If the government doesn’t provide leadership, then what’s the point of having a government?

12 January 2020
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has already shown a tin ear when it comes to the devastating fires affecting Australia this bushfire season. As we moved from spring to the height of the summer bushfire season – and with bushfires already having devastated large parts of northern New South Wales, destroying hundreds of homes, and smoke choking cities along the east coast – he went on holidays to Hawaii, compounding his ignorance of the requirements of high office by having his staff spend several days lying about his being on holiday and seeming to blame his kids for his absence at a time of national crisis; that the trip was in order to keep a promise he made to his children.

But just as it was becoming painfully apparent that Morrison just doesn’t get it when it came to the need for strong leadership in the face of the unprecedented bushfire disaster, he started to get it less.

As the fires spread along the southern New South Wales coast and into Victoria, with hundreds of houses and seven lives lost, apocalyptic scenes of terrified families seeking shelter in waters off the coast – and with further outbreaks in South Australia, Tasmania, Queensland and Western Australia, Scott Morrison has been comfortably ensconced at his residence in Kirribilli, watching the New Year’s Eve fireworks and hosting a reception for the Australian cricket team. Our Prime Minister released a statement letting the public know that since he wasn’t panicking, no one else should be either – that we’ve faced bushfires before, but then as now, the “Australian spirit” will pull us through.

It was a breathtaking display of audacity, one which Australians won’t soon forget. In the face of a crisis like this, the Prime Minister would usually be expected to be on the ground in the disaster zone, coming face to face with the scale of the devastation, speaking with the exhausted fire chiefs and rescuers, assessing needs and directing rescue efforts, requesting logistical support from the Australian Defence Force. If nothing else, political leaders can usually be relied upon to appear at the site of crises for the photo opportunities if nothing else, appearing strong and statesmanlike for the sake of the cameras. Scott Morrison can’t even be bothered to do that, preferring to spend the break from Federal Parliament’s arduous schedule of 35 sitting days in 2019 by relaxing alongside Sydney Harbour.

None of this bodes well for the weeks and months ahead. We’re not even halfway through the summer fire season, and it’s scary to contemplate the conflagrations that may yet unfold. But large scale fires have a devastating impact that lasts long after the flames are finally out, as difficult as even that task will be. Survivors of natural disasters say that the hardest times are after the rescuers are gone, the TV crews have gone home, and they are left behind to face the ruins of what were their lives. The recovery effort is when real leadership is needed. Homes need rebuilding, with survivors spending extended periods in temporary accommodation. Roads, electricity, telephone and internet, bridges, community facilities, schools and even water supplies all need to be repaired. Coordinating this massive recovery effort requires an enormous undertaking between Federal, State and Local Governments, utilities, service providers and residents. This is when strong and effective leadership really comes into play, and if Scott Morrison can’t even manage to show up in fire affected towns in the immediate aftermath of homes and lives lost, the outlook is grim for supported recovery efforts in the months ahead.

It’s now been nearly three months since the current bushfire season began its devastating wrath. Towns in northern New South Wales saw the conflagration sweep through in early October, destroying dozens of homes and livelihoods. Three months later, there are still people in the affected areas without access to drinking water or telecommunications. Survivors report that they have been left with nothing; there is no coordination or planning of recovery efforts, nothing to help them put their shattered lives and communities back on their feet. The leadership isn’t there. And it reflects the neoliberal ideology of the current State and Federal Liberal governments.

A government that believes its primary duty is the safety and well being of the population would be coordinating large scale recovery efforts, funding rebuilding projects, creating much needed jobs in the affected areas rebuilding homes, businesses and infrastructure. The ethos of the Liberal party, however, is that it is the job of government to get out of the way of ordinary people, who are responsible for their own well being and prosperity. People should be able to fend for themselves – even in times of disaster. The government will not coordinate recovery efforts – it’s the responsibility of home and business owners to have insurance, and the free market will be better placed to repair the infrastructure that the government won’t. The Government is relying on the Australian spirit, that people will turn up when the government won’t, with the public providing through volunteer work and donations what the government itself won’t fund. The Government can’t possibly be expected to pay volunteers or for recovery efforts when there’s that budget surplus to chase. This is what people voted for, the reality that this government is not in the business of helping people just beginning to hit home.

Many of us have of course donated what we can to aid in bushfire recovery. But with thousands left homeless and entire towns destroyed, it won’t be enough.  It shouldn’t be the role of individuals to fund the massive recovery efforts this disaster will necessitate; that requires a government to directly oversee, coordinate and fund the work of recovery. But as the full implications of the Morrison Government’s every man for themselves ideology become horrifyingly apparent, people may well be asking what is the point of even having a government, apart from cheering on the cricket.


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