Reality ignored in favour of spin and party games

Last week’s vision of Scott Morrison trying to explain his attitude to women in and out of politics reveals a lot about how we are governed. He said he wanted more women in power, but convinced no-one that he can make this happen.

For much of that pivotal media conference he seemed lost for words. This was not the master of the deft phrase we have come to know over the years, able to turn tricky refugee issues and awkward budget deficits to his and his party’s political advantage. 

But those things are amenable to spin, and these are not normal times. Besides angry women Morrison has a flood disaster on his hands, the latest in a string of big events – intense, widespread drought, devastating wildfires, the global pandemic – that have bedevilled his time in office. 

Scott Morrison’s pre-parliamentary life involved promoting tourism and the Liberal Party. For someone who cut his teeth on neat packaging and brief sound grabs, the recent natural disasters and the cultural crisis around women are unfamiliar, uncomfortable territory.

The PM has had his moments. After a poor showing in the 2019-20 bushfire crisis he led from the front as the pandemic took hold, enacting tough measures to prevent the virus’s spread. His leadership wasn’t above criticism, but it was a cut above the massive missteps in other countries.

Confronted by a public health emergency the Morrison government followed expert advice. Faced with the vastly bigger threat from climate change, now starkly obvious in Australia, it has reverted to type, rejecting expertise and talking about other things. 

Refusing to deal with this reality, identified decades ago by science, has been the hallmark of conservative governments going back to John Howard, but has become especially egregious since Tony Abbott came to power in 2013. Nearly eight years and two prime ministers later, it is utterly unforgiveable.

The flooding, like the fires and the drought preceding it, seems to have come as a surprise to both federal and state governments. It would not have been had they kept an eye on what science is focused on: rising carbon emissions and a warming, more energetic atmosphere. 

Like the drought and fires, politicians and others have called last week’s rain a “one-in-100-year event”. It’s not, and neither were those earlier disasters. Such terms had a value once, many years ago, when climates moved within more or less predictable limits.

But no more. The unstable climate that science has long warned about has arrived. With no predictable limits, we can expect extreme weather events – extreme dry, extreme wet, severe rainfall, coastal storms, fire storms – to happen more often and to get worse. 

I’m as sick of repeating this sort of stuff as I’m sure you are of reading about it. I fear being seen as the boy crying wolf, when in fact the wolf has been on the threshold for decades and is now in the front hallway. And I’m getting too old for extreme weather, even when others are bearing the brunt of it.

Hope springs eternal. I had hoped premier Peter Gutwein’s State of the State address this month would show a rising awareness of climate-related issues. His much-needed waste levy and a rapid phase-out of single-use plastics are good initiatives we should support.

But his announced carbon-neutral tourism goal is a con-job. As long as tourism relies on fossil-fuelled air travel it will never be anything but a net emitter. 

The Premier’s Economic and Social Recovery Advisory Council, or PESRAC, consulted widely across the state, conducting a dozen public workshops, consulting 56 organisations and considering 178 written submissions – an impressive 12-month effort.

Its report shows that these top-level officials understand that rebuilding the economy must account fully for community engagement, the importance of place and, underpinning everything, a healthy and sustainable natural environment. This is heartening.

But the report does not make clear that environmental imperatives must be integrated into all official decisions, without exception. Until that happens we will continue along the same old path of planning and administrative errors exacerbating the impact of climate change.

Elections derail agendas, and the premier has ended a succession of four-year terms by going to the polls after just three years. Such partisan gamesmanship always comes at a price.

Early elections, like economic numbers, are not real but artefacts of politics and government. Leaders seem incapable of focusing on what’s real, on people’s lived experience – things like inequity and insecurity – and on the global experience of a heating, destabilised climate.

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