Dr. Bodie A. Ashton is a historian of identity who lectures and researches in government theory and state-building in the Faculty of Law at the University of Passau. In his work, he focuses on how people identify, both as individuals and as communities, in a historical sense. Originally from South Australia and having received his doctorate from the University of Adelaide in 2014, he joined the University of Passau as part of the ERC research project ReConFort in 2016, at the Chair for Civil Law, German and European Legal History. In this project, legal scholars headed by Passau's legal historian Professor Ulrike Müßig researched historical constitutional debates in Europe. Dr. Ashton likes both old and new media: He is the author of The Kingdom of Württemberg and the Making of Germany, 1815-1871 (London: Bloomsbury, 2017). Also, he is very active on Twitter. One of his tweets on the bushfire crisis in his home country went viral at the beginning of this year.
The old cliché goes that the Roman Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned. The story is apocryphal, but it seemed more prescient than ever in December 2019 when, the cities of his country choked on bushfire smoke, and the fire fronts extended to unimaginable proportions, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison sat by a resort poolside in Hawaii. Since then, Morrison has returned, but the disaster has escalated. Fires have engulfed an area that is roughly the size of Belgium and Austria combined.
At the time of writing, at least 28 people are dead across South Australia, New South Wales, and Victoria. Australia’s unique native wildlife has been affected catastrophically. The most conservative estimates place the number of dead mammals, birds, and reptiles at well over a billion.
The scale of the disaster is, to put it bluntly, mind-boggling. It is also difficult for non-Australians to make sense of. That’s why, early in the new year, I wrote a short (and, to be fair, angry) explainer on Twitter, to acquaint my small number of followers with the catastrophe in my home country. This thread soon went viral, attracting attention from American Congresswomen, British writers, American actors and socialites. To date, it has been read in excess of 20 million times, and shared by more than 126,000 people. It’s since been translated into French, and spurred an opinion piece and a radio interview.
The question is simple: why? What does a historian of identity, admittedly an Australian himself but living in Passau, have to add to a discussion about climate, weather, and bushfires in far-off Australia? A lot, as it turns out, and this tells us much about a worrying gap in information leadership, and that the effective power of communication is matched by a catastrophic reaction when that communication is absent.
Communicative leadership in a state of crisis
For a government in the midst of crisis, communication is often key to its survival. At the very heart of every single Western state philosophy, from Bodin to Hobbes and Locke and beyond, the state’s principal responsibility is to the safety and security of the people it governs; in an emergency, when that safety cannot be ensured, it is vital that the state communicates its commitment. In other words: a leadership that is seen to be doing something, even if that something is not entirely successful, is likely to earn popularity in the public eye and, in the process, provide assurance. This requires the government to have a unifying message: stay calm, we are here to help, we will do all that we can, and your safety is our priority.
This communicative leadership has been conspicuous in its absence. Morrison’s ill-timed holiday, his less than fortunate handling of meetings with bushfire survivors, members of his government ridiculing fire victims as ‘most likely people who voted for the Green party’, the government’s seeming preoccupation with issuesother than the fire crisis, the many efforts to neuter climate science, the heightened rhetoric of many members of his cabinet against emission reduction plans – the language emanating from the Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet is confused and divisive.
Example of Thucydides’ maxim or desperation
A cynic could read this situation, looking to the government’s close ties to a powerful fossil fuel industry, the near-monopoly of a right-wing national press, and the frantic rhetoric that safety measures must take a back seat to economic considerations, and conclude that this is an example of Thucydides’ maxim that ‘the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.’ More charitably, we could look upon both the inaction and the counterproductive public relations as an example not of wilful arbitrariness, but one born of desperation: a government out of its depth, unable to find a clear path to a solution, and blundering from crisis to crisis.
No one expects Scott Morrison to hold a hose. Nor does anyone believe that he has wandered out into the bush and lit the fires. But the responsibility of his government to deal with the situation as it stands has been abrogated time and again. In short, this is not at all conducive to safeguarding the safety of Australians, nor even giving the appearance of doing so.
There are two issues at play here, both interconnected: the immediate response to this crisis, and the longterm planning to avoid the same crisis in the future. In the latter, the Prime Minister’s recent insistence that this fire season is now the ‘new normal’ and Australians will simply have to show ‘resilience’ suggests that, for all the talk, what will follow from the government is more of the same: an unwillingness to engage in a discussion that has now taken on existential proportions.
Lessons to be learnt from Bodin, Hobbes and Locke
Morrison’s proponents, if they were so inclined, might well look back upon the French theorist Jean Bodin who, in his Les Six Livres de la République (1576), argued that the state cannot be held responsible for the ‘happiness’ of the society it governs, chiefly because there are some things that are beyond the state’s control—including, explicitly, the weather. Yet the current situation is not merely a question of ‘the pursuit of happiness’, but in a very real sense a question of life and liberty. These elements are central to the very being of the state.
Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, arguably the two most influential English state theorists, fundamentally disagreed on a number of points, but where they agreed was the basic premise of government function. In Hobbes’ famous telling, the state existed so as to provide relief from the natural condition of humanity, which was ‘nasty, brutish and short.’ Locke, more succinctly, defined the existence of government as being based upon a ‘social contract’, in which the citizenry gave over its individual rights and powers to the state. But he was also very clear that these powers could be used for ‘no other end but the peace, safety, and public good of the people.’
Why Scott Morrison can breathe a sigh of relief
We should be aware: theory only goes so far. Australia is not a Hobbesian absolutist monarchy. It is not suffering the Wars of Religion that raged in France while Bodin was writing his Six Livres. Nor has there been a revolution (glorious or otherwise), as there was in England when Locke penned his Second Treatise. But some ideas are timeless and universal. Australians expect their government to ensure their safety, their public good, their peace, just as Locke demanded in 1689. These expectations are, quite plainly, not being met.
Canberra would do well to remember Locke’s corollary to his social contract: a state that cannot or will not uphold its side of the bargain may be legitimately resisted, because that state is not fit for purpose.
No one believes nor advocates that Australia is about to fall into revolution. Scott Morrison, at least, can likely breathe a sigh of relief that the modern liberal democracy that he governs is rather more resilient to that sort of threat than John Locke’s civil war-torn England was. But there is a salient lesson to be remembered here: that governments have responsibilities, both in theory and in practice.
As part of the “ReConFort” EU project, Passau’s legal historian Professor Ulrike Müßig worked together with an international research team to analyse constitutional debates in five European countries during the 18th and 19th centuries.