The empathy deficit

Like most winners at the conclusion of an election process, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has claimed on a couple of occasions that he would consider the hopes and ambitions of all Australians while he is the Prime Minister. The first time was when he mounted his quixotic charge past Peter Dutton to take the Prime Ministership from Malcolm Turnbull, the second after he convinced enough Australians that the empty promises and meaningless platitudes that constituted his re-election campaign were actually achievable following the last Federal election.

To consider the hopes and ambitions of all Australians, you need to understand the positions of others and even if their situation doesn’t affect you personally, have some reaction and share the motivation for others’ feelings. It’s called empathy and relies on emotional intelligence and maturity to develop.

Prior to mounting the white charger and spearing the Dutton supporters, Morrison was Turnbull’s Treasurer (remember the arm around the shoulder and claims of fully supporting ‘his’ leader). In former Prime Minister Abbott’s Government, Morrison was at one stage the Minister responsible for overseeing the implementation of what is potentially the cruelest refugee treatment program in the world where people are kept in detention for years with no clear pathway to release, and a family with young children being forced from their home to be the sole residents of a detention centre on the other side of the country even though the courts have mostly agreed with the family’s legal position.

The now infamous Robodebt was devised while Morrison was the responsible Minister for social security. Then as Treasurer, Morrison was the Minister responsible for steering the legislation through Parliament, he was the Prime Minister when it ‘suddenly’ became evident to the Coalition Government that the entire process was probably illegal and the $1.2 billion decision was made to settle prior to being dragged through the court system as the target of a class action. But the Minister responsible at the time of the class action, Stuart Robert (who somehow survived clocking up a $2,000 per month taxpayer funded internet bill from his house in the Gold Coast Hinterland), also kept his job despite spending millions defending the indefensible in the lower courts, causing some to ask if there was any accountability in Government

In October 2019, the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety released its interim report in three volumes (here and here and here). Entitled ‘Neglect’ they were a foretaste of the final report, this time in 8 volumes, released on 1 March 2021. The full report and a number of other documents are available from this link. Morrison called a press conference to release the final report of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Standards.

At the press conference, the following exchange occurred
JOURNALIST: This report was delivered last Friday. You gave us half-an-hour to attend a press conference. You tabled the report when we were here. How can we ask questions to know what's relevant in the report without knowing what's in it?
There will be plenty of opportunities to ask questions. But we're before you now. This isn't the only day to ask questions. I'm telling you that we're releasing the report...

JOURNALIST: That's a tactic, isn't it, Prime Minister.
No, with respect, today is not about the media. Today is about releasing the royal commission report. There are 8 volumes, and I would encourage you to digest all of them. And on occasion, after occasion, after occasion, I have no doubt you will quiz me on it. Today is the day for us telling Australia that it is released. There'll be plenty of other opportunities.

JOURNALIST: This is a major social reform and you've stopped us from actually looking at the report. Is that because you've [got] two commissioners who disagree on the reforms and the way forward?
No. I don't understand the question.

JOURNALIST: The commissioners are split on a number of fundamental reforms.
Because it is a complicated issue.

JOURNALIST: So which of the reports and recommendations would you take onboard?
That's what we'll consider and include that in our response.

JOURNALIST: Isn't it a problem that you've got a royal commission blueprint...
No I think it's a problem that people think this is so simple. We can't be glib about these issues and they they're simple to do with. I'm not surprised they are. I'm not surprised that people with that level of experience who have poured over this, heart and soul, for years... there'll be difference of views. That does not surprise me. I don't think it surprises Australians who've had to deal with this system either.
It was a pretty good bet that the final report would be damning, which it was. Of course, it didn’t stop the playing of politics (partial paywall)
A senior source within the royal commission tells The Saturday Paper that selective leaking of the final report to favoured media outlets ahead of its release was “infuriating”.

The stories stemming from the leaks said there were divisions between the commissioners on a path forward for the sector.

“[The leaking] tells us very clearly, before the public has even had a chance to see the findings, that they are willing to play politics with this historic moment,” said the source, who did not wish to be identified.

"That was a vindictive act and speaks volumes about the government’s commitment to this process.”.
The report paints a picture of consistent underfunding and lack of enforcement of standards by governments for a number of years. While Morrison is not solely to blame either as Treasurer or Prime Minister, in the Commissioners’ view he stripped more than $2 billion in care subsidies from the sector since late 2015 and booked the savings in the federal budget — a direct cut in funding to the sector (previous governments of both political colours emasculated the funding so it didn’t keep pace with the funding formula, producing nominal increases — albeit reductions in real terms). Morrison denies he cut the funding while Treasurer.

Regardless of the politics around what should have been the start of a process to fix the aged care system in Australia, clearly it was in Morrison’s view a handy distraction from the claims of philandering and a toxic culture in the halls of Parliament House. Morrison told a press conference that he saw no issues with the alleged rape of a political staffer by a senior staffer in Defence Minister Linda Reynolds’ office until his wife suggested he might have a different reaction if one of his daughters was involved. Neither did he see the problem with his Attorney General staying in the role without any investigation after being alleged to be the perpetrator of an historic rape in 1988, which can never be tested in court as the alleged victim took her own life last year. When the ‘court of public opinion’ finally passed its judgement, Morrison did include Reynolds and Porter in a Cabinet reshuffle — ‘demoting’ both of them but not removing them from the Ministry.

Morrison’s delayed reaction to both matters suggests he doesn’t have the emotional intelligence and maturity to understand that it takes real courage and bravery for those that have allegedly suffered violence against them to come forward and make their claims. Rather than take his favoured position of ‘riding it out’, assault victims should be believed and if the alleged victim is unable to tell their story, there should be an enquiry to establish the facts as far as possible.

As Katherine Murphy discussed in The Guardian,
Before deciding, once and for all, whether Porter can remain as attorney general, and Linda Reynolds as defence minister, Morrison wants to assess the salience of federal parliament’s #MeToo moment. Have voters logged the Higgins story, and the rape allegation levelled by a now-deceased woman against his attorney general?

Do they have views about it? What are the views?
Murphy was suggesting that assuming the opinion polls are not catastrophic, Morrison seemed to be planning to ride the storm out. That probably wasn’t the best strategy! The hope would be good news announcements would allow him to direct us all to ‘look over there’ at some behaviour that doesn’t adversely affect his government. The Aged Care Royal Commission final report was one piece in this puzzle, as was the ‘half price airline tickets’ fiasco.

As former Opposition Leader John Hewson states in the The New Daily Morrison, like former Prime Minister Howard prefers to play politics than develop and deliver policy for the betterment of all Australians
The end game is simply winning the next election, and the daily focus is to minimise the risks in doing so. As challenges emerge, the initial response is reactive not pro-active, to let them run for a while to see how they unfold, “nothing to be seen here” — maybe they’ll even solve themselves. But, if finally there is a need to act, the response is to do as little as they can get away with.
Obviously Morrison doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to consider the views of others. It wasn’t empathic to return from an overseas holiday during the middle of catastrophic bushfires claiming that as the country’s political leader he couldn’t do anything because ‘I don’t hold a hose mate’. Neither is it empathic to release an eight-volume report detailing failures in the aged care system without expressing concern and regret, moving young families across the country to detention centres because the government isn’t getting its own way in the court system or ignoring the apparent long term toxic sexual misbehaviour on his side of politics that is far short of contemporary community standards.

As Hewson suggests, Howard lost the 2007 election and his seat because of his tone deafness on matters of importance to the community. Does Morrison have the ability to reflect on that and act appropriately?

What do you think?

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