Australia's bush fires take political toll

Pedestrians wearing masks last week in Sydney's central business district as smoke from bush fires in New South Wales blanketed Australia's most populous city. Doctors have labelled the haze a public health emergency, while scientists and firefighter
Pedestrians wearing masks last week in Sydney's central business district as smoke from bush fires in New South Wales blanketed Australia's most populous city. Doctors have labelled the haze a public health emergency, while scientists and firefighters warn that the fire risk is worsening. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

PM Morrison faces criticism for 'inadequate' response to crisis

In recent weeks, Sydney streets have been filled with people wearing surgical masks and even gas masks as smoke from bush fires has blanketed the city.

The haze, labelled a public health emergency by doctors, is set to continue as a heatwave this week has heightened the fire risk across south-east Australia.

The fires have led to several deaths and the loss of hundreds of homes, and left the state of New South Wales facing record levels of air pollution.

It is also taking a political toll on the ruling Liberal-National coalition government.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has faced growing criticism over his handling of the fires, particularly over his failure to coordinate a strong national response and his reluctance to acknowledge that climate change action should be part of the solution.

Admitting that the fires and smoke were worrying residents of Sydney and beyond, Mr Morrison last week insisted that his climate change policies were adequate to address the global warming risk.

"I'm a Sydneysider and I know how unusual it is to see that haze across my city, and I know how distressing that has been, particularly for young people who wouldn't have seen that before," he said.

"We will continue to work to reduce our emissions, as we should. But what we cannot say… is those programmes, of themselves, are in any way directly linked to any fire event," he added.

Mr Morrison's suggestion that the fires and smoke were not unusual seemed to defy the continuing run of record-breaking weather as well as repeated warnings from scientists and firefighters that the fire risk is worsening.

Political commentator Laura Tingle said Mr Morrison's response to the fires had been stubborn and inadequate, and that he had missed an opportunity to show leadership and provide a reassuring message to the nation.

"The Prime Minister showed a constipated stubbornness," she wrote on the ABC News website last Saturday.

"(This) is not just frustrating for people who want some reassurance that their alarm over the fires is reflected in the views of the government, but concerning because it suggests an inflexibility of mind which does not allow him to see... political opportunity."

The coalition has long faced domestic and international criticism over its lack of serious action to combat climate change. But the ongoing emergency has appeared to provide a blatant - and visible - example of the risks of the government's policies.

The issue has inflamed divisions within Mr Morrison's Liberal Party, which has long been split over climate policy.

New South Wales Environment Minister Matt Kean, a Liberal MP, made headlines last week after sternly warning that the hotter weather conditions were "exactly what the scientists have warned us would happen".

"This is not normal and doing nothing is not a solution," he told a smart-energy summit.

"We need to reduce our carbon emissions immediately, and we need to adapt our practices to deal with this kind of weather becoming the new normal."

But Mr Morrison and his federal coalition colleagues have been far less willing to discuss the links between climate change and the nation's disaster risk.

There have been growing calls for a new national response to address the bush fire risk. This could include a wide-ranging summit that could include discussion of hazard prevention and mitigation, land and forest management, as well as climate policies.

But Mr Morrison has so far indicated that the current threat does not warrant any serious or far-reaching reform.

This week, the Prime Minister faced further criticism after it emerged that he had gone on an overseas family holiday as the bush fire threat continues.

His office refused to say where he had gone, which added to perceptions that he had tried to go away quietly because he was aware that he might face criticism.

"It's not a crime to have a holiday, but a cover-up of doing so makes it look shady," political commentator Peter van Onselen told ABC News.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2019, with the headline 'Australia's bush fires take political toll'. Print Edition | Subscribe