The numbers are staggering.  Over a billion animals dead, 46 million acres of land lost, and more than one hundred thousand people evacuated from their homes.  The smoke is even turning New Zealand’s white peaks pink.

But it’s not just a natural crisis, it’s a leadership crisis too.

While the sheer scale of this year’s fire season shouldn’t be underestimated, Australian PM Scott Morrison’s handling of the situation bears all the hallmarks of a classic PR disaster.  But what began as a lack of preparation and responsiveness – and a farce involving a secret winter break in Hawaii – has since looked like a deliberate downplaying of the situation, only serving to deepen the crisis.

This is partly about ideology; Scott Morrison rode the wave of populism to electoral success in 2018 – pitching the Canberra elite against the ‘quiet Australians’, but it’s also about a lack of a meaningful policy platform.  Morrison’s simple set of messages might play well on social media and pitch him as a tough talker during debates, but when confronted with difficult decisions on the tough challenges laid before him, the tactics that propelled him to high office have come up wanting.  After all, what role do viral videos and punchy one-liners have in the face of thousands of miles of fire?

What people wanted to see was action, compassion and a willingness to learn, but when tackled on his climate record or what he was going to do to support communities he chose instead to double down on his scepticism and underplay the extent of the fires. And when events did eventually force his hand in early January, staged photo calls backfired and promises of funding were too little, too late.

Of course, we’ve seen this before – the 2008 crash, Katrina, last year’s Yorkshire floods, the list goes on.  For political leaders, it must be tempting to hope a crisis will simply go away rather than confront a complex reality or even say sorry.  Morrison faced the same dilemma this winter and made the same old mistakes; but the cuts may well run deeper for him.  For a man who rode to success with a promise to fight the establishment, he looked every bit the out of touch politician when it came to his first major challenge.

Simon Gill is an associate director at Camargue

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