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The Scott Morrison bushfire response makeover

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

The language of the Scott Morrison car crash that will be known in history as the "Bushfire Calamity" is not quite as confident of late. 

This is an Australian Prime Minister out of time and often out of place. The handshaking seems less assured and forced. The breezy confidence seems to be in evidence in a lower register. Locals in fire-affected communities in New South Wales and Victoria have heckled him. (His response at the time was that he was “not surprised people are feeling very raw.”)

Given this slide, Morrison has taken steps at a cosmetic touch-up. As with every person familiar with advertising, he must make the swill he stirs more plausible and less unpalatable. 

On the ABC, he tried to stress the human side as he explained: 

“These are sensitive environments, they are very emotional environments. Prime ministers are flesh and blood too in how they engage with these people.” 

As such a flesh-and-blood figure, he continued, wife in tow, “to provide what consolation I could".

These responses are designed to placate the angered and stave off any genuine measures to combat the demon that is climate change. To ensure minimal changes take place, the Australian bureaucratic and political approach has tended to be a royal commission. 

Morrison said:

“I think that is what would be necessary and I will be taking a proposal through Cabinet to that end.” 

Such a body is always a delight for the government of the day, given that terms of reference can be limited and powers circumscribed. It also begs the question of what, exactly, such a commission will be. As Scott Prasser notes in his book, Royal Commissions and Public Inquiries in Australia, such bodies tend to take two forms. They are either those of an advisory nature, pursuing matters of policy, or the inquisitorial sort, designed to uncover fault and wrongdoing. The public is bound to be baying for the latter format; the Morrison Government, keen to find apologia and excuse, is likely to opt for the first.

Morrison also hinted that something might change in terms of Australian commitments to cutting carbon emissions by 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. But the hint was far from impressive, given that his Government “will continue to evolve our policies to meet our targets and to beat them”. He would like to do so “with a balanced policy, which recognises Australia’s broader national economic interests and social interest”. 

Much of the Morrison approach is not designed for big canvas politics, but merely getting jobs done, meeting requisite targets, reaching that stated goal. There is no horizon, merely a process riddled with benchmarks. The catchword we are now bound to keep hearing – with the same mind-numbing repetition as “innovation” during the Turnbull years – is that of “evolution”. “We want to reduce emissions and do the best job we possibly can and get better and better and better at it.” In an evolved way, of course.

Morrison’s weekend performance did enough to tickle the shallow wets within the party. Liberal MPs of a more moderate hue (they are not many), sensed an opportunity for a light greenwashing with little by way of commitment and undertaking.

 “I’m excited,” claimed Katie Allen, MP for the Victorian seat of Higgins and assured supporters that she was the enlightened one within the fortress filled with barbarians:

“We are starting to move in the right direction — but we have a lot more to do. I have been and will continue to be a strong voice for climate action inside the tents.” 

A glance at Allen’s Twitter feed also suggests a desire to shake Morrison from his anti-climate change slumber, though this can only ever be a qualified, rather than vigorous shake. She insists that the Prime Minister “must reconcile the extremists”. Not much should be taken from such views. Allen remains a Liberal foot soldier and will swallow any sign that Morrison is moderating his position, despite her proud insistence that Australia needed “to have higher ambitions to lead the world in renewables – not just to drive down our emissions but help other countries with theirs.” The Prime Minister’s cautious and meaningless tilt to an evolving policy on reducing emission targets seemingly delighted her.

This enthusiasm also seemed to spill over to Liberal MP Tim Wilson, who chewed over the Morrison pivot with vacuous delight: 

“The prime minister has rightly identified there’ll be more evolution of policy to cut emissions, but not jobs, and I look forward to contributing to that important evolution.”

A better barometer for change – or lack of it – will be found among those in the conservative quarters who place the dictates of a carbonised economy before all else. Morrison’s position towards them has been one of accommodation and careful management. They set the outer limits of Coalition policy on the subject; that being so, you can expect little by way of evolution in emissions policy and renewables. 

National MP Barnaby Joyce was, as ever, in the frontline of warnings on any shift in current policy: 

“To the person in the weatherboard and iron, the solution is not: you’ll lose your job and we put up your power prices, because that is not a solution that is another problem.”

National MP George Christensen, along with Liberal MP Craig Kelly, maintain their positions in the foxholes of climate change denial. Kelly made quite an impression on UK television last week when he told conservative British commentator and television host Piers Morgan that “no link” existed between drought and climate change. 

Morgan’s stroppy response:

“I’ve got to say: wake up. Wake up. Climate change and global warming are real and Australia right now is showing the entire world how devastating it is.” 

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Cambridge Scholar. He lectures at RMIT University. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.

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