“This more understated role was considered to be in stark contrast to the Prime Minister’s (eventual) presence in the media.”
Praise for fire chief
There was unilateral and effusive praise for the fire chiefs, including NSW fire commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, even if most could not remember his name.
And there was universal acceptance that climate change was a key factor in the fires but a range of views as to what could be actually done about it.
The groups were conducted on Wednesday night in Sydney and Thursday night in Melbourne and the level of disenchantment with the Prime Minister reflected the slide in his approval rating, which has been recorded in post-New Year published opinion polls.
Those who did not vote Liberal or National at the last election were most critical of Mr Morrison’s handling of the fires and were more likely to write him off as if he was irretrievably damaged.
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s done his dash,” was one representative response from people who said they voted either Labor, Green or “other” at the 2019 election.
“He’s completely finished it for me,” said another, while the perception that he was “dismissive and arrogant” and lacked empathy also permeated.
Negative views of Mr Morrison crystallised around his initial decision to holiday in Hawaii as the crisis flared, and were exacerbated by subsequent events, including an awkward meeting with fire victims in Cobargo and forgetting that there had been deaths on Kangaroo Island.
“Most participants were critical of the Prime Minister’s leadership during this crisis period. It was felt that the PM (and his advisers) had shown poor judgement at a number of stages as the crisis evolved,” the research showed.
“His primary failing was his absence. Despite general awareness that much of the responsibility to respond lay at state level, participants likened the crisis period to a time of war, and were adamant that he should have been present, standing ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with other Australians experiencing the bushfires.”
There was nothing positive said about Mr Morrison’s handling of the situation, despite him calling out the military to help and committing $2 billion towards recovery efforts.
I just feel that he has been torn to pieces. It’s all been done by the media. They only show bad things.
— A 68-year-old builder.
However, those who voted Liberal at the last election, especially those in older age groups, recognised the failure of the Prime Minister to provide leadership but were more willing to blame others.
“I just feel that he has been torn to pieces,” said a 68-year-old builder.
“It’s all been done by the media. They only show bad things.”
A 73-year-old male retiree who voted Liberal noted Mr Morrison only won the election because voters disliked Bill Shorten and did not trust Labor.
His view that Mr Morrison had been let down by those who advise him was common among Liberal voters.
“(These voters) were more likely to believe that memories were short and that the next federal election was sufficiently far off for voters to have moved on,” the research showed.
“They felt that strong ongoing leadership, particularly in relation to the
economy, would likely be sufficient for Scott Morrison to recover from the current damage to his reputation.”
One of these voters told the focus group: “It depends on what he is coming up with with his policies,” he said.
“There are still a couple of years to go and people forget. This is an episode and he can come out of it.”
In comparison to Mr Morrison, Labor leader Anthony Albanese did not put a foot wrong throughout the crisis but there was little awareness of him and even among Labor voters, he was described as “weak” and “bland”.
“Participants did not seem to think he would have made the same mistakes as Morrison, but he was seen as bland by most voters – including those who had voted Labor at the last federal election – and therefore unlikely to have been capable of demonstrating better leadership,” the research concludes.
Commissioner Fitzsimmons was heralded unanimously by the Sydney voters as a man of ability and empathy who has demonstrated great leadership.
“He hasn’t had to receive empathy training. He comes across as very genuine, he knows his stuff,” said one.