By Will Ziebell
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison found himself on Sunday again defending his actions in response to the country’s unprecedented bushfires crisis that has killed 24 people and left thousands more homeless.
Morrison, who has been under sustained attack since he went on vacation to Hawaii as the crisis escalated, blamed a “breakdown in communications” for a state fire chief’s complaint he was blindsided by Morrison’s plan to set up a national bushfire recovery agency.
New South Wales (NSW) state Rural Fire Services Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said he found out about the new agency through media reports on Saturday, creating confusion as he coordinated one of the most high-risk days in the crisis.
“I was disappointed and I was frustrated in the middle of what was one of our worst (fire) days ever on record with massive dislocation and movement of people and a focus on really difficult weather,” Fitzsimmons told journalists on Sunday.
Australia has been battling wildfires across large swathes of its east coast for weeks, with the blazes razing more than 5.25 million hectares (13 million acres) of land along with destroying almost 1,500 houses in one state alone.
Under Australia’s federation political system, state governments and fire services are responsible for managing bushfire threats, but Morrison said the unprecedented scale of the current crisis demanded a national response.
Morrison said the creation of the national agency, along with the deployment of naval ships and aircraft to help evacuate people who have been stranded by fires for days, was not a reflection on the performance of the state agencies, who had done “extraordinary work.”
The announcement of the new agency was accompanied by a video posted on social media by Morrison’s office detailing the government’s response to the fires, including levels of funding for firefighting equipment.
Parodies of the video were quickly doing the rounds on social media, where many people criticized the release of what they saw as a political advertisement as firefighters were facing one of their most dangerous days on the frontline.
The miscommunication over the federal agency was the latest in a series of perceived gaffes by Morrison in response to the fires crisis. The Australian leader apologized for going on a family holiday to Hawaii last month and cut his trip short.
That, however, was not enough for many people in towns razed by bushfires and some of the firefighters tackling the blazes. Morrison was heckled by enraged locals and firefighters – some of whom refused to shake his hand – when he toured fire-hit towns on Friday.
The exchanges, caught on video, were reported widely both at home and abroad. The hashtag #ScottyFromMarketing was trending on Australian Twitter on Sunday, referring to a nickname given to Morrison, a former marketing executive, for his perceived focus on personal image over policy.
Climate activists, meanwhile, have zeroed in on Morrison’s continued support for the coal industry and apparent attempts to play down the role of climate change in the current crisis. Most experts say the fires have been exacerbated by a three-year drought across the country that they have linked to climate change.
Asked if people could have faith in his leadership, Morrison, who has canceled a planned trip to India next week, said on Sunday he was focused on dealing the crisis.
“There has been a lot of commentary, there has been plenty of criticism,” he told reporters in Canberra. “I’ve had the benefit of a lot of analysis on a lot of issues, but I can’t be distracted by that.”
(Reporting by Will Ziebell; editing by Jane Wardell)