The return of Nero was scripted by Scotty from Marketing and embellished and blown up by his colleagues in Publicity over at News Corp.
Admittedly, as some may have whispered at his office’s Xmas drinks, Scott really only had one line in copywriting, but it had in the past worked well – or well enough.
These days though all his old lines were becoming national jokes so well known even Lara Bingle was in on them.
And no matter how many cuddles would be splashed in coming days over every News Corp paper as our Prime Minister would be photographed with the bereaved and the exhausted, the soot smeared and the tear stained, none of it seemed to quite paper over the growing sense of moral failure at our nation’s centre.
The worry was Scott – who had worked so hard on his image, even inventing his own bizarre moniker, ScoMo – might now be on the way to becoming the national joke himself. Engadine Scott. Smoko. Scummo. Sooty. Smirko. The quiet Hawaiian.
Aloha? Was anyone home?
No. Australia’s answer to the Griswolds had been on Christmas vacation in Hawaii, inadvertently feeding the nation some of the most insulting images it has suffered since the days of Aboriginal ash trays: Scott in boardies, arms around some beery mates, throwing a hang loose shaka while homes burnt and people died. Scott and Jenny at a beachside café, checking, yes, their phones. Scott, alone.
And it was this last image that perhaps reveals more about where Scott was and where we had got to as a nation.
The café looked joyless and Scott looked overwhelmingly sad and lost.
At some point, a leader and his nation had lost sight of each other. Scott was texting, not waving; for reasons that escaped him for much of the week away the nation was burning, not cheering.
It was a problem. It was, it had to be said, a growing problem.
His return – what should have been a triumph, what should have been moving, what should have been a victory of faux humility the likes of which hadn’t been witnessed since his comrade-in-flames Rupert Murdoch fronted an English parliamentary committee investigating the horrors of his journalists’ phone hacking, and declared that it was the humblest day of his life – wasn’t working.
Scott was similarly sorry.
He invoked his wife more, one suspects, as protection so any who criticised his decision to take a holiday was criticising his family who were, of course, private and off bounds except for when Scott made them public and in bounds – just like his religion.
It was confusing, one thing meaning another thing and nothing all at the same time. That was Scotty from Marketing though. He and Jenny were sorry. He understood. And so on.
Somehow it felt as hollow as did a nation that had slowly been brought to the realisation by Scott’s holiday that it was led by people who seemed to care little about the national tragedy that was affecting millions, to say nothing of the dead, the newly homeless, the devastated business and lives, the continuing terror that still has months to be endured and hopefully survived.
His ‘everybloke’ lines were beginning to approach panicked derangement (going to Hawaii was like taking a plumbing contract on a Friday afternoon?) and every second item trending on social media seemed to involve some further humiliating take down of the Prime Minister.
There was something vaguely Ceausescu-like about a complacent leader coming out on a platform to be cheered, only to be met with boos. His masks of concern and compassion couldn’t hold a candle to the grief and rage that was everywhere.
Almost every journalist had got the holiday to Hawaii wrong. It wasn’t the issue, they told Australia.
Australia begged to disagree.
It was the very heart of the issue.
Was the country run by leaders or by perk bludgers permanently on undeclared leave? It humiliated people to be reminded that no matter what they suffered and what they felt, no matter what they feared nor what greater horrors today awaited tomorrow, there now seemed only one certainty: Your government had abandoned you.
By the time Gretel Killeen stole the Sunrise show by stating what almost every journalist seemed to have missed, that in times of national emergency our leaders were meant to lead, Scott’s Big Hawaiian Adventure was its own bushfire.
And now, like the real thing, it was not so easily put out.
Scott Morrison has received heavy criticism for leaving the country while the rest of Australia faces devastating bushfires. pic.twitter.com/hoIaJpgybT
— Sunrise (@sunriseon7) December 20, 2019
Not content with not being there, not satisfied with his office having lied about where he was for some days, and determined to remind everyone back in the country he ostensibly led that not a word he said had any meaning on this or any other planet, he promised on Friday morning he would return as a matter of urgency only to not make it back until Saturday evening. It was just one day before he was going to come home anyway.
Morrison has never been accused of lacking political calculation in his decisions.
And by taking his holidays in the middle of a national emergency, wasn’t he saying that this too was normal, as bushfires have always been with us and always will be? It was a supreme act of show, not tell.
The problem was that it showed something other than what, we can only presume, he intended: It revealed that Morrison is wholly indifferent both to the immediate crisis and more fundamentally to its root causes, climate change.
It symbolised a contempt for all Australians.
In one sense, politics is only symbols, but symbols become reality. By showing he didn’t care, he was showing he wouldn’t act. It may be our problem – our homes, our lives, our futures – but it was not the problem of his government.
Having on Sunday been finally forced to pay lip service to the notion that climate change was part of the problem, he immediately doubled down on the government’s complete dereliction of responsibility to act on climate change, continuing to mouth the now very stale lie that Australia will meet its Paris targets, that emissions are falling, and then seeking to bring the story back to one he could control, one of Just Another Bloke.
The creepy gaslighter-in-chief was soon in full pitiful mode, trying to guilt the nation over denying Jenny and the kids a family holiday just because of an unprecedented global catastrophe.
Still, he was comforted by the fact:
… that Australians would like me to be here simply so I can be here alongside them as they go through this terrible time.’’
Don’t be scared, he had told us when he had so infamously brandished a lump of coal in Parliament.
But the nation was terrified, he had no answers, he was another door-to-door salesman selling his sham evangelism. No, he said repeatedly, he wouldn’t hold a hose – but he would, one feared, arrive at where your front door had been until yesterday wanting to hold your hand.
“I don’t expect him on the hose, he’s pathetic at everything. He would be useless at it,” Susan Alexander told ABC News in front of the smouldering ruins of her home.
“I don’t expect him on the comms, but I do expect him to lead.”
Back at the RFS headquarters, in the absence of rain, Scott from Marketing continued to rain down the sort of patronising nonsense that offended almost everybody.
“You may want to think of dropping off some toys for the children of the firefighters,” he was now saying, “who may not have had time to go out and buy some this Christmas because they have been too busy.
“These are things that people can do constructively. Australians, we need to rally together. The time for argument is not now.”
Certainly, from Scott’s point of view, it wasn’t the best of times for reflection on what his government had done constructively about the crisis these past few weeks.
Other than being absent, other than Michael McCormack suggesting that exploding horse sh-t was also to blame for the fires (which, in a sense, every time I hear Michael McCormack speak, I am inclined to think may well be the case), there was one supreme act of bastardry that was best avoided.
Morrison’s government had only the week before played a leading role in scuppering any significant agreement at this year’s international meeting on climate change action in Madrid.
It was no small achievement, one even meriting global criticism –strange, really, given we are frequently told by Scott from Marketing that we are the Little Nation that Can’t.
But it had – at this moment of, as everyone acknowledged, unprecedented catastrophe – been doing all it could to ensure the next catastrophe would be that much worse and that much more unprecedented. And who better for the task than a man whose entire political career has been serial head on collisions with reality, the boy who cried Woolf himself, Angus Taylor?
For the hapless energy minister had managed in Madrid the one success of his ministerial career to date and that was to discredit our nation in the eyes of the world by being in cahoots with such colleagues as a nation led by medieval butchers, Saudi Arabia, and Russia, a nation led by a latter-day vivisector, exactly the sort of pariah states any democratic country feels proud to have as allies.
“That is why,” Scott from Marketing continued, “Australia is the best country in the world and that is the country I am proud to lead.”
Actually, out of 57 countries recently rated on climate change action Australia is ranked 57th. Which is not best. Which is last. Which gives us the claim to be the worst country in the world on the most important problem facing mankind. Thanks Nero. Thanks Angus.
And, in any case, is it the best country for those people whose towns ran out of water months ago? Whose insurance premiums are about to become unaffordable? Whose farms are now, according to a recent report, 22 per cent less profitable because of climate change? For those millions fearful for their children’s health, or, for that matter, their own as the smog continues?
For the hundreds of thousands more who have several more months of fear as to whether their home might be next, before the ever-shrinking respite of winter and then the return of the next and now inevitably worse fire season?
Celebrating the resilience and strength of individual Australians is the cruellest insult if our government’s only policy is leave them to perish, to choke, to burn and, if fighting the fires, having to crowd fund such basic equipment as face masks.
The science is long in as to what is happening, why it is happening, and how to resolve it. And given this knowledge, why do the highest officers in our land, charged by us to act in our interest, continue to act in defiance of that knowledge, knowingly complicit in destroying lives, homes, and livelihoods?
Are they criminal in their dereliction of responsibility? As the law stands they are not. But the law needs to change.
Before this cruellest of summers is over more innocent people will be dead. More homes will be lost. More families and friends will be grieving. More towns and farmers will have no water. More people will have lost their livelihoods.
Australia will have become become Ground Zero for global heating and Scott from Marketing will have moved on to booking his next family holiday with Jenny and the kids.
Morrison’s Pentecostal faith teaches that the end of days is signalled by a time of fire, flood and famine, known as the Tribulation. This is a wonderful time for the elect, who ascend to heaven in the Rapture.
If Morrison is genuine in such beliefs, is he in any way a fit person to lead our country at this time of crisis that his religion sees as a joyous moment? Either he is sincere in his faith or he is sincere in his oath to office, but he cannot be both.
Which is it, Prime Minister?
This fundamental question matters and cannot be fobbed off with the line that religion is private. When an election was in full flight and votes were needed, his religion was very public.
Anyone who thinks Morrison will change, that he will genuinely address Australia’s grave climate crisis, is grievously mistaken. In January he goes to India, where he will meet Gautam Adani. What promises will be made there, what further subsidies of our money offered, in order that our fires grow bigger and our droughts worse?
His government will not change its criminal course of inaction on climate change. It can’t and it won’t, in part because many of its leaders are climate change denialists, in part because of the curious, inexplicable hold the fossil fuel industry has over it, and in part because it owes Clive Palmer big time, and he wants his giant Galilee Basin coal mine in return for buying Morrison his one-seat majority.
And in part because, when all is said and done, it’s winning.
Labor appears Morrison-lite, and there is no effective political expression for the growing national anger about the climate catastrophe and our political leaders’ determination to make it worse.
When they are up against a megafire, firefighters don’t say I’m only one man or one woman, or that our crew are only six people. They do their bit. They stand up. They fight. They make a difference. Where’s the fight in Scott Morrison?
He’s a small man, a man who uses his wife and children as cover for his own bad decisions, who runs away when the heat is on.
He’s no more or less than a shill for the coal industry. When they gave him the only clean coal on the planet, a carefully varnished piece of black rock, he was a big man in Parliament waving it in all our faces: His dark master, our black future.
But when the gates of hell opened, he was in Hawaii, a little man making hang loose signs, reportedly saying fires were a state, not federal, issue.
He may be our elected Prime Minister. But he is no leader. And no matter how many die this summer his position will not change.
It is we who must.
- Richard Flanagan is an award-winning Australian writer. His achievements include journalism prizes for his essays and the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This is his first piece for The New Daily.