The halfway man

There is an argument that says prime ministers, whatever their qualities, tell the story of the country that elected them. Australia was brash like Bob Hawke and confident like Paul Keating and boring and self-interested like John Howard.

Scott Morrison, who holds office by one seat, tells the story of half the country. At the last election, that half of the country voted for a government with no agenda. This is a persistent myth that Australia tells itself: that the country is so comfortable it scarcely needs to be governed.

Morrison understands this well. It is the premise of his leadership. He exists to remind voters that anyone could do it, that so much is right with the country it could elect a glorified travel agent to its highest office and still get away with it.

When Scott Morrison says “How good is Australia?” he is really saying “Can you believe they put me in charge of this place?” This is meant as a form of reassurance: “If I can do this with no apparent aptitude or discipline or foresight, then surely the country is in great shape.”

Of course, this has never been true. The past decade will be remembered as one of lost opportunities. It is with embarrassment that we will look back at the wilful ignorance of that position, of how much was overlooked to pretend we would all be okay.

The pandemic is not the beginning of this – it is the aftertaste of incompetence. The gross mishandling of every aspect of this catastrophe has a perfect mirror in decisions already made on climate change.

First experts were ignored. Then there was the appeal to exceptionalism. Then to the impossibility of doing anything ourselves. Opportunities were missed, especially on technology. Finally, the government decided to pretend it wasn’t happening at all. When this became unsustainable, they hoped the market would fix the problem.

We are at the market end of coronavirus. Personal responsibility is the government’s answer to its own staggering failure to take charge when it should have, when capacity could have been built in the public health system, when vaccines could have been acquired, when testing infrastructure could have been established.

Transport workers had been warning the prime minister’s office of supply chain breakdowns since October. The issue
was noted for mention in national cabinet documents leaked to this newspaper. Nothing was done.

There were early warnings on testing, too, just as there had been early offers on vaccine supply. All were ignored. The faith in the myth was too great: Morrison truly believed the country would continue to govern itself, as it always had done. He has a nostalgia for indifference.

Australia will for years pay the price for this certainty, especially on climate change. The next election will be a test of whether we have outgrown the myth of our own comfort, of whether we can finally accept that the country needs a person who can lead it, who tells a story that doesn’t rhyme, one that is more complicated and aware than “How good is Australia?”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 15, 2022 as "The halfway man".

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