When Australians pay their income tax, they assume the money is going to areas of the community that need it, rather than being used by the government to shore up votes for the next election.
This is why the findings of the Australian National Audit Office into the awarding of community sporting grants by cabinet minister Bridget McKenzie are serious. Not merely for the grant funding process, but also for trust in our system of government.
The Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program was established in 2018 to ensure more Australians have access to quality sporting facilities, encouraging greater community participation in sport and physical activity.
The Audit Office was asked to examine this grant program to assess whether the award of funding “was informed by an appropriate assessment process and sound advice”. The focus was therefore on whether proper procedures were followed.
The report was extremely critical of the way in which the A$100 million in sporting grants were awarded by Minister McKenzie ahead of last year’s election campaign.
It found successful applications were “not those that had been assessed as the most meritorious” and that there was “distributional bias” in the way projects were approved. The problem is many of the grants were awarded to bodies within marginal seats or seats the Coalition wanted to win.
This is a serious matter because it represents a politicisation of a grant system which is supposed to be undertaken on merit.
The fact the Audit Office has made this finding is important. But what happens now and what will the consequences be? Will there be an investigation? If so, by whom?
Importantly, the Audit Office is an independent body. In the absence of a federal integrity commission, it has a significant role to play in ensuring government funds are spent for proper purposes. A central part of the role of the Audit Office is to uncover and report on fraud and corruption in government decisions. But it does not have coercive powers and its report does not have any direct legal effect on Senator McKenzie.
If there is to be a further investigation of this matter, it’s likely to be taken up by a parliamentary forum such as Senate Estimates. What is more significant are the consequences of the Audit report.
The first point to understand is that the direct legal consequences of the Audit Office finding are minimal. The report made four recommendations for future reform of the sporting grant procedure. While the Audit Office is very well-regarded by decision makers and commands respect, it is not a court. Therefore its recommendations are not binding and can be ignored by government.
What is more significant are the legal implications of the Audit report.
Here the problem is the Audit Office found the minister did not have legal authority to approve the grants in the first place. This is because the legal power to approve the sporting grants is actually given to Sport Australia (under the Australian Sports Commission Act 1989).
That legislation says the minister can give written directions to Sport Australia in relation to the exercise of its powers. But Senator McKenzie actually made the decisions on the grants (rather than merely give written directions to Sport Australia).
This is, however, somewhat of a theoretical argument as it is unlikely anyone will be able to bring this matter to court to invalidate the grant decisions made. Given community sporting groups who were disadvantaged by the improper grant process are community groups in need of funding, it’s unlikely they will be in a position to bring an expensive legal action.
It’s therefore likely the consequences of this report will be political rather than legal.
Here the political convention of “ministerial responsibility” should, ideally, come into play. This gives effect to the broader principle that the Australian people give authority and power to elected politicians and those politicians must be accountable for their actions.
This means McKenzie could be asked to resign. However, the Senator has indicated she will not resign, saying “no rules were broken” and she was given discretionary powers “for a purpose” in the program’s guidelines.
And this is one of the problems with ministerial responsibility today: it largely depends on whether the relevant party feel it’s politically necessary to pressure the relevant minister to stand down.
The current strength of this principle in modern Australia has been questioned, with many saying it’s no longer effective. For instance, journalist Tony Wright wrote in 2019:
Ministerial responsibility in Canberra appears to have all but decayed to no responsibility.
So, there may be no political consequences in this matter at all.
The Audit Office of Australia is a respected, independent institution and its findings this week should have consequences.
Trust in government, which should be central to a healthy democracy, is at an historical low in Australia. Governments need to make decisions which are transparent and fair. A government that bends the rules is a danger to the rule of law and to democracy.
News came from Moscow overnight that the Russian government had resigned, followed by the announcement that Putin would be recommending the current prime minister Dmitry Medvedev be replaced by the head of the tax office, Mikhail Mishustin.
Why has the government resigned, and what does it mean for the future?
Prior to the government’s resignation, President Vladimir Putin announced a series of proposed changes to the constitution to be placed before the people in a future referendum. In announcing the government’s resignation, Medvedev hinted that their resignation was to facilitate the progression of the proposed constitutional reforms.
Among others, Putin proposed that in the constitution:
international law should apply in Russia only if it does not contradict the constitution or restrict peoples’ rights and freedoms. This, he said, was a question of sovereignty
leading political figures should not have foreign citizenship or the right to live permanently in another state. As well as these qualifications, the president must have lived in Russia for the last 25 years
the president should not be able to hold the presidency for two consecutive terms (although Putin said he doesn’t think this is a matter of principle)
the prime minister and all ministers should be appointed by the State Duma (parliament) instead of the president, who would have no right to reject those appointments
the role of the State Council (an advisory body) should be expanded and strengthened
the independence of judges should be enshrined and protected.
The most important of these proposed changes (along with that of judicial independence) is that of moving the power to form the government from the president into the legislature.
If this was done and a truly accountable form of government was established, it would be a major advance on how the system has worked up until now.
But in the same speech, Putin argued that Russia needed to remain a presidential, not a parliamentary, republic. These two positions seem at odds with one another and a potential recipe for constitutional confusion.
One reason may be dissatisfaction with the government’s performance. The implication from Putin’s speech, and from many other comments, is that both the governance of Russia and the current government have been deficient.
Governance is seen by Putin to be hampered by the lack of a direct constitutional line between president and ministers, and this would be resolved by making the prime minister the key person in the policy sphere rather than the president.
This would be facilitated by removing the president’s power to choose the identity of the prime minister and some ministers. The government’s resignation could be seen as a response to the dissatisfaction with its performance.
But also relevant is power politics. Putin is due to step down as president in 2024. Thoughts are already turning to the question of the succession, in particular, will Putin go, and if so, who will replace him?
The current Constitution forbids Putin from standing for another presidential term in 2024. The last time he faced this question in 2008, Putin stepped down as president and became prime minister. The potential beefing up of the prime ministership under these proposals might make this strategy again attractive.
But in 2024 Putin will be 73, and it is not clear that he would really want to be involved in the sort of day-to-day policy discussions a prime minister must involve himself in. He has already been showing some irritation with the policy process.
However beefing up and reshaping the State Council could provide a slot into which a post-presidential Putin could move, giving him some continuing oversight powers while not making him drown in policy details and paper.
This is surmise. But what is undoubtedly true is that this is only the first public move in what is likely to be a prolonged process of succession and power transfer in Russia.
The hope of many people enduring this summer’s firestorms is that better climate policy will arise phoenix-like from the ashes.
It is expressed loudly, fervently, sometimes abusively by people directly affected and those feeling solidarity with them.
It is also expressed secretly, whispered to like-minded confidants, by others who are part of or allied with the Liberal-National (LNP) coalition government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
On Sunday, Morrison indicated that he would take a proposal to establish a royal commission into the bushfires to his Cabinet.
But when it comes to climate policy, there are three possible scenarios in the aftermath of the crisis: everything magically changes for the better, everything stays the same or something different happens.
Everything magically changes for the better would look like this: Morrison announces the crisis has transformed his previous token admission of a link between bushfires and climate change into a revelation of the reality of global warming, with consequential policy change.
As logical and desirable as this seems, it is unlikely, not least because of Morrison’s character and personal beliefs.
Everything stays the same has a powerful impetus behind it. Morrison does not want policy change any more than his likely successor in the event of leadership change, Peter Dutton.
Government-friendly journalists and commentators at News Corp and 2GB show no sign of changing tack either, so even if the government wanted to shift its policy, the media environment makes it difficult to do so. The forces of inertia are powerful.
Then there is the slim hope that something different happens. This scenario relies on all three of Australia’s main political groupings – the LNP, Labor and the Greens – realising they each face their own distinct climate policy challenge and rising to it.
Opinion polls are not done over the summer holiday period, meaning the LNP has yet to see the impact of the bushfires on their public standing.
When polling resumes, Liberal and National MPs will understand the impact, and they won’t like it. Morrison and others will likely urge party members to hold their course since the next election is years away and a dozen other issues could distract attention from climate policy between now and then.
This tactic can prevail for some time but is not strategically sustainable: firestorms like those in the summer of 2020 will not be the last.
The emerging LNP argument that inadequate hazard reduction burns are to blame for the current crisis is risible. The Australian who has emerged with the most credibility from the bushfires – NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons – rejects it out of hand.
The LNP’s challenge, then, is to realise its current position won’t hold strategically and to transition to better policy ahead of that becoming obvious, managing the optics to avoid the appearance of a backflip.
Labor is benefiting from leader Anthony Albanese’s call for “an adult conversation” in Australia about climate policy. He is astutely citing British Tories like the late Margaret Thatcher and current Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who long ago accepted and acted upon the climate science the Morrison government viscerally rejects.
Labor’s homework now is to reconcile the views and interests of members and supporters prioritising climate policy over mining jobs, and vice versa.
This can and must be done if Labor is to build a coalition of support big enough to win office and then enact the climate and other policies the current firestorms make so urgent.
The Greens, meanwhile, need to have an internal conversation about whether they want to continue making perfect policy the enemy of the good – leaving Australia with no emissions trading system (ETS) at all, for example, because they would not vote for one that did not meet their every demand – or join in efforts to begin on the path to better policy.
Central to that conversation must be a realisation their current strategy isn’t working – the LNP keeps returning to power.
There is an obvious point the LNP, Labor and Greens might momentarily agree upon to move policy forward. It is the ETS proposed by Liberal Prime Minister John Howard in 2007.
Howard saw climate change coming. In late 2006, he established a prime ministerial task group on emissions trading chaired by the secretary of his Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Peter Shergold.
The Shergold Report, released in May 2007, said “emissions trading should be preferred to a carbon tax” and among the various kinds possible, a national “cap and trade” ETS was best.
In an address to the Liberal Party Federal Council in October 2007, Howard promised to establish a national ETS starting no later than 2012.
This will be a world-class emissions trading system more comprehensive, more rigorously grounded in economics and with better governance than anything in Europe.
Implementing an emissions trading scheme and setting a long-term goal for reducing emissions will be the most momentous economic decisions Australia will take in the next decade.
This emissions trading system must be built to last. It needs to last not five or 10 years, it needs to last the whole of the 21st century if Australia is to meet our global responsibilities and further build our economic prosperity.
Howard positioned the LNP as the party Australians could trust to implement an ETS in a way that gives “firms and families” the ability to “plan for the future with confidence”.
His authorship – and his framing of his ETS as an act of economic responsibility –provides a fig leaf Morrison can now use to move the LNP to a credible, sustainable and politically viable climate policy position.
“Something different” has to start somewhere. If Morrison can deploy the cunning he showed winning the 2019 election by drawing on Howard’s deep well of credibility within the LNP to implement the plan himself and then inviting – daring – Labor and the Greens to back him, it would be a signal political achievement.
And if Morrison doesn’t want to, Labor, the Greens, independent MPs and conscientious LNP MPs should vote together to turn Howard’s ETS into law right away. With political will, “something different” can start now.
Updates to add that the latest Newspoll, released late Sunday, shows Morrison’s standing has taken a massive hit over the bushfires, dropping nine percentage points as preferred prime minister from 48% to 39% since the last poll in early December. Opposition leader Anthony Albanese stood at 43% – a massive reversal of Morrison’s 14 percentage point lead over the Labor leader in early December.
In the first Newspoll of the new year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s ratings have tanked as a result of his handling of the bushfire crisis.
The Newspoll, conducted January 8-11 from a sample of 1,500 people, gave Labor a 51-49 lead on a two-party preferred basis, a three point gain for Labor since the last Newspoll in early December.
Primary votes were 40% Coalition (down two points), 36% Labor (up three), 12% Greens (up one) and 4% One Nation (down one).
Morrison also suffered a drop in his job performance rating, with 37% saying they were satisfied, down eight points from early December, and 59% saying they were dissatisfied, up 11 points.
His net approval was -22, down 19 points since December. Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s net approval, meanwhile, improved ten points to +9.
Albanese also led Morrison 43-39 as preferred PM, a reversal of Morrison’s 48-34 lead in December. Apart from Morrison’s first Newspoll as PM following the ousting of Malcolm Turnbull in August 2018, this is the first time an opposition leader has led the incumbent PM on this measure since Tony Abbott was in office.
The bushfire crisis almost certainly explains the crash in Morrison’s ratings, but will this be sustained? As memories of a key event fade, people tend to move back to their previous positions.
As the US Democratic primaries and caucuses are about to begin, here are the latest polls from the US.
Three weeks before the February 3 Iowa caucus, the highly regarded Selzer Iowa poll, conducted for CNN and the Des Moines Register, has shown Bernie Sanders with a slight lead in the state.
Sanders was at 20% in the poll (up five points from November), Elizabeth Warren 17% (up one), Pete Buttigieg 16% (down nine), Joe Biden 15% (steady), Amy Klobuchar 6% (steady) and Andrew Yang 5% (up two).
No other candidate had more than 3%. The poll was conducted January 2-8 from 701 likely caucus attendees.
The last Selzer Iowa poll had Buttigieg ahead at 25%, but he is down to third place in the new poll. After the last poll, there was much media attention on the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor, but he failed to catch on nationally. This failure has probably contributed to loss of enthusiasm in Iowa.
There are four early state primary contests: Iowa, New Hampshire (February 11), Nevada (February 22) and South Carolina (February 29). Fifteen states and territories then vote on March 3, otherwise known as Super Tuesday, when 36% of the total delegates will be awarded. This date could be decisive to determining who will be the nominee.
As I have written previously, the two states at the top of the calendar, Iowa and New Hampshire, are largely comprised of white voters. As such, they do not represent the diversity of the Democratic electorate.
Biden is doing far better with black voters, who made up 61% of the South Carolina Democratic primary electorate in 2016.
A recent poll of black voters nationally gave a Biden a huge lead with 48%, with Sanders on 20% and nobody else in double digits.
Sanders and Warren, the two most left-wing candidates, are leading in the latest Iowa poll. One explanation is that Iowa is a caucus, not a primary. Caucuses are conducted by the parties and are time-consuming affairs that require voters to attend meetings where supporters make their case for candidates.
Primaries, meanwhile, are managed by the state’s electoral authority and operate like normal elections. As a result, caucuses have far lower turnout rates than primaries, and are more likely to be influenced by party activists.
In the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, Sanders performed far better than Hillary Clinton in caucus states, while Clinton performed better in most primary states.
The bad news for Sanders and Warren is that Democrats strongly encouraged states to use primaries this year. After Iowa and Nevada (February 22), only one state uses a true caucus, while four others have a party-run primary.
According to New York Times analyst Nate Cohn, 14% of pledged delegates were awarded by caucuses in 2016; this year only 3% will be. Left-wing candidates are most likely to be hurt by this change.
The most recent RealClearPolitics national Democratic poll average has Biden leading with 29.3%, with Sanders at 20.3%, Warren 14.8%, Buttigieg 7.5%, Michael Bloomberg 5.8% and Yang 3.5%.
In New Hampshire, the RCP polling average has Sanders leading with 21.5%, followed by Biden at 18.8%, Buttigieg 18.3% and Warren 14.8%.
In Nevada, the only poll conducted in January has Biden at 23%, Sanders 17% and Warren and Tom Steyer both at 12%. And in South Carolina, the only January poll conducted had Biden in the lead at 36%, with Steyer in a surprise second at 15%.
The last Democratic presidential debate before voting begins will be held on Tuesday night at Drake University in Iowa. Six candidates have qualified. There will be three more debates in February.
In December, the US economy added 145,000 jobs. While this is down from 256,000 in November, it is still a good performance.
However, hourly wages grew only by three cents in December, and the annual hourly wage growth increased by just 2.9% – the first time it has been below 3% since July 2018.
We do not yet have the inflation report for December, but inflation increased 0.7% in October and November. Higher inflation undermines wage growth.
The US uses two surveys for its jobs reports. The number of jobs gained and wage growth are based on an establishment survey, while other statistics are based on a household survey. In December, the household survey was steady for the three most important indicators: unemployment at 3.5%, labour participation rate at 63.2% and employment population ratio at 61.0%.
The strong jobs reports and the fact the Dow Jones surged to near 29,000 are good news for President Donald Trump. The economy represents Trump’s best chance of re-election in November.
With all polls, the FiveThirtyEight aggregate has Trump’s ratings at 41.8% approve, 53.5% disapprove, for a net approval of -11.7%. With polls of likely or registered voters, Trump’s ratings are 42.9% approve, 53.0% disapprove (net -10.1%).
In mid-December, Trump’s ratings rose to their highest since the very early days of his presidency. His ratings have since fallen by two to three net points since then, perhaps owing to the conflict with Iran.
In the most recent national head-to-head election polls, Biden led Trump by 4.5% in the RealClearPolitics average, Sanders led Trump by 2.6%, Trump led Warren by 0.2% and Trump led Buttigieg by 1.2%.
These polls were taken in early to mid-December, when Trump’s ratings were at their peak.
As someone who has studied Australian climate policy and politics closely, this summer’s bushfire crisis have been both heartbreaking and bewildering. The grave warnings politicians ignored for so long have now come to pass.
The fires may be without precedent, but these dark weeks have also brought an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. It’s hard to believe, but the Morrison government’s fumbling response to the fires and the broader climate crisis is in many ways history repeating.
From the disastrous optics of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s trip to Hawaii to blaming conservationists for the fires, our politicians keep making the same blunders and rolling out the same failed strategies.
Here are five recurring themes in Australian politics when it comes to climate change and bushfires:
As the fire season ramped up in November last year, New South Wales Nationals leader John Barilaro accused the Greens of preventing governments from conducting hazard reduction burning, implying the party should shoulder blame for the fires.
“We’ve got to do better and I know that we don’t do enough hazard reduction […] because of the ideological position from the Greens,” he said.
Such sentiment, which has been thoroughly debunked, regularly surfaces when bushfires rage.
Following the 2003 Canberra fires and 2009 Victorian fires, the forest industry said conservationists were preventing state governments from conducting hazard reduction burns.
After Victoria’s fires, former West Australian MP Wilson Tuckey also blamed the Greens, and parties seeking their preferences, for preventing controlled burns and causing the crisis.
In November last year, Nationals leader Michael McCormack sneered that those who made the link between climate change and bushfires were “raving inner-city lunatics” and “woke capital-city greenies”.
McCormack continues a long tradition of those opposed to strong climate action claiming only inner-city dwellers care about the issue.
It began in the late 1980s, when the the “greenhouse effect” first became a public issue. Some politicians derided it as just another greenies scare campaign, including frontbencher in the Hawke Labor government, Peter Walsh.
Walsh, contemptuous of the Greens movement, continued to rail against climate action after leaving politics. He reportedly described the science around global warming as “highly speculative” and as late as 2008 claimed action on climate “would land us in Middle Ages.”.
Since April last year, former fire chiefs have implored the Morrison government to act on climate change and better prepare the nation for extreme fire seasons ahead. The government would not meet the experts to hear the advice, let alone implement it.
Successive governments have form when it comes to ignoring experts on climate matters. In September 1994 the CSIRO’s then top climate scientist, Graeme Pearman, briefed the Labor government’s cabinet about the likely impacts of climate change, as a debate over whether to institute a carbon tax heated up. Despite the warning, no tax was implemented.
Morrison’s decision to take a family holiday in Hawaii as the bushfire crisis grew lost him serious political skin.
Some argue, rightly, that symbolism is less important than substance, and so Morrison’s trip is itself irrelevant. But symbolism creates or destroys both morale, and the possibility of stronger political action.
In 1992 newly minted Labor prime minister Paul Keating sent environment minister Ros Kelly to the Rio Earth Summit, prompting one journalist to observe he was “preoccupied with winning the upcoming election (and) said he wasn’t going all the way to Rio to give a six-minute speech”.
It made Australia the only OECD nation not represented by its head of state, and sent the message that Australia was not taking a serious approach to the discussions.
The Bureau of Meteorology this week confirmed this season’s horror bushfire crisis is linked to climate change. Planetary warming is clearly a threat to the nation’s economic well-being.
However Australian governments have routinely created a false dichotomy between environmental protection and jobs. Most recently, we’ve seen it in the Coalition government’s support for the Adani coal mine in central Queensland, and its repeated mantra of “jobs jobs jobs”.
The strategy has been used before. After the Franklin Dam fight in 1983, concern over environmental issues entered the political mainstream. But as former Labor science minister Barry Jones said later, that changed in 1991 when economic recession hit.
“Jobs, jobs, jobs became the priority and in some quarters there was a cynical reaction suggesting that environmental issues were luxuries which characterised affluent times […] This is a criminally short-sighted view,” he said.
Only sustained citizen pressure will prevent a repeat of the past 30 years of political failures on climate change. The public must stay informed and demand better from our elected representatives.
Politicians can, when pressed, make better decisions. In April last year, the New Zealand government banned offshore oil and gas exploration after years of public pressure. And the following month, the UK Parliament declared a climate emergency after months of protests by activist group Extinction Rebellion.
It’s often said those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But the world must act radically in the next decade to avoid catastrophic global warming. We cannot afford another 30 years of the same old mistakes.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been harshly criticised for being on holiday in Hawaii as the catastrophic bushfires were burning Australia.
Since his return, he has visited stricken communities – most recently, on Kangaroo Island yesterday. He has acknowledged the emotional toll on victims and promised practical support.
But the criticism continues. Every detail of the prime minister’s performance is being scrutinised via the 24/7 news cycle and social media. There is plenty of scope for perceived missteps, and little tolerance of them.
Disaster of any kind throws qualities of leadership – or the perceived lack thereof – under the spotlight. By what criteria, then, do we evaluate a leader’s performance at such times? What do we look for?
These are questions that have guided my research on how prime ministers have historically connected with Australians during times of peril.
During crises, people expect two things, broadly speaking. One is practical information, advice and support to minimise the risk faced by those directly impacted. The other is “humanistic communication” – or, the ability to offer comfort.
Last March, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern showed both of these qualities in her decisive response to the massacre of 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch.
She immediately provided detailed information and promised aid and tighter gun control measures. And she unambiguously aligned all New Zealanders with the Muslim community by what she said – “They are us” – and by standing with community leaders and comforting those in distress.
Importantly, Ardern also wore a headscarf when meeting the families of victims. This was seen as a strong and culturally sensitive statement of solidarity and support – a mark of good political leadership.
Australian leaders have long shown strength in times of need, but the way they do so has changed over time. Today, there’s much more emphasis on being visible.
Following the Black Sunday bushfires in Victoria in 1926, for example, The Age printed a speech by Prime Minister Stanley Bruce in which he promised federal government aid and praised the heroism and altruism of Australians.
When the Black Friday fires devastated the state 13 years later, The Age quoted an “appalled” Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, who promised aid and expressed his “heartfelt sympathy” to victims.
But nothing was said in the newspapers back then about either prime minister interacting directly with victims.
A leader wouldn’t get away with that these days. Since televisions became ubiquitous in people’s homes, it’s become necessary for leaders to be on the ground following a disaster, surveying damage and consoling victims.
Prime Minister Harry Holt, a savvy user of the media in the early years of television, travelled to Tasmania in the aftermath of the Black Tuesday fires in 1967. Holt said he had to go to see for himself, to better understand people’s experience and needs. A detailed study of the 1967 bushfire response notes that Holt’s visit, while short, “caught the imagination” of journalists, who reported his reaction to the devastation in vivid detail.
For a prime minister, such visits are also a chance to express those inherent qualities of “Australianness” that guarantee a full recovery. Everything that is said and done matters, which is why small details are heavily scrutinised.
People do not expect to be held at arm’s length on these occasions. Expressions of empathy are often reinforced by physical contact, even hugs.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd demonstrated this following fires in Victoria in 2009, as did John Howard in the wake of the fires that swept through Canberra in 2003. They shook hands, patted backs and embraced survivors and emergency service workers.
Others have got it completely wrong. Among his many missteps in his response to Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush delayed returning to Washington from his vacation by two whole days. An image of him surveying the damage from Air Force One then backfired – a decision Bush later called a “huge mistake”.
When Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas in 2017, President Donald Trump was likewise criticised for paying too little attention to victims when he toured the site. And after the Grenfell Tower fire in London, UK Prime Minister Theresa May admitted that not meeting residents on her first visit was a mistake.
Misjudging what type of response is welcome from a leader also risks being seen as symptomatic of poor leadership, of being out of touch with the people. As we saw recently with Morrison, not everybody appreciates a handshake.
Even what a leader wears may be important. First Lady Melania Trump, for instance, was widely mocked for wearing stiletto heels to tour the Harvey devastation.
And when Prime Minister Julia Gillard went to Queensland in early 2011 following extensive flooding and held a press conference with Premier Anna Bligh, some commentators focused on the differences in their attire. Gillard, with her tidy suit, was criticised for not striking the right note. Bligh’s more casual appearance, meanwhile, had the look of someone more in touch with the suffering of the people.
The reactions to Morrison’s handling of the bushfires shows how important these qualities are in our presidents and prime ministers and how they will continue to influence perceptions of leadership in times of crisis.
Just as every leader is different, every disaster also requires a distinct approach. Each demands quick and sensitive judgements about what’s appropriate for the occasion. Reaction to any perceived errors of judgement will be swift and will spread quickly.
Above all, we look for authenticity in these moments, rather than obviously scripted photo opportunities. And in times of crisis, we’re more attuned to those out-of-touch moments when authenticity seems to be lacking.
With the mega-fires consuming enormous tracts of country Australia, we are witnessing not only a national disaster, but also a failure of national leadership.
In a federal system, much responsibility for local services, and local emergencies, devolves to the states. But fires observe no boundaries.
It is a situation that was foreseen by experienced fire chiefs last April. Indeed, fire chiefs had made a case for more federal resources two years ago. But their calls for national leadership and national coordination were ignored.
Now that what they feared has come to pass, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his team have handled matters poorly. They have been laggards in their response, reactive rather than proactive, more preoccupied with image management and partisan messaging than the job at hand. They have also responded inappropriately to criticism.
As a result, commentators have weighed in on Morrison’s lack of political authority, judgement and feel for public opinion – and whether the “miracle man” of the 2019 election can regain his footing.
We can gain a surer sense of how this might play out by asking: how should effective national leadership operate in times like these?
Consider other examples of how leaders have reacted to similar situations. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern’s ability to act immediately, reach out compassionately and connect inclusively in response to last year’s Christchurch massacre provides one measure against which Morrison fails to measure up.
Former PM John Howard’s brave pursuit of gun control, and willingness to face down opposition within his own ranks, after the Port Arthur massacre is another.
Morrison, confronted by distressed representatives of the small towns and regions who delivered his slim election victory, could not summon the humility to listen to their concerns. He walked away from questions from victims in Cobargo, and the outrage of these no longer “quiet Australians” attracted national and international attention.
Morrison’s reiteration of carbon reduction policies that are manifestly inadequate and his unwillingness to deal with the climate change realities presented to him by fire chiefs – but disputed by some Coalition colleagues – have also shown a lack fortitude.
More significant, though, is Morrison’s inability to facilitate collective action.
A national crisis in a federal state demands strong and decisive leadership. But it also requires collective action. This means a willingness to seek and listen to the best sources of advice and an ability to generate bipartisan consensus to confront an unusual challenge. It also means the capacity to orchestrate different levels of government, a variety of agencies, relevant NGOs, relevant branches of the public service, and in this case, the Australian Defence Force.
We know the Coalition, and Morrison himself, have been advised about the likelihood of worsening bushfires – and their inextricable link with global heating – for a considerable time.
Climate change could not be avoided in discussion of the ill-fated National Energy Guarantee. The risk factors of intensifying natural hazards, such as bushfires, cyclones and flooding, and the need for climate adaptation were front and centre in the Home Affairs Department’s National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework in 2018.
It beggars belief that Morrison’s departmental secretary until last August, Martin Parkinson, would not have given him an unvarnished evaluation of policy directions, given his lament for a decade of climate change inaction shortly after leaving office.
And, as noted, fire experts called for more federal resources two years ago and warned of what was to come last April.
Yet Morrison, far from the strong leader, has been too timorous to take the tough decisions needed, including confronting rancorous dissenters in his own ranks when the “miracle” win had given him the authority to do so.
The failings are compounded by the tendency of the Coalition government to treat even issues related to national emergencies as “political”, when what matters on the ground is survival.
This is the antithesis of what is needed to promote collective action. Morrison has struggled throughout the crisis to put the national interest above party interests. Too often, image management has prevailed over action – until the more resolute state leaders, Gladys Berejiklian and Daniel Andrews, showed him up.
Critics have been devalued as greenies who are said to have impeded necessary hazard reduction strategies. Fire authorities have debunked this canard, suggesting it to be a deflection from the real issue of the government’s failure to consult and its lack of preparedness.
It follows, then, that using the PM’s office to issue a social media post on the military mobilisation authorised by Morrison, with a Liberal Party header, was bound to be seen as a political act. The conventional route for such information has been via the national broadcaster, the ABC, to whom most turn for emergency alerts. But the ABC is seen as suspect by this government.
From the start of the crisis, the Morrison government disregarded the conventional means for crisis management: adequate consultation with state agencies, the expected channels for disseminating information, and drawing people together effectively to work jointly on what is a collective action problem.
Only at the end, after the significance of so many missteps had dawned, did Morrison open the cheque book for measures that might have been initiated well before the fire season.
One might hope the belated launch of a National Bushfire Recovery Agency will prove a learning experience, illuminating when troublesome colleagues within the Coalition should be firmly managed and partisanship must be put aside in the interests of collective action.
This was never a problem Morrison could expect to manage alone.
President Donald Trump’s policy toward Iran is in deep crisis. The president’s approach has the support neither of America’s allies nor of its strategic rivals, China and Russia. And his policy – made even more confrontational by the shooting of a high-ranking Iranian official – has boxed him into a situation where, short of dramatic reversal, Washington and Tehran are edging close to war.
By failing to forge policies in cooperation with allies, the U.S. was robbed of advice and expertise in how to tackle the problems posed by Iran. Above all, it led to the dangerous deterioration of relations between the U.S. and Iran after the U.S. became the sole country to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. That deal was painstakingly negotiated by the Obama administration in cooperation with five other world powers.
Instead of Trump’s harsh policy imposing maximum pressure on Iran, Iran has turned the tables and has put pressure on a freshly impeached U.S. president whose reelection is by no means assured and whose international diplomatic isolation and weakness is no secret in the region.
And once again, Trump took unilateral action early on Friday morning. The killings of Iran’s revered and powerful military commander, General Qassem Soleimani, and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a U.S. drone strike on Baghdad airport has further escalated tension in the region.
The killings immediately caused huge anti-American protests in Iran and led to the rise of global oil prices and the fall of stock markets around the world.
Iran has vowed “harsh revenge” for the assassination of Soleimani, the strategic mastermind behind Tehran’s entire ambitious Middle East policy. He also coordinated Iran’s widespread covert operations program and provided much of the strategic expertise for President Bashar Assad’s war in Syria.
Since coming to office in January 2017, President Trump’s approach to resolve America’s longstanding quarrel with Iran has consisted of two stages.
The politics of maximum pressure – imposing stiff economic sanctions – combined with harsh rhetoric toward Tehran’s leaders was to be followed by a second stage of intense personal diplomacy that would culminate in the signing of a great new deal of cooperation with longtime enemy Iran.
It would turn Trump into one of America’s greatest foreign policy presidents and might even, or so he hoped, earn him a Nobel Peace Prize.
As an international relations scholar and former diplomatic and foreign policy adviser at the German embassy in Beijing, I believe this approach consisted of a lot of wishful thinking.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei simply refused to engage with Washington on the conditions laid down by Trump. Those conditions included Iran halting all uranium enrichment and ceasing support for the region’s militant groups.
Trump’s unorthodox idea – conducting the nation’s diplomacy singlehandedly and without asking for much advice from experts in the State Department or from his allies – has been revealed as untenable.
Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 multi-party nuclear deal with Iran was caused by his unhappiness that the deal was not meant to restrain Iran’s aggressive politics in the region. Trump also believed it would not effectively prevent Tehran’s ability to manufacture nuclear weapons in the long run.
But his policy toward Iran appears not to have contained and intimidated the country’s leaders. It has instead emboldened the country to aggressively challenge U.S. policies in the Middle East.
U.S. withdrawal from the deal was deeply resented by both Iran and the international community. And it started the rapid deterioration of relations with Tehran.
The recent siege of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad by violent protesters who were clearly directed by the Tehran regime recalled the Iranian hostage crisis 40 years ago that decisively contributed to President Jimmy Carter’s electoral defeat.
The shooting down of an expensive American drone by Iran in June as well as Tehran’s open support of the Assad regime in Syria and the Hezbollah terrorist organization in Lebanon were further indications of Iran’s challenge to the U.S.
It appears that Trump’s airstrike on the Baghdad airport was an attempt to demonstrate America’s power and to break out of a largely self-inflicted foreign policy failure.
I believe that President Trump’s diplomacy toward Iran requires urgent course corrections.
The only option left – and one not yet seriously considered by the Trump administration – is to fall back on cooperation with other great powers, not least with Washington’s many allies, such as the U.K., France and Germany, who are still anxious for American global leadership. The Trump administration has little option but to return to the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran, though perhaps it could be somewhat modified to enable Trump to save face.
The administration could then embark on a unified Western policy to restrain both Iranian leadership ambitions in the Middle East and Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
The killing of Soleimani and the angry reaction to his death, however, has made this almost impossible in the short run. But tempers may cool.
Despite recent joint Russian-Chinese-Iranian naval maneuvers, Moscow and Beijing are also still interested in containing Iranian ambitions. Iranian dominance in the Middle East and the resulting further tension and escalating rivalry with Saudi Arabia for regional control would hardly benefit the great powers and the stability of the region.
Whether or not the Trump administration is capable of and willing to embark on such a major change of course is unclear. But I believe it is the only way out of a crisis largely caused by Trump’s unilateral policies.
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The first two decades of the 21st century saw the return of mass movements to streets around the world. Partly a product of sinking confidence in mainstream politics, mass mobilisation has had a huge impact on both official politics and wider society, and protest has become the form of political expression to which millions of people turn.
2019 has ended with protests on a global scale, most notably in Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa, Hong Kong and across India, which has recently flared up against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Citizenship Amendment Act. In some cases protests are explicitly against neoliberal reforms, or against legal changes that threaten civil liberties. In others they are against inaction over the climate crisis, now driven by a generation of young people new to politics in dozens of countries.
As we end a turbulent two decades of protest – the subject of much of my own teaching and ongoing research – what will be the shape of protest in the 2020s?
Following moments of open class warfare in the late 1960s and early 1970s, battles against the political and economic order became fragmented, trade unions were attacked, the legacy of the anti-colonial struggles was eroded and the history of the period was recast by the establishment to undermine its potency. In the post-Cold War era, a new phase of protest finally began to overcome these defeats.
This revival of protest exploded onto the political scene most visibly in Seattle outside the World Trade Organization summit in 1999. If 1968 was one of the high points of radical struggle in the 20th century, protest in the early 2000s once again began to reflect a general critique of the capitalist system, with solidarity forged across different sections of society.
The birth of the anti-globalisation movement in Seattle was followed by extraordinary mobilisations outside gatherings of the global economic elite. Alternative spaces were also created for the global justice movement to connect, most notably the World Social Forums (WSFs), starting with Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001. It was here that questions over what position the anti-globalisation movement should take over the Iraq War, for example, were discussed and debated. Though the WSFs provided an important rallying point for a time, they ultimately evaded politics.
The global anti-war movement led to the biggest co-ordinated demonstrations in the history of protest on February 15 2003, in which millions of people demonstrated in over 800 cities, creating a crisis of democracy around the US and UK-led intervention in Iraq.
In the years leading up to and following the banking crisis of 2008, food riots and anti-austerity protests escalated around the world. In parts of the Middle East and North Africa, protests achieved insurrectionary proportions, with the overthrow of one dictator after another. After the Arab Spring was thwarted by counter-revolution, the Occupy movement and then Black Lives Matter gained global attention. While the public, urban square became a central focus for protest, social media became an important – but by no means exclusive – organising tool.
To varying degrees, these movements sharply raised the question of political transformation but didn’t find new ways of institutionalising popular power. The result was that in a number of situations, protest movements fell back on widely distrusted parliamentary processes to try and pursue their political aims. The results of this parliamentary turn have not been impressive.
On the one hand, the first two decades of the 21st century have seen soaring inequality, accompanied by debt and the neglect of working people. On the other, there have been poor results from purely parliamentary attempts to challenge it. There is, in other words, a deep crisis of representation.
The inability of modern capitalism to deliver more than survival for many has combined with a general critique of neoliberal capitalism to create a situation in which wider and wider sections of society are being drawn into protest. More than a million people have poured onto the streets of Lebanon since mid-October and protests continue despite a violent crackdown by security forces.
At the same time, people are less and less willing to accept unrepresentative politicians – and this is likely to continue in the future. From Lebanon and Iraq to Chile and Hong Kong, mass mobilisations continue despite resignations and concessions.
In Britain, the Labour Party’s defeat in the recent general election is attributed largely to its failure to accept the 2016 referendum result over EU membership. Decades of loyalty to the Labour Party for many and a socialist leader in Jeremy Corbyn calling for an end to austerity couldn’t cut through to enough of the millions who voted for Brexit.
In France, a general strike in December 2019 over President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed pension reforms has revealed the extent of opposition that people feel towards his government. This comes barely a year after the start of the Yellow Vest movement, in which people have protested against fuel price hikes and the precariousness of their lives.
The tendency towards street protest will be encouraged too by the climate crisis, whose effects mean that the most heavily exploited, including along race and gender lines, have the most to lose. When the protests in Lebanon broke out, they were taking place alongside rampant wildfires.
As protesters gain experience, they consciously bring to the fore questions of leadership and organisation. In Lebanon and Iraq there has already been a conscious effort to overcome traditional sectarian divides. Debates are also raging in protest movements from Algeria to Chile about how to fuse economic and political demands in a more strategic manner. The goal is to make political and economic demands inseparable, such that it’s impossible for a government to make political concessions without making economic ones too.
As the 2020s begin, it’s clear we’re living in an unprecedented moment: a climate emergency and ecological breakdown, a brewing global financial crisis, deepening inequality, trade wars, and growing threats of more imperialist wars and militarisation.
There has also been a resurgence of the far right in many countries, emboldened most visibly by parties and politicians in the US, Brazil, India and many parts of Europe. This resurgence, however, has not gone unchallenged.
The convergence of crisis on these multiple fronts will reach breaking point, creating conditions that will become intolerable for most people. This will galvanise more protest and more polarisation. As governments respond with reforms, such measures on their own will be unlikely to meet the combination of political and economic demands. The question of how to create new vehicles of representation to assert popular control over the economy will keep emerging. The fortunes of popular protest may well depend on whether the collective leadership of the movements can provide answers to it.