Born around the same time as the French student and workers’ uprising in May 1968, there is nothing revolutionary about the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, also known as “Scotty from Marketing.” An Australian satirical website penned the nickname (which the prime minister rejects) because Morrison had two jobs in marketing from which he was fired.
As a young boy, he attended the prestigious Sydney Boys High School and later studied economics at a local university. With his beloved conservatives in power under former Prime Minister John Howard, Morrison was appointed director of the New Zealand Office of Tourism and Sport from 1998 to 2000, and managing director of Tourism Australia from 2004 to 2006.
Within a year, Morrison left the Office of Tourism and Sport, and was later sacked from Tourism Australia after his infamous “Where the bloody hell are you?” tourism marketing campaign failed spectacularly. However, Morrison remains a committed career politician.
With his marketing skills and the powerful assistance of Australia’s Rupert Murdoch-owned press, Morrison got himself elected prime minister of Australia in 2018. Like most of Australia’s arch-conservatives, he relies rather heavily on Murdoch’s propaganda machine. As journalist George Monbiot notes, “On the day the nation’s lethal heat wave struck, Murdoch’s newspaper The Australian filled its front page with a report celebrating new coal exports and a smear story about the chiefs of the state fire services, who were demanding an immediate end to the burning of fossil fuels.”
As long as Murdoch’s propaganda papers continue to cover Morrison, the Australian public is unlikely to see things like MSNBC’s headline, “Expert says Australia wildfires are a direct ‘impact of human caused climate change’.” Yet even for large sections of the U.S. mainstream press, the admission of the obvious remains an anomaly.
Moreover, during the bushfire crisis, the Murdoch-owned Australian, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun were more than eager to pretend the bushfires were simply a “natural disaster.” The propaganda message was, “We have faced these disasters before,” and “be patient.” For Morrison, the fires were simply business as usual; they had nothing to do with climate change.
But as so often happens, a crisis can put a politician to the test. Some rise to the challenge; others fail. Morrison’s test came with the bushfires. The man who once carried a lump of coal into the Australian Parliament on behalf of the Australian coal lobby failed miserably amid a sheer endless string of media disasters. Not even a self-appointed PR superman — an “empathy consultant” paid $190,000 in fees — could recover Morrison’s image.
His first media disaster was his Hawaiian holiday. Morrison left his country on fire and its major city — Sydney — covered in eye-biting, thick smoke. Although his trip was engineered in great secrecy, he was quickly tracked down. With a Facebook storm raging and his approval ratings suffering, he finally returned to a city still covered in acrid smoke.
But it didn’t end there. As soon as he was back on Australian soil, the self-appointed master of spin swung into action. He started by grabbing the hands of both a woman and a firefighter, neither of whom was willing to shake his hand. The firefighter had just lost his house and had the first-hand experience of a fire brigade stretched to the limits amid neoliberal funding cuts. The firefighter might have even been aware of Morrison’s refusal to meet with the fire chiefs long before disaster struck.
On Christmas Day, the smoke had briefly cleared, and Morrison was found swimming at one of Sydney’s popular beaches. At the same time, firefighters were battling new, wind-fed fires while people continued to lose their lives, houses and livestock. Animals have also suffered unknown casualties; estimates have reached over 1 billion dead wildlife. Undeterred, Morrison enjoyed a swim.
It got even worse when Morrison suggested that firefighters battling extreme heat didn’t need any form of compensation, claiming that firefighters simply “want to be there.” He quickly backtracked, making up a story that his government had been working on a compensation scheme for firefighters and bushfire victims all the time. As it turned out, Morrison’s grand compensation scheme for firefighters was — perhaps deliberately — made hard to access. Conversely, state subsidies to start a coal mine are handed out generously.
Then Morrison falsely told the people of scorched Kangaroo Island that two-thirds of the island had not burned, and was thus “open for business,” adding (incorrectly) that it was fortunate that nobody on the island had died. Locals had to tell Morrison that, in fact, two people had died when a terrifying bushfire tornado had cut through the island off the coast of South Australia. Morrison tried to dig his way out this hole, saying that he was referring to the fact that no firefighter had died. Obviously, this did not go down well, either.
Further, in his endless effort to disassociate the bushfires from the global climate crisis, the coal industry-friendly Morrison implied that bushfires were the fault of arsonists. The “arsonist-did-it” claim remains the preferred, conspiratorial ideology of Australia’s right wing and the Murdoch press, even though one of Australia’s most thorough inquiries — the Victorian Black Saturday Bushfire investigation — concluded the bushfires were sparked by falling power lines.
In an attempt to distract further from climate change, Morrison and Murdoch’s media have sought to shift blame away from their hard-core global warming denial. Recently, the Australian Independent Media Network has criticized Morrison for calling “arsonists un-Australian.” For a climate change denier, anything will do, as long as Australians do not link bushfires to climate change. Even still, Morrison was recently forced to acknowledge the role climate change played in the fires, and immediately fell back on a conservative party line trumpeted for years: There is no point for Australia to change things as other, larger countries also have high emissions.
His most recent PR problem, however, came during an ABC broadcast interview on January 12, 2020, in which he tried to “fix” his mistakes. PR man Morrison knows that about 4 million middle-aged Australians who are unlikely to vote for him watch the program. Despite the conservatives’ many attempts to combat ABC’s influence, Australia’s national broadcaster remains somewhat independent from the party’s most direct and blatant political interfering.
Morrison hoped to regain lost ground during the interview, telling the public that he “would accept that his government could have done more to heed the warnings and prepare for this bushfire season.” Calling bushfire zones “sensitive, emotional environments,” he promised to propose a Royal Commission to investigate bushfires.
Royal commissions investigate issues of public concern. On the upside, such a commission has considerable powers, generally greater even than those of judges. On the downside, commissions are restricted by the terms of reference set by the government. As prime minister, Scotty from Marketing can set the terms and conditions of such an investigation into bushfires, narrowing its focus down to fire brigade issues and local prevention.
Morrison also claimed during the ABC interview, “We want to reduce emissions and do the best job we possibly can and get better and better and better at it.” But for decades, he and his party have done the exact opposite. Australia’s free market neoliberals have sabotaged every initiative environmental advocates have proposed to deal with climate change. The party has worked to undermine the country’s participation in every international agreement on climate change — from Kyoto to Madrid.
Instead of combating climate change, Morrison is opening one of the world’s biggest coal mines in Queensland called Adani, despite his government’s awareness of the environmental damage that Adani will certainly cause. A 2017 non-governmental organization report to the Australian government clearly states that, “The mining and burning of coal from this project is likely to generate an estimated 4.7 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. This will be more than 0.5% of the remaining global carbon budget.”
Further, Morrison claims says he wants to prevent bushfires with “a balanced policy, which recognises Australia’s broader national economic interests and social interest.” For Morrison, this means “first things first.” Australia’s “broader national economic interests” is a euphemism for corporate profits. Secondly, climate change is no more than a “social interest.” For Morrison, ravaging bushfires, scorching heat, spreading bushfire smoke and climate change is not endangering Earth. PR can deal with it.
Overall, though, it’s the British BBC that nailed the key question regarding Morrison’s future: “Can Australia’s PM Scott Morrison recover from the fires?” Given a bit of time, the forgetfulness of the electorate and the skill of Murdoch’s propaganda machine, the answer could very well be “yes.” So far, Morrison’s mild self-reflection on his media gaffes boils down to the fact that he thinks he “could have handled it much better,” simply meaning that he will work to sharpen his spin.