The “Evolving” Scotty Morrison From Marketing

Photograph Source: The White House – Public Domain

In a previous CounterPunch piece I mentioned a scathing adage regarding Australian prime minister Scott Morrison, a former PR executive, making the rounds in Australian social media: you can take Scotty out of marketing, but you can’t take the marketing out of Scotty.

When he became PM last May ScoMo (as he is also known) hired a couple of “empathy consultants” to get him in the right psychological shape to deal with distressed farmers badly affected by Australia’s record-setting drought.

The empathy trainers must have been overly specialized, perhaps by being attuned only to coaching Scotty how to empathize with victims of drought conditions, because ScoMo the wannabe empathizer was a total flop when it came to dealing with victims of the catastrophic wildfires.

He quickly showed himself to be tin-eared, and was heckled and sworn-at when he visited areas that had been incinerated.

After these debacles, the empathy trainers probably went back to the drawing board, either broadening their repertoire to take in fire victims, or finding some new empathy-enhancing tricks to teach their benighted client, or both.

So this week a (marginally) different ScoMo appeared— looking somewhat chastened, seemingly more aware of the sincerity of the environmental activists who have been the bane of his prime ministerial existence, and promising to “adapt” (whatever that means).

But it soon became apparent that nothing had really changed beneath this newly-acquired veneer. To quote The Guardian:

Three times David Speers [a TV interviewer] asked him on Sunday if the government would increase its emissions targets. Morrison responded with: “Well, the cabinet and the government will continue to evolve our policies.” Then he added: “What I’m saying is I’m not going to put someone’s job at risk, a region’s, town’s future at risk.” And finally: “What I’m saying is we want to reduce emissions and do the best job we possibly can and get better and better and better at it.”

What he is saying is “no”. Nothing he has said suggests any change in policy that will actually involve emissions reductions”.

In a switch of tactics ScoMo and many of his supporters have abandoned climate-change denial, and now accept, selectively, the “facts” of climate change. However, he won’t go in for emission reduction targets, and instead his country will find ways to “adapt” to the existing “facts” of climate change (by building more dams, etc.).

ScoMo has never bothered with the science of climate change, and it shows in his ignorant proposition that building more dams, and so forth, will help deal with what he takes to be a “new normal”, as if there is a linear movement to this new state of affairs.

However, a new report by McKinsey Global Institute shows there won’t be a linear progression to this “new normal”, but rather ever-increasing disasters on a catastrophic scale. Building dams will be as irrelevant in this situation as ScoMo’s Christian fundamentalist belief in creationism.

ScoMo has also ruled out a carbon tax that would raise electricity prices and impact polluting industries. Australia did have a carbon tax, introduced by the Labor party, from 2012 to 2014 before it was repealed by the government of Tony Abbott (who belongs to the same Liberal party as Morrison).

The devious PR man ScoMo even sought to appear on the side of the good and virtuous this time round: Aussies need “to be better prepared” to deal with this new reality, and this included Scotty himself, since one of his “core” responsibilities as prime minister is to “keep Australians safe”.

ScoMo, in this feigned practicality, will make “feasible” measures of adaptation his focus, rather than pay heed to grandiosely “impractical” proposals, premised on the actual reduction of emissions, canvassed by climate-change proponents like the Australian Greens and pesky schoolkids such as Greta Thunberg.

In short: Australia will continue to have no mechanism for controlling its greenhouse gas emissions, and steps towards this control will be “aspirational” and nothing else.

The reality is that Australia was named along with Brazil and the US as a major obstacle to global progress on greenhouse gas emissions at the recent Madrid COP25 climate change conference, and last in the world for climate policy.

According to the World Population Review, Australia leads the developed world in CO2 emissions per capita (using 2019 population figures): Australia emits 15.83 tons per capita, the US 15.53, followed by Canada’s 15.32.

In 2015 Australia’s national science agency CSIRO and its Bureau of Meteorology released a detailed report on the future impact of climate change in Australia:

“Kevin Hennessy, a principal research scientist at the CSIRO, said it and the Bureau of Meteorology now had a greater confidence than ever in their forecasts of Australia’s climate.

“We expect land areas to warm faster than ocean areas, and polar regions faster than the tropics,” Hennessy told Guardian Australia.

Given Australia’s geographical position, that would mean much of the country was expected to warm faster than the global average.

“Australia will warm faster than the rest of the world,” Hennessy said. “Warming of 4C to 5C would have a very significant effect: there would be increases in extremely high temperatures, much less snow, more intense rainfall, more fires and rapid sea level rises”.

Scott Morrison and his supporters can’t say they were not warned. But he ploughed on regardless—for instance, in 2017, when he was Treasurer, ScoMo discontinued government funding for the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, a move now widely regarded as short-sighted.

And while Scotty says he is “evolving”, there are members of his rightwing coalition who continue to deny there is a link between climate change and the wildfires.

This leaves ScoMo with a conundrum. Rightwingers in his party, along with his far-right coalition partner the National party, are vehemently opposed to any increase in emissions targets.

At the same time surveys show the proportion of Aussie voters listing global warming and the environment as their top issue is at an all-time high.

ScoMo can staunch the bleeding in terms of public support and in so doing risk magnifying divisions in his party and the coalition; or he can keep party and coalition together, by denying and doing little or nothing about climate change, and so continue losing public support.

ScoMo has responded to this conundrum by resorting to double-think and double-talk, in an attempt to manipulate both sides. One of his Liberal MP colleagues has said:

‘”We say emissions are going down and they are going up. We say investment in renewables is higher than ever but it’s falling because of the policy mess we have created”….

“At the moment they are running around like headless chooks [Aussie slang for chickens], throwing money here, there and everywhere without any thought.

“It is little wonder we have no credibility on this issue”.’

However it should be noted that ScoMo, as is the case with Trump, retains solid support from his base. Just as Trump has polarized the US electorate, Scotty has achieved something similar. In the words of The Guardian:

“There is something eerily Trump-ian about this phenomenon: when the leader is objectively at his weakest, his supporters lock in hard, grabbing on to whatever they need to maintain their worldview.

These findings should also serve as a caution for those who see the crisis as the moment to dramatically up the ask on Australia’s climate policies. Yes, the PM is weakened, but his base needs more to shift”.

Australia is halfway through its summer, and so far the wildfires have devastated more than 10m hectares/24.72m acres of land (an area a third of the size of Germany), killed 29 people, and destroyed thousands of properties nationwide.

The Australian tourist industry has taken an A$1bn/$699m hit so far. Tourism employs 10 times more workers than the Australian coal industry, but simply does not have the latter’s political clout.

The coal barons not only have the government on their side (primarily in the form of subsidies worth billions and tax breaks for mines that would otherwise be economically unviable), but also Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp media empire when it comes to disseminating misinformation about climate change and the wildfires.

Incidentally, Murdoch’s son James, has just split with his father over News Corp’s policy of climate-change denial, and done the equivalent of a “Prince Harry” split from an overweening family. “Murxit” James had better tread carefully, since Murdoch pere has a reputation for being a vindictive bastard, and the old brute will of course have loads of money to splash around in his will.

There was welcome rain in some fire-affected areas last Tuesday, in the form of 1-in-100-year storms, forecast to last for several days.

At the same time the Bureau of Meteorology warned that the storms could be “a double-edged sword” likely to cause flash flooding and landslides in fire-affected areas— these areas now lack the “sponge effect” provided by the vegetation that has been destroyed.

Another rain-associated problem has been caused by ash and sludge running into waterways, resulting in huge fish kills. Hundreds of thousands of native fish are estimated to have died in the Macleay River in northern NSW.

The Guardian states that “species seen dead and reported to Guardian Australia were Australian bass, eels, bullhead mullet, yellow-eye mullet, herring, gudgeons… and eel-tailed catfish. The number of fish impacted is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands”.

All things considered, therefore, while Scotty from marketing may be “evolving”, he’s evolving away from decarbonizing Australia’s economy, even as he continues to muddy the waters on climate change, and its already catastrophic blows at ground level, with PR weasel words.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.