A car radio plays nearby, feeding through evacuation information and the phone numbers of relief services. A few feet away, my boyfriend watches a press conference by Daniel Andrews, who tells us that, as of 9:30am, 28 people are missing. My screen is awash with orange and red hues - photos of the fire - and it notifies me that my aunt has marked herself safe in the emergency. It’s almost apocalyptic.
Supposedly, leaders show their best selves in crisis. They protect those who are suffering and make bold choices to ensure the safety of the community. People are comforted just by seeing a leader understand the propensity of the issue and offer help. Leaders unify, show solidarity and are endlessly resilient. They help repair what has broken.
This isn’t idyllic. This is truth.
In the wake of the Christchurch shooting, Jacinta Ardern donned a hijab and visited mosques throughout the country, offering kinship and solidarity to those who were hurting. She repeated “As-salaam Alaikum. Peace be upon you,” as a testament to the generous spirit wielded by the Muslim community when in the face of hatred. She asked only “kindness” from her nation. She was a leader.
On September 3 1939, King George VI spoke to his nation and offered his grief and pain to them on the cusp of the Second World War. It was his first public speech and he overcame a speech impediment to voice it. He asked his people to “stand calm and firm and unified in this time of trial” and remained faithful that good would prevail. He was a leader.
John Howard’s response to the Port Arthur massacre is so revered, it is a point of pride for most Australians. It is embedded into the gun control narrative - a renowned example of positive action with real and concrete effects. Images of the mass surrender of guns flooded the media and permanent legislative changes happened within a matter of days.
In an interview with The Guardian, it was clear that he understood the responsibility of being a leader during a crisis. “One is the jobs of Prime Minister is to comfort and console,” he says, “... You should not become a problem.”
John Howard isn’t a politician with whom I feel any particular alignment. When it comes to a lot of his policies, I’m not a fan. But he was a leader.
The radio plays in the car. People phone in to discuss Scott Morrison’s forced handshake with bushfire victims in NSW. The presenter intersperses coverage with a list of ‘Watch and Act’ notices so that citizens know if they must evacuate.
This crisis, which has been going on for weeks now, burns all around us. In the midst of it, our Prime Minister has, in Howard’s words, “become a problem.” He refused to meet with fire chiefs that held warnings about this season. His government have been inactive on climate change and stripped funding from the CFA. He jetted off to Hawaii in the middle of an emergency and now I read stories of him forcibly shaking victims’ hands. Really, Scott?
This story shouldn’t be about our shithead Prime Minister. It should be about resilient communities and medal-earning volunteers. Instead of consolation, comfort or solidarity, the nation is engaged in radio debates about Morrison’s bad PR. And when our leader is failing, who do we turn to?
My best answer is not really an answer at all. I think that while this crisis continues, we must look for local voices to show the “depth of feeling” King George VI felt for his people. We must support the locals who are fighting on the front lines - the CFA, the RFS and the SES - and wherever possible, donate to them the money they need. (At the bottom of this article, you’ll find donation links for each of these services.) We must also listen and observe the stories of victims. They are angry and need to be heard.
If you live in the Western Suburbs, as many of our readers do, the Sun Theatre is a collection point for items to be given to victims near Bairnsdale. You can find more details here.
Until we once again have a leader running our country, we have to rely on each other for unity, courage and hope. I trust that we can.