Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been criticized as “missing in action” even as bushfires raging across the country have burned more than 12 million hectares, killed at least 27 people, and killed or injured around 1 billion animals.
The blowback began with a holiday to Hawaii. Australia was in the grip of consecutive 35- to 40-degree days, which exacerbated the already out-of-control fires, when it emerged that Morrison was vacationing overseas. Under intense media criticism and following the deaths of two volunteer firefighters, Morrison returned home a day early, but for many, the damage was already done.
Within hours, murals depicting the prime minister wearing a traditional Hawaiian lei around his neck while holding a cocktail as flames emerged from behind him began popping up around the country, across social media, and printed on T-shirts.
Since as early as September, extreme heat and bushfires have upended the way of life in Australia. In some areas of New South Wales, entire communities have been wiped off the map, while others have been surrounded by blazes for days at a time. In Western Australia, around 400 people had to have supplies airdropped in as they were stranded on a remote stretch of highway that had been cut off by fires. Along New South Wales’ south coast and Victoria’s east coast thousands had to be evacuated by sea.
Altogether, around 2,100 homes have already been destroyed in fires that have burned through an area the size of Switzerland. Hundreds of thousands more houses have been left empty, as Australia’s first climate refugees make their way to safer ground.
Some parts of the country recently broke records for highest recorded temperatures. Nationally, Australia recorded its hottest day ever last month with an average maximum temperature of 41.9 degrees Celsius, 1 degree higher than the previous record that had been set only 24 hours earlier.
In Sydney, the air quality has been the equivalent of smoking 37 cigarettes a day – which has led to a 10 percent increase in hospital admissions for breathing problems. Other major cities, such as Melbourne, Brisbane, and Adelaide have also been choked by bushfire smoke. Ironically, in Canberra, the agency responsible for coordinating the nation’s response to disasters and emergency management had to close its doors due to poor air quality.
Since the bushfire season began in September, the prime minister and many within his government have argued that there is nothing unprecedented about this bushfire season and that Australia has had many like it before, but in fact, previous bushfire catastrophes were single-day events. So far, this bushfire season has seen around 100 emergency warnings across the country over a three-month period.
Perhaps nowhere has been hit as hard as the remote coastal communities along New South Wales’ south coast and Victoria’s east coast. During the Christmas holidays, the town of Malacoota is typically a buzzing holiday destination, but this year, on New Year’s Eve, the town’s 1,000 residents and thousands of tourists evacuated to the beach, ready to jump in the water, as winds pushed an emergency-level bushfire toward them.
120 kilometers north of Malacoota, a separate blaze wreaked havoc through the small community of Cobargo during the middle of the night. The blaze incinerated most of the main street and much of the surrounding property.
As the fire lapsed and residents gathered to assess the damage, reports emerged that three locals had been killed. Shortly thereafter, Scott Morrison arrived as part of a tour around fire-affected areas.
The sky was still tainted yellow as Morrison approached 20-year-old Zoey Salucci McDermott, extending his hand in greeting. McDermott and her young daughter had lost their home in the fires and were visibly distraught.
“I’ll only shake your hand if you give more funding to the RFS [Rural Fire Service],” she said, holding back tears. “So many people here have lost their homes. We need more help.” The prime minister turned his back to her.
As Morrison was ushered back to his vehicle, another resident yelled out: “No liberal votes” and “You’re not welcome here, you fuckwit.”
In a somewhat rare rebuke of Morrison from within the Liberal Party, senior Liberal MP Andrew Constance said the prime minister got “the welcome he probably deserved.”
In the election last year, much of rural Australia voted to re-elect the Morrison government on a pro-fossil fuel agenda. In his victory speech, Morrison thanked the “quiet Australians,” a term coined by populist leaders worldwide.
The Australian Financial Review’s political editor, Phillip Coorey, was in the area holidaying as the fires arrived: “They were freighted, angry and felt abandoned,” he wrote of men lined up, waiting to get fuel. “Big blokes in big utes with fishing rods and kayaks on the roof racks, trying to get out. Quiet Australians no more.”
In a separate incident, also filmed and shared widely on social media, Morrison forcibly shook the hand of an RSF volunteer who, when approached, said, “I don’t really want to shake your hand.”
The following day, a Channel 7 camera picked up footage of a firefighter pulling over to express hostility toward the prime minister: “Tell the prime minister to go and get fucked from Nelligen,” he said.
By this point, public outrage was high and most major media outlets around the world began running headlines critical of Morrison’s response to the bushfires, or lack thereof.
Perhaps feeling the heat, Morrison announced at a press conference that the Australian Defense Force (ADF) would be deployed to assist in fire-affected areas.
In the largest military deployment since World War II, 3,000 ADF reservists were deployed along with several Chinook helicopters and other military aircraft, as well as the navy’s largest amphibious ship. Morrison also announced that the government would invest a further AU$20 million to lease four additional firefighting aircraft.
The announcement came as a relief for many victims of the fires, but just two hours later, Morrison was again under attack for releasing an advert boasting of his government’s efforts in addressing the crisis.
“This is one of the most tone-deaf things I’ve ever seen a country’s leader put out during a crisis. Shameless and shameful,” said British conservative TV host Piers Morgan.
The ad, published across Liberal Party social media pages, also drew criticism from the ADF itself.
On Twitter, the Australia Defense Association accused Morrison of escalating ADF support of firefighting efforts for partisan political purposes.
“Party-political advertising milking ASF support to civil agencies fighting bushfires is a clear breach of the reciprocal non-partisanship convention applying to both ASF and Ministers,” wrote the ADA.
Fire and emergency chiefs were also frustrated by Morrison’s “knee jerk” political response as they revealed that he had failed to inform them of the ADF deployment.
Speaking to Channel Nine, NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said it was “disappointing” to hear about the deployment via media reports.
“It is fair to say it was disappointing and some surprise to hear about these things through public announcements. In the middle of what was one of our worst days this season with the second-highest number of concurrent emergency warning fires ever in the history of NSW,” he said.
It was later reported that Morrison apologized to the commissioner and had ordered defense chiefs to work more closely with state authorities.
Outrage continued when it emerged that a link Morrison had shared, calling for donations to be made to firefighters, was in fact a link donating to the Liberal Party itself.
Facing questions on why the military wasn’t deployed earlier, Morrison argued that battling blazes is the responsibility of state governments and that NSW had refused offers of navy assistance. NSW politicians, including Morrison’s fellow Liberals, have disputed this.
According to the Guardian, senior NSW Liberals said they were “disgusted and embarrassed” that the federal government had chosen to deflect blame on to the state government for the slow response from the federal government to the bushfire crisis.
One senior NSW Liberal told the Sydney Morning Herald that Morrison was trying “to tear down” Premier Gladys Berejiklian to “save himself.”
“You can imagine how gutted we all felt when Scott Morrison returns from holidays and tries to throw her under a bus to save himself,” he said.
The true toll of the fires may not be known for many months, but so far, insurance costs have exceeded AU$700 million, while the heavy cost associated with cleaning up is likely to run into the billions. Morrison recently declared that he is open to holding a royal commission into the bushfire crisis and announced a new National Bushfire Recovery Agency. But in any case, his return to public favor is not going to be an easy journey.
According to a survey from before this bushfire season began, 77 percent of Australians believed climate change was already occurring, with a majority believing that the government wasn’t doing enough to combat the effects of global warming.
In Queensland, where the future of coal was a significant issue in the federal election that re-elected Morrison, 49 percent of participants thought coal power stations should be phased out gradually and 24 percent said as soon as possible.
Overall, polls indicate that the environment is tailing closely behind the economy and health among Australians’ biggest concerns. So it’s possible that in the months to come, as Australia comes to terms with this bushfire season, that the environment could assume greater importance among Australians, putting Morrison more at odds with the people who elected him.
Despite Morrison triumphantly shrugging off criticism of his government’s climate change policies at the UN last September, insisting that Australia would meet its emissions reduction targets, the Australian Institute says it will do that through an accounting trick loophole that allows Australia to use past reductions to meet current targets – and essentially be able to keep pollution at the same level.
Current estimates suggest Australia is likely to meet only half of its Paris target by reducing emissions; the other half of “reductions” will be through the accounting trick.
The problem for Morrison, however, is even if he wanted to change the government’s climate policy, he is likely to face tough resistance from elements from within his own party.
In an interview with the Guardian, former prime minister and leader of the Liberal Party Malcom Turnbull spoke of these elements: “The problem with the right wing in the Liberal Party is they operate like terrorists,” he said. “Their technique is to say unless you do what we want, we will blow the joint up.”
Turnbull added, “The tragedy of our times, in politics, on this issue, is that what should be a factual scientific issue has become an issue of identity.”
Turnbull was overthrown by these right-wing elements in a Liberal Party spill in 2018, following months of controversy surrounding his renewable energy policy, which the more conservative factions vehemently opposed.
As pressure grows on Morrison to respond to this current crisis, and as he begins the task of clawing back from severe public scrutiny, he may very well be forced to confront the same forces that cut down his predecessor.
If he fails to confront those forces or pursue further action on climate change, the consequences could be endless. The reality of such an outcome has perhaps best been summed up by Robinson Myer from the Atlantic, who argues that under current conditions “Australia will lose to climate change.”
“Perhaps blazes will push Australia’s politics in an even more besieged and retrograde direction, empowering politicians like Morrison to fight any change at all. And so maybe Australia will find itself stuck in the climate spiral, clinging ever more tightly to coal as its towns and cities choke on the ash of a burning world.”