There are moments in politics when everything that has come before is crystalised in a moment. Malcolm Turnbull branded himself a phony when he leapt into bed with the Coalition’s right wing. Tony Abbott captured himself when he recommended Prince Phillip be offered an Australian knighthood. Before him, John Howard made himself a political legend when he threw children overboard. Julia Gillard did it in her act of backstabbing. Kevin Rudd did it when he dumped climate change mitigation for Big Australia. Paul Keating branded himself forever with the “recession we had to have”. So on and so forth.
These are moments when the truth about a leader’s character is revealed for all to see and branded that way forever more. For Keating it was arrogance. For Howard it was opportunism. For Rudd it was narcissism. For Gillard it was illegitimacy. For Abbott it was archaic ineptitute. For Turnbull it was hollowness.
That moment arrived last week for Scott Morrison. He will henceforth be remembered as SmoCo, the guy that fled to Hawaii – sand, sun and Mai Tais – as his nation burned to the ground. No doubt his minders will kid themselves that he can spin his way out of it. That the marketing guru will find a new angle to shift the blame elsewhere. They are wrong.
The Morrsion Government is now covered in ash and forever will be. Over Christmas tables across the nation for the next week, SmoCo will be a combined laughing stock and object of incredulous anger. SmoCo of the “quiet Australians” has become instead the incredible vanishing PM.
In truth, it’s not all SmoCo’s fault. His party is really to blame. It has made destructive climate politics the centre of its value system for thirty years. It has unilaterally blockaded global action. It has embraced and defended carbon interests. It has ruined the debate with pseudo-science. It has trashed energy policy and twisted mitigation policy to such an extent that Australia now faces combined environmental and energy calamity. From day one, it has divided and conquered instead of uniting and acting.
It never needed to be this way. There is nothing in conservatism or economic liberalism that insists upon it. It was a political choice to create the mother of all culture wars.
All of this history has landed on SmoCo in a teeming ash rain reminiscent of the happy-go-lucky denizens of Pompeii.
That is not necessarily politcally fatal. Sometimes, circumstances can combine to fit the brand. That happened to John Howard, for instance, with successive wars.
To upend the politcal applecart, the brand must fall out of step with external circumstance, then the PM and government are rendered obsolete. For SmoCo that context is now undeniably climate change.
But the danger for the incredible vanishing PM is that his disappearing act is toxic much more widely. Australia confronts a mounting series of national crises that require deep policy policy reform in the national interest:
- China is encroaching upon Australian sovereignty aggressively and persistently;
- after twenty years of poor policy, the structural flaws in the economy have overtaken its capacity for effective stimulus. Stagnation in growth, profits and wages is permanent without change;
- the intergenerational war is worsening as the marginalisation of youth across all features of life is now as severe as it is entrenched in jobs, the Budget, housing and climate;
- the environment is a disaster on all fronts with water the crisis to follow fire next year;
- and above and behind it all is mass immigration and the bonds of Australiana, which makes all of the above worse.
How can an invisible man lead a nation as such times? It takes debate. It takes ideas. It takes disruption. It takes management and the reassurance of insight.
Without these things we now know what happens. Crisis erupts anyway and instead of calm we get chaos. Instead of a plan we get careering. Instead of reassurance we get refracting anxiety. Instead of quiet we get the roar of conflagration.
The raw political problem with disappearing all of the time is that you get ahead of nothing. If the incredible vanishing PM only reappears when he is overtaken by crisis, he will only ever arrive just in time to be blamed for it.
It’s not that the polity understands this in detail. It’s worse than that. They sense it. In their bones, they know that their children and nation need more. That “it’s time” for change.
That does not make change certain. SmoCo is being aided by the Ablotross around Labor’s neck. Bizarrely, that ill-omened leader has decided to become equally invisible as his re-election strategy. As is so often the case, fighting the last war.
As well, SmoCo might get lucky. It could rain for two years delivering a miraculous economic recovery with falling house prices, a flourishing of extinct species and water for Sydney, just as the Chinese Comminst Party declares peace and mass immigration falls away all by itself.
I wouldn’t bet on it.