Having displayed gross political mismanagement, some people are now considering royal intervention to remove our Prime Minister. Professor Jenny Hocking says this is not only unlikely but also undemocratic.
AS SCOTT MORRISON left Australia for his “well earned” third holiday of the year, bushfires were already raging across three states and Sydney and Canberra had been shrouded in smoke for weeks. The imagery of the Prime Minister flying out of the country for a tropical vacation just as international firefighters were flying in to protect it was soon compounded by the needless subterfuge over his whereabouts.
Neither the holiday nor the destination had been announced and Morrison’s office refused to give details, even lying to journalists who specifically asked whether the Prime Minister was in Hawaii; “incorrect,” they replied, incorrectly.
It was only a matter of time before Morrison’s most memorable – indeed his only – legacy from his best-forgotten term as managing director of Tourism Australia resurfaced as the lively Twitter meme, ‘where the bloody hell are you, Scott Morrison?’ It was a fair question, since his presence in Hawaii remained unconfirmed until a random holiday-maker’s selfie – boardies, beer and ScoMo grinning ear to ear as his country burned – finally let the Australian public know where he was and what he was doing there: basically having an excellent time. It was not a good look and it was all quickly downhill from there.
Having agreed with such obvious reluctance to “return early” from his sojourn, Morrison was pictured the next day relaxing, drink in hand, poolside — and still in Hawaii. It was 48 hours before he finally appeared at the fire-ravaged scenes in Cobargo, which is the same time it took Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to return from Europe following the 1974 devastation of Cyclone Tracy.
Whitlam was on the ground in Darwin within 48 hours, having already organised for the relief effort to begin under Major-General Alan Stretton and the Darwin Reconstruction Commission, announcing both from London on his way to the airport. It could not have been a starker contrast to Morrison’s tardy return and prevarication over the use of the Defence Forces. Equally swift was Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s mobilisation of the military during the 2011 floods. Yet Morrison fumbled over "states" responsibility’ for too long before committing army reservists and promptly releasing a ‘staggeringly objectionable’ promotional video about it.
In this gross mismanagement of an otherwise entirely manageable episode, Morrison revealed a level of incompetence which had previously been kept well-hidden. His return to Australia only added to the growing sense of emotional disconnect between the Prime Minister and the Australian people. Visiting Cobargo, Morrison was jeered for finally turning up and a clearly distressed woman told him she did not want to shake his hand, but wanted to know what he would do for their under-resourced firefighters. Morrison forcibly grasped her unwilling hand, then turned his back and walked away.
By the end of this “PR disaster” of a week, Morrison had revealed a rare and unsettling capacity to re-traumatise already traumatised people and communities. Even in the face of the resultant sustained and warranted criticism, his every utterance was refracted through a prism of himself. From the combative, “I don’t hold a hose and I don’t sit in a control room”; the distressing, “it’s tremendous to be here”; at the funeral of a NSW firefighter; to the inexcusable, “thankfully, we’ve had no loss of life”, when visiting Kangaroo Island days after the deaths of two local residents.
This startling insensitivity to community anguish and grief has led some to ask whether ‘we’re being governed by a psychopath’, however, the common thread through each of these bizarre responses is as much political as psychological. Morrison cannot acknowledge the enormity of the bushfires or the devastation, the record temperatures or the unprecedented need for action, because at heart he does not believe it.
For all his shapeshifting language now proclaiming that the Coalition has “always believed” in climate change, which is manifestly untrue, Morrison offers no real change to the Government’s climate inaction. Nor dare he, for the climate denialists have the strongest hold ever over the Liberal Party since its surprise victory last year. He is already walking back from his vague promise to take further action, speaking only of measures to improve resilience and adaptation, and certainly not action against emissions.
With this abject failure of government and leadership when it is so desperately needed, Morrison has been seen as not merely incompetent but unfit for office, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s excoriating assessment being the most prominent. Others have called for his removal from office by any means, even royal intervention. What began as a parodic plea from comedian Jordan Shanks, AKA YouTuber friendlyjordies, calling on the Queen to sack Morrison over his handling of the bushfire crisis and install the leader of the Opposition, Anthony Albanese, spawned a mass petition while his video gathered more than 100,000 views.
“Your majesty, you fired Gough Whitlam for less. After you dismissed him you made Malcolm Fraser Prime Minister... surely Scott Morrison should be sacked for not supplying the firefighters.”
Like all good parodies, there’s more than a kernel of truth in this call for royal intervention. Despite the routine denials from Buckingham Palace that the Queen ever intervenes in political matters, history tells us otherwise, and bringing some transparency and mockery to the absurd myth of royal political disinterest is welcome. What’s more alarming is how many people saw this as a plausible solution to an apparently “broken” political system. If the political system is broken, which it isn’t, the use of an archaic imperial “power of the Crown” to usurp a government elected by the Australian people is not the way to fix it.
That such a fundamentally anti-democratic proposal might appear even remotely attractive is a worrying indication of what passes for political good intent today. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding our political institutions, a recipe for political inertia and a distraction from a necessary focus on the Parliament. Like it or not, the place where political action can and must be taken. Morrison has just a two-seat majority and this Parliament more than most is wide open for cross-party action.
If Labor, Independents and the Greens can persuade three Liberal MPs sufficiently concerned for either their seats or our future to cross the floor and support action on climate change, that would really revive a flagging political system.
Jenny Hocking is Emeritus Professor at Monash University and Distinguished Whitlam Fellow at the Whitlam Institute at Western Sydney University and award-winning biographer of Gough Whitlam. Her latest book is The Dismissal Dossier: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know about November 1975 – The Palace Connection.
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