There are worse leaders than Scott Morrison. The “international community” includes torturers, mass murderers, ethnic cleansers and kleptomaniacs beside whom he seems almost benign. But no leader in the world is more abject than the prime minister of Australia.
He cuts a pathetic figure. A leader must speak honestly to his people in a crisis. The sly tactics of climate change denial, the false consoling words that it’s a scare and we can carry on as before, have left Morrison’s words as meaningless as a hum in the background. Nothing he says is worth hearing.
Australian English is rich in its descriptions of worthless men: as useful as tits on a bull, a dry thunderstorm, a third armpit, a glass door on a dunny, a pocket on a singlet, an ashtray on a motorbike, a submarine with screen doors, a roo-bar on a skateboard. Morrison is all of the above, but a British saying sums him up: “too clever by half”. Morrison won last year’s Australian general election, although his conservative Liberal party was expected to lose, by slyly mobilising opinion against tax rises in general and environmental taxes in particular.
The climate change denialism he espoused is a moving target. In the 1990s, lobbyists funded by the oil industry acted as if the overwhelming majority of scientists who understood the subject were in a conspiracy against the public. They accused the authors of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports of being guilty of a “major deception” when they discussed the human influence on climate. Many still hold to the original sin of this denialism.
Even as Australia burned last week, Tony Abbott, Morrison’s conservative predecessor, was still saying the world was “in the grip of a climate cult”. Abbott proved he was willing to make others suffer for his wilfully ignorant belief by scrapping a carbon tax when he was in power in Australia in 2014. A fallback position is emerging. It accepts that manmade climate change is real but withdraws the concession as soon as it has been made and loses it in an obfuscatory smoke.
The final fallback and the final degradation will come, I predict, in the mid-2020s when the right abandons denialism completely, admits that climate change is catastrophic, but adds it’s far too late to do anything about it, which it may well be.
Scott Morrison is hunkered down in stage two. He grudgingly acknowledges the existence of man-made climate change but hurriedly adds that other causes are at work. The climate has always changed and it’s not worth bearing the costs of challenging a polluting culture. It worked in last year’s elections, but sounds absurd today.
“By not recognising climate change as a serious threat you fail to prepare overworked, underappreciated first responders for larger, more frequent bushfires that devastate communities,” said one previously solid Morrison voter, after he had learned the truth about conservatism as his family waited to be evacuated from a New South Wales beach.
Despite its failure, perhaps because of its failures, the do-nothing Australian right remains admired across the conservative world. The 2019 election was meant to be a climate change election about the killing of the Great Barrier Reef, the extreme drought and average summer temperatures across the continent hitting 40C. Yet Morrison and his campaign team managed to turn it into an election about the Australian Labor party’s tax plans.
So impressed was Boris Johnson that he hired Morrison’s boys to win the British general election. Fawning coverage followed of the digital “whiz-kids” from New Zealand: Sean Topham, 28, and Ben Guerin, 24. In Australia, the hotshots refined their technique of dumping hundreds of crude variations on the same theme on social media. They described how Labor would raise taxes and warned that a proposal to encourage electric cars threatened motorists. Labor wanted to hit “Australians who love being out there in their four-wheel drives”, said Morrison, as his propagandists targeted ads at owners of Ford Rangers, Toyota Hilux and every other popular model, saying that Labor would increase the price of “Australia’s most popular cars”. In Britain, the same team banged home the crude message in a thousand different ways that Johnson would “get Brexit done”.
Politicians and political journalists who eulogise the cunning of clever operators aren’t being wholly asinine. How a party wins a campaign remains a matter of importance. But not one of them added, after the praise for the wise guys and whiz-kids had ended, that the boys from the Morrison campaign were the Neville Chamberlains of Australian politics who had convinced Australians to ignore the greatest threat to their nation’s security. It’s as if crime writers spent their time detailing the cunning of criminals while never mentioning the victims left bleeding on the floor.
The Brexit Morrison’s operators helped to sell to the British is, like climate change, an exercise in three-stage denial. First comes the refusal to admit there will be pain. Then a guarded concession that there may be “bumps in the road” and,, you can predict, in a couple of years, when it is too late to save the car factories and science parks, will come admission that Remainers were right, but that doesn’t matter now.
When Morrison won the Australian general election and the gilets jaunes forced Macron to scrap his proposed fuel tax, liberals received stern lectures about how people did not want to meet the cost of fighting climate change; the point was a good one. After Leave won the 2016 Brexit referendum and Johnson won the 2019 general election, lectures on how voters did not want to be told that Britain was making a terrible mistake followed in turn. Of course, they were true too.
But it is also true that you cannot postpone a rendezvous with reality forever. Whatever memes the right pushes out, whatever social media strategies they adopt and propaganda they trumpet, the lesson the refugees on Australia’s beaches know too well is that fire still burns.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist