Morrison must take advantage of the times

When Paul Keating described the painful downturn already under way in late 1990 as “the recession we had to have”, his point was the Australian economy needed to experience an uncomfortable period of adjustment in order to recover.

It was not a popular statement for a treasurer to make when the unemployment rate was heading towards 11 per cent. But his refusal to sugarcoat the seriousness of the situation paved the way for a raft of important reforms that opened up the domestic economy.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Sunday.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Sunday.Credit:AAP

Australia finds itself in the midst of a very different crisis almost three decades later. Bushfires have turned the south-east of the country into an apocalyptic nightmare responsible for the destruction of more than 1400 homes and 6 million hectares. At least 19 people have been killed while nearly half a billion animals are affected, according to University of Sydney estimates. It is an unprecedented disaster made worse by the impact of climate change which has extended the drought and dried out our forests. Western Sydney was the hottest place on earth on Saturday.

If there are any similarities between now and then it is that our leaders must take a leaf out of Keating’s book by directly acknowledging the scale and complexity of the problem. Then they must get on with the job of making tough decisions because there is no easy way out of the current predicament. Indeed, the bushfires expose two key fault lines running through our democracy.


First, a federal system is not always well-equipped to deal with a national emergency. Disagreements between the federal and state governments over hazard reduction in national parks, the funding of emergency services, communications protocols and the co-ordination of firefighting aircraft must be resolved. A second parliamentary inquiry into land-clearing and controlled burn-offs is a sensible starting point but a broader, united strategy is critical. Having seven different versions of emergency management helps nobody when it’s clear the scale of these mega-disasters means crisis response should be co-ordinated at a federal level.

Second, the failure of both sides of politics to come up with a workable climate and energy policy during the “lost decade” of the 2010s must be addressed. The past few weeks underline the fact Australia is more vulnerable than most countries to irreversible damage from global warming. Australia’s emissions are dwarfed by bigger economies and the government expects to meet its Paris carbon reduction targets for the 2021-30 decade (albeit by dubiously banking Kyoto credits that dramatically reduces our actual abatement task). But a nation exposed to extreme weather with delicate ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef must lead from the front.

Whether Prime Minister Scott Morrison will make the most of the policy opportunities presented by the bushfires is far from clear. Since returning from a Hawaiian holiday that his office attempted to cover up, he has been widely criticised over his leadership. A social media advertisement on Saturday promoting the government’s response was another misstep that suggests the sharp political instincts he displayed during the campaign have deserted Mr Morrison.

This summer has been marked by an atmosphere of anxiety as real as the smoke that chokes many towns and cities. The Prime Minister needs to reconnect with a growing number of formerly quiet Australians expressing anger about his government’s handling of the fires. He should start by worrying less about “the optics” and more about the substantive issues facing the nation.

Nobody would describe this catastrophe as the fire season we had to have, but we could learn the lessons of the past. This crisis represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for genuine reform. Mr Morrison must grasp it.

The Herald’s editor Lisa Davies writes a weekly newsletter exclusively for subscribers. To have it delivered to your inbox, please sign up here.

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