This is an emergency

We don’t know for sure if Nero played violin while Rome burnt. If it did happen, it was likely a different instrument, perhaps a kithara. But that other question – of whether a leader could be so frivolous and uncaring in the face of such catastrophe – was answered this week by Scott Morrison.

Eventually, rosin on his hands, the prime minister said the smoke in Sydney was “deeply troubling” for “families and kids”. He blamed the drought and the dryness of the bush. He said Australia’s climate policies couldn’t affect the weather. “I acknowledged earlier this year, in February, that climate change, along with many other factors, contribute to what is occurring today.”

Anthony Albanese is no better. He is spruiking the market for coal. He is worried about Labor’s future, not the country’s. We have a government incapable of leadership and an opposition unable to oppose.

The world faces a great disaster. It is drying out and burning. There are floods and extinctions. The reefs are bleaching. Sea levels are rising. Refugees move across borders in greater and greater numbers. It is clear now that we will see in our lifetimes wars we might never have imagined.

The science says all this could still be arrested. The politics says it can’t be. It is worse than cynicism. It is a mass failure of caring, a misalignment of values. We are trapped in a continuous, declining present. We have no sense of the future and no leaders who will take us there.

In Madrid, Angus Taylor argues for carryover credits, so that the government might do less. The world is slowly ending and he is doing a card trick. He is not even doing it well, and has to ask the other countries if they will pretend they didn’t see him cheating.

Morrison’s emptiness was made for another time. The world is too complicated for a man with no ideas. His only interest is comfort, which is why he cannot understand urgency.

When Robert Menzies was in office, having no policies was a virtue: there was nothing to weigh down the country as it rode the post-war boom. This is the model Morrison has borrowed. He looks to Menzies for guidance and 70 years later sees nothing to update.

It is hard to know a way through this. The government is patently ill-prepared for the calamity it faces. There is an emergency and it is being treated as a game. The electorate is too divided and nothing is being done to mend it. The sly maths of a majority is all the prime minister cares about – the opposition, too.

Something needs to happen, something drastic and soon. The sky is burning orange and something needs to happen. The air is on fire. This is wartime and the government we elected is our enemy. The whole country needs to face this together.

After the Great Fire, Nero built his palace in the ruins. Scott Morrison doesn’t have that kind of imagination. He doesn’t know what’s next and his inability to conceive of it stops him from confronting what is happening now. This is the great, great failure of our time, and it will ruin the earth.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 14, 2019 as "This is an emergency".

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