Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended his government’s handling of an “unprecedented” bushfire emergency and its climate policy, amid mounting criticism over the crisis that has killed at least 23 people and forced tens of thousands to evacuate their homes.
As vast plumes of smoke from hundreds of fires turned daytime skies an eerie orange colour as far away as New Zealand, Mr Morrison told a news conference he would not be distracted by criticism that his government had been too slow to respond to the crisis that began in November.
“Blame doesn’t help anybody at this time and over-analysis of these things is not a productive exercise,” said Mr Morrison, as he announced a new task force on Sunday to aid bushfire recovery operations that he predicted would last at least two years.
Record high temperatures in several areas on Saturday — peaking at 48.9C in one suburb of Sydney — and high winds, spread bushfires across vast swaths of Australia’s east coast, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate an area the size of Belgium. Cooler temperatures on Sunday were expected to help firefighters control some of the worst fires, although by mid-afternoon the coastal town of Eden in New South Wales became the latest community to receive an evacuation order.
After initially leaving management of the bushfire crisis to state premiers, Mr Morrison intervened on Saturday by calling up 3,000 military reservists and announcing A$14m ($10m) in funding to bolster firefighting efforts with the leasing of four new water-bombing aircraft. In previous days Mr Morrison had been angrily heckled by members of the public when he visited bushfire-affected areas.
Mr Morrison generated further controversy at home and abroad when he published a 50-second Liberal party advertisement, set to electronic music, on Saturday outlining his government’s decision to call up military reservists on social media. Anthony Albanese, Labor leader, said the advert was clearly for “party political purposes” and used to bolster “his own image”. Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister, said Mr Morrison was “no longer fit to hold the high office of prime minister”.
Mr Morrison said its only purpose was communication to the public.
Political analysts have warned the bushfire crisis could fatally undermine Mr Morrison’s political authority, which was cemented by his victory in the May election.
“The bushfire crisis has been burning for two months and it seems he has only woken up to it. This catastrophe breaks new ground in incompetence,” said Sarah Maddison, professor of politics at University of Melbourne.
She said it remained unclear whether the crisis would prompt the government to shift its climate policies. Canberra has been criticised for not doing enough to cut greenhouse gas emissions and lobbying in favour of coal in international forums.
“Australia’s economy remains tied to coal extraction and I don’t think this government is up to the task of reviewing that,” said Ms Maddison.
Mr Morrison shrugged off criticism of his government climate policies on Sunday and rejected critics’ claims that Canberra had downplayed the link between the bushfire emergency and changing weather patterns.
“I have to correct the record here. I have seen a number of people suggest that somehow the government does not make this connection. The government has always made this connection and that has never been in dispute,” he said.