By Madeline Playford
“If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists – to protect them and to promote their common welfare – all else is lost” – Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States.
The public’s dependence on the Australian government and strong leadership has never been more critical than in 2020. The nation has been faced with the need to put unwavering faith in the government to prioritise the health and wellbeing of current and future generations of Australians. Without doubt, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has had a testing year of leadership, being reminded that with great power comes great responsibility. So, has Morrison effectively served the Australian people?
The ravaging Australian bushfires in the 2019/20 summer burnt more than 11 million hectares, killed at least 33 people, and wiped out approximately 35% of the koala population. It was an unprecedented event, and one in which we appeared unprepared for.
Australians looked to their leaders, to communicate, empathise and guide the country through the national crisis. Thanks to Shane Fitzsimmons, the then Commissioner of NSW RFS, Australians got a glimpse of this leadership, who became a familiar figure, offering support and compassion to firefighters and residents, when all hope seemed lost. The public searched for Scott Morrison, but he appeared wooden, lacking in authenticity and unable to connect with distraught community. Then, defying credibility, he vanished, to Hawaii.
The public was outraged that his long-planned holiday was taken at a time when the country was burning out of control. He symbolised absent leadership, manifesting the despair and hopelessness of those affected most from the fires. When Morrison did return, his inability to cooperate and consult with state government, environmental experts, the Opposition and the RFS only reinforced the lack of cohesiveness of the action plan. This was followed by an underwhelming response to policy reformation regarding climate change. The Coalition’s unwillingness to act on climate change, despite 84% of Australians supporting change (ABC) and the looming threat of future fire seasons, showed a total failure in service to the Australian people and passivity of leadership. Scott Morrison’s mishandling of this crisis undoubtedly made the public question their trust in leadership.
Then Australia was presented with a global crisis, COVID-19 and the nation held their breath. The government acted, with an early declaration of the coronavirus in Australia, followed by urgent responses to stem the virus transmission. Immediately, Australia controlled the pandemic better than our developed country counterparts. Quick border closures, quarantining standards for travellers, the shutdown of non-essential businesses, public health campaigns and the introduction of economic stimulus such as JobKeeper, ensured the initial impact of the pandemic in Australia was minimised.
This response also helped restore some faith back into Morrison and the government. So, why did the leadership look different? Suddenly, Scott Morrison put consultation and collaboration on the table, employing an intersectoral approach, consisting of communication between the federal government, state government and community. A national cabinet of State Premiers has been instrumental in promoting cohesion, while still providing each state with a level of autonomy and flexibility, as has utilising the knowledge of Chief Health Officers. Scott Morrison’s willingness to embrace the expertise of others has rebuilt trust and confidence within the nation that the government will protect them and prioritise their welfare.
This trust is crucial to successful pandemic policies such as social distancing and restrictions because it compels the nation to collectively work toward national wellbeing.
Scott Morrison’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been crucial in regaining back the trust of the public.
Presumably, it’s not much fun leading a country during a pandemic, war or depression, because you are expected to know how to act. Nevertheless, it will be Australia’s ability to contain the health crisis of COVID-19 that will determine the public’s perception of Scott Morrison, along with the government’s plan to lead the economy out of recession and back to prosperity. His biggest test looms with the second wave of COVID-19, where increasing restrictions will threaten community cooperation, so despite the improved perception of Scott Morrison’s leadership, he will need to put the needs of the nation ahead of politics and power games, to guarantee public support.
Lucky for him, Hawaii is not an option, and here’s hoping he works out that attending Cronulla Shark games is not a crowd pleaser.