COMMENT: Scott Morrison is copping it again today over his response to the bushfire crisis. He should look to the example of his counterpart from New Zealand, writes Sam Clench of news.com.au.
Scott Morrison is copping it again.
Yesterday, as the death toll from the bushfires rose, tens of thousands of homes lost power and residents of affected areas queued for hours to get basic food and supplies, the Prime Minister was at Kirribilli House hosting a reception for the Australia and New Zealand cricket teams ahead of the SCG Test.
The reception was partly held to support the McGrath Foundation, which is obviously a worthy cause.
And the Prime Minister did speak at some length about the fires, praising both teams for wearing black armbands in recognition of the victims and thanking New Zealand's firefighters for helping their Australian counterparts across the country.
"It's going to be a great Test, but the real test Australia is facing right now is out there on the fire front," he said.
"I know this match will be, again, a great display of the brotherhood and sisterhood between Australia and New Zealand."
That all struck the right tone. But it's another, awkwardly phrased quote that has drawn the most attention.
"The fires do rage on. It is a time of great challenge for Australia," Mr Morrison said.
"Whether they're started by lightning storms or whatever the cause may be, our firefighters and all of those who have come behind them to support them, whether they're volunteering on the frontline or behind the scenes in a great volunteer effort, it is something that will happen against the backdrop of this Test match.
"But at the same time, Australians will be gathered, whether it's at the SCG or around television sets all around the country, and they'll be inspired by the great feats of our cricketers on both sides of the Tasman."
Mr Morrison's assertion that the bushfires were happening "against the backdrop of this Test match" – not the other way around – was particularly jarring.
But in this morning's backlash, the criticism was broader than that. Many people felt Mr Morrison should not have hosted the reception at all.
A Current Affair reporter Dimity Clancey summed it up pretty concisely on Today.
"Don't have lavish parties in your mansion with the cricketers. You know, people don't want to see that. That is not a good look. You should be down there with (volunteers), thanking them," she said.
"The anger for the PM is huge. People saying, you know, if you've got time to thank the cricketers, go down and thank the people on the frontline.
"I don't think he should be having parties. I don't think receptions. Yes, the cricket does have to go ahead, that is the very heart of Australian spirit, and god forbid if it can give somebody in a disaster zone who's sitting in an evacuation centre to watch for half an hour a little bit of a distraction. That has to go ahead.
"But I think the reception – I think the cricketers would expect, you're not going to be here to thank us, you need to be down there."
The core problem here isn't really that Mr Morrison hung out with some cricketers. It's bigger than that. His style of leadership has left Australians wondering whether he truly understands what is expected of him during such a massive crisis.
The Prime Minister seems to think it is his job, first and foremost, to reassure the country; to act as though everything is under control and there is no reason to panic.
That attitude has been visible in pretty much everything Mr Morrison has said and done in recent months, from his answers during press conferences to his decision to go on holiday to Hawaii and, yesterday, to host the cricketers at Kirribilli House. It's all pretty much business as usual.
"Whatever our trials, whatever disasters have befallen us, we have never succumbed to panic. And we will not do this now in the face of the current fire crisis," Mr Morrison wrote in an opinion piece marking the New Year.
"The generations of Australians that went before us, including our First Australians, also faced natural disasters, floods, fires, global conflicts, disease and drought. They also faced extreme economic hardship that current generations have never experienced."
In other words, don't worry. Stay calm. These fires are just another natural disaster, and we've dealt with plenty of those before.
Never mind the fact that these fires are unprecedented, hundreds of homes have been destroyed and the death toll keeps growing.
Still, you can see where he is coming from. No one wants the Prime Minister to spread panic.
But since Mr Morrison mentioned the bond between Australia and New Zealand, let's contrast his leadership here to that of his Kiwi counterpart Jacinda Ardern. It's quite instructive.
Ms Ardern faced her own crisis after the Christchurch terror attack in March. Fifty-one people were shot dead and another 49 were injured. Her country was reeling.
The New Zealand Prime Minister's response was firm and decisive. A matter of hours after the attack, she made a blunt announcement.
"I can tell you one thing right now. Our gun laws will change," she said.
Previous attempts to tighten New Zealand's relatively lax gun laws had failed repeatedly – in 2005, 2012 and 2017. It was a fraught issue, not unlike climate change in Australia.
But in the moment, Ms Ardern recognised what had to be done and got on with it.
Her gun reforms passed parliament less than a month later, by a vote of 119-1.
Compare her clear-minded and efficient leadership to what Mr Morrison has served up in recent months.
He's been reluctant to explicitly acknowledge the link between the bushfires and climate change.
He's resisted calls to ramp up his government's climate change policies, recycling the same stale talking points from the election campaign.
He waited four whole days to concede he should return home from Hawaii – or indeed, to say anything at all – after it emerged he had left Australia without telling the public.
He's refused to bring forward a COAG meeting of the federal, state and territory governments to discuss bushfire management.
He shot down suggestions volunteer firefighters should be compensated for their extended time away from work, only to announce such a scheme a few weeks later.
That scheme was, for some reason, limited to New South Wales at first, then expanded to include other states as well.
At practically every turn, Mr Morrison has had to be dragged towards action, instead of leading that action himself. In his determination to keep the country from panicking, he has too often confused staying calm with doing nothing.
Ms Ardern was not "succumbing to panic" when she decided to crack down on guns. She was leading. Her swift action actually helped calm a deeply rattled country.
Australians calling for Mr Morrison to do more in response to the fires are not panicking either. They're just asking him to show the same level of leadership.