Moral stature

John Howard’s wife once complained to a cartoonist that he was drawing her husband too small. She insisted Howard was the same height as Bob Hawke. In the cartoons, he seemed much shorter: head and shoulders below him. The cartoonist paused and then explained that what he was depicting was moral stature.

Howard of course led Australia into Afghanistan. His smallness was also aggressive. It had the insecurity of someone quite willing to follow others. From the outset, George W. Bush seemed to understand this.

Howard’s smallness was hereditary. Tony Abbott has it, as does Scott Morrison. It is a smallness not just of morals but of imagination – a kind of satisfaction that comes with knowing the limits of your mind, and that you could walk them before breakfast.

Morrison’s response to the fall of Afghanistan exemplifies this smallness. He has no interest in the situation because it is larger than him. There are no votes in it. The television news doesn’t care. Even the readers of this newspaper are less interested than they are in the vaccine rollout. The traffic numbers prove it.

Morrison’s lack of imagination has left behind thousands of people. Their fate is reasonably certain. The Taliban is not new and their actions are unlikely to surprise. As one Hazara refugee recounts in the paper this week: “Once the international forces are out of Kabul airport, the dark time will again come to Afghanistan. People know that. The Taliban is not new to Afghan people. We keep forgetting that: they are not a new regime. They were there before. They have already killed thousands of people in front of their families. It is just a matter of time. Straight away they will kill people. They will not ask questions. There is no mercy. The fear people have is that once the international forces leave Kabul airport, the Taliban will start slaughtering. People sense it. They know.”

This makes it even more troubling that there was no evacuation plan. As Karen Middleton reports, a pro forma document was taken off a shelf. There was no attempt to get people from their homes to the airport, even people who had worked with Australian forces and were especially vulnerable because of this. There was no special planning. Defence worked so quickly they didn’t even have time to give the operation a name.

The rush came because of indifference, because Morrison couldn’t be bothered with a plan. He couldn’t see the point of one. The lack of urgency will be fatal. We will hear little about it.

This is the smallness of our politics. It is the smallness of Howard and Abbott and Morrison and others. The problem now is that in a cartoon you wouldn’t notice: they’re all the same size.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 28, 2021 as "Moral stature".

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