When Scott Morrison lands back in Australia, he will face a barrage of difficult questions from the media and public.
Sadly those questions, at least initially, probably won’t be about policy and maybe not even about what more the government plans to do to help exhausted fire crews across the country. They will be about the timing of his Hawaii holiday, and much more importantly, why his office lied about it.
On Friday evening, another photo surfaced of Morrison hanging out at a resort in Hawaii. It would be an entirely unremarkable image if his trip wasn’t shrouded in mystery this past week, leaving social media to go into overdrive in search of the nation’s missing leader.
@ScottMorrisonMP sighted a very short time ago (Fri 20/12 7pm) by my uncle in Hawaii. Looks like he's in a real hurry to get back!!! #auspol #ScoMo #bushfires #Scummo #bushfires #AustraliaBurns #wherethebloodyhellareya #whereisScoMo #WheresScotty #AUSTRALIANBUSHFIRES pic.twitter.com/0m9M76hrIc— Ben Parsons (@parso81) December 20, 2019
According to the AFR, the PM’s office asked for certain sections of the media not to report that Morrison was on holidays. When other journalists found out, Morrison’s advisers obfuscated and flat out lied about it.
That meant Twitter was left asking #WhereTheBloddyHellAreYa? all week before a rather awkward photo of the PM eventually emerged online. Juxtaposed against those making the ultimate sacrifice at home, it didn’t look good.
Those who think this is all a lot of noise about nothing cite the fact that fire response is a state issue not something for a Federal leader to preside over. It’s a defence the PM seemed to invoke himself when he told 2GB radio “I’m not the one holding a hose” on Friday morning.
But those who reach for this defence are missing the point about what Australia clearly expects from its most visible leader.
No one is suggesting the PM shouldn’t take a holiday. Arguably no one deserves a personal getaway more than a sitting Prime Minister. As one commentator put it this week, a holiday would likely do him – and the country – some much needed good, allowing him to take pause and reflect. And surveys show the public agrees.
But why all the secrecy? It was the completely unnecessary effort to conceal the fact which turned this into another oxygen-sucking scandal.
Leading a government increasingly hellbent on secrecy, it’s almost as if it’s a reflex now.
“I deeply regret any offence caused to any of the many Australians affected by the terrible bushfires by my taking leave with family at this time," Mr Morrison said on Friday. Despite recently spending nearly $250 million in upgrading the government's VIP jet fleet, Morrison also said it wasn’t that easy to get home from Hawaii at the drop of a hat.
In his desire to downplay the link between climate change and worsening bushfire conditions, Morrison has tried to play it as situation normal. Nothing to see here.
But it hasn’t worked.
The prime minister is expected to visit Rural Fire Service headquarters over the weekend after flying into Sydney on Saturday evening, perhaps increasingly aware of his misjudgement.
Former PM Harold Holt flew back from New Zealand to comfort survivors when bushfires ravaged Tasmania in 1967. Years later Gough Whitlam flew back to Australia from Europe to inspect the damage after Cyclone Tracy destroyed Darwin at Christmas in 1974.
Other Prime Ministers from Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke to Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott have all interrupted their schedule when the nation was gripped by disaster or crisis.
Every calamity is different and those mentioned about happened in a swift, single event and resulted in a number of Australians being killed. There was an obvious moment for the Prime Minister to kick into gear and provide moral leadership.
These bushfires on the other hand have been, pardon the pun, a slow burn. They have lasted for months, slowly taking homes and the occasional life as they refuse to be tamed by exhausted fire fighters, a majority of them volunteering their time.
So maybe it’s harder to find the right time for a holiday. But it’s his party that consistently avoids the difficult questions about its failure on delivering a climate and energy policy by saying now – while fires are still burning – is not the time to talk about it.
That’s ridiculous of course, but it’s obviously not the time for a holiday on the other side of the world either.
As longtime political journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Hartcher, wrote in Saturday morning’s paper: “Morrison is rushing back to Australia. But do we have a leader?”
I hope so. But to date, the evidence is MIA.
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