OPINION

Hard slogans don't speak of a strong leader

Projection of power: Is the Government prepared to act on the crisis, or merely wait for it to pass?
Projection of power: Is the Government prepared to act on the crisis, or merely wait for it to pass?

There is little worse, looting and scamming to exploit the loss and tragedy of others aside, than seeking to play politics with a national disaster such as the bush fires.

There are those who wish to blame it all on the "Greenies" for "locking up" national parks and opposing hazard reduction. Others seek to blame it all on "arsonists".

And then there is the current Morrison Government, which in an attempt to make up for their appalling lack of leadership, is now focusing on "recover" and "reconstruct" in the aftermath of the recent fires, while simultaneously briefing against the state governments in an attempt to shift the blame for being so ill-prepared for the crisis.

Morrison consistently ignored advice and opportunity to act. There was the proposal to build a significant fleet of water bombing aircraft, rejected, as was a more effective disaster communications system.

There were the "warnings" of a group of ex-fire chiefs offered many months ago - Morrison wouldn't even meet them, arrogantly claiming that he would learn nothing. Indeed, there was the specific warning of the Garnaut Climate Review, now some 12 years ago.

My concern is that behind all this, Morrison is playing a very cynical political game, perhaps on the advice of his mentor Howard who, in his time, turned this strategy into an art form.

This bush fire season, still far from over, dates back to July.

As part of his attempted "catch up" Morrison was claiming some credit in that he was visiting fire ravaged areas back in September, yet, if he had seen the significance of the threat back then, why did he scurry off on holidays to Hawaii, then seek to hide it, and then only react some four months later, last Saturday?

It is clear that announcement was more political than substantive, in that he provided little detail, and failed to consult the State Fire Chiefs before making it - with his back to the wall, he just had to be seen to be doing something! The response of RFS Chief Fitzsimmons was anger and bewilderment!

Also, look at the slogans Morrison used - "more Defence Force boots on the ground, more planes in the sky, more ships to sea, and more trucks to roll in". Moreover, he then released, almost immediately, a Liberal Party add on Facebook extolling his virtues even, initially, with a Donate Button for the Liberal Party.

Similarly, with the next announcement on Tuesday of his initial $2 billion Reconstruction Fund came another slogan, promising to do "Whatever it takes", but just in terms of recovering from the fires to date, not looking forward to better preparing for future crises in any way. - indeed, he is hoping to further delay pressure for a genuine climate action plan.

As to substance, many questions remain to be answered. For example, why untrained "reservists" rather than active defence service personnel?

Why no attempt to coordinate and collaborate with the states, relevant fire authorities, local government, and so on, which is surely fundamental to any effective response.

My concern is that behind all this, Morrison is playing a very cynical political game, perhaps on the advice of his mentor Howard who, in his time, turned this strategy into an art form.

The strategy is to get by doing as little as you can get away with in a crisis, running hard on the slogans, and avoiding too much discussion of the detail.

At the same time, minimise any real focus on the overarching causes of the fires and drought, namely climate change.

I see Howard this week, attempting to defend Morrison, resorting to another of his old political strategies, warning against "fanaticism" in the climate debate - the strategy is to create and destroy a straw man at the extreme of the debate, thereby hoping to debunk, or at least deflate, the debate itself.

Sure, there were multi-faceted causes of the current bush fire crisis, and these need to be analysed, to prepare better for the next, inevitable, fire season - so too with the drought. But the climate science is in!

The elephant in the room is now conspicuous. The prediction is for more of both, and more often, with greater intensity.

Unfortunately, it seems that Scott from Marketing simply can't rise above cheap politics, and his slogans, when the imperative is for national leadership.

John Hewson is a professor of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.