Australian PM’s leadership during wildfire crisis criticised

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA (AP) — Australia’s deadly wildfires have proven to be not just a crisis for the country, but a crisis for the country’s Prime Minister — one so grave that some have questioned whether his leadership can survive it.

“I think it’s done lasting damage to his credibility as a leader that is going to hound him into the future,” said Sydney University political scientist Stewart Jackson. “The question’s going to be: Can Morrison recover from this?”

Morrison’s blunders began early in the disaster, which has so far killed at least 26 people and destroyed 2,000 homes. He came under withering criticism for secretly taking a family vacation to Hawaii last month as his hometown of Sydney was choking on smoke that wafted from distant incinerated eucalyptus forests.

His absence fuelled criticism that his conservative government was ignoring the impacts of climate change at the end of a record hot and dry year in Australia. Weeks earlier, Australia was accused at a United Nations (UN) climate conference in Madrid of exploiting an accounting loophole to achieve its greenhouse gas reduction targets and of thwarting an international agreement on carbon markets.

The Hawaii vacation also created the appearance of Morrison fleeing the smoke and flames that thousands of ordinary Australians who bravely volunteer as firefighters were running toward.

In this file photo, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison tours a fire devastated Wildflower farm in Sarsfield, Victoria. PHOTO: AP

Those volunteers include high-profile Sydney fire truck driver Tony Abbott, a former prime minister whom Morrison as a power broker in their Liberal Party helped oust in 2015.

Protesters, outraged at Morrison’s absence during the crisis and his inaction on climate change, surrounded his home in Sydney. Memes mocking the Prime Minister flooded social media. A local retailer began selling Hawaiian shirts bearing Morrison’s face, with proceeds going toward firefighting efforts.

Under siege, Morrison announced he was cutting short his vacation to lead the government after two volunteer firefighters died protecting neighbours’ homes. But the damage was done.

Morrison brushed off abuse by locals who complained of a lack of government support, arguing the insults were not meant as personal attacks.

“I don’t take it personally,” Morrison told reporters later. “I just see it as a sense of frustration and hurt and loss and anger that is out there about what is the ferocity of these natural disasters.”

Critics argued he should take some of the feedback to heart.