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Australia is scared and confused about coronavirus. Is Scott Morrison the leader we need for this grave moment?

Amid our Covid-19 crisis we need honesty, truth, inclusion and respect – the things that help ease the fear and growing despair gripping this country

In the midst of the plague it’s very hard for a layperson to know if the government should be doing more, more quickly, or if its actions are proportionate and correct. If more needs to be done, so many are asking, why is it not being done now?

To the government’s immense credit, unlike with climate change, it appears to be acting on scientific advice. And given that one of Scott Morrison’s favoured political allies, Donald Trump, is advocating getting the US back to work by Easter and using the coronavirus to stoke xenophobia, that is no small thing for which we should be very grateful.

But what is clear is that Morrison is also doing his level best to keep us all confused. Tuesday night’s press conference was the prime minister at his bumbling, inept worst.

As my nephew, a teacher, texted me last night, he’s still allowed to teach a class of 30 children but if he dies from the virus caught there only 10 can come to his funeral. If he remarried only four others could be there but if he called it a boot camp 10 could come. Which makes for a clear message.

As the prime minister drifted back and forth in his rambling comments, shopping centres around the nation were closed early on in the presser, only to be reopened 15 minutes later. The prime minister wanted to be clear and the nation could agree on that much at least. But the problem is that every time he speaks nothing is clear.

The government has been hapless in communicating to Australians the seriousness of the pandemic and the seriousness of its resolve. Faced on Monday with the gravest crisis of unemployment in a century, the minister for government services, Stuart Robert, joked. This attitude is no small failure. The inconsistency of message, the contradictory measures and an approach that too often seems only semi-committed, has left much of the nation frightened, confused and angry, and some of it careless and uncaring. And all of this is dangerous to us.

Perhaps this would matter less if the government appeared more resolute. Show, not tell, as the old adage goes. But if the telling on the government’s part is so sloppy and poor, the showing is worse. The government must be seen to act in accordance with its own rhetoric if it wishes its people to do the same. And it has frequently not. The prime minister wants Australians to take the pandemic seriously but how serious is a government that allows people to fly into Australia as late as last Saturday and let them disperse untested? How serious is a government that was still allowing cruise ships to disgorge potentially infected passengers only last week?

Morrison’s secretiveness and bellicosity in the face of any questioning makes him particularly ill-suited to such a grave moment. When on Sunday night David Speers asked him in an ABC interview a simple, straightforward question that was perplexing many Australians at that moment – exactly what was an essential service? – Morrison disappeared into aggressive evasion, losing much of a national audience desperate to know the answer to this and so many questions.

At the beginning, determined to maintain his hokey everybloke image, Morrison’s messages were not so much mixed as moronic. Why else, when the gravity of the crisis was already apparent and the need for social distancing clear, did he smilingly say he would be going to the football?

As the days went on, the gravity of the situation began to impress itself even on the prime minister, who seemed to grow more rumpled and angry himself, as power seemed to leach away from him to state premiers and the nation fragmented into its pre-federation set-up of six independent states.

Morrison’s consistent failure, his use of language that seemed to exclude Australians rather than bring them along with him, was exemplified by his schoolmasterish put-downs of Australians behaving badly. Last week he raised the matter of panic buying, hissing, “Stop it! Just stop it!” as if he were a primary school principal with ignorant children rather than a leader of a nation of citizens.

Far better would have been to explain that his government would ensure that no one would run short of essentials, to explain why panic buying creates shortages, and so on. At that moment people were panicking. They needed to feel the government had their back, not that it would hit it.

On Tuesday night we were warned that if we don’t behave with our social distancing we will be punished with measures repeatedly described as “draconian” – and there we were, back with the punish-the-people approach. The reality is that the measures should not be being pitched as draconian but as necessary and inevitable, as a sacrifice we all must make to save as many lives as possible.

Scott Morrison leaves parliament

Would it not be far better to introduce a staged system of responses, such as other countries have done, so that the public knows when we reach a certain point in the pandemic – so many infections, so many deaths – that the social distancing measures go from this level to the next? So that people know when they are approaching the level of a full lockdown and can prepare for it?

Honesty and truth, inclusion and respect – how much these would do to help ease the fear and growing despair gripping so many Australians.

But none of these things seem to have ever been in Morrison’s nature. The fault is far from his alone: he rose to the top in a system that rewarded the most conspiratorial, where those most brazen with public acts of threat and punishment would be rewarded and celebrated, where the language was always about evasion of truth and avoidance of responsibility.

And at his press conferenceon Tuesday night he looked a drowning man, panicked, unsure, angry – an ordinary man who finds himself in the most extraordinary circumstances for which his whole history has been unable to prepare him.

As Barnaby Joyce so succinctly put it in his bizarre Christmas Eve video: he had enough government in his life, now he wanted government out of his life.

Only now, hopefully not too late, we are beginning to understand that all that stands between us and the plague’s most horrifying effects is good government, something which we have sought to destroy for some decades, deriding it, dismissing it, downsizing it, underfunding it, and, as witnessed when the Morrison government returned to power, hectoring and bullying it.

And so we reap our bitter harvest.

A system of thought, an idea of the state, a way of running nations, a grossly unequal economy, all that began 40 years ago with Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that there is no such thing as society, must end with the way we respond to this deadly virus.

For the best part of 40 years a language that might have helped us through this catastrophic moment of our history was derided, then lost, and finally forgotten. Us, we, kindness, compassion, truth, community, sharing. It’s time we got these basic words back and with them the truths that underlie them: that we live together but we will, if we allow this virus to succeed, die alone. It’s time the prime minister spoke simply, directly, truthfully. Time to tell us what he doesn’t know and what he does. Time he stopped threatening us for our bad behaviour, time he told us what the plan was and where we are going. Because we are lost and today, more than ever, we need to know. We need leadership and for the foreseeable future we have only Scott Morrison to deliver it. But deliver it he must, and stop the evasion, the aggression, the bumbling. Tell us the truth, tell us the plan and keep us informed. That would be a start.

Remind us not of the few Australians who err but of the many millions of Australians who over the coming weeks will put their lives on the line for us all. The million-plus doctors, nurses and orderlies, the hundreds of thousands in food retail, to name only some, some of whom, we know already, will most certainly die.

The prime minister needs to invite people to help one another, not punish them for being human. He needs to show humility in the face of the crisis, not anger. He needs to understand that it is us and only us who can save ourselves, and that we are not boats to be turned back, but people to be invited in.

Can he do it? I genuinely hope he can. Our system allows for no one else, people are frightened, and now, more than at any time since 1941, we need leadership.

But if he doesn’t, history reminds us that we will find leadership to sustain us through this terrible time elsewhere. We will find it in our doctors and nurses, we will find it in our state leaders, and we will find among those in our communities already setting up initiatives to help each other. We will find it where we least expect it and that courage and that hope will guide us and sustain us.

And when this terrible time is over, let us rebuild our democracy in that spirit and with such people, so that when the next crisis comes we have at our head those who understand the great tasks and are equal to them.

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