The following article appeared in Pearls & Irritations on 28 March, 2022.
The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison does not have qualities of leadership. He is unable to act in a crisis, he fades in the face of fire and flood, he demonstrates poor judgement and when challenged he bullies.
The Royal Commission into Natural Disaster was handed down sixteen months ago. Of 80 recommendations Morrison has adopted 14.
It has become apparent that his Prime Ministership is not about seeking best outcomes for the Australian people but rather for himself. He not only ignores climate change, he mocks it. He supports the fossil fuel industry.
Morrison is about smoke and mirrors, rather than substance and delivery. Australia has gone from being a respected member of the international community to a country reviled and ridiculed. His embarrassing performance at COP26 being but one example. He has trashed a very positive Australian reputation which took decades to build. He has angered those who helped create it.
But it began before Morrison. It began with John Howard undermining Australian belief in their ability to care and be seen to care with his untruths, constructed for base political gain, of children overboard, re-enforced with another untruth, that of weapons of mass destruction. He sent Australian troops to Iraq, without consulting the Australian Parliament, to support the US which had also lied about weapons of mass destruction. He ludicrously invoked the Anzus treaty in order to justify his offering of Australian troops for service in Iraq to the dullard President George W Bush.
Howard set the tone for what has followed over the last twenty plus years. He has been a significant influence on the LNP, helping determine the type of person running for parliamentary office. Abbott and Morrison being examples of unsatisfactory candidates who received the backing of Howard and who went onto become reactionary and destructive Prime Ministers. All three have ensured that Australia has lost twenty-six years in addressing climate change.
Climate change is the most significant failure of the LNP, indeed of both major parties in Australia. The former Chief of the Defence Force, retired Admiral Chris Barrie has said the forthcoming federal election is the most important in his lifetime. He advocates for a comprehensive nationwide climate and security risk assessment, with an integrated plan for the allocation of resources, taking into account climate change related food shocks and the security consequences that would result from such disruptions. He has also criticised Dutton for putting a muzzle on defence personnel speaking about climate change.
Let me unpack the other major un-addressed or badly handled issues facing Australia.
Racism is the scourge of the LNP. Policies toward Indigenous Australians are paternalistic, certainly racist and in the case of Abbott, a weird missionary noblesse oblige. There is no hint of empowerment let alone respect in any of the government programs and interaction.
Howard set the standard for the treatment of refugees over the past twenty years with his, ‘we will decide who comes here and when’. He locked up men, women and children in what amounted to concentration camps, he turned back refugee boats, in contravention of international and Australian law. Many of the refugees resulted from his joint incursion with the US into Iraq and Afghanistan. He evinced no understanding or empathy with the factors, horror and fear which leads a person to leave home and seek refuge. His policies and attitudes were shared by Rudd, Gillard, Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison (and Dutton). Rudd and Gillard warehoused refugees on Manus Island and Nauru. The policy has been driven by racism, immaturity and fear. Refugees currently remain in detention for no other reason than to feed the prejudice of Dutton and Morrison. Labor fearing the wedge has done little to protest. Illustrative is the difference in approach taken by Morrison to Ukrainian refugees, which he says are ‘at the top of the pile’, compared to Afghan refugees who are quite clearly very low on the government’s priority for resettlement. Compare the government’s reaction to the subjugation of Ukrainians compared to Palestinians which Morrison has endorsed with his agreement to move the Australian Embassy to Jerusalem.
Aside from climate change, water – the lack of it, is the single biggest problem facing Australia. That might sound paradoxical in view of the recent catastrophic floods on the eastern seaboard. Shortage of water is closely linked to climate change. Little is being done on a national level to secure and nurture this scarce resource. Australia’s largest waterway, the Murray/Darling is collapsing through the greed of irrigators backed by wilfully poor regulation.There have been allegations of corruption overseen by state and federal politicians. Due to the poor reporting of local and national media these allegations have only been touched on; they have not been properly investigated. The media, particularly local media, are scared off by bullying from the major irrigators. Australia is a profligate user of this scarce resource. Australia exports cheap water in the form of cotton, wine and almonds.The profit that ensues is not directed toward better practice or conservation. The clownish and self-indulgent leader of the Notional Farmers Party, Barnaby Joyce, advocates dams, but it’s illustrative of his lack of imagination along with others. The answer is better, careful and more thoughtful water use. Mining does not fit any of those categories. Just as people have been encouraged to install solar panels they should, through Commonwealth subsidies, be encouraged to collect potable water in home tanks.
Not one major item of defence expenditure purchased over the past twenty years is either fit for purpose or appropriate to Australia’s defence needs. Partly this is due to lack of proper process, lack of scrutiny and an inability to decide strategic imperatives. Australia does not need heavy tanks. The F35 bought off the plan is fraught with faults. The European fleet of helicopters has been scrapped to be replaced with the US Black Hawk. The Adelaide was laid up in Tonga on a mercy mission with engine water filters apparently not designed to cope with volcanic ash.Believe that if you will.The problem did not bedevil Chinese naval competitors who were in and out of Tonga before parts for the Adelaide arrived.
Responding to US pressure Morrison scrapped the French submarine deal, which had Macron pick him in one, calling him a liar. ‘I don’t think he is a liar; I know he is.’ The Americans want to be in charge of their future war against the Chinese, so they gave the French the flick. Australia has been solemnly promised new US submarines in twenty years or so.The Australian media swallowed it, anchor and chain. All this was done under a new defence arrangement known as AUKUS – Australia, United Kingdom and the United States. Why the UK is in on the arrangement is unclear but colonial deprivation seems as good a reason as any.
AUKUS is a smoke screen, along with the non-existent submarine marine deal, for a greater US defence presence in Australia, particularly the north from where they aim to confront the Chinese, if not take them on, thereby rendering Alice Springs (Pine Gap) and Darwin targets. Following the Russian attack on the Ukraine Morrison seeks a Khaki election. Advising the government on this matter is the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), funded by American arms manufacturers, the US and Australian governments. With support from Morrison and Dutton it has usurped the advice from Defence and Foreign Affairs without noticeable improvement.
ASPI is currently seeking a new head. Controversy surrounds the appointment with Dutton seeking a captains pick .The board of ASPI have other proposals. The Labor Party shadow minister for defence, Brendan O’Connor has weighed in saying no decision should be made before the election indicating that Labor intends to keep the right wing ‘think tank’, an organisation that, on its advice and associations, should be disbanded.
Preparation for meeting the effects of climate change is woeful. We are hard pressed and ill equipped to meet the vicious and rapidly increasing manifestations of climate change. Australia requires a stand-alone and dedicated full time Climate Change Response Force, (CCRF), air transportable at short notice. Using the ADF for such undertakings is a waste of manpower. Climate change is with us, it must be faced, addressed and dealt with. Morrison is not capable.
Allan Behm in his new book, ‘No Enemies, No Friends’, Upswell Publishing, 2022, pp 203/4, says, ‘The Australian government currently shows no interest in preventing war between China and the United States over the status of Taiwan. This is the result of a combination of complacency, national introspection and self-absorption, lethargy, a lack of national self-confidence, a lack of national ambition, and deep anxiety and insecurity. We are paralysed…We have no plan and we have no vision.’
Successive LNP governments have marginalised neighbouring Pacific Island States. Respectful dialogue has not occurred. These states want Australia to take action on climate change. Abbott, Turnbull, Morrison and ASPI ignored them, only showing interest when China did. Such behaviour is counter-productive and will be difficult for Morrison to overcome. Hopefully Albanese will be seen as more receptive and be able to reactivate old relationships.
The LNP has treated the region with equal disdain. The Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong felt constrained to deliver a polite lecture to Morrison on the desirability of working with China. It went over Morrison’s head, as you would expect. China’s impact on the region is considerable and growing. Clothing factories in Vietnam, fast rail link in Laos, soon to be extended into Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. China’s Belt and Road initiative will impact, if it has not already done so, all south east Asian countries including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Indonesia and to varying degrees tie them to China. Morrison has turned his back on the initiative and also on accessing Chinese funds. Wracking up debt at the rate he is, mainly in unproductive expenditure, Australia will need to access those funds probably sooner than later. In ten years, the Australian debt has gone from $190 billion to $950 billion. It would be an understatement to say that Morrison lacks vision and administrative competence.
Morrison no longer has a working relationship with China. His Wuhan pandemic remarks were seen as arrogant and crude, designed to take a rise out of Xi Jinping. Morrison is seen as having been primed by Trump. It is believed that Xi has no inclination to improve the relationship for as long as Morrison remains Prime Minister. As if to make matters worse, like dogs at the postman’s heals, Morrison and a number of his ministers have jumped into China for not condemning Putin’s bloody invasion of the Ukraine. Shrill and with moral certitude they evince no understanding of the difficult position China finds itself in, which is no doubt very concerned and looking for ways to get Putin to negotiate a withdrawal. Face needs to be saved on all sides, not least their own.
Anthony Albanese got sucked into ‘me too’ on China and the Ukraine. There was no need.Instead he might have urged China to use its good offices with Russia to try and bring about a cease fire and a negotiated settlement. Albanese has also swallowed AUKUS with only a hasty shadow cabinet discussion and no consideration by rank-and-file Labor Party members. AUKUS is a big deal, it has the capacity to substantially undermine Australian sovereignty. Monitoring of Australia’s northern sea and air space by the US will likely morph into reporting requirements and then control as the US ramps up its anti-China posture.
What is of concern in a functioning democracy is the felt need by Labor to adopt a low profile, agreeing with the government on security and defence issues and cautiously drip-feeding uncontroversial policies to the media. Justifiable criticism of Morrison over his response to fire, flood, climate change, refugees, women, aged care, secondary education, universities, health and Medicare has been muted.
Murdoch has much to answer for in biased, partisan reporting of all matters relating to the Labor Party. The ABC, under funding pressure from bullying Morrison and Ministers Fifield and Fletcher has sought to appease and, in the process, has lost sight of its charter.
There is no doubt that these instruments are biased against Labor, but that is the challenge that democracy is faced with from time to time. Ask black South African’s living under the oppression of apartheid how they managed a voice in the face of a hostile white press. Albanese and the Labor Party appear to believe that democracy in Australia can be repaired if they get back into office. They act as if the game can still be played under existing rules. They agree that there should be an ICAC. I suspect they have no idea of the extent of corruption in Australia. I don’t see any real urgency or concern on the part of Labor at the rapid pace of climate change and the considerable upheaval this heralds; rather it is business more or less as usual.
I get no sense of crises from either major party at the decaying structures of our society which the LNP from Howard to Morrison have aided and abetted, underpinned by corruption (sports rorts), contracts without tenders to mates, an unhealthy relationship with the fossil fuel industry and a willingness to ignore the law. But it is deeper.They are amoral users of people, exploiters of the poor and disadvantaged illustrated through Robodebt and NDIS. There is no sense that Morrison and his party know the difference between right and wrong.
Morrison and members of his front bench are a disgrace, the likes of which have not been seen in post Federation Australian politics. Many people are angry at being used, with a lack of nurturing for many things held precious, from the environment, to their children, parents, teachers, health and aged care workers. They hate the lack of respect for women, refugees, Indigenous Australians and immigrants, for artists, musicians, creative endeavour and innovation. They hate the selfishness, crassness, lack of courage and vision of Morrison and his LNP and they do wonder why Albanese and his Labor Party are not angrier and more passionate about the collapse of what used to be the structural and ethical norms of our society.