The twisting politics of our crisis era – Sydney Morning Herald

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Last week, it was reported that Emmanuel Macron – the French President who caused our own Prime Minister so much trouble – believed, based on a conversation with Vladimir Putin, that the worst was yet to come. Any doubt that he was right vanished on the weekend when Putin said sanctions were akin to a declaration of war, and all but declared a no-fly zone would lead to nuclear attack.
On Saturday, at Adelaide Writers’ Week, on a gloriously sunny afternoon, it was easy to put such thoughts out of mind. On stage, Annabel Crabb asked me and fellow panelist Annika Smethurst what had surprised us about Scott Morrison’s prime ministership.
Illustration: Joe Benke Credit:The Age
It is a difficult question, because Morrison is an almost disturbingly consistent political practitioner, not in beliefs but in approach: tactics and rhetorical tricks recur. What had surprised me, I said, is how terribly he is doing in the polls. His critics might say this makes sense, but really when you think about the current situation here – a country relatively unharmed by COVID and with a strong economy – you would expect the Prime Minister to be riding high.
Even more so when you consider Morrison’s head start. In 2019, I observed that Morrison’s only specific strong lead over Anthony Albanese, in polling, was voters’ belief that he was “good in a crisis”. The defining question of the next term, I suggested, would be whether Morrison got a crisis to test this.
He did – but Morrison squandered that head start, not once but twice. His numbers, in Essential Report, dived in the fires; rose again through the early pandemic; then dived again after the vaccine mess. Since then they have fallen five more points. That is bad for Morrison, but what should worry him most now is that his lead over Albanese has essentially vanished.
An interesting question is why, exactly, voters rated him so highly early on. Was it his history in a security portfolio of sorts, as Immigration Minister? Apparently not: his numbers only rose after the election. Was it, then, that he had held his nerve under the pressure of that campaign? Or was it something more superficial and intangible: the familiar form of a big man who spoke loudly with a strong belief in his own rightness, combined with recent victory?
Voters have changed their minds. But this may not only be a matter of shifting our opinion on Morrison. It is possible our conception of what “good in a crisis” means has shifted too. Where once it was a vague sense of not-quite-defined abilities, it is now specific, sharpened by the experience of watching leaders govern during actual crises. Where once it meant a general expectation of staying cool under pressure, it now means, in addition, an ability to see a crisis coming and prepare.
I wonder if our conception of crisis itself has changed. Crisis is so broad an idea it struggles to find purchase in our minds. I have been thinking lately of a line from poet Patricia Lockwood, who wrote of our need to believe “that we can only experience our own portion of the apocalypse”. This is probably true, but then I suspect most of us shy away from imagining even that. When we see crisis clothed in details, however, we are reminded that it could easily be us: the fighting and fleeing Ukrainians, those who have lost everything in Lismore. What use against deep personal misfortune is that traditional iconography of authority, the big male with the broad chest and gallons of self-belief? As much use as a comic-book figure.
If Morrison is in a far worse political situation than a man in his position might expect, this suggests a need to revisit the idea that has clung to him since 2019, that he is good at politics. His talent is narrower: campaigning. And this, in turn, is built on a narrowing of its own, because skill at campaigning – like skill at marketing – means, to a very great extent, shutting down other topics.
But governing does not allow this. There are infinite topics, a great heaving nation of events to be confronted. Particularly now: it is not a comforting thought, but Macron’s prediction that the worst is yet to come may apply to more than just the next few weeks. Certainly, on matters of climate, things will get worse before they get better (if they get better at all). If we have entered an era of rolling crises, good politics might once again come to mean good policy because a real crisis, when it comes, demands to be addressed.
Not that we seem to have quite reached that point on climate. The New York Times reports that climate scientists are increasingly desperate, wondering what they have to do to convince leaders to act. One, calling for a research strike, said scientists needed to think about the best way to get results in the short time we have left. “The clock is ticking,“ he told the Times.
In Australia, the political clock is ticking quickly too. It was not long ago that pundits said Anthony Albanese might not have time left to make an impression. Abruptly, the consensus has swung to the opposite extreme: that Morrison does not have enough time to convince voters of Albanese’s risks.
Major events keep intruding, leaving no space in the media cycle for Morrison to make his points. A great irony of the current moment is that Morrison, a leader who has steadfastly refused to listen to warnings of approaching crisis, now faces a series of crises that means nobody is listening to him.
Morrison and Albanese might be even when it comes to polling on crises – but this is not because Albanese’s numbers have dramatically improved (they have risen slightly). That is probably understandable – it is hard to judge an opposition leader on these things. At this point, though, it is fair to say that Albanese has, like Morrison, shown more of a talent for responding to events than setting his own agenda. Whichever man is elected, if this era of crisis continues, then we should hope their polling on this question rises, not for their sake but for ours.
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