Watching former Prime Minister Scott Morrison slink away from parliament and return to his shire, Alex Vickery-Howe wonders why political leaders are no longer willing to take responsibility for their mistakes and whether it really is healthy for the rest of us to move on before they have.
A few nights ago, I saw the outstanding production of Miss Saigon currently playing at the Adelaide Festival Centre. It’s a running joke between my partner and I that whenever life gets stressful, I burst into a terrible, atonal rendition of ‘Why God Why?’, so it was a nice surprise when a friend invited me to see the show. My partner hoped it would get the song out of my system. How wrong she was.
I saw the two alternates, Louisa Vilinne as the tragic lead Kim and Nicholas Kong as the poisonous Engineer, and if you happen to be reading this random article, you were both brilliant. If the friendly couple behind me who asked me to swap places with my friend also happen to be reading this random article, thank you for calling me tall. That actually made my night.
One of the many paradoxes of Alex Vickery-Howe is that I love musicals and profess to hate them. I think I appreciate the works themselves but find the whole exhibitionist karaoke culture around them to be a bit too full-on… but then that’s not always true either because I’ve seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show live more than once, and I sang ‘It’s A Sin’ at a karaoke bar in Japan and it actually wasn’t too bad (then again, the audience was polite and I was so drunk I may have been mumbling at a wall).
Miss Saigon is a particularly engaging musical for me because it manages to be as schmaltzy and overdone as the rest, yet, at its core, there’s a genuinely heartstring-snapping love story, and a strong political message that lands heavier with each passing decade. The image of the bụi đời – children of American GIs with Vietnamese mothers – left behind after the war is a powerful one, matched perfectly with the lyric from the American veterans: ‘They are the living reminder of all the good we failed to do.’
If ever there was a callout for fitting epitaphs summarising the legacy of American intervention in global politics, ‘all the good we failed to do’ would be a very strong candidate. The betrayal of the Vietnamese people during the fall of Saigon is famously captured in the musical with the constantly rotating embassy fence, as people scramble and beg with papers in hand, building towards the climatic appearance of a massive helicopter live on stage coming to evacuate the GIs.
Reflecting later, this historical image of disloyalty and callousness was mirrored in my memory by the more contemporary footage of a plane fleeing Afghanistan, as part of another American withdrawal, while those left behind – interpreters, soldiers, friends and supporters of the US – ran after it in vain. We all saw this on our screens. The two abandonments have an eerie similarity.
I don’t pretend to know if America was right or wrong in either case. I’m not even sure if easy words like ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ apply to these kinds of choices. I do know that the people who fight on the ground cannot be blamed for the policies of the nations they serve, and this includes the Afghani nationals who are now being deported back to the ‘mercy’ of the Taliban.
America is hardly alone when it comes to post-war betrayal. General Sir Richard Barrons similarly condemned the UK government, labelling its failure to honour its promises and support its allies “… a disgrace, because it reflects that either we’re duplicitous as a nation or incompetent.”
The repetition of history is a cruel thing. Humans fail in cyclic ways.
Conscription is an alien concept to me, but I can’t think of a deeper betrayal from a government than to hold a lottery to decide which young – very, very young – men are sent to fight an impossible war abroad. My blissful ignorance, never knowing what that kind of cruelty feels like, is an accident of generation: I was lucky to have been born at a different time. For people of my father’s and grandfather’s generations, this was a reality that many heroically faced. It’s hard to come to terms with that.
I do recall, however, that former Prime Minister John Howard flirted with the idea of conscripting us when he launched his war crime in Iraq. I wrote to him, in my 20s, to point out that the weapons inspectors had found no justification for our support of Then-Worst-US-President-Ever George W. Bush’s ill-conceived and illegal invasion. I was told by a pre-prepared Coalition letter that going to War was ‘what we feel is right’. Democracy, like ethics, has always been a malleable construct to Little Johnny.
Nobody was ever held responsible for that lie. There was no tribunal. No hearing at the Hague. The closest accountability ever came was via a More4 movie about Tony Blair starring Robert Lindsay. It should’ve been a documentary rather than a clever work of wishful fiction. Hundreds of thousands of people died. Hundreds of thousands more were displaced. Nobody ever stood up to say, ‘I’m guilty and I’m sorry’.
Responsibility was – I thought – something we were all taught in school. This includes both secular weekday school and Sunday School, where I hazily recall the Christians used to believe in a defensible moral framework. Not so much the evangelicals today who toady to Now-Worst-US-President-Ever Donald Trump.
The Don isn’t a big believer in responsibility either, of course. He lied about the pandemic… and the US people died in huge numbers. Publicly, and with sickening, ulcer-inducing pride he declared “I don’t take responsibility at all” for the street morgues, the antivaxxers and the horrendous death toll on his watch as Conman-in-Chief. The Don is ‘perfect’, after all, and everyone who dares to criticise his mendacity and his buffoonery must be a ‘hater’.
His latest scam is to argue that a president deserves total immunity from prosecution. Much as – and these are his crazy words, not mine – paedophile priests and corrupt cops should be accepted in the name of some ‘greater good’ (whatever that may be), we should all accept a monstrous criminal as leader of the free world. If not, he says, a president will be hounded by ‘bogus’ accusations. Well, actually no… you don’t get convicted in a court of law – repeatedly, conclusively – unless you’re doing unpresidential things like stealing documents, assaulting women and inciting a revolt against your elected government. Most sane humans don’t do these things, or whine when they fail to get away with them.
That anyone could begin to accept this hilariously crooked ‘argument’ is horrifying. That any ‘freedom-loving’ US citizen could anoint Donnie as their dictator without stopping to think ‘hmm, maybe I don’t believe in freedom as much as I thought I did’ is a tangle of cognitive dissonance that healthcare professionals will be unravelling for millennia.
From Donnie’s point of view, it makes sense… this is, in fact, Mr Trump at his most candid… his most honest, if honesty were ever on his radar. He desperately needs people to give the president immunity, because, if they don’t, his pumpkin ass is going to jail for an awfully long time.
I could go on to describe Trump’s obvious mental decline. Having lost people close to me to the disease, I know the tell-tale signs of dementia. His mixed speech, his failure to construct coherent sentences, his frequent confusion between Biden and Obama, or between Nikki Haley and Nancy Pelosi, is all textbook. No, it’s not the same as President Joe Biden, a man working through a stutter, who has occasional lapses he corrects in the moment. Watch Biden from years ago and Biden now, and you get the same man. Watch Trump from years ago and Trump now, and you can clearly see the slip from cocky but reasonably polished and articulate jerk into someone who speaks in a scramble of mouldy word salad.
Trump has become a man who quite obviously doesn’t know what he’s saying. He doesn’t even know what Nancy Pelosi’s job was, or that she was plainly not the person responsible for securing the Capitol the day his rabid lemmings attacked it (or… any other day). In a nicer and less dangerous person, this level of decline would be sad. But, forget that line of thought…dismiss it entirely, if you don’t believe me….
The Republican Party is responsible for preventable COVID-19 deaths. Estimates vary from 200,000 to as many as 400,000 people died because Donald Trump was too weak to admit the truth. That’s an empirical fact.
Mentally competent or not, Trump is likewise responsible for his bizarre border wall, which proved to be pretty good at killing wildlife but that’s about it; for his brutal immigration policy that separated children from families as a punitive measure (no, the Obama Administration did not do this first); for a blatantly racist and broad sweeping ‘anti-Muslim’ ban that demonised US citizens; for anti-environmental policies that polluted water supplies; for incompetent economic ‘management’ that saw employment plummet, minimum wages stagnate, and national debt blow skyward (alas, sitting at the head of the table on The Apprentice doesn’t magically make someone a financial wizard); for failing to produce any healthcare policy at all, despite numerous claims that he had an ‘amazing’ one; for teargassing legitimate protestors in a supposed democracy… and for emboldening a Nazi movement on US soil through implicit support and explicit rhetoric.
This is the likely Republican nominee. The party is choosing their biggest failure to lead them forward.
So, where’s the trial for what has come before? Why shouldn’t we demand one? Responsibility for one’s actions is something every adult should embrace as a basic life skill. You screw up, you make amends. It’s not hard.
This brings me – you know I was circling in – to Scott Morrison’s retirement. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he is the Coalition’s biggest failure. They’ve got Tony Abbott reaching for that trophy too. But what was the Morrison Prime Ministership about? Did he accomplish anything, really?
If we think of ScoMo in the next 50, 60 or 100 years, the enduring image will be of him grabbing the hands of people who really didn’t want to touch his… people who’d lost their homes to fires his policy of climate change denial, and his personal dereliction of duty, didn’t necessarily create but certainly didn’t address. If we remember the quotes that stick out, it’ll be a toss-up between “I don’t hold a hose, mate!”, as his country burned, or “It’s not a race!”, as vulnerable people waited for a life-saving vaccine.
While he lounged in Hawaii, or waved his arm to an embarrassed God, Australia struggled on without his input. ScoMo was an irresponsible PM. He was the poster boy for quiet quitting. To co-opt his crowning pre-PM (or AM for Advertising Mismanagement) triumph: ScoMo, where the bloody hell were you? Why did you stab your colleagues in the back for a job you weren’t interested in?
A counterargument could be that ScoMo became hyper-responsible when he took over several ministerial portfolios, without telling the ministers who thought they held them, but I don’t think that makes him look any better, do you? Being negligent and controlling is trickier than patting your head and rubbing your tummy, but – much like bringing a lump of coal into Parliament, tackling a child half your size, or making a statement at Maccas – it can be done, if you really lean into your extraordinary lack of self-awareness.
Just recently, when the full-extent of Robodebt – another callous, life-costing policy – was made plain by a Royal Commission, ScoMo wormed and writhed, churlishly refusing to be an adult and own up to what he did. You can’t respect someone whose smirk is bigger than his spine.
I’m not the kind of person who believes there are two clear sides to any argument. There are three, four, five… a half-dozen… a dozen… a plethora of perspectives on any major issue. Anyone who reduces human discourse down to ‘them vs us’ tends to be a little less than intelligent, a little less than worldly, and I’m at great pains to combat those dogmatic tendencies within myself. I know I have them. However… and it’s a big however….
When someone fails to take responsibility for their actions, I see red. I’m not talking about causing offence – which is subjective – or making a mistake, which we all do from time to time. I’m talking about failing to take responsibility for actions that have clear material consequences.
In a political context, I’m talking about failing to take responsibility for actions that destroy people. After you abandon your post and demonstrate your contempt for the citizens you serve, you don’t get to whip out a ukulele, sing ‘April Sun in Cuba’ and pretend you’re a top bloke. After you storm the US Capitol building, smear shit on walls and attack those trying to protect the innocent, you don’t get to smile, shrug it off and call yourself a ‘tourist’. Generally speaking, tourists don’t beat up cops. I mean, I’ve never actually been on a Contiki tour, but… I reckon it’s a safe assumption?
At the Australian Open last night – congratulations, Jannik – the crowd booed our current Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. I recognise, as does Albo, that ribbing the PM at the tennis is an Aussie tradition… even, it seems, when they’re doing a pretty decent job. I also recognise that while few leaders are as terrible as Bush, Trump, Little Johnny, Abbott or ScoMo, no leader is perfect. The Labor Government is still opening mines. Live export is still a thing in 2024. They could absolutely do better.
Regardless, I found myself agreeing with Jacqui Lambie this morning when she pointed out that the boos were the unruly response of a disproportionally wealthy crowd (have you seen the price of the AO tickets? Or the price of the mansion the Board President sold a few years back?), and that, maybe, on reflection, bitching about reasonable and responsible tax cuts isn’t the classiest behaviour during an urgent cost-of-living crisis.
“Where are our values? Honestly, what are they booing him for?” asked Senator Lambie.
Where are our values? Why are we sweating the small stuff, like tax cuts, while the bigger issues – a failure to address catastrophic climate disaster, a failure to respond to the ongoing global pandemic, a failure to acknowledge historical and contemporary war crimes – all seem to drift conveniently away from public discourse and public consciousness?
During the last Australian election, John Howard said we all wanted to ‘get on with the present and the future’, moving on merrily from ScoMo’s multiple ministerial portfolios, from the recurrent bushfires and their terminal implications, from Robodebt, from Iraq, from all the cockups caused by a Coalition that is untrustworthy on its best day, criminal on its worst, and thoroughly irresponsible every other calendar day of the week. I don’t think the Australian people should be that indulgent, or that forgetful….
We should demand that our leaders take responsibility for the mistakes they make, especially when those mistakes cost lives.
Returning to Miss Saigon and Nicholas Kong’s perfectly revolting, sporadically hilarious, somehow still kinda sexy, Engineer… the major show-stopping number of that musical was ‘The American Dream’, wherein Kong conjured a cigar-chugging Kennedy, a not-even-scantily-clad Monroe, and a phantasmagoria of glamorous, glittering sleaze.
It worked. It hit its mark. I’ve been playing it on a loop. Still, is it too much to ask that the western world try aiming a little higher over the next 50, 60, 100 years?
ScoMo’s exit can’t hurt our chances.
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