Aussie PM seeks greater federal powers in emergencies

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the chain of command between states and the federal government remains unclear, even as the authorities warn of fires sweeping through a national park near Canberra (left). PHOTOS: ACT EMERGENCY SERVICES AGENCY/ FAC
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the chain of command between states and the federal government remains unclear, even as the authorities warn of fires sweeping through a national park near Canberra (above). PHOTO: ACT EMERGENCY SERVICES AGENCY/ FACEBOOK, BLOOMBERG
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the chain of command between states and the federal government remains unclear, even as the authorities warn of fires sweeping through a national park near Canberra (left). PHOTOS: ACT EMERGENCY SERVICES AGENCY/ FAC
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the chain of command between states and the federal government remains unclear, even as the authorities warn of fires sweeping through a national park near Canberra. PHOTO: ACT EMERGENCY SERVICES AGENCY/ FACEBOOK, BLOOMBERG

SYDNEY • Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said yesterday that he wants greater federal powers during natural disasters, as the authorities warned that bush fires ravaging the country for months were sweeping through a national park near the capital.

Mr Morrison said he wanted to set up a legal framework that would allow the Commonwealth to declare a national state of emergency before the next summer bush fire season, adding that the chain of command between states and the federal government remained unclear.

Although he gave no details, the plan showed the conservative leader moving to head off criticism that he was too slow to act when the seriousness of the country's worst bush fire season in a generation became apparent late last year.

Attacked by political opponents and media commentators for holidaying in Hawaii while the fires raged, Mr Morrison initially said the country's eight state and territory governments had the main oversight during natural disasters.

He later mobilised about 3,000 Australian Defence Force reservists to help regional communities affected by the fires.

"It has long been the case that state and territory governments have primary responsibility for protecting the lives and property within their borders," he said.

"The scale of the bush fires this season, not least their simultaneous reach across many borders, has demonstrated to me the limits of these arrangements," Mr Morrison said in a speech in Canberra.

Just to the south of the city, the authorities warned people to stay away from some regional areas due to a 10,000ha forest fire, although no suburbs of Canberra were under threat.

Over the summer, Canberra has regularly been shrouded in bush fire smoke that has put its air quality among the lowest in the world and prompted government agencies to ask employees to stay home.

A week ago, the city's airport was closed briefly when bush fires raged near its edges.

Since last September, bush fires in Australia have killed 33 people and an estimated one billion native animals, while 2,500 homes and a wilderness area the size of Greece have been destroyed.

The Bureau of Meteorology has warned that Canberra will be at the centre of a heatwave that will put the city's temperatures above 40 deg C for several days.

Since last September, bush fires in Australia have killed 33 people and an estimated one billion native animals, while 2,500 homes and a wilderness area the size of Greece have been destroyed. These prompted critics to accuse Mr Morrison of not doing enough to cut the country's carbon emissions.

Mr Morrison said Australia should adapt to changing weather patterns that would make bush fires more frequent, but "when it comes to the practical safety of people living in bush fire zones, hazard reduction is even more important than emissions reduction".

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Meteorology warned that a high pressure weather pattern will move across Australia's east coast later this week, bringing soaring temperatures over the weekend, including in Canberra.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2020, with the headline 'Aussie PM seeks greater federal powers in emergencies'. Print Edition | Subscribe