The man without empathy

While we’re in the midst of a national disaster, the backdrop to it has a perverse fascination. The big fires traverse both NSW and Victoria currently, with state leaders and authorities responding to the calamity. The fire services in both states have been immense. They’re tireless and unrelenting in the face of what is an unrelenting foe. Likewise the emergency services in general, and more recently the ADF in Victoria (but not called on in NSW).

Leadership in NSW has been problematic. Dealing with something as daunting as these fires doesn’t come naturally to Berejiklian. She appears a stiff, dogmatic character, decent at heart, but limited. She has least turned up day after day and done her best, though she must also take some responsibility for how the catastrophe has unfolded – she defunded both the RFS and Parks services in the most recent budget, and has refused to ask for help from the ADF. All of that will come out in the wash later, but it’s not a pretty picture.

Unfortunately for her, she pretty well stands alone. Her Emergency Services minister – an utter lowlife – has been on holidays in Europe since Christmas. Safe to say that if the services of an emergency services minister were needed, then it’s right now – and he’s buggered off to the northern hemisphere. The Deputy Premier is also on holiday. I understand it’s the holiday season, but none of the firefighters is taking time off and in the meantime people losing their homes, and some their life.

It’s a different story in Victoria. We’re more used to bushfires, and the CFA is better equipped. The premier, Dan Andrews, is pretty much the polar opposite of his NSW counterpart. He’s made his name by getting things done and is a sensitive character with natural compassion. He’s taken the lead and been proactive, calling in the ADF for assistance, cutting through the red type, and announcing a state disaster. The contrast to the Prime Minister is absolute.

The Prime Minister has done nothing – offered no leadership, provided no resources, and his behaviour has been more distracting than supportive. He’s been tone death in both what he says and what he’s done, mouthing platitudes and falsehoods and refusing to accept the horrific gravity of the situation. Seriously, he’d have been better off staying in Hawaii.

Like the rest of Australia, I’ve been watching and listening. I’ve been desperate for him to do something. We’ve all been waiting for that, but clearly, he’s out of his depth.

He’s reticent because he fears that if he admits to climate change, and to the full desperation of the situation, that it will be seen as a backflip. You would think a petty consideration like that would go out the window at a time like this, but that’s who he is – a small man of limited ability.

I’ve been reflecting on his situation. We wonder sometimes how we would cope when we’re put to the test. That seems a supreme measure of the man, and all of us would like to think we’d step when we had to. We might not all be like Churchill, but we’d do our bit.

That’s the challenge Morrison faced, and he’s been an abject failure. What’s puzzled me is that he’s hardly even attempted to be the leader we need. He’s been absent and disengaged with an excuse for everything. I couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to be such a failure.

Yesterday I think he tried to head off some of the criticism of him by visiting some of the burnt out townships for some photo ops, but boy, it sure didn’t go as he planned.

In the first, Cobargo, he ties to shake the hand of a woman who isn’t offering her hand. Rather than letting it go, he reaches down to pick her hand up and give her an unwilling shake. It’s terribly awkward to watch. Then she starts talking to him, asking for help, asking for the fire services to be properly funded, and what does he do? He turns his back on her and walks away.*

As he leaves the locals harangue him, calling him useless, a cunt, telling him they don’t want him there, and so on. It’s pretty full on, but what do you expect? Half these people are now homeless because of the fires, while Morrison has hosted parties on NYE and spoken about the cricket team and sowing himself to be both utterly useless and completely out of touch.

Another clip emerged this morning from another town. He’s approaching some firies slumped over with exhaustion. He goes to shake the hand of one of them sitting down. The firey says he doesn’t want to shake hands. Morrison grabs his hand anyway. The other firey, forewarned, picks up a mug of tea and a spoon, clearly forestalling any attempt to have his hand shaken.

These clips have gone viral. It’s very clear that the PM is despised by these people. They know he’s done nothing while they’ve given everything, and for some, lost everything. And they know that for the PM these visits are intended for political consumption, and want nothing to do with anything so contrived.

I watched and I was horrified, but I admit to feeling some pity for Morrison. He deserved the reaction he got. But what I observed was a man without an ounce of empathy in him, and he knows it. He doesn’t feel what we do, and so it all becomes an act to him because nothing is natural. Maybe that’s why he’s avoided these interactions till now (compare him to Dan Andrews, who exudes compassion).

He got off that helicopter in Cobargo and didn’t know what to do. Most of us are smart enough to know that if someone won’t offer their hand to you, then don’t push it. Most of us in that situation would have felt overwhelmed with humility in the face of such desperation and loss. Most of us would have put are arms around these people, if not literally than in a metaphorical sense. And surely most of us know not to be mealy mouthed to utter platitudes about keeping your chin up, and so on. In a situation like that, it isn’t about us.

Morrison doesn’t know that because he lacks that quality. He may be a sociopath in the classic definition, for all I know. None of that excuses him. He went there for the wrong reasons to start with. And a man incapable of humility or empathy isn’t fit for office.

I wonder what this will mean for his tenure. I’ve been watching and reading the reading the disaffection expressed across the airwaves and social media, and I knew that it should be taken with a grain of salt – twitter isn’t the electorate. But then it seemed to break free of those constraints, and I was more hopeful. More journalists were commenting, and the commentary from abroad has been scathing. But again, I was a pessimist – this translate into anything.

But now this and I think he’s now lost so much authority I wonder if he can recover from it. He’s been shown as being weak and ineffectual, and the subject of ridicule. Australians have seen other Australians make a judgement on him.

The next election is more than two years away, more’s the pity, but I think he’ll take a big hit from this – especially given how the opposition leadership has been so strong through this period. His bigger threat is a spill, however, not that any of us can get excited by that. Next in line are a couple of more sociopaths (Dutton and Porter), and a nuff nuff in Frydenburg.

In the meantime, Australia burns. There’s much more at stake now than party politics.


*On the radio this morning Morrison has attempted to re-write the narrative, claiming that he stopped to talk to her rather than walking away. This is a deliberate ploy and very meta. No matter there’s video to prove otherwise, the idea is that if you say something long enough and loud enough without varying from it, then enough people will begin to doubt the evidence of their eyes. Fake news becomes real news, it’s the modern way. We know Morrison is a well established liar, but he can claim inspiration from Trump.



What is truly bizarre is how or why he has acted this way – his absence from any practical contribution goes way beyond anything political.

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