at the time.

The PM’s initial response was text-book Morrison when he explained at a press conference:

“Jenny and I spoke last night and she said to me, ‘You have to think about this as a father first. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?’ Jenny has a way of clarifying things.”

There is nothing untoward about government leaders privately discussing matters of moment with their spouses and even to be influenced or guided by those discussions.

But was it really necessary to publicly frame his empathy in the context of his fireside chat with Jenny or to explain his understanding of the horror endured by Brittany Higgins by referencing the fact that he has daughters?

Kudos to 10 News political reporter Tegan George who took Morrison to task at that press conference: “Shouldn’t you have thought about it as a human being? What happens if men don’t have a wife and children?”

In typical fashion, Morrison batted away the reporter’s question with “I can’t follow the question you’re putting”.

Morrison’s concerned-father shtick – not the first time it has been employed by Morrison – was part homily but also a calculated gambit to place himself above the fray of a political shitstorm about to engulf his government.

At the heart of that approaching maelstrom was whether Scott Morrison’s office – and indeed Morrison himself – was aware of the alleged rape of two years ago. Until Brittany Higgins publicly revealed the alleged assault nothing had been done about it, ostensibly because the incident was a closely guarded secret and that Ms Higgins herself had opted not to pursue her initial complaint to the Australian Federal Police.

‘Wake-up call’

To the extent that the incident was “handled” it was done so atrociously. Ms Higgins recalls that in a meeting with Reynolds – conducted in the very room in which the alleged assault took place – the “options” available to Ms Higgins were discussed. The upshot of that meeting was that Ms Higgins felt that she was forced to choose between pursuing her complaint to police or keeping her “dream job” of just a few weeks. She chose the latter.

Reynolds has apologised for her mishandling of her employee’s complaint, noting that she was not aware that the meeting had taken place in the room that was the scene of the alleged crime.

Following the disclosure of the alleged assault in February, Morrison told a Coalition party-room meeting that this was a “wake-up call” about the treatment of women in federal parliament.

This was a hollow declaration. The toxic environment that women staffers have to endure in Parliament House was well known. It occasioned the introduction of former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s 2018 “bonk ban”, an edict banning ministers from having sexual relationships with staffers following then-Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce’s affair with media adviser Vikki Campion.

More recently, in November 2020, ABC TV’s Four Corners program revealed allegations of inappropriate conduct involving staff members by ministers Christian Porter and Alan Tudge. At the time, Morrison was apparently not moved to consult with Jenny about his response. Morrison chose not to discipline Porter and Tudge because the program canvassed behaviour that took place during Turnbull’s prime ministership. But neither did the ABC’s revelations constitute a “wake up call” to warrant a review of the prevailing culture at Parliament House. Far from it. Communications minister Paul Fletcher sent ABC chair Ita Buttrose a “please explain” letter so affronted was he by the intrusions into the “personal lives” of his ministerial colleagues.

The secret everyone knew

The assertion that it took Brittany Higgins’ revelations to provide the wake-up call is disingenuous. Morrison claims he was “advised” by his office that it only became aware of the Higgins allegations on Friday 12 February and that he was not informed until the following Monday. (No point spoiling the hard-working PM’s weekend over such trifles.)

The idea that the Prime Minister’s Office would be kept in the dark about such an incident is laughable.

It especially enters the realm of the inconceivable given that there was a Department of Parliamentary Services internal inquiry in the immediate aftermath of the incident following concerns expressed by security guards, an inquiry Speaker Tony Smith and Senate President Scott Ryan were aware of, as reportedly were several Coalition and Labor senators.

We also know that a flurry of texts from as early as April 2019 have come to light indicating that members of the PMO were aware of the incident.

Ms Higgins has also claimed that Morrison’s principal private secretary contacted her to “check in” around the time of the Four Corners program, a claim which has been denied.

Morrison claims to be mystified by claims that his office had long known of the incident contrary to their advice that they only recently became aware. He has instituted a Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet review to “test that advice”.

Political apparatchiks being what they are they will gladly take a bullet for their PM and wear it as a badge of honour. Scott Morrison may be personally in the clear when it comes to his knowledge of the alleged rape, but this is only made possible by a culture of “plausible deniability” that keeps the boss ignorant of details while minions beaver away at resolving potentially damaging problems.

The evidence that is emerging is that the PMO treated the alleged rape of Ms Higgins as a political problem to be managed, not as yet another instance of the corrosive working culture for women at Parliament House.

A second woman, a former Liberal staffer, who has come forward to allege she was sexually assaulted late last year by the same former Morrison government adviser accused of raping Brittany Higgins condemned the government’s inaction in 2019.

“If this had been properly dealt with by the government in 2019 this would not have happened to me,’’ she said.

Morrison must ultimately bear responsibility for a cold-hearted culture within his office that reduces rape to a political problem. Clearly Morrison’s self-proclaimed humanity has not rubbed off on his advisers.

We now have four inquires under way or promised: into the prime minister’s office, into the process of making workplace complaints at Parliament House, into complaints handling processes within the Coalition and an independent review of the workplace culture at Parliament House.

Whether those inquiries will amount to anything while Scott Morrison remains prime minister is another matter. More than likely the caravan will simply move on.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW, brw.com.au and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Connect with him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

The flim-flam men: it’s no surprise that Scott Morrison refuses to condemn Donald Trump

Scott Morison’s insipid response to the storming of the US Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump, having been incited to do so by Trump himself, was an excruciating embarrassment for Australia. But then, so is Scott Morrison.

Whether for his climate-change inaction, the indefinite detention of refugees, the witless antagonising of China or the abandonment of Julian Assange Morrison stands on the edges of the world stage as a leader recognised for just one principal ambition: to be liked by Donald Trump.

So it would have surprised no one that Morrison, while finding the riots in Washington “terribly concerning”, pointedly refrained from criticising Trump for his role in the insurrection.

The leaders of the UK, Germany, France and Canada – traditional allies of the US – showed no such reticence. They unambiguously condemned Trump. When the US President deliberately foments violence in a bid to retain power denied him by voters, there is no room for diplomatic diffidence and every responsibility to speak out.

This was not a mere matter of “internal politics” from which outsiders should abstain.

Donald Trump was not only an affront to American norms but to the norms of those nations that subscribe to democratic values and rule of law. For world leaders to have tolerated Trump’s abhorrent behaviour would have been to debase everything the world’s great democracies stand for. Boris Johnson, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau understood that allowing Trump’s demagoguery to pass without censure would have been cowardly, irresponsible and hypocritical.

But not Scott Morrison who confined himself to tut-tutting the Washington riots. While the world condemned Trump – even members of his own party – Morrison batted away questions from reporters who asked if Trump bore any responsibility for the attempted insurrection.

“It’s not for me to offer commentary on other leaders,” Morrison explained. 

Even when that leader is the President of the United States and he flagrantly and defiantly incites supporters to overthrow the nation’s democratic processes?

Morrison’s silence spoke with abundant and disturbing clarity.

Scott Morrison is a Trump man, and like Trump’s most rabid supporters, including in Australia, Morrison believes his orange hero can do no wrong.

Morrison and Trump are cut from the same cloth.

Corrosive credo

Both men believe that substance has no role in success, that substance is for losers. Anyone fool enough to stand for something is only going to get torn down, usually by the likes of Trump and Morrison. Every flim-flam man knows that spin is king and detail is death. Announcements are an end in themselves; a lie repeated often enough becomes truth; and anyone who disagrees with you is the enemy, to be belittled, discredited and harangued. Theirs is a corrosive credo: never explain, never apologise, deny everything and embellish at every turn.

Trump is almost certainly not a billionaire, but he repeatedly boasts that he is and he has always lived like one, or at least like a comic-book caricature of a billionaire. Likewise, there is nothing in Trump’s history that sets him apart as an astute businessman – quite the reverse in fact – but the persona of a successful tycoon took him all the way to the White House.

With relentless PR, an entourage of sycophants and a media too willing to look the other way, Trump got away with the billionaire tycoon charade. And it sticks to this day despite his clownish incompetence as president and the ignominy of the dying days of his presidency. History may not be kind to Trump, but his loyal fan base probably will be, and that includes Scott Morrison.

Morrison knows all about appearances. His cunning and chutzpah disguise a pedestrian intellect; he is not especially diligent and detail is not his strong suit but he is garrulous, in the way people with nothing to say often are, and a constant stream of announcements and re-announcements give the impression of a PM hard at work; and while his CV prior to entering politics suggests high attainment his career is murky and his successes over-stated.

Morrison may not have been a very good marketing man, but he has a marketing man’s instincts. His prime ministership has been all about positioning: the daggy-dad persona, the backyard-dad photo ops, the faux candid moments captured by his taxpayer-funded personal photographer; the exaggerated elbow bumps and bonhomie in public gatherings. Morrison spends more time portraying himself as Prime Minister than actually being Prime Minister.

Trump would understand where his antipodean protégé is coming from. Both men are “products”. All politicians are to a certain extent, but in the case of Trump and Morrison, that’s all they are.

Bread-and-circuses shtick

Trump is infamous for his transparently fake props when making solemn announcements (such as the table of manila folders at his press conference as president-elect to discuss future arrangements for the running of his business interests); the cringeworthy expressions of fealty and gratitude from members of Trump’s cabinet; the bible-in-hand photo op in front of St John’s church.

Trump may be more vulgar and boorish than Morrison, but they share the same bread-and-circuses shtick. Their heroes and role models are not Washington and Churchill but Barnum and Bailey.

Morrison is loath to criticise Trump – even with the disgraced president being impeached for an historic second time – because they are so similar. Both believe that power is its own reward; that having gained it their every effort and connivance must be geared to the sole task of retaining it. They do this not by good or worthy governance but through manipulation, artifice and sophistry.

But there is more to Morrison’s refusal to directly criticise Trump than fraternal love.

Morrison believes that, like Trump, he has a base, a conservative base that is sympathetic to Trump and his ideals (such as they are); a base that feels alienated, misunderstood and disenfranchised. Morrison believes there are votes in not criticising Trump.

Likewise, when Morrison insists that it is not for him to “censor” government backbenchers George Christensen and Craig Kelly for their crackpot theories about the US election and, of more consequence, COVID-19, he is more to the point saying that he is not going to risk alienating voters who agree with their discredited fantasies.

As a leader Morrison is entitled to assert his aversion to censorship, but as leader Morrison is also obliged to squash and discredit wild claims made by his MPs. Morrison is quick to defend MPs’ “freedom of speech”, but he is conspicuously reluctant to correct and distance himself from their misguided assertions.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Deputy PM Michael McCormack have also taken the freedom-of-speech high ground, apparently agreeing with their boss that it’s better to let misinformation flourish than to potentially upset voters by denouncing it.

This is Scott Morrison’s Australia, where leadership takes a distant second place to expediency, where the politics of three-card tricks and self-preservation have reduced government to its lowest and most cynical ebb.

It’s not clear why Morrison retains the trust of most Australians. Is it apathy, indifference? Perhaps an exhausted populace is hibernating until the next election before they turn their attention to Canberra.

Whatever the case, as of right now it appears that Scotty from Marketing has the next election in the bag. Australia has been flim-flammed.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. Connect with him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

The emperor with no pants thinks it’s all about him

Scott Morrison considers himself first and foremost a marketing man. Unfortunately for him, and Australia, he’s not a very good one.

His entire approach to government is based on the premise that he is a “brand” and that policies and government decisions are marketing exercises whose single aim is to support and enhance the brand. There is no national interest in such an approach, only self-interest.

When Morrison government ministers are revealed to be philanderers, crooks or incompetents – and as is frequently the case, all of the above – the prime minister’s first and only consideration is to protect the brand. Whatever the charge levelled at him, his government or his ministers the default reaction is to stonewall, deny and deflect.

It’s a simple proposition – simple as in puerile: that to admit to any deficiency is to place at risk the reputation of the brand. Quite apart from being a doubtful marketing strategy, such vacuity is the antithesis of good government.

Because the brand – not the good government of Australia – is Scott Morrison’s number-one priority, all the conventions and norms that define and protect our democracy have been jettisoned with trademark arrogance and contempt. (The comparisons with fellow salesman and flim-flam man Donald Trump make themselves.)

With breathtaking audacity Morrison has ditched any notion of ministerial standards and propriety, let alone observance of the law. He doesn’t even pretend.

The Prime Brand of Australia

Under Morrison’s government-by-marketing mandate the brand is sacrosanct so anyone daring to question a government decision or failing is ignored, belittled or fed an incompressible word-salad response that drips with condescension and indignation. Never has an Australian prime minister considered media enquiry with such scorn; Morrison considers it a personal affront to be held to account by journalists.

When Morrison treats media enquiry with such disdain he is treating the Australian public no differently. He is of the view that the public’s right to know – or the public’s entitlement to expect certain standards of behaviour – is secondary to the greater good, of which he is the sole arbiter. It is an attitude he practises, one might observe, with pentecostal fervour.

Morrison conducts government from the pulpit and expects his congregation to be compliant and adoring.

And because marketing is a religion of sorts, its deity being the brand, Morrison, the Prime Brand of Australia, has made self-aggrandisement at the centre of his prime ministership.

His prime ministership began as the cringeworthy cult of the Daggy Dad – all baseball caps and thumbs-up bonhomie – and after a sojourn away from the limelight, Daggy Dad is back with a vomitous vengeance.

There were the recent photos of Backyard Daggy Dad building a cubby house and a chicken coop, but the most egregious has to be the latest staged photo, taken by his official photographer: Scott Morrison in his Zoom ensemble, besuited upper half, baggy shorts and thongs below.

The spectacle demeaned his office

The occasion was the aftermath of a tele-press conference conducted while the prime minister is in “iso” at the Lodge – that’s man-of-the-people speak for isolation – following his somewhat gratuitous trip to Japan.

Frankly, if Morrison had kept his wardrobe secrets to himself, perhaps to surface years later in his memoirs, the matter could stand unremarked. But what marketing man worth his salt could give up such an opportunity? Certainly not Scotty from Marketing.

The spectacle demeaned his office – particularly at such a grave time when the Brereton war-crimes report hangs over Australia, a topic he addressed at the press conference – and confirmed his attitude that Australians are mere children to be entertained.

What other prime minister would have authorised publication of such a photo? Perhaps Bob Hawke, but at least that would have been an accurate reflection of a genuinely larrikin personality, although it’s to be questioned whether even Hawke the iconoclast would have exposed the office of PM to such ridicule. Certainly not John Howard, Paul Keating or, setting aside irony for the moment, Malcolm Fraser.

The photo of Scott Morrison sans trousers rankles most of all because it perfectly sums up the man: tin-eared, self-absorbed and utterly convinced that running the country is all about PR and marketing. Even worse, that it’s all about him.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW, brw.com.au and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Connect with him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

Anthony Albanese comes out of the shadows but budget reply is just the beginning of the challenge ahead

Anthony Albanese’s budget-in-reply speech, his first as opposition leader, has at last staked his claim as Australia’s alternative prime minister. Until now, Albanese’s leadership of the Labor party has been lost in a haze of bipartisanship and national emergency.

Fortune has not favoured Albanese since becoming federal Labor leader and leader of the opposition in May last year. The devastating Black Summer bushfires, promptly followed by the catastrophic coronavirus pandemic, has for the most part placed the “national interest” above the political fray and reduced Albanese to a political cipher.

There have been moments of political heat applied to the teflon-coated Morrison government – the “sports rorts affair” was a rare win of sorts for the opposition – but the Labor leader has gone out of his way to be conciliatory and even-handed with Scott Morrison, particularly during the worst of the pandemic. Morrison has returned the courtesy with trademark contempt, whether in the form of pointedly excluding Albanese from his national cabinet or routinely turning his back on him in parliament.

Albanese’s budget-in-reply marked the re-emergence of Labor from its self-imposed exile. It has at last reconciled itself with the unexpected loss of last year’s election and it has resolved to present an alternative vision for the nation and give voice to those sections of the community that are overlooked or disadvantaged by this government.

On Thursday night Albanese provided a glimpse of what Australia under his stewardship would look like.

Unlike the Seinfeldian Morrison government – a government about nothing – Albanese’s manifesto was about making a difference.

It was always clear that the Morrison government had no interest in exploiting the clean slate presented by the pandemic to reimagine Australia as a fairer, kinder and more equitable society. Scott Morrison couldn’t be less interested in such an Australia. His only interest is in a return to the hidebound conservatism of pre-COVID Australia – a conservatism he has prosecuted with uncompromising vigour.

White-picket fence PM

As I have previously written: “The returned Morrison government, full of Pentecostal vigour and conviction, was intent not only on preserving [John Howard’s] white-picket fences in the suburbs, it was going to build a white-picket fence around Australia.”

For now Scott Morrison has made do with building cubby houses and chicken coops in his backyard, but he has never lost sight of the white-picket fence.

Whether it’s the anti-intellectualism of his higher education “reforms”, plans to introduce an English-language requirement for partner visa applicants, a renewed commitment to water down welfare support for Australia’s most disadvantaged and a determination to make permanent pandemic measures allowing employers increased flexibility to change employment conditions, the signs could not be clearer that Morrison’s conservatism is set in stone…if not the stone age.

Morrison’s conservatism does not extend to an embrace of the values and conventions of the Westminster system of government.

It is hard to imagine an Australian prime minister with less interest in the proprieties of government and a more brazen determination to protect compromised, ineffective or incompetent ministers from scrutiny, let alone accountability.

When considering the list of ministers deserving the sack, censure or demotion – Richard Colbeck, Stuart Robert, Michael Sukkar, Angus Taylor and Alan Tudge come readily to mind – one can only speculate on just what it would take to raise the ire of Scott Morrison.

The recent announcement that Employment Minister Michaelia Cash will be promoted to deputy leader of the government in the senate at the end of the year illustrates the calibre of minister favoured by Morrison.

Albanese’s budget-in-reply was refreshing not just because of its policy content but because it offered the promise of a very different Australia.

Labor’s headline policy announcement, the overhaul of the childcare system – the centrepiece of which is the introduction of a universal 90 per cent childcare subsidy – does what the government’s budget did not: provide genuine stimulus to female workforce participation. The $6.2 billion plan (over three years starting 1 July 2022) not only acknowledges the disproportionate burden carried by women during the pandemic it also recognises the fundamental role of childcare in society and the economy.

Labor should be under no illusion

“The current system of caps and subsidies and thresholds isn’t just confusing and costly; it actually penalises the families it’s meant to help. It’s working mums who cop the worst of it,” Albanese said.

“Women are the key to kick-starting our economy again. In the worst recession in 100 years, we have to make sure women aren’t forced to choose between their family and their jobs.”

Albanese also unveiled Labor’s $20 billion nation-building project to modernise the national electricity grid and ensure that Australia has the infrastructure to become a “renewable energy superpower”. The 10-year project, to be overseen by a new government-owned entity, the Rewiring the Nation Corporation, would revitalise traditional industries such as steel and aluminium, create “thousands” of construction jobs, and drive growth in new sectors such as hydrogen and battery production.

Albanese’s budget-in-reply was a refreshing departure from the hectoring politics of the Morrison government.

But Labor should be under no illusion. Australians may not like Scott Morrison, and they might not be entirely comfortable with his corrosive conservatism, but there remains a prevailing view that he is a safer pair of hands. Australians have closed their minds to the flaws of this government because they cannot embrace the possibility of Labor in power. Australians are rejecting the impulses of their better selves because the Morrison government has convinced them that “mean and tricky” will always deliver better government than “well-meaning and altruistic”.

Anthony Albanese has at last come out of the shadows and his challenge now is to convince a nervous and battered populace that it should too.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW, brw.com.au and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Connect with him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

COVID-19 provides Scott Morrison with a clean slate and an opportunity to reboot Australia

It has been said many times in recent weeks that things won’t be the same when we get to the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s probably right. What hasn’t been said is that the eventual defeat of COVID-19 will present Australia, and the world, with a clean slate, which is infinitely more exciting.

The society we live in today is not the result of a master plan, nor the fruits of a grand vision or epic struggle. It is a haphazard melange of outcomes good and bad.

A clean slate presents a rare opportunity to start over: an opportunity to right past wrongs, to repair the unintended consequences of globalisation, to create a fairer and kinder society.

Simply shrugging that things are going to change, more as a function of dumb circumstance than deliberate agency, is the kind of apathy that gave us the bloated, selfish and unsustainable way of life that has brought our planet to the brink.

Beginning with the corrosive Howard government Australia has continued its lurch to the right. Paul Keating, sensing defeat in the 1996 federal election, was on the money when he warned: “When the government changes, the country changes.”

The Howard years changed Australia into a country that was less tolerant and more self-centred, a country whose overt racism was reawakened and given license by a government that knew no shame – Tampa, Children overboard, “We will decide who comes to this country…” – a country whose people still parroted jingoistic ideals of the fair go and mateship but who had become self-absorbed and heartless, a country whose economy had, like the US, baked in a permanent and growing underclass that was vilified for bludging off the rest of the nation. Howard embraced a scorched-earth brand of globalisation in which the drive for “global competitiveness” and a quasi-religious faith in “the market” would supposedly ensure the commonweal. What poverty could not be alleviated by globalisation was deemed the fault off the poor. Howard super-charged traditional Liberal antipathies by demonising the unemployed and trade unions.

After 11 years voters grew weary of the “mean and tricky” Howard government and in 2007 booted the government from office and Howard from parliament. But while voters were attracted to the optimism and vibrancy of Kevin Rudd’s Labor, we remained Howard’s Australia.

Voters went off Howard – the cranky old coot in the tracksuit – but they weren’t prepared to hand in their white picket fences. Howard orthodoxies still coursed through the electorate and continue to do so. Labor’s dilemma became how to be progressive without alienating Howard’s conservative battlers.

John Howard hasn’t quite left the building

In the post-Howard years poverty and homelessness became more entrenched, the unemployed and disadvantaged remained marginalised, the mantra that “work is the best welfare” continued to inform government policy, the harsh treatment of asylum seekers continued and – Rudd’s historic Sorry notwithstanding – the grievances of indigenous Australians went unanswered. It says everything about Australia’s political climate that in the 2019 federal election Labor could not bring itself to promise an increase to the Newstart allowance, committing itself only to a review.

The Liberal party has remained Howard’s Liberal party, and then some. The Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments venerated Howard and practised his hard-C brand of conservatism – even if Malcolm Turnbull was an unwilling acolyte.

The returned Morrison government, full of Pentecostal vigour and conviction, was intent not only on preserving white-picket fences in the suburbs, it was going to build a white-picket fence around Australia.

Morrison shared Howard’s conservatism but, unlike Howard, he was inarticulate and tin-eared, was a weak policy thinker, tended to shoot from the hip, was almost comically sensitive to criticism and enquiry, and, to put it bluntly, often seemed out of his depth. Morrison surrounded himself with ministers who shared similar attributes and he frequently overlooked and defended blatant ministerial incompetence and malfeasance. The national bushfire emergency marked the beginning of 2020 and never had an Australian prime minister been found so wanting in a moment of crisis.

We can only speculate on the course and fortunes of the frazzled Morrison government had the coronavirus not intervened. For a time, as the global health emergency unfolded, it seemed that Morrison was again out of his depth, proudly declaring that he was off to the footy even as he foreshadowed a ban on large gatherings. His early public statements on the virus were rushed and confused and verged on incoherent.

And then something changed, not least the prime minister himself. He overcame his distaste for Rudd-style economic stimulus, casting aside firmly held ideological verities about big government. What changed? Morrison was not known for changing his mind or accepting unpalatable advice. We can only assume that once he accepted the enormity of the threat posed by the pandemic the policy options recommended themselves. Morrison is not known for nuanced policy formulation, so again we must assume that this time he followed advice from inside and outside government.

An opportunity to reimagine Australia

Unlike the Rudd government’s response to the GFC the Morrison government’s response to COVID-19 is not designed to stave off recession. That there will be a recession is a given. But at least the blow to Australia, both economic and social, will be cushioned. The government’s $320 billion (16.4% of GDP) in economic support for the Australian financial system, businesses, households and individuals affected by the coronavirus will ensure that come the other side of the pandemic Australia will not have been reduced to rubble.

Morrison’s thinking is very likely that once the coronavirus is defeated Australia (that is, the Coalition government) will resume “responsible” economic policy.

But the “defeat” of the coronavirus is unlikely to be total and in any case it’s unrealistic to assume that Australia can bounce back as if 2020 was a self-contained event. The economic impact of COVID-19 is likely to linger for years, which will necessitate extraordinary policy settings and “new normals”.

In many respects, the Morrison government has let the big-government genie out of the bottle; it’s going to take some doing to get that genie back in there. (Scott Morrison will become the new Major Anthony Nelson.)

So why not use COVID-19 as an opportunity to reimagine Australian society?

The Liberal ideal of small government is just that, an ideal, an ideal wrapped in mythology. Australia has never had small government. Small government ended with colonisation. Since 1788, government has loomed large in the lives of Australians, and especially in the lives of the original inhabitants.

Instead of an unattainable – and ultimately dishonest – quest for small government, Australians should be clamouring for better government. Australians already want that; they have simply stopped believing that it is possible. This may be our chance.

We have the opportunity to reset Australia, to be true to the values we claim to hold dear, to strive for a fairer society rather than accept that progress cannot co-exist with equity. As Barack Obama recently observed, the pandemic has underlined the importance of government and, more to the point, the importance of good government.

Hopefully the coronavirus emergency will make people more vocal in insisting on honest and accountable government in future. Australians might realise that their tacit acceptance of mediocrity in government has been at their expense.

The Morrison government has an opportunity to anticipate the demand for better, more enlightened and more relevant government by making some fundamental changes.

It should use its clean slate to reconsider its ambivalence to climate change; it can overcome its ideological myopia to consider whether some of its “wartime” measures should become permanent features, free childcare being a case in point.

It can reconsider its kneejerk opposition to wage rises for our lowest paid and give meaning to its rhetoric about the importance of shelf-stackers, service workers and the many and varied invisible workers that make society tick, particularly casual workers. (State governments can put taxpayers’ money where their mouths are and properly reward healthcare workers, teachers and first responders.)

It can use some of the empathy gained during the pandemic to devise an asylum seeker policy that restores human dignity to the world’s most vulnerable people and it can get serious about making a meaningful peace with our own most vulnerable, Australia’s dispossessed First Peoples. It can also call off its ideological vendetta against Australians on welfare.

The Morrison government has a once-in-a-century window to reset Australia, to banish the corrosive ideologies that have been permitted to fuse themselves into Australian society, to channel New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and place kindness at the centre of its deliberations, to act with its new-found compassion in the interests of all Australians. And it can use the reset to clean up its own back yard.

If Scott Morrison thinks his job is to restore Australia to business as usual post-coronavirus then he hasn’t learned a thing.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

 

 

Bob Gottliebsen is right: Scott Morrison is out of his depth as PM

Bob Gottliebsen made an especially interesting comment in his column for The Australian today. Commenting on the Morrison government’s first coronavirus rescue package, which was generally felt to have missed its mark, Bob slipped in an observation that might easily have gone through to the ‘keeper.

Bob wrote: “The world saw our first ‘rescue attempt’, where [the government] thought we could overcome the problem with higher depreciation allowances and giving more money to the elderly and welfare recipients, as not only crazy but as confirmation we had a government which was out of its depth.”

One reason it may not have raised an eyebrow is that the observation that Morrison is incompetent is made often enough on social media.

But it’s something else again when Australia’s most respected business columnist matter-of-factly dismisses a government – and by logical extension the head of that government – as not just misguided or mistaken but “out of its depth”.

Love or hate our prime ministers, agree or disagree with them, there is generally an assumption in the electorate that anyone who makes it to the top must be competent, able and smart.

The last time Australians thought otherwise was the prime-ministership of William McMahon (1971-2). McMahon served as a minister in the Menzies, Holt and Gorton governments, occasionally with distinction, and was external (foreign) affairs minister when he deposed John Gorton to become PM. But the position of prime minister was a step too far for the ambitious and scheming McMahon: he seemed overwhelmed by the job, an anachronism in the new decade and had become the plaything of the magisterial Gough Whitlam who swept to power in 1972. McMahon was conspicuously out of his depth.

What about Tony Abbott you ask? It’s true, he had no business being prime minister. But Abbott was an aberration, a terrible mistake, which the electorate understood the moment he was sworn in. When he was replaced by Malcolm Turnbull, the nation breathed a sigh of relief and it was understood that this was something never to be spoken of again.

As for Turnbull, he looked and sounded the part and was obviously bright, but the nation was deprived of the “best Malcolm” when he retired “angry Malcolm”. Bob Hawke gave up the grog when he became PM, but he was still Hawkie. Turnbull without the fire in the belly became strangely one-dimensional. There was no Keating electricity and spontaneity, none of Whitlam’s crash-through-or-crash, no hint of Fraser’s authority.

That peculiar brand of Christian mongrel

Australians knew Turnbull was stymied by his party’s right, but for this he received neither sympathy nor allowance. People expected him to stiffen his spine and take on the recalcitrants, to put principle before internal politics, to fight for what he believed in. Turnbull called it pragmatism, the electorate saw it as appeasement. There was no dancing in the street when Turnbull was toppled; nobody wanted him to go that way. But was he missed? People were missing Turnbull even when he was PM.

And so to Scott Morrison. A man of some attainment before entering parliament, in a LinkedIn kind of way. Lots of fancy job titles, but always a nagging suspicion that something was not quite right.

As Minister for Immigration and Border Protection and later Minister for Social Services Morrison got to demonstrate that peculiar brand of Christian mongrel that presents itself as tough love. As the nation’s underwhelming Treasurer Morrison gave the distinct impression that all in all he’d rather be in Philadelphia. Whatever a BSc in economic geography is, neither it nor his experience as a senior minister prepared him for the Treasurer’s job, so better to chuck that in and go for the boss’s job (once again setting off that LinkedIn vibe).

When he became PM in 2018 he mysteriously took on the cringeworthy persona of the daggy-dad prime minister, complete with baseball cap, goofy smile and backyard-barbecue bonhomie. Once elected PM in his own right the character disappeared.

Scotty from Marketing had simply created a temporary brand in the lead up to the 2019 federal election: the dufus-daryl persona was meant to assure the electorate that he was not a back-room assassin of prime ministers and to lull Labor into a false sense of security.

Morrison is not very bright. But he is wily, or as an outback philosopher might prefer, “cunning as a shithouse rat”.

Once he was unexpectedly returned to office – Morrison proving a better campaigner than Bill Shorten – the Gomer Pyle persona disappeared. In its place the electorate was treated to more of that bitter, hard-faced preacher that preceded the man in the baseball cap. The goofy smile became a thin-lipped scowl and the happy eyes became lifeless lumps of coal. When Morrison forgets himself he takes on the look that will be familiar to anyone who has been to a Catholic school: the half-crazed, half-nutter priest, volatile and totally unpredictable. (Imagine Morrison in a cassock and amaze yourself at how easily the image comes to mind.)

Deny, dissemble and divert

Of course, looks are neither here nor there when competence is what most voters look for in their leaders. Malcolm Fraser as prime minister was no cuddle-bunny but that didn’t stop him from winning three successive elections.

But Morrison? He has no redeeming features as prime minister. None.

His first response to criticism or ministerial scandal is to deny, dissemble and divert, even when he does not know the facts, and worse, when he does. Once it is clear that he has denied the undeniable he will maintain his position to the death. He resents being questioned by journalists or by the opposition in Question Time and will point blank refuse to answer a question not to his liking. When he does deign to “answer” a question he treats his interlocutor to a steaming torrent of word vomit.

Under Morrison, Question Time is a bigger joke than usual, ministerial standards and ministerial responsibility have been essentially jettisoned, the public service has been compromised and to quote policy wonk Kevin Rudd, Morrison is “showing himself to be an abject failure in the engine room of public policy”.

Delays in the formulation of policy in response to fast-moving events are explained away as methodical and considered deliberation. The responses to the national bushfires and the coronavirus pandemic were nothing of the kind. They were slow, misdirected and inadequate.

Even before these events, the Australian economy was showing signs of distress. Despite blather about an “economic plan”, the government was armed with nothing more than its delusional budget surplus.

Morrison is super-sensitive to criticism. Rather than being seen to submit to the opposition’s charges of a flailing economy the government stubbornly maintained that everything was going to plan. When the pandemic struck, Morrison and his successor as Treasurer Josh Frydenberg insisted that the promised surplus was inviolate. A position only reluctantly dropped.

Morrison’s biggest concern was that his stimulus measures were not compared with the Rudd government’s stimulus package following the GFC. Morrison harbours a visceral loathing of Rudd and his former Treasurer Wayne Swan, which extends to their stimulus package. The objectives of Morrison’s response to the coronavirus was to deliver a stimulus package that was seen as the antithesis of the Rudd-Swan program: methodical, considered and proportionate.

Scott Morrison is petty-minded, petulant and peevish. Australians have seen this time and time again. One has only to think of the scandals engulfing Angus Taylor and Bridget McKenzie and Morrison’s unblinking defence of the indefensible.

These are not attributes that ensure a level-headed and intelligent response to policy challenges and national emergencies.

For anyone who retained any doubt about Morrison’s competence, his handling of the coronavirus emergency should remove any such doubt. Bob is right. Morrison is out of his depth.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is just as unforgiving on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

 

 

The scramble for toilet paper was just the first surprise of the COVID-19 outbreak…why weren’t we better prepared?

If the coronavirus were to be considered a test for humankind we would all be feeling pretty nervous about the result right now. An F-minus seems in order. And one imagines we haven’t even got to the hard part of the test yet.

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has revealed much more than our predilection for toilet paper. But even that deserves a moment’s reflection.

The scramble for toilet paper in the nation’s supermarkets reveals a hitherto little seen aspect of the Australian fundament, and more is the pity that it did not stay out of sight. And if you are wondering, either definition of fundament will suffice.

Here are the three stages of the Great Australian Toilet-paper Stampede: initially a quaint unexpected consequence of the developing coronavirus contagion, then mildly disturbing as supermarkets took to assigning security guards in the toilet-paper aisle, and finally a sense of despair that neither calls for calm nor public shaming could arrest the irrational mania for paper products.

Oh, for the days when the paper wars referred to circulation battles between The Age, the Herald Sun and The Australian. (Readers in other cities insert your own mastheads.)

The good news for Australia’s daily newspapers is that for critics who have long maintained that newspapers were only good for toilet paper, the rush for actual toilet paper suggests otherwise.

It’s difficult to attribute this behaviour to the “great unwashed”, for clearly these are people of impeccable hygiene.

Why then this collective conclusion that stockpiling toilet paper somehow outsmarts the coronavirus? Especially as the virus, little troubled by borders, perforated or otherwise, is now criss-crossing the globe with contemptuous abandon. For now, there is little clue as to when and how the warehoused toilet paper will make its mark.

The impact of the coronavirus has way outstripped the initial mealy-mouthed assurances of calm and calls for perspective from politicians and grandees such as Alexander Downer.

Downer tweeted a few days ago: “So far this year 4,000 people have died from covid19, 92,000 from flu, 320,000 from HIV/AIDS, 256,000 from road accidents. Perspective!”

As of this morning federal finance minister Mathias Cormann was inclined to agree with Downer. Cormann told breakfast radio that he was still contemplating a visit to the Melbourne Grand Prix even as the Victorian government and Formula 1 organisers were preparing to shut down the event. Perhaps Cormann was sanguine about the effect of the coronavirus because he has adequate provisions of toilet paper.

Much more than a nasty cold

By the end of the day, even the ponderous Morrison government finally understood that the coronavirus is much more than a nasty cold and that it is spreading more rapidly than was initially held.

The historic cancellation of the Melbourne Grand Prix has cast doubts about the start of the AFL season next week – with the prospect of matches taking place without spectators under consideration – and the NRL season, which commenced this week, is a week by week proposition. In the meantime, Cricket Australia has banned crowds from the Sydney Cricket Ground for tonight’s Australia-New Zealand game.

These are conversations that would have been considered unthinkable a year ago. However, with the Morrison government today accepting the advice of national, state and territory chief medical officers to ban gatherings of more than 500 people, many more of these unthinkable conversations will be taking place around Australia.

While we’re at it, another conversation worth having is why it has taken more than two months since the first report of the outbreak on 31 December 2019 for such crowd bans to be considered. Instead, even as the number of coronavirus cases increased around the world, authorities and organisers of large cultural events in Australia insisted their events were safe, with plenty of free hand-wash to be made available. It is only a matter of good luck that Australia has not had serious breakouts of the virus.

Similarly, the Morrison government took its time before announcing its $17.6 billion economic stimulus package. This is supposed to assure Australians that the government was being methodical, considered and proportionate – blah, blah, blah. This was a government that placed cosmetics ahead of what was important for Australia. It was more concerned with not appearing to “rush” its response, as the Rudd government allegedly did in response to the global financial crisis, and with being more “targeted”, again, unlike the Rudd government’s supposed haphazard approach to stimulating the economy. (Scott Morrison’s visceral, not to say un-Christian, hatred of Kevin Rudd and former Treasurer Wayne Swan has been something to behold.)

$750 handout is laughable

If we think the cultural impacts of the coronavirus are going to be significant – and they will be – they will be dwarfed by the economic hits. The Morrison government has at last publicly given up on its spurious budget surplus, but is not yet moved to prepare the community for a recession. (A technical recession, that is; many Australians have been living in recessionary conditions for some time.)

It seems absurd that it’s even a matter of debate whether Australia will go into recession. It almost certainly was going to anyway; the coronavirus pandemic simply seals it.

Government one-off-payments of $750 to six million Australians from 31 March might soften the blow of a weak economy belted by the coronavirus, but even that’s a best-case scenario. The coronavirus is going to expose all those households that have been teetering on the edge for the past decade. The idea that $750 is going to make a difference to anyone is laughable; it won’t even touch the sides of most household debt, which is where most of it will go.

COVID-19 has been revealing in so many ways.

Here we are, humankind in the 21st century – enlightened, beneficiaries of scientific breakthroughs, holders of unprecedented knowledge, enjoying record good health, wealth and peace – and we’re fumbling around in the dark, unprepared, displaying wholesale panic, fear, greed and stupidity.

A noticeable feature of the coronavirus pandemic has been the lack of international co-operation between governments. So much for that top-secret World Government that was supposed to be pulling the strings behind the scenes. Instead, it’s every government for itself, every government, with a few notable exceptions, apparently run by Laurel & Hardy. (With apologies to Laurel & Hardy.)

Of our response to COVID-19 it can be concluded that we have learned nothing from the past and the future is a place for which we are ill-prepared.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is just as pessimistic on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

 

The horrific murder of Hannah Clarke and her kids stunned the nation; so what are we going to do about it?

The murder of Brisbane women Hannah Clarke and her three children by her estranged husband has cast a pall of grief over the nation.

Coupled with the grief is an anguished question that women are tired of asking:

How many more women and children must die at the hands of a violent husband or male partner before there is a concerted move to stamp out male violence in the home?

The nation was stunned by the horror and brutality of this calculated act of murder, when on Wednesday morning a murderous coward set fire to his family – Hannah, 31, and their children Aaliyah, 6, Laianah, 4, and Trey, 3 – as they sat in their car in the Brisbane suburb of Camp Hill.

Hannah, still ablaze, made it out of her car and according to reported accounts yelled at horrified neighbours who had begun to gather that “he’s poured petrol on me” and that her “babies” were still in the car. The flames prevented neighbours from reaching the children.

We know from Friday’s heartbreaking interview with Hannah’s parents and brother on Nine’s A Current Affair that at the scene of the ambush Hannah, with burns to 90% of her body, gave police a detailed account of what had occurred. We simply cannot comprehend the strength of will and body to make such a statement in the throes of death, but it gives us a measure of the woman.

Hannah lived to understand the horror that had been inflicted on her children by her estranged and abusive husband and she made sure that he was held to account. Hannah died later in hospital.

At some point, at the scene of the carnage, the murderous husband and father killed himself with a knife, a craven release from having to face the devastation he had wrought upon his family.

These are the bare facts as we know them; a coroner’s report will in time record the precise details of that awful morning.

But in the meantime, we do know one thing for sure: a man, unable to accept that his marriage was over, incensed that his wife and three children had fled the family home and sought sanctuary at the nearby home of her parents, responded with murder.

Living in state of constant siege

Hannah left the family home late last year. We know that her husband was possessive, abusive and controlling. Brisbane police have confirmed that there was a history of domestic violence and that a restraining order had been issued to prevent her husband from approaching her.

It beggars belief that in 2020, there are still men who believe that they are entitled to demand the inviolability of a relationship – unless they choose to end it – which of course is another way of expressing their entitlement to possess a woman, and by extension, to control a woman.

For many women this manifests itself as unrelenting, unremitting, incessant violence, both physical and mental.

Somehow men seem unable to imagine what it must be like for a woman to live in a state of constant siege in her own home. If they could there might be more sympathy for women who plead for an end to domestic violence.

When tragedies such as the deliberate incineration of Hannah and her children occur the cry goes up: “It’s not all men”.

The problem may not be all men, but make no mistake: men are the problem. Men and their attitudes. Men who still see women as inferior and inconsequential, of ornamental value but not to be taken seriously, as subservient to their manly needs; as partners they are seen as chattels.

For women, expressions of these male attitudes are manifest in almost every facet of their lives: in the workplace, in social settings, in public places and at home. Women are abused, molested, assaulted, raped or murdered by men based simply on the fact that they are women.

Is it any wonder women demand change? Or more to the point, is it any wonder that women are fed up with having to demand change?

But how is such change to be affected? Hannah’s killer was 42 years old. He was the beneficiary of a more enlightened education system; he was exposed to the many and various campaigns seeking a fair go for women; he would have read media stories and watched films that presented women in a modern light.

We have barely moved the dial

Women know that the message is not getting through. It didn’t take the death of Hannah and her children to know that. This was just the latest instance of an estranged husband and father murdering his children or his entire family. Most of us can probably bring several instances to mind.

So what can be done? Attitudes need to change, but as a society we have barely moved the dial, and what appears to be change for the better is more often than not lip service.

There is still a body of people, male and female, who believe men are the head of the household and that women, by their actions or lack of deference, incite violence upon themselves.

Many people still look at domestic violence as none of their business. In fact, it is everyone’s business. It goes against the grain of modern living, but it may well be that we must become our neighbour’s keeper and our community’s guardian, because it is obvious that a less connected society provides too many blind spots in which bad things happen.

Again and again the education system has clearly been found wanting. How many more videos of boys and young men from elite private schools chanting sexist and misogynistic songs in public do we need to see to understand that not even a privileged education is changing attitudes?

Apologists for the status quo argue that it’s not up to schools to change social attitudes, that these are matters for the home. This is a bogus argument. Schools have always incorporated values, civics and a basic moral schema. The proposition that promoting gender equality is “social engineering” is the kind of obstinacy that enables social dysfunction. If society is failing women – and it plainly is – then surely it is not unreasonable to expect primary and high schools to do their part.

A thorough examination of how the legal system and law enforcement is failing women – if necessary a royal commission – is crucial. It says everything we need to know about the current conservative climate in Australia that instead of such a review what we have is the Morrison government appointing Pauline Hanson to conduct a review of family law. Hanson has openly stated that her agenda is to expose how family law unfairly advantages women over men when it comes to custody and how women are gaming the system. We can be sure of two things: that almost every word uttered by Hanson in the conduct of her “review” is going to be offensive and, worse still, that many Australians will agree with her.

One obvious failing of law enforcement in how it deals with domestic violence is the use of restraining orders: Hannah had such an order in place against her husband. It is almost too trite, and yet entirely accurate, to say that these orders are not worth the paper they are written on.

Surely, if someone is dangerous enough to warrant a restraining order he is dangerous enough to warrant an electronic ankle bracelet that will enable authorities to follow his movements?

When all is said and done, I am simply throwing questions into the ether. The solution to domestic violence is not to be found in my words. But we owe it to Hannah, Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey, and the many victims of domestic violence before them, to acknowledge that society is failing women (and their children) and that we must redouble efforts to stamp out the scourge of male violence against women.

It seems so little to ask.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

 

Scott Morrison finally utters the c-words, but will he really act on climate change?

The national bushfire emergency has broken hearts, destroyed homes and livelihoods and taken lives; it has made heroes of otherwise modest men and women and it has sent spirits soaring as neighbours, strangers and communities come together as one in their determination to overcome.

The catastrophic fires – an enduring name for which has yet to be coined – have also achieved what years of scientific warnings and activist protests have failed to do: they have forced Prime Minister Scott Morrison to acknowledge the fact of climate change.

That said, acknowledgement should not be confused with a change in policy or the prospect of informed action, and certainly there is no admission of having brought Australia into international disrepute as a climate-change recalcitrant.

But Morrison is for now professing himself, and his government, to be fully mindful of the impact of climate change. More than that, he even claims that he has been a champion of climate-change action. Which of course is arrant humbug, not to say bullshit. Until Morrison’s hand was forced he could not even bring himself to utter the c-words.

Morrison is first and foremost a marketing man who believes catchy slogans can solve anything. Thus he has been profuse in his references to climate change. Unfortunately, Morrison was never a particularly good marketing man so it is not surprising that his slogans are falling on disbelieving ears.

Voters who have not been asleep since the last election know that the prime minister, delivered unto them by divine miracle, has the tendency to say one thing while meaning something completely different.

More weasel-speak from the PM

Accordingly, Morrison has introduced some new jargon to divert attention from the policy imperatives posed by the bushfires and his own avowal, albeit through gritted teeth, of climate change. His posturing suggests action, but amounts to inaction.

“I have set out what I think we need to do in terms of the future and…I think, more significantly [than emission reduction targets], that resilience and adaptation need an even greater focus,” Morrison says.

“We must build our resilience for the future and that must be done on the science and the practical realities of the things we can do right here to make a difference.”

If Morrison believes that “resilience and adaptation” is the catchphrase that will galvanise the nation,  we are some way to understanding why marketing was not for him.

As for the reference to “practical realities”, that is the key to what we might expect of the Morrison government on mitigating the effects of climate change: nothing. Observing “practical realities” is weasel-speak for not disturbing the status quo, it is a dishonest caveat that precludes any action that would purportedly affect jobs, regional prosperity and wider economic well-being.

The cost of weaning the Australian economy off coal exports or setting higher renewable-energy targets is too great, the Morrison government argues, blind to the evidence that not acting will come at an even greater cost.

If the current national bushfire emergency does not make that point to the Morrison government, then what will?

Morrison’s bumbling response to the bushfires – starting with the infamous Hawaii holiday – has been so damaging that even he recognises that he can no longer pretend that climate change is a conspiracy theory.

The grudging concession by the prime minister that climate change is real is not without significance. It starts the new year with a shift in the political narrative with both government and opposition agreeing on the existence of climate change.

But that might be the extent of Morrison’s epiphany. He might say “climate change” a lot but “practical realities” will continue to determine policy settings. Morrison all but winks conspiratorially whenever he utters the words “climate change”.

Enter the bubble-headed booby

The prime minister has not discarded his lump of coal; he just knows it’s prudent, for the time being at least, to keep it in his top drawer out of harm’s way.

When the bubble-headed booby – to quote Dr Zachary Smith – Craig Kelly appeared on British television to dismiss the impact of climate change on Australia’s bushfires emergency, the purpose of the exercise was clear. Permitting the Liberal backbencher and outspoken climate-change denialist to voice his nonsense was a clear message to Liberal MPs that whatever Morrison was obliged to say in public about climate change, denialists in the party room would not be silenced.

It’s going to take some doing for Morrison and his government to maintain this posture.

The bushfires and their unprecedented severity should spell the end of the spurious argument that Australia’s globally insignificant carbon emissions entitles Australia to make a proportionate response to climate change.

But the bushfire emergency, which has destroyed unprecedented swathes of countryside, coming off the back of record droughts, shows that climate change does not observe the proprieties of proportionate responses.

The world has watched aghast as Australia burns, presenting an overwhelming climate-change reality that is here and now, as well as being a harbinger of much worse to come. At the same time, Scott Morrison has become a global pariah for his climate-change inaction; no Australian prime minister has ever attracted international scorn and condemnation on such a scale.

Morrison has taken a potentially significant step in recognising the science of climate change, but now it remains to be seen whether he has the commitment and resolve to stand up to the climate-change recalcitrants in his party room. He knows better than most the political cost of taking a principled stand on climate change.

Morrison has declared what his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull was in effect gagged from saying: that climate change is real. So what is he going to do about it? Every indication so far is that Morrison intends to rely on the bogus mantra of “meeting and beating” emission reduction targets, while yielding to political self-interest by taking a “practical” approach to climate policy.

For Morrison, conceding that climate change is real was just a necessary political manoeuvre. Like his idol Donald Trump, Morrison believes in saying whatever it takes to get him out of a tricky situation. Morrison, like Trump, treats words as ephemeral and disposable.

Now that Morrison has dared to utter the c-words it may fall to people-power to maintain the pressure and convince Liberal and National party MPs that Australia’s negligence on climate change can no longer be justified or tolerated.

If there are any Liberal MPs left with a spine this is their time to insist that the prime minister must act on climate change. It may get ugly in the party room, but it will be nothing compared to what shattered communities around Australia have endured.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

 

 

Harry and Meghan want out, but it’s not the right royal disaster everyone says it is

The most striking aspect of Prince Harry’s notice to quit the royal family is his naivety which has the distinction of being both charming and reckless.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex issued their jargon-laded, obscurely phrased and hopelessly confused statement and presumably thought that was that. In the best (worst) traditions of PR statements, it raised more questions than answers.

All the buzz words and pop phrases are there, perhaps reflecting the true audience the Sussexes had in mind. There is much ado about adjustments and transitions, the search for balance and space, promises to share and collaborate. No doubt about it; these are thoroughly modern royals.

But as to the substance of the statement – such as it is – is it really so sensational? Not really. Much of the furore has been fanned by the confusion of messages, including vague commitments to become “financially independent” while “continuing to honour our duty to the Queen, the Commonwealth and our patronages”.

The message between the lines, however, is clear enough: the Sussexes want out. Or more to the point, they want to be in on their terms. (Good luck with that.)

Whatever the slant, talk that Harry and Meghan’s gambit to “step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family” poses an existential threat to the British monarchy is overwrought nonsense. The longevity of the British monarchy can be directly attributed to the fact that no one member of the royal family is indispensable.

The reported anger and disappointment of the Queen, Prince Charles and Prince William will be more familial than institutional, although inevitably there will be some blurring of lines.

Parts of the statement by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are gratuitous to the point of insolence. Why would you commit to “continue to collaborate with Her Majesty The Queen, the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Cambridge and all relevant parties” when the cause of much of the family’s anger is precisely because no such “collaboration” has occurred? At least they got to use the buzzword.

The royal family believes that duty is everything and on this fundamental principle Harry, a prince of the royal blood, has let down the family, and by extension, the nation and the Commonwealth.

When Harry wed Meghan

Harry has always been the more emotional and erratic of the two royal brothers, but in recent years he has, by sheer willpower, matured into his role as a prince of the realm. He has shown a preparedness to meet his royal obligations, to observe the rituals of monarchy, to stand in dynastic solidarity beside his grandmother, father and brother.

All that soured when Harry wed Meghan. The rabid British press, initially captivated by the royal marriage, turned on the young newlyweds, and Meghan in particular, with merciless and unrelenting vitriol.

Harry might have had the mettle and sense of duty to endure the onslaught if it was solely about him, but it was plainly another matter when it involved his wife. That’s the charming part of this messy affair: behind it is, if not an act of chivalry, certainly an act of love by Harry.

Some commentaries on social media charge that Meghan should have entered the marriage in the full knowledge of what awaited her. The life proved too much for Sarah Ferguson and Diana – both of whom believed they could modernise the monarchy – why should it not for Meghan?

It has been suggested – again on social media – that to lay the blame at the feet of Meghan is misogynistic and racist. On these terms, it becomes almost impossible to analyse what is without doubt an historic event. It is an event unique in its particulars, but containing a familiar element: the difficulty of reconciling personal desire with public duty.

Harry and Meghan’s dummy spit

Harry’s uncle, Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex, the youngest child of the Queen and Prince Philip, having proven by temperament and disposition to be illsuited for life as a Royal Marine, famously quit before competing his training. Instead, he attempted to fashion a life for himself outside the confines of royal norms as a television producer in the 1980s and 90s. It didn’t work out. Edward eventually settled into a full-time role as a working member of the royal family and in recent years has taken on many of his father’s duties.

More famously, in 1936, Edward VIII preferred to abdicate rather than abandon plans to marry American socialite Wallis Simpson, “the woman I love”.

The British monarchy survived the seismic event of Edward’s abdication – considered the ultimate failure of duty by the royal family – and it will survive Harry and Meghan’s dummy spit.

If Harry and Meghan had been less impetuous and negotiated an accommodation that satisfied family honour and institutional stability – as well as address their own issues – the current angst would have been mostly avoided.

Unfortunately, Harry and Meghan appear to want the best of both worlds: the cachet of being royals (albeit part-time) while pursuing “a progressive new role within this institution”. That might not be so easily done when “this institution” has been so right royally dissed by the two royal hotheads.

Harry has caused his grandmother unnecessary disquiet in the twilight of her illustrious reign. We might all ask, “What was he thinking?”, even as we sympathise with the frustrations that proved too much for him and his wife.

We can’t know how it will all end. Harry and Meghan may well make good their promise, vague as it is. They may or may not become part-time residents of “North America”. Harry might even end up Governor-General of Canada, a compromise no doubt being explored.

Beyond momentary fascination, it doesn’t really matter what the end result is. The British monarchy will get through this. It always does.

As for claims that Harry and Meghan’s “resignation” will prove a fillip for the republican cause in Australia…talk about naivety.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher