“I don’t really want to shake your hand.”
“You won’t be getting any votes down here buddy… you’re out.”
“What about the people who are dead now, Mr Prime Minister? What about the people who have nowhere to live?”
As Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison toured a bushfire-ravaged town on Thursday, he was loudly heckled by locals. The anger towards him in Cobargo, New South Wales, was palpable. But most awkward – and attention-grabbing – were two quieter encounters.
In one, Mr Morrison approached a woman and asked “how are you?” When she failed to meet his hand, he reached down and lifted hers for a limp handshake.
She responded: “I’m only shaking your hand if you give more money to RFS [Rural Fire Service]. So many people have lost their homes.”
“I understand,” he replied. As he walked away, she added: “We need more help.”
After a firefighter separately refused to shake his hand, Mr Morrison said to his aides: “Tell that fella I’m really sorry, I’m sure he’s just tired.” A local official responded: “No, no, he lost a house.”
The exchanges, all filmed and widely shared, have again focused public ire on Mr Morrison over his handling of an unprecedented bushfire crisis. The prime minister has faced persistent accusations of being too absent, including by taking a holiday to Hawaii, and underplaying the role of climate change.
Fires as big as small countries
Since September, blazes across Australia have killed 20 people, razed more than 1,200 homes and scorched millions of hectares. Though much attention has centred on worst-hit NSW, every state and territory has been affected.
Smoke has shrouded towns and cities in Australia’s most populated south-east, bringing hazardous air quality to millions of people. Millions of animals are estimated to have perished, and the economic cost is predicted to be enormous.
Public gratitude has been boundless for the fatigued firefighters – overwhelmingly volunteers – who have battled blazes as big as small countries. Three have died on duty. Fire service chiefs, such as Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons in NSW, have often been the face of the crisis.
To critics of Mr Morrison, those chiefs have provided a stark contrast in leadership. On Friday, a high-profile member of Mr Morrison’s own party made a withering critique.
“The only two people who are providing leadership at this stage are Shane Fitzsimmons and [NSW Premier] Gladys Berejiklian,” Andrew Constance, the state transport minister, told Seven News.
Of the heckling, Mr Constance added: “To be honest, the locals probably gave him the welcome he probably deserved.”
What has prompted the anger?
Early in the crisis, criticism centred on Mr Morrison’s reluctance to discuss how climate change is exacerbating bushfires – a link acknowledged by Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology.
Though he has since acknowledged it as a factor, the conservative leader maintains there is no direct link between the fires and his climate policies. This has continued to cause controversy because of Australia’s reliance on coal mining.
But as the fires have spread, Mr Morrison has been accused of “going missing” in other ways. Most prominently, he took a holiday to Hawaii last month as many blazes intensified – prompting him to later apologise for causing “great anxiety” with his timing.
A New Year’s Day cricket event, where he said Australians would soon be gathering round TV sets to be “inspired by the great feats of our cricketers”, was accused of being “tone deaf”.
Many have called on the government to better fund Australia’s largely unpaid firefighting services, pointing to an extraordinary strain on resources, and arguing that smaller communities are being disadvantaged.
A group of ex-fire chiefs has argued a new long-term firefighting strategy is needed, but they have criticised Mr Morrison for refusing to meet them.
Mr Morrison found himself in even more hot water on Saturday when he tweeted a video, authorised by his Liberal Party, trumpeting the government’s latest measures to tackle the fires.
To a backdrop of upbeat music, the video highlights the 3,000 defence force reservists called in, as well as extra water-bombing aircraft and other resources to bolster the operation.
The Liberal Party also tweeted the extra measures in an advert saying “our Defence Force is providing boots on the ground, planes in the sky and ships at sea, to support the bushfire fighting effort and recovery”.
Mr Morrison’s critics accused his government of using the bushfires – and the military – for political campaigning.
The Australia Defence Association lobby group said the Liberal Party advert was a “clear breach” of conventions aimed at keeping the military out of politics.
The association accused the party of “milking ADF support to civil agencies fighting bushfires”.
Pat Conroy, shadow minister for international development, said Mr Morrison was trying to “exploit a national tragedy”.
He described the advert as a “new low”.
What does Morrison say?
After initially saying the firefighters “want to be there”, the prime minister recently pledged compensation for volunteers who miss work to fight fires, and an additional A$11m (£5.8m; $7.7m) for firefighting aircraft.
He has resisted calls for further funding, but frequently paid tribute to firefighters. He has emphasised a prolonged drought as a key reason for causing dry conditions which fuel fires.
When asked on Friday why he had been heckled, he told 3AW radio: “Because people are hurting and angry. Whether they are angry with me or angry about the situation, all I know is they’re hurting.”
He has maintained that Australia will meet its climate commitments – an assertion disputed by the UN and others – but that deeper action would not take precedence over “reckless” cuts to jobs in fossil fuel industries.
Mr Morrison has called on Australians not to panic and to pull together. He has repeatedly said it was up to each state to arrange their emergency response – the best tactic is to let them get on with their job, he has said.
His supporters say he can’t be held responsible for the sort of natural disaster which has always struck Australia, nor fix it by knee-jerk policy U-turns.
Mr Morrison also hit back at the criticism of his tweeted video, saying: “The video message simply communicates the government’s policy decisions and the actions the government is undertaking to the public.”
‘You will be judged’
Mr Morrison was returned last May in a surprise election victory that led many to hail him as a shrewd, instinctive politician. But for some, his bushfire response has stirred incredulity.
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“You are watching the destruction of a political leader and this time not by his own party but by his own hand,” tweeted one veteran commentator, Barrie Cassidy, after the Cobargo footage. Another, Ten’s Hugh Riminton, wrote: “I have never seen a PM so openly disdained during a national disaster.”
Not all have been been so critical. Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews, a Labor politician, thanked Mr Morrison for providing assistance as bushfires swept through the state this week. Liz Innes, a mayor of a shire near Cobargo, apologised to Mr Morrison for those who had heckled him, the ABC reported.
The federal Labor opposition, too, has often appeared reluctant to directly criticise Mr Morrison. It has also been accused of courting pro-coal voters in the wake of its election loss.
Australia was the fourth largest producer of coal in 2017, according to the International Energy Agency. It also has one of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emission rates globally. The 2020 Climate Change Performance Index ranked Australia last of 57 countries for its climate policy, saying it had gone backwards under the Morrison government.
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Many including John Hewson, a former leader of Mr Morrison’s Liberal Party, argue that the prime minister’s “hang-ups on the climate issue” are holding him back on the fire crisis.
“The die is already cast on your government and, if you continue as you have been doing, time will not be your friend,” Mr Hewson wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.
“Ultimately, you will be judged on authenticity and policy outcomes – on genuine leadership.”