Aussie Prime Minister Scott Morrison plans inquiry into government's bush fire response

Wildfire burns in Australia on Jan 10, 2020. PHOTO: NYTIMES

MELBOURNE • After weeks of criticism over the handling of the bush fires scorching Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison yesterday said he will propose a national review into the response to the disaster, as the blazes claimed another firefighter's life.

The Australian bush has been burning for nearly three months. So far, 28 people have died, more than 2,000 homes destroyed, millions of hectares of land razed and innumerable wildlife lost. The crisis is becoming increasingly political as the country looks at the causes and the government's response.

"There is obviously a need for a national review of the response," Mr Morrison said in an interview with ABC television.

Asked whether it should be a Royal Commission, a powerful judicial inquiry, he said: "I think that is what would be necessary and I will be taking a proposal through the Cabinet to that end, but it must be done with consultations with the states and territories."

Mr Morrison said the inquiry would examine the response to the crisis, including the deployment of emergency services to battle the fires at a state and local level, the role of the federal government, and the impact of climate change.

Bush fires are common during Australia's summer months, but this fire season started unusually early, often moving quickly and unpredictably, scorching swathes of the drought-stricken land.

Cooler weather conditions over the weekend have brought a temporary respite, but a firefighter died in Victoria, where new flames sparked. The authorities said the risk was far from over and more hot weather is expected.

Smoke again shrouded Sydney yesterday, almost a new normal for the country's biggest city, moving the air quality into hazardous territory, according to the New South Wales Department of Primary Industry index.

Facing rising pressure to do more to tackle climate change, Mr Morrison, who has been defiant in rejecting any links between his government's conservative climate policies and the fires, said his government will look into improving its performance on curbing emissions.

"We want to reduce emissions and do the best job we possibly can and get better and better and better at it. I want to do that with a balanced policy which recognises Australia's broader national economic interests and social interest," Mr Morrison said.

Thousands of Australians took to the streets last Friday to protest against government inaction on climate change, and were supported by protesters in London.

The government has been widely criticised at home and abroad for supporting the coal mining sector and for promoting weak climate policies that scientists say will fail to achieve deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.

The fires themselves have further stoked climate change by emitting 400 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, the European Union's Copernicus monitoring programme said.

Mr Morrison rejected criticism that his government had not done enough before the bush fire season started, but he admitted that once the fires started, some responses could have been different.

"There are things I could have handled on the ground much better," he said. "These are sensitive environments, there are very emotional environments; prime ministers are flesh and blood, too, in how they engage with people."

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese yesterday said the federal government should have acted earlier to address the disaster.

"The fact is that bush fires don't recognise state and territory boundaries," Mr Albanese told reporters.

"And nor should the need for national leadership."

Since October, thousands of Australians have been subjected to repeat evacuations as huge and unpredictable fires scorched more than 10.3 million hectares, an area roughly the size of South Korea. The burnt terrain is more than twice the extent of that ravaged by last year's fires in Brazil, California and Indonesia combined.

Across New South Wales, 111 fires were still burning yesterday, 40 of them not yet contained, but none at emergency level.

The government has said more mental health support services will be provided to firefighters, emergency personnel, individuals and communities. The government is providing A$76 million (S$71 million) in areas including counselling and healthcare consultations.


Find out more about climate change and how it could affect you on the ST microsite here.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2020, with the headline Aussie Prime Minister Scott Morrison plans inquiry into government's bush fire response. Subscribe