What Scott Morrison lacks most is not intelligence or good advice: it’s empathy. He cannot feel what the country is feeling, and so he plays cricket and takes his kids to Hawaii.
This is what happens when politics divorces itself from policy, when you campaign to win rather than to govern. Without a real agenda, you are left with personality, and it is not enough.
The country’s anxieties seem alien to Morrison, because they are not his own. He knows he will be okay. He cannot grasp the scale of the calamity we face, because he does not feel it or feel for the people it will most affect.
In Cobargo, he forced a pregnant woman to shake his hand. She had lost everything except what was in her car. He met grief with condescension. He dodged emotion. “He walked away as I asked for help,” the woman said later, “and that kind of broke my heart.”
Empathy brings with it a kind of urgency, and Morrison doesn’t have that. It is a natural impulse when something bad happens, even to somebody else, that you would try to stop it happening again, and Scott Morrison doesn’t have that.
This is not to say he doesn’t feel and feel deeply, but he doesn’t feel what others feel. He lacks the capacity for imagination that makes a person into a leader. Morrison casts himself as an everyman – he is ordinary, just like you – although the everyman he envisages is too selfish and narrow to feel for a country.
When Morrison talks about resilience, he is talking about looking after yourself. That’s not an answer to climate change. The only answer to climate change is collective.
It is telling that the summit Morrison called during the bushfire crisis was of charities – groups to do the government’s job for it. He does not know how to take responsibility. He does not know how to talk to the nation or on its behalf.
These bushfires are the first big test for Scott Morrison, and he has failed. He has accepted the reality of global warming, and done nothing to address it. It is difficult to guess at what the next three years might be like, led by a man who can’t lead. It is hard to imagine that the country will get what it is asking for: action on climate change; integrity in politics; a clear and responsible vision for the future.
Most likely, we will settle for smallness. We will start in our own lives to reduce emissions, and wait for another government to catch up. We will make do with spin because it is all we are given. We will live with a sense of political abandonment.
There will be suffering and it will be done without a prime minister who shares in it. There will be progress and it will be made without the government.
Morrison is a man without synecdoche. There is no great nation for which he is the avatar: there is just him. There is no part to stand for the whole because at the end there is no whole.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 25, 2020 as "Empathy deficit". Subscribe here.