Daniel Flitton is the editor of The Interpreter, a digital magazine published daily by the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
When political dramas unfold in real life, they never seem to feature that one crucial moment you commonly see watching a classic emergency room television series. You know—the kind where frantic doctors desperately struggle to revive a patient, pumping his or her chest and charging defibrillators, only to be defeated, and to mournfully mark the precise instant it all came to an end, with lines like “I’m calling it. Time of death, 11:04 AM.”
But future historians likely will look back on what has been a scorching Australian summer as the moment Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s previously successful political career flatlined.
Morrison is still far from gone, politically speaking. Yet the jolt to his fortunes after his government’s inept response to bushfires that have raged across the country in recent months has clearly hurt his carefully crafted personal brand. The damage to Morrison’s political prospects looks to be permanent, though in unpredictable realm of Australian politics, one can never be sure.
Sometimes, moments arrive in politics where reputations are forever tarnished. A relatively newly re-elected George W. Bush, who still had a favorable approval rating in early 2005, found this out later that year after being seen to botch the initial reaction to Hurricane Katrina.
Morrison already has suffered a sharp dip in opinion poll ratings after his performance this Southern Hemisphere summer. The reason why such damage may prove lasting is the baggage he brings to his job—a belligerent and highly personalized style that had to date been a great strength, allowing him to be portrayed as a man who takes on the responsibility to get things done. Only in the case of the fires, he seemed to exert no leadership at all, exactly counter to his brand. As the fires ramped up, he literally took a holiday to Hawaii—and was publicly condemned for it. Later, with smoke blanketing many of Australia’s biggest cities and authorities warning people to avoid exercise and the risk to health, Morrison cheerily gathered with the national cricket team by Sydney’s harbor for a photo-op at New Year’s, still appearing oblivious to the depth of public concern about the fires. It had already been revealed he ignored the pleas of prominent fire chiefs in the months leading up to summer about the dangers ahead. When Morrison did eventually visit some communities battered by the fires, he was treated to that most Australian of sarcastic welcomes: “go on, piss off.”
Morrison subsequently conceded he made a mistake by going overseas in the days before Christmas. It was a rare concession that he had gone wrong, and one that will open the way for opponents to question his judgment. Morrison never gave an inch, in the past, on almost any political issue, especially during his years as the face of the conservative coalition’s “stop the boats” policy to prevent asylum seekers crossing dangerous seas to Australia. Even when caught in blatant exaggerations related to the asylum policy, he stood stubbornly firm. Later, when in charge of the nation’s finances as treasurer between 2015 and 2018, he marched into parliament brandishing a lump of coal, taunting the opposition in the face of calls to transition the economy from a dependence on fossil fuels.
Morrison’s first instinct when taking a holiday during the fire crisis was similarly not to give ground to the critics. His staff sought to cover up his absence—with journalists insisting his office sought to deny that he was even away, only to be discovered lounging on a Hawaiian beach.
When Morrison did return, he stumbled further. His awkward appearances and forced handshakes in areas devastated by the fires were broadcast nationally and across the world, and proved a striking contrast to his usual efforts to present himself as an everyman. And the still relatively recent prevalence of smart phones and social media ensured that the scale of the fires—with footage from deep inside the inferno—was seen by the Australian public much more broadly than it would have been even five years ago. Yet Morrison, the supposedly can-do character, responded in a way that was seen to pass the buck, saying, “I don’t hold a hose, mate.” His subsequent decision to produce an advertisement to promote his response to the fires, only for the ad to feature a way to donate to the ruling Liberal party at a time people were reaching into their own pockets for charity, rankled some Australians.
In part, Morrison was caught by a confluence of events beyond his control. His Hawaii holiday coincided with the sad death of volunteer firefighters, further amplifying attention on his absence. And people are understandably angry when their house has burned down, and look for someone to blame. A public survey suggested more than half of the Australian population felt affected by the fire crisis—whether by direct property damage, health concerns from smoke haze, or holiday plans upended. Morrison has not only suffered a fall in his own approval ratings, his poor handling of the fire crisis saw him criticized in influential media outlets usually welded to the conservative side. Even from within his own party, state politicians in New South Wales complained about a lack of consultation with and leadership from the national government.
The prime minister remains in office. Morrison’s position is now protected somewhat from revolt within his ruling coalition, because it has become far harder to oust leaders from within parties, between elections, thanks to new procedural rules adopted by both parties.
The new rules were put in place to end the cycle of continual fighting from within parties, and replacing prime minister after prime minister without elections. Morrison won power in an internal party leadership contest in 2018, becoming the sixth prime minister in a decade, amidst nonstop petty squabbling and personality clashes within the two major political parties. Morrison won a national election just last May, a result not foreseen by most pre-election polls; that victory should have netted him enduring political capital. He now has more than two years until he faces another national election, under Australia’s system of three-year terms. And the country has enjoyed a roaring economy: It has not had a recession in twenty-seven years.
Yet the extra-long season of bushfires in the southern and eastern states, which began much earlier than usual in September and came after a long and painful drought in rural districts, not only damaged Morrison’s personal brand but also again focused the public mind on the problem that has loomed in the background of Australia’s recent decade of political strife. That is, the need to craft a credible and durable response to climate change. Indeed, Australia faces the difficult challenge of balancing combating global warming, securing sources of energy for the domestic market, and keeping Australia’s economy booming through exports of coal, gas, and minerals to regional giants like China, Australia’s biggest trading partner.
Even if he can right his personal brand, Morrison will continue struggling because of the fundamental divisions within Australian conservative ranks about how to handle environmental challenges. Australia is in many ways the rich country most endangered by climate change. And some parts of the conservative Liberal-National coalition, supported by prominent voices in the business community, wish the government would take the lead on planning for the changes stemming from global warming, and develop a strategy of more ambitious cuts to carbon emissions to limit the dangers. Other portions of the ruling coalition deny climate change exists, or view any focus on climate change as driven by a “cult-like” global green movement to undermine capitalism and hurt the Australian economy.
As the crisis built, Morrison spent weeks pointing to Australia’s long past experience with bushfires, refusing to countenance climate change as a meaningful factor that has made fires worse, more devastating, and more regular. Morrison has shown no sign that his summer scare will change his approach or that he will seek to resolve the schism in his coalition on climate change—a schism that undermines policy-making and leaves Australia as a laggard in both climate diplomacy and responses to global warming at home. He insists, to the cost of relations with neighboring Pacific island nations, that Australia only produces 1.3 percent of global carbon emissions, while neglecting to point out that these emissions stem from a country with 0.3 percent of the world’s population. He has emphasized that the fires result from conservation policies allowing too much forest growth—or even arson—with only the barest nod to problems exacerbated by rising temperatures or declining rainfall. As a result, the ruling coalition remains divided, and any progress on climate change in Australia likely remains stalled.
Instead, Morrison has attempted to revert to promoting the image of himself as a man of action. He has called out the military to assist with firefighting and clean-up, and pledged to pass legislation to allow the federal government to respond more swiftly to fires in future. “Further practical resilience measures” was the Morrison mantra in a major speech delivered last week in an attempt recapture the political agenda.
But this approach continues to treat the symptoms of what troubles Australia, not the cause. Although he faces no serious prospects of being challenged until election time, the public is again eager for substantive action on climate change, and Morrison surely knows from recent history that leaders rarely recover for a second chance.