(Bloomberg) -- Last month, Australia’s unprecedented wildfire crisis prompted Prime Minister Scott Morrison to cut short a vacation to Hawaii. It also abruptly ended his political honeymoon.
Eight months after being lauded a conservative hero by engineering an unexpected victory, Morrison’s clumsy handling of the crisis -- highlighted by his trip to Hawaii just days after declaring a national disaster -- has stoked criticism over his political judgment, including by members of his own party.
The prime minister was heckled on Thursday by angry residents when he visited the bushfire-hit town of Cobargo, where two people died earlier this week, while others declined to shake his hand and called for more resources to tackle the disaster.
Speaking in a television interview from the fire-ravaged area on Friday, Andrew Constance, the transport minister for New South Wales state which is governed by Morrison’s Liberals, said the prime minister “probably deserved” his treatment the previous day.
Australia’s unprecedented wildfire crisis has taken a huge toll: 20 people are dead and 28 missing, more than 1,000 houses burnt, and an area twice the size of Wales has been destroyed in one state alone. This week saw disturbing footage of thousands of holiday-makers huddled on beaches awaiting rescue, images that have fanned mounting concerns that Morrison’s pro-coal policies are hurting a nation that appears to be suffering the brunt of increasing climate change.
“People are angry,” Morrison, 51, said in a radio interview on Friday when asked why he’d been heckled. “I understand the emotion, I understand the hurt, the anger, the frustration. What we will do is continue to use every resource and person we have to assist the situation.”
Morrison’s response to the fires that have been burning for months appears similar to George W. Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, according to Helen Pringle, a researcher at the University of New South Wales who writes about Australian politics. The disaster in New Orleans killed more than 1,000 people and caused an estimated $100 billion in damage. Bush was criticized for appearing to ignore the unfolding crisis while he was taking a vacation, and some political observers say his presidency never recovered.
“Morrison’s messaging has really been off during this whole bushfire disaster,” Pringle said. “He seems to be downplaying it because if he admits to its severity then he understands more people will demand that he takes tougher action on climate change.”
While there have been no opinion polls released in the past month to show whether the reputation of Morrison and his government have taken a real hit among voters, the reaction on social media has been savage. The hashtag #ScottyfromMarketing began trending, a reference to his stint as the former head of Tourism Australia and his inclination to put a positive spin on the crisis.
A sign that Morrison was in danger of missing a change in the national mood came on New Year’s Day. Just 24 hours after thousands of people at coastal tourist spots were forced to flee fires that rained down ash and burning embers, he was promoting a cricket match in his home city of Sydney.
People watching the game “will be encouraged by the spirit shown by Australians and the way that people have gone about remembering the terrible things that other Australians are dealing with at the moment,” he said. That same day he delivered a televised address telling Australians “there’s no better place to raise kids anywhere on the planet.”
Last month, a New South Wales state lawmaker from Morrison’s own Liberal Party said the devastating conditions showed “doing nothing is not a solution” as scientists had warned that climate change would worsen the impact of fires. According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, former Liberal foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop used a pre-Christmas speech to about 150 members of the party to blast his decision to take an international holiday during the crisis.
The criticism undercuts Morrison’s efforts to foster a “family dad” image that appeared to resonate with mainstream voters who were weary of the nation’s five changes of leadership since 2010. That underpinned his comeback win in the May election, garnering him praise from the likes of U.S. President Donald Trump.
The prime minister has claimed the victory as a mandate for his entire policy agenda, including support for the coal industry -- Australia’s second-largest income generator after iron ore. Yet polls show a vast majority of Australians still want his government to take greater action to combat climate change.
Morrison came under attack last month for enjoying a family holiday even as the severity of the wildfire crisis was becoming clear, with major cities such as Sydney and Canberra shrouded in smoke. His absence stood in contrast to Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, who has used the spotlight while touring fire-ravaged areas to criticize the government’s lack of national strategy to combat the fires, as well as the absence of a mechanism that puts a price on carbon emissions.
The Australian prime minister’s pro-coal industry government insists the nation is doing its bit to combat climate change, even while it opposes calls that would force polluters to pay for their carbon emissions. He told reporters on Thursday that regardless of the wildfire crisis, he won’t be changing his policies. He has also resisted calls to use a forecast budget surplus this fiscal year to bolster a stalling economy.
A passionate backer of the fossil-fuel industries that still provide the bulk of the nation’s electricity, Morrison claims Australia is meeting its international emissions reduction commitments. Still, his opponents say such targets don’t include the massive amounts of coal burned after it’s shipped to countries such as India and China. They also say his claim that the nation is responsible for 1.3% of global emissions can be contrasted with Australia having just 0.3% of the world’s population.
“Let me be clear to the Australian people -- our emissions reductions policies will both protect our environment and seek to reduce the risks and hazards we are seeing today,” Morrison told reporters on Thursday. “At the same time, it will seek to make sure of the viability of people’s jobs and livelihoods, all around the country. What we will do is make sure our policies remain sensible, that they don’t move toward either extreme, and stay focused on what Australians need for a vibrant and viable economy, as well as a vibrant and sustainable environment.”
(Updates with Constance’s comments in 4th paragraph.)
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