Australia Bushfires: What the Heckling of Scott Morrision Tells Us about Citizens’ Anger


Australia Bushfires: What the Heckling of Scott Morrision Tells Us about Citizens’ Anger

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

While heated protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens are now commonplace in India at the moment, another country is quite literally burning to the ground. Australia’s wildfires, which have been raging for several days, killing millions of wild animals, causing an uncalculated amount of damage to property, and stranding locals and tourists with equal apathy, are an emblem of how seriously climate change can bite a country in the butt, especially when its leader refuses to accept the problem.

Australia’s PM Scott Morrison got a taste of this first-hand when he visited the town of Cobargo for a photo opportunity after it had been devastated by the raging fires. However, instead of a greetings, Morrison got broadsided by a volley of insults and snubs, with residents of Cobargo heckling the PM so hard that he had to leave.

At one point, Morrison is seen walking up to a tired firefighter who is slumped in a chair. The firefighter is clearly exhausted, having spent the last few hours fighting the blaze. Morrison walks right up to him, arm outstretched for a handshake, fully expecting to be congratulated for remembering another human being. But, the firefighter’s response was to turn Morrison’s handshake down, saying, “I don’t really want to shake your hand.” Also at some point during the visit, the townspeople lined up to yell insults like “Scumbag” and “Boomer”, along with other more choice selections at their PM as he fled the inhospitable scene.

Australia Bushfire

Fire crews put out spot fires on January 04, 2020 in Sarsfield, Australia. Two people are dead and 28 remain missing following bushfires across the East Gippsland area, with Victorian premier Daniel Andrews declaring a state of disaster in the region. Thousands of people remain stranded in the coastal town of Mallacoota and are being evacuated by navy ships to Melbourne.

Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

The interaction between Morrison and the people of Cobargo was captured on video, and it makes for some truly perplexing viewing. Here in India, the thought of ordinary citizens refusing to shake the hand of the PM would be enough to invite a sedition charge, and the consequences of aggressively heckling him off their turf like the good folks of Cobargo will not make for pleasant news. Modi is very different from Morrison in that respect – he is thoroughly and efficiently insulated from harsh criticism thanks to his gargantuan PR machinery, his own knack for rhetoric, and the widespread predilection among Indians to indulge in hero-worship. We see it in politics, but also in cricket and Bollywood, and we see it so often that we take the superhuman status of these “heroes” for granted.

The idea of our PM taking a chance in an unscripted interaction with dispossessed and marginalised people seems so far-fetched, it would make a great plot for a Black Mirror episode. Meanwhile, Morrison embodies a certain hapless energy that makes him vulnerable to incidents like the one that took place in Cobargo. Just last year, there was an incident where he had an egg chucked at him by a protester, and he has come under fire from Australian celebrities for his response (or lack of it) to the wildfires. In fact, with the amount of abuse and disrespect he faces on a regular basis, Morrison is less like India’s PM and more like Delhi’s CM Arvind Kejriwal for the way he is treated.

Morrison is less like India’s PM and more like Delhi’s CM Arvind Kejriwal for the way he is treated.

However, though it might be odd to see a head of state being treated so, some of the barbs aimed at Morrison are warranted. He’s been a long-term denier of climate change and has been branded a coal champion . One of Morrison’s methods of dealing with the climate problem was asking farmers to pray for rain. His deputy Michael McCormack is no different. Only in November he called climate change activists “inner-city raving lunatics”. So when a crisis that is obviously spurred by climate change leads to Morrison & Co having to eat some humble pie over a phenomenon he went blue in the face denying, the irony is delicious.

And no matter how bumbling he may appear, we shouldn’t feel bad for him. When a person signs up to hold the highest office in the country, they automatically make themselves targets for harsh criticism. The PM is meant to be accountable to the people. If Morrison can’t take the heat, he shouldn’t have started the fire.