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Climate paralysis and Morrison's fall



Over the past two months Scott Morrison has experienced a spectacular fall from grace. He's gone from being the miracle man who won the unwinnable election, to a Coalition leader who can't show his face in rural Australia without being heckled out of town.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison tours the property of John 'Kooka' Kinniburgh on 3 January 2020 in Sarsfield, Vic. (Photo by James Ross-Pool/Getty Images)Talking heads, from Channel 9's Karl Stefanovic — a previous contender for Australia's least popular man — to conservative stalwart Piers Morgan have roundly criticised Morrison's lackadaisical attitude to the current bushfire crisis. Even actress and singer Bette Midler has gotten in on the act with some concise and creative language describing our head of government.

Furthermore, it's not just the inner-city latte-sipping lefties who have turned on Morrison; his frosty reception in Cobargo last week tells a tale of Australians who won't remain quiet in light of his disregard.

So how could 'Scotty from Marketing' have gotten this all so wrong?  In short, he stumbled out of the gate.

Two months into this crisis, the government finally switched from a 'reactive posture' to a 'proactive' one. This is double-speak for 'finally doing something without being begged'. Unfortunately for him, Morrison had already dug his own grave. 

As I watched the ABC live stream of the PM announcing his new proactive plan, it was clear that most commenters' attitudes lay somewhere on a spectrum between 'too little too late' and 'bloody coup'. The angry-react emoji were coming faster than I've ever seen before. Australians are not buying Morrison's excuses of wanting to avoid a 'knee-jerk reaction'.

Scepticism is understandable, given that between the start of this unprecedented fire season and the government's current 'posture shift' we have seen Morrison state that RFS volunteers do not need financial support because they 'want to be there'; reject calls for extra federal funding despite RFS members crowdfunding to acquire face masks (for all that luxurious breathing they want to do); and, of course, the disastrous Hawaiian getaway. The PM has subsequently walked back nearly all of these decisions, but only in the face of immense public pressure. 


"The government's bizarre choice to transform an announcement about additional resourcing for firefighters into a political ad only adds to the mounting evidence that significant action is just a cynical move made by a party backed into a corner by public opinion."


Morrison's sluggish response deserves some further scrutiny, however, because it reveals an upsetting truth about our government. After all, crises are usually easy pickings for politicians; someone with Morrison's political acumen should have seized on the opportunity to curry good favour with the public. Splash a few million here, pump some money into the RFS and you're right as rain. So why didn't the government act sooner? The reason lies in the Coalition's relationship with climate change, the third rail of Australian politics. 

The Coalition is completely paralysed by its inability to constructively discuss climate change. We saw this when Turnbull was ousted by his own party for proposing a milquetoast energy policy that required barely any sacrifice of carbon emissions, and in the more recent conflict between the Young Liberals and their mainstream counterparts. 

While Australia has always had bushfires, there is little doubt that this season's have been enabled and exacerbated by the hotter and drier conditions resulting from climate change. 

And here is why the Morrison government was so slow off the mark: to acknowledge the unprecedented nature of these fires is to concede that there is something happening to the climate. The only way to downplay the reality of climate change, was to downplay the severity of the fires themselves.

Early on, the disdain for linking bushfires and climate change was made explicit when NSW Liberal Premier Gladys Berejiklian dismissed a question on the matter with an exasperated 'not today'. Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Nationals, Michael McCormack, went one step further, stating that those who proposed such a link were 'inner-city raving lunatics'. Though Morrison's explicit words might concede such a connection, it can hardly be said that there is a consensus among members of the Coalition government.

Even now that Morrison has conceded climate change aggravated the fires, his speech is still firmly couched in economic rhetoric. His priority is assuring people that their jobs will not be affected, though a true move away from a carbon-reliant economy will require the disruption of many jobs. It is another way of telling Australians that the status quo is sufficient; do not panic, we are doing fine (despite a global view that says otherwise). It is a deflection that serves to take the heat off without any real commitment to change, because a commitment would certainly upset the party room.

Additionally, the government's bizarre choice to transform an announcement about additional resourcing for firefighters into a political ad only adds to the mounting evidence that significant action is just a cynical move made by a party backed into a corner by public opinion.

Only time will tell if criticism over handling of the bushfires will stick to the Prime Minister. But given he was so slow off the blocks, it will take a lot of hard work to regain the good will he lost in his weeks of climate inaction.



Tim HuttonTim Hutton is a teacher, masters student and freelance writer based in Brisbane. He writes on politics, education, media, societal issues, and the intersection of all of the above.

Main image: Prime Minister Scott Morrison tours the property of John 'Kooka' Kinniburgh on 3 January 2020 in Sarsfield, Vic. (Photo by James Ross-Pool/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Tim Hutton, coal, climate change, coal, Scott Morrison, fires



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Existing comments

I'm not sure that Morrison (and other leaders) were slow off the blocks. More like they are living in a parallel universe. A universe where the everyday anxiety and corroding fear of a bushfire lurking on one's doorstep is not a reality. In our region of the south coast of NSW I know people who have lost their homes and therefore their sense of place. The people of Cobargo were not just tired, overwrought and grieving: they did not want to shake hands with someone who breezed into what was left of their town and who dismissed their trauma with "They're probably very tired". No, mate, they lost their home(s).

Pam | 08 January 2020  

A well written, balanced and insightful article on the current state of play. Thank you Tim

Tricia | 08 January 2020  

Tim, why don’t you just say you don’t like PM Morrison nor the Liberals being in power .... nothing Morrison does is right but of course Bette Midler is a friggin expert on climate change and Australian bushfires. Unbelievable!

Jack | 08 January 2020  

Good article but does not venture to answer its own final question, WHY is coalition unable to acknowledge link between climate change and our current fire crisis? Because they are corrupted by bribes and threats from fossil fuel sector and Murdoch Press. The cacophony of fake MSM news and organised online trolling from people funded by these powerful actors is distorting and drowning real public discussion of policy choices. Note current focus on ‘forest management’ - a euphemism for cutting down forests . Wood chip them all and leave a desert like Saudi Arabia - that is the barely concealed goal. See front page of The Australian today 8.1.19 for an example.

TonyKevin | 08 January 2020  

Thanks Tim for your very accurate summary of the current ineptitude of PM Morrison during the fire storm that has struck Australia. It is all very well for Jack to try and undermine the thrust of your article by accusing you of not liking Morrison or the Liberal Party, but many Australians are disillusioned with the PM and the LNP as well as many of its supporters and for valid reasons. I think it was far more reprehensible for the PM to cut finances for essential fire fighting equipment, to ignore the fire chiefs and climate scientists than it was for him taking his holiday in Hawaii. The LNP leaders claim that they are the only responsible fiscal managers, but behave as though they only support the wishes of the very wealthy and the large corporations. - especially those involved with fossil fuels. They have not only cut expenditure to the fire fighting community but also to community support services that are necessary in a crisis like the one we are currently facing. This is in addition to the cutting of social services, public education and health. Australia urgently needs leaders who will govern in a way to meet the crises we face and to care for ordinary Australians fairly. The LNP COALition does not do this.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 08 January 2020  

Who is Bette Midler? What does she have other than a foul mouth? This debate could do without such mindless commentary.

Curious | 08 January 2020  

Scotty from marketing. Always the politician . Still looking for “gotcha” opportunities .reactive not proactive.

Michael | 08 January 2020  

My exacerbation over climate change denial is confirmed by your article Tim. A few things come to mind: a) It has been claimed that Australia's emissions are low, yet per capita we are very high emitters b) We still rely largely on fossil fuels for energy while we have high capacity for alternatives such as solar and wind c) Even though our collective emissions are "low" we continue to sell coal to countries that have high emissions status - so Australia derives wealth by supplying high emitters! (d) and still, officially, we deny

Rosemary | 08 January 2020  

No mention of arson, so far 183 people have been charged. No fire starts without some help from somewhere and the neglect of forests for up to 30 years, to allow build up of fuel is a huge factor in these fires. Fires etc are a State issue and the Federal government needs to be asked to help. There is no mention of Dan Andrews, Victorian Premier being away on holidays during this time or that Anastasia Palaszczuk, Queensland Premier went on holidays, a cruise she said, when the fires had started. It is the responsibility of both these Premiers to take charge during a disaster. In NSW Bob Carr, when Premier, closed all National Forests, padlocked the entries and stopped any maintenance. By the way, Scott Morrison has a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) with Honours from the University of NSW. Even though the fires are not his responsibility, he returned early form his holiday.

Jane | 08 January 2020  

Scomo is in damage control. The fires indeed spoiled his idle rich holiday and with great reluctance he turned up where the fires had swept through. SMH Nov 13 2015. The church to which he belongs is a family dynasty, a tax haven: "Houston and his equally burnished wife, Bobbie, 58, the reigning couple of Australian Pentecostalism, are riding the crest of a wave that shows no signs of breaking. The Hillsong empire they founded (she, too, is a senior pastor) pulled in tax-free revenues of nearly $80 million in Australia last year and more than $100 million internationally. It is on the ground in 15 countries across Europe, Asia and the Americas, and broadcast in 160 nations. And it's still growing. "I don't feel there are any limits on how far we should try and go to reach as many people as we possibly can," Houston says. How is it any different to Scientology with its entrenched hierarchy? indifferent to the needs of its members only interested in the tithing of the adherents who fall for the glitz and glamour of the ephemeral dream as it empties their pockets. The LNP seem to be running the Government like hillsong.

francis Armstrong | 08 January 2020  

I would love someone in your office to draw a cartoon of Scott Morison in a typical Hawaiian costume playing a ukulele with a map of Australia in flames with the tag 'What was it they said about Nero?'

Mary Fraser | 08 January 2020  

Tony Kevin asks a serious question that needs to be addressed. He asks: 'why is the coalition unable to acknowledge the link between climate change and our current crisis'. He answers: ‘because they are corrupted by bribes and threats from the fossil fuel sector and the Murdoch Press’. That answer seems to be a reasonable answer if the question had been ‘why are they 'unwilling'…? but being ‘unable’ suggest to me a pathological inability. Morrison, Abbott, Joyce, McCormak, Craig Kelly, and the rest of the coalition denialisms are not completely stupid (one was a Rhodes scholar) but none seems to have the ability to learn or to change his opinion based on evidence and experience. In the case of Morrison and Abbott, I’m tempted to wonder whether this is connected to the unquestioning nature of their religious beliefs (one doubt might bring down the whole house of cards) or the hubris that often goes with the belief that one is 'chosen' or 'of the elect'. The same might be said of Joyce, but McCormack, Kelly, and the rest? What is it that makes them pathologically unable to change their mind? I ask this question seriously because this government still as more than two years to run and if they are 'pathologically unable' no amount of protest, letter writing, or op-eds are going to make any difference.

Ginger Meggs | 08 January 2020  

A great article Tim - thank you. Of course, we do not know all the answers to all the problems this disaster has thrown at us as a nation, be it the correct and vital steps needed to be taken to work with climate change or the unfathomable attitude of many of our politicians. But, in order for change to take place, we need to step up and take the first step. There are quite a few requests for all of us to sign up for a Royal Commission to be held to tackle the many issues surrounding the whole debacle. I can't solve the problems and I am not a politician. But I am a person who is prepared to put up my hand - to ask, maybe demand, for a Royal Commission, an unbiased environment in which, I believe, answers may be possible.

Elizabeth B | 08 January 2020  

I agree with TonyKevin. why is the coalition so hell bent on denying climate change and consequently action. I fear this debacle is too far away from the next election for voters to remember

Ann | 08 January 2020  

I have been studying weather and climate for over 50 years . The evidence is clear that human induced climate change is very real and it is happening now. Retired, I have no funding to worry about and no need to seek funding so I can write the truth as I see it. Humankind has thought that with all the technology and 'know how' now at our fingertips that we could control the earth and its climate. In my humble opinion our hubris is coming home to bite us. Actually neither side of politics has clean hands in this affair. Only recently a Labor politician claimed we could mine coal and still avert climate change. So far as I know the Labor leader has not smacked him down. Jack I am sick of hearing/reading that refrain when a member of the public expresses their concern at PM Morrison's inaction. Most commentators including entertainers are not experts on climate change, but they can see the signs all around them. Gavin A. O'Brien, FRMetS.

Gavin O'Brien | 08 January 2020  

My word, just as well the PM was away when the fires worsened - with the animus displayed by some critics, he'd probably have been blamed for lighting them!

John | 09 January 2020  

I agree with one comment here about what is it that makes obviously educated grown adults now in positions of power stick to the party line of dinosaur fossil fuels, with all the cliches which are just lies, like , jobs would be lost (can be gained in the new tek) that transition needs to be gradual ( no it doesn't) that we are pulling our weight and are on trach with our Paris agreement, ( no we are not) . How attached are these pollies to their paypacket and future pension that they would sell their soul, their conscience, their integrity to a lie and betray the nation which they are meant to serve. It seems to happen time and again. They spout all the good pilicies to get elected then compromise once they get in. Why?

Mary | 09 January 2020  

With respect, that's a less than useful comment John. She might say flippant or facetious. It would be better, perhaps, to ask why people are so angry and why is the anger directed at Morrison and his government.

Ginger Meggs | 09 January 2020  

Sorry for the typo, Spellcheck seems to have converted 'some' to 'she'. I meant to say 'Some might say flippant or facetious'.

Ginger Meggs | 09 January 2020  

Ginger: friends evacuated from Stokes Bay on the weekend suggest the important question you raise would be better directed to the Greens whose exaggerated concern for preservation of native animal habitat has contributed significantly and ironically to the devastation.

John | 09 January 2020  

I was surprised to see climate deniers entering this forum, but then I remembered that the usually respected PBS Newshour last night interviewed Minister Littleproud on the Australian conflagration and basically asked him not one hard question on political responsibility for unpreparedness, lack of carbon policy,and the effects of being the worlds highest exporter of fuel coal and LP gas. Scotty from marketing and Murdoch have a very long PR reach for their carbon profiteers. The US public has grasped the scope of global warming as seen through the Australian infernos. But the climate deniers are still hard at work on both sides of the Pacific. Its long overdue that their sponsors were outed and publicly shamed.

jpb | 10 January 2020  

Have you all forgotten how hopeless John Howard was in his first term

david | 10 January 2020  

No David - most haven't forgotten. However, he didn't improve as he went along on his way to becoming only the second PM to lose his seat in parliament. That particular election was the first and only one in which I couldn't possibly support the Liberal Party because of JWH's appalling agenda.

john frawley | 10 January 2020  

Australia isn’t China. We have deliberately constructed a federal system to avoid tyranny from the centre. The central government responds to the states and territories on matters that are their, not its, constitutional responsibility. The only direct fire fighting expertise that the Commonwealth Government employs are probably in the armed forces. Not only does Morrison not hold a hose, he has no advisory capacity to tell him how to fight a fire. NSW is officially responsible for managing a fire at Kirribilli House; the ACT for a fire at The Lodge. We also have a government of systems, not men. There is an Acting Prime Minister to advise the Governor-General. State premiers Andrews and Berejiklian are constitutionally the ones who decide whether or not to ask for central government help in a natural disaster situation. It’s not for the central leader to march in and second-guess them. The trolls apparently don’t know the meaning of liberty. Those who want to sacrifice liberty for (in this case, a feeling of) security deserve neither. If Morrison has a fault, it’s a Tony Abbotesque tendency to cave in apologetically to the mob instead of restating some essential first principles.

roy chen yee | 11 January 2020  

But we have had tyranny from the centre Roy; two decades of the tyranny of denial of the reality of climate change, of denial of the human cause of climate change, of refusal to take action to avoid catastrophe and of failure to prepare society, environment, economy, and infrastructure for the change. Morrison is only the most recent manifestation of this, before him there were Howard, Abbott, Robb, Andrews (Kevin), Corman, Joyce, Hockey and all the other right-wingers. While the centre sat on its hands millions of individuals and hundreds of businesses have taken whatever action they have been able to take to do their bit, but without leadership from the centre it's not been enough and the outcome is messy.

Ginger Meggs | 14 January 2020  

Amidst the bathos and hubris of his constitutional advice, Roy should note that Section 61 enables the Governor General to exercise emergency powers on behalf of the Sovereign, as happened in 1975. Such powers, regardless of constitutionally protected 'states rights', can and do override those rights, as in the further instance of the Commonwealth choosing to fund non-government schools (Ref: The DOGS Case in the Australian High Court). In sum, the balance of legal opinion overwhelmingly attests to the power of the Commonwealth to intervene in emergencies beyond those strictly limiting her powers. I have no doubt that if the PM called an emergency session of Parliament to pass legislation on this matter it would succeed. Moreover, lest this be seen as simply the obsession of the Left, readers of your columns should note that the Business Council of Australia, oft-accused of pursuing an exclusively short-term financial interest, came out yesterday with an appeal to the PM to show extraordinary leadership on this issue as in the Port Arthur massacre (SMH 13/1/20).

Michael Furtado | 14 January 2020  

What is the evidence that the fires would not have occurred to this extent but for climate change?

Paul | 15 January 2020  

Your appeal, Paul, is properly to evidence, which is global, not national. The Amazon rainforest, as well as pine forests in Sweden, the UK, Ireland, Finland and Latvia have all suffered incineration. It's not eucalypt, common to all arid-zone countries, such as parts of India, S. Africa, Spain, Chile & California, that are the problem, it's human-induced global climate warming in regard to which Australia is the largest contributor. None of these regions are able to insulate themselves from climate change in ways similar to the outdated nationalist parameters of refugee policy. There is incontrovertible evidence that global warming has resulted in permafrost, ice-cap and glacial melts in Africa, the Himalayas, the Alps as well as the Andean and Rocky icescapes. What other evidence do you need? The icescapes surrounding the Artic retreating at an unprecedented rate? Oceanic heating & acidification? Habitat and species loss as never before? Measurable sea-level rise? Exponential increases in desertification in the Sahel, Thar, Sahara, Arizonian, Kalahari & Chilean deserts? Australian deserts are actually advancing northwards and eastwards, while our tropical landscapes are retreating. The evidence is both of devastation and catastrophy. My question to you then is: what is your response to this, Paul?

Michael Furtado | 15 January 2020  

Roy, the "first principle" of government should be to do no harm, and to protect its people from avoidable harm. On this basis, Morrison and some of his cronies and predecessors should be tried for gross dereliction of duty, and jailed for long periods. We are all suffering from this deliberate negligence, and so will our children and their children for many generations - all to keep this mob in government for one more term.

Patrick Mahony | 16 January 2020  

Rubbish - read the facts about past bushfires and heat waves in Chris Kenny's column in the Australian today - 18 Jan 2020

Joe Sicher | 18 January 2020  

At best Morrison is caught up in the Canberra and inner east Sydney bubble. Clear that media in Oz are in lock step e.g. NewsCorp and others promoting the arsonist angle, and now from the PM 'resilience' (coincidence that Rockefeller Foundation promotes same?). Has anyone in media ever interrogated or at least questioned the PM about his Pentecostal/Evangelical religious beliefs i.e. The Rapture and how it squares with climate policy? One guesses the antipathy from NewsCorp and the LNP towards Pope Francis (and Angela Merkel) is because of empathy for immigrants and acceptance of climate science?

Andrew Smith | 18 January 2020  

Further to this article. The language of post fire coming from so many politicians is deeply disturbing: throw millions of dollars to the problem coupled with a meek acknowledgement of climate change, and magically bring properties and economies back to the way they were. The language of rebuilding, restoring. All that aims to do is grab votes for the next election and try to create a reassurance despite a swiftly changing world. Climate change must be recognised with all its consequences and met head-on. But no, it's a language thing and that is intensely worrying for the short, medium as well as long term.

Jane Alexandra | 18 January 2020  

This article is no more than an anti-Liberal bash. The writer makes assertion after assertion. The facts are these. Fires were started by lightning, arsonists, and other incendiary acts. The massive size of the fires was due to two main factors, too much fuel (human fault) and extreme weather conditions. We need to manage our forests rather better than we have and learn a thing or two from our indigenous peoples.

Fr John Irving Fleming | 18 January 2020  

Climate change is going on and has gone on since the earth started. Tim and his mates have not said how they can stop it. simply changing the percentage of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will not stop climate changing. why blame one individual?

BERNARD TRESTON | 18 January 2020  

The drivers of these bushfires was weather change (Indian Ocean Diapole) and accumulated fuel in Forrests, not climate change.

Gerard Tonks | 18 January 2020  

The claim by “Jane” in the comments that 183 people have been charged with arson is incorrect. This false statement has been put around by the Murdoch press and others. The truth is easily found, if people are willing to check sources e.g. the police, who do the charging. In a matter of major importance such as climate change, it is simply not good enough to repeat erroneous statements. The hollowness of the denialist agenda is shown in its reliance on easily disproved claims.

Susan Connelly | 18 January 2020  

Thank you Tim for an insightful article. As we watched the u turn grudgingly take place I wondered how stupid do Morrison and his minions think we the Australian populace are? I don’t know how Morrison could blast into those towns and try the glad hand with those people who not only lost everything but had some strong fears that their situation had less to do with was than the vagaries of chance in their tragedy and more to do with political Inaction I worry for a future in this country where politicians are empty performers reactive only to Power and money and divorced from us the people. Tony Kevin’s point about the enmeshment of our politics and coal and fossil fuel industry cannot be ignored. It is crippling the country, impoverishing the people by inaction and now the tragedy of loss by fire inflicted on all. Morrison had only convinced half the population that he could lead the country- I hope he and his mob fall for the good of the nation.

Pamela | 19 January 2020  

Hi Tim. Thanks for an inspiring and enthusiasm article. I encourage you to continue to write on this topic and to branch out into other platforms where you voice can be aired I agree that Morrison's fall from grace, providing an incredible opportunity for a talented alternative leader with leadership skills of calibre to wipe the smirk off his face, now that he has assumed the role of Miracle Worker. I reflect the views of other commentators, excepting those who appear to fall into the category of climate denial and refusal to accept the science and the facts, whilst also accepting that everybody is free to express own viewpoints. Leadership issues appear to be a focus in social media dialogue against mainstream publications, and indeed are on the minds of many ordinary voters such as myself. Many commentators such as The Age, SMH and the ABC) indicate despair; saying that they may prefer to pay a fine than cast a vote, so confused are they about which way to turn and on this issue. Voter participation is needed to actively effect change. I agree that effective displacement of this government is imperative. Cheers, Madeleine

Madeleine Kingston | 20 January 2020  

If 'two much fuel' was a 'human fault, pray Fr John Irving Fleming, whose fault was the 'extreme weather conditions'?

Ginger Meggs | 21 January 2020  

Ginger Meggs: “But we have had…two decades of the tyranny of denial….” Two decades is around fifty ‘free and fair’ federal, state and territory elections so your beef is with voters who don’t believe you when you say there is a ‘tyranny of denial’. Change their minds. Michael Furtado: “Section 61 enables the Governor General to exercise emergency powers….Such powers, regardless of constitutionally protected 'states rights', can and do override those rights, as in the…The DOGS Case….” There are no emergency powers, only one Commonwealth executive power. Your example falsifies your proposition. DOGS shows that it is the judicial power that tells the executive power what it can do. Patrick Mahony: “the "first principle" of government should be to do no harm….Morrison and some of his cronies and predecessors should be tried for gross dereliction of duty….” Not relevant to my post. The troll-hysteria was hyperventilating about Morrison for being on holidays, not for being a climate change sceptic. Since then, climate change disciple Jodi McKay has defended her holiday in Scotland by saying that she has no operational role in fighting fires. Yes, she doesn’t “hold a hose”. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

roy chen yee | 21 January 2020  

Sigh ... Yes, Shonky Morrison is a disaster. That much was going to be obvious the minute he was voted in last May. But the majority of Australians did just that. And to be honest, it's becoming increasingly tedious hearing the disingenuous bleatings about Climate Change concern from Australians who aren't about to give up their : a) fossil-fuel burning cars; b) fossil-fuel burning airline travel; and c) all round natural resource-draining and ecologically unsustainable 21st Century lifestyles. In fact, if Shonky was smart enough to point that out, the whole debate would have died months ago.

Rutegar | 27 January 2020  

A bit ambiguous Tim, are you saying you don't like Morrison?

Matthew | 07 February 2020  

I have a suspicion that Scotty's lack of action on both fires and virus has to do with a lurking belief that both are G-D's punishment for our social sins in accepting LGBTQI persons as real people, and gay marriage. OT divine vengeance As for his sudden surge of energy - is it a bid for re-election? Is his passion fear or conviction? There is of course the possibility that it could be his pink-batts moment.

hilary | 31 March 2020  

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