By Dr Diann Rodgers-Healey

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In our current catastrophic Australian bushfire crisis, the leadership of PM Scott Morrison has been raised time and again. Social media has been enraged with the PM’s absence on many fronts, physically being absent, emotionally not being there to see and comfort victims in bushfire ravaged towns and analytically failing to connect the bushfire conditions being catalysed by climate change.

The tweets below reverberate the growing angst about the PM’s lack of leadership.

For a country that has lived through a relatively high level of turnover of Australian Prime Ministers, with no Australian prime minister lasting a full three-year term in the last decade, one might think that our understanding of what leadership is, is more incisive and acute. But putting aside leadership for a moment, there is a growing frustration to make sense of the magnitude of the PM’s non-responsiveness.

And in terms of leadership, it is hard to envisage if the following demonstrate any echoes of good leadership for the nation.

  • Not heeding warnings from emergency leaders as early as April 2019. Former Fire & Rescue NSW Commissioner Greg Mullins has said this would have meant better resource planning: “an intervention in April would have given the government an opportunity to lease more large aircraft tankers … in time to help fight the fires…
  • Urging a “sense of calm” and that we accept that standing up to terrible disasters is “the Australian way” dismisses taking any responsibility for putting in place short and long term national plans to reduce Australia’s rising emissions that could mitigate conditions and impacts of this or future crises.
  • Using an illegal accounting loophole of carry-over credits from the Kyoto Protocol to meet Australia’s 2030 emissions target earned Australia the condemnation of “cheating” at the UN Climate talks.
  • Pushing for carry-over credits to be allowed contributed to thwarting global climate change action in the COP25 talks.

These do not exemplify visionary leadership of a PM on a national or global scale.

That the PM’s responses to the current crisis have been catalysed by public pressure to the crisis shows that the PM is, as Laura Tingle said on the “back foot” and as Malcolm Farr commented in his tweet: “he is again warning against *panic*, which might be an attempt to make inertia a virtue.”

Inertia, rigidity, refusal to integrate and act on credible scientific evidence and faking commitment to international targets can be brushed aside when one has no power over the course of a nation’s response to a global crisis impacting humans and the state of the planet. But as leader of Australia, such non-leadership has impacted the nation in real terms.

It has plunged the nation’s confidence and sense of hope as the reddened sun and smoky soot-filled air remind one of what’s been and what’s to come for so many communities, and as the news shows for Australia’s volunteer firefighters battling to save lives and towns in Armageddon conditions.

This leadership is out of step with the nation. It has become irrelevant, lagging behind the national discourse in intent, action and momentum.

The PM’s actions in this crisis have failed to earn the respect and understanding of those who have paid the highest price in losing their loved ones and their homes, and from a nation empathising with them and waiting for a stronger response of real leadership. The hashtag #NotMyPrimeMinister reflects this resentment and anger.

Having said in response to Greta Thunberg’s call for Australia to take more action on climate change that “Australia and the Australian government will set our policies based on Australia’s national interests, on what Australia needs to do,” will the Prime Minister now do what is necessary for the nation?

The time for symbolic action and empty words is past. With rising greenhouse gas emissions and the clear link between rising greenhouse gas emissions and increased bushfire risk; with the fact that our per capita emissions are among the world’s highest, it is clear that authentic and pragmatic leadership is necessary. There are examples of other nations doing what is necessary.

Australia can also be on the front foot to set a new norm – phase out coal and reduce emissions; position the Australian economy to take advantage of the opportunities and mitigate the risks; develop policy recognising the environmental, economic and human health benefits of the shift from coal to clean energy, and accelerate this transition in an inclusive way.

All it takes is good leadership. But, if this isn’t forthcoming, then continuing to demand it from the PM and each of our elected representatives in Parliament is critical.

Greta Thunberg and the world’s youth climate activists’ actions and message amply demonstrate their fearless leadership in cutting through political gaming and diplomacy disguising inaction to arrive at the brutal truth of climate change and its impending impacts for people and the planet.

As we each play a role in the future world they inherit, our experiences can be a turning point in leading a persistent call for national leadership to address climate change and how Australia should be prepared for a changed climate. Thankfully our Emergency Leaders are already leading the way with a national summit.

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Dr Diann Rodgers-Healey is the Director of the Australian Centre for Leadership for Women (ACLW) and the Illawarra Centre for Enablement. She is Adjunct Professor in The Cairns Institute of James Cook University. She is a Committee Member of the Australasian Node of the Global 2015 Millennium Project (Global Futures Studies and Research) an independent non-profit global futures research think tank. Her publications as co-author and editor include the books “Considerations for Australia’s next woman Prime Minister,” and “Pathways to Gender Equality – The role of Merit and Quotas.” In 2014 she was recognised as one of Australia’s ‘100 Women of Influence’ by the Australian Financial Review and Westpac.