A Prime Minister Under Fire in Australia - OZY | A Modern Media Company
A firefighter hosing down trees and flying embers in an effort to secure nearby houses from bushfires near the town of Nowra in the Australian state of New South Wales.
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By Carly Stern

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Scott Morrison spent part of his early career working for the government agency tasked with promoting Australia’s spectacular beaches, rugged mountains and desert plains to the world as a premium travel destination (not the hardest sell). 

But Morrison, now 51 and his country’s prime minister, was exploring the bounty of other lands this holiday season — vacationing in Hawaii, specifically — as fires blazed back home. The criticism for his vacation choice and response to the fires now threatens to consume his prime ministership.

Bushfires across the continent have burned millions of acres of land and killed at least 25 people. Australia’s fire season usually peaks in the dry summer months of January and early February, but amid prolonged drought and hotter temperatures, this season’s fires have ushered in historic destruction. The government announced a state of emergency in November after dozens of fires broke out in New South Wales, and smoke has now stretched all the way to New Zealand. Officials said on Monday that 136 fires throughout the state are still not contained.

It’s just one huge PR disaster after another.

Rod Tiffen, emeritus professor at the University of Sydney

Morrison deployed the military and a new $1.4 billion bushfire recovery fund, but for many the response was lacking. He “had to come back [from Hawaii] with his tail between his legs” after misjudging the severity, says Rod Tiffen, an emeritus professor of government and international relations at the University of Sydney. The federal government, critics argue, did not show appropriate empathy as the situation worsened, instead punting responsibility back to states.

Suffice it to say Morrison’s holiday is now over, and he’s caught in a defensive PR quagmire. He’s trying to show off a robust response to the fires amid grumblings that his Liberal Party’s ties to the powerful coal industry deter his government from urgent climate change policy. Morrison says he accepts the link between climate change, Australia’s prolonged drought and the increasingly destructive fires.

Morrison’s own story begins back in the Sydney suburb of Waverley, where he and his brother were raised by his mother and policeman father. Morrison’s grandmother was a descendant of Australian poet Dame Mary Gilmore, and his family tree traces back further to William Roberts — who, legend has it, was convicted in England of stealing five-and-a-half pounds of yarn, which got him sent to the Australian continent on the First Fleet in 1788. Morrison had a short stint as a child actor, later pursuing a degree in economic geography at the University of New South Wales. 

Evacuations Begin Following East Gippsland Bushfires

Prime Minister Scott Morrison tours the fire-damaged Wildflower farm in Victoria on Friday.

Source James Ross-Pool/Getty Images

Morrison worked in policy and research for the Property Council of Australia, a lobby group for property developers and owners, before holding several roles in the tourism industry through the 1990s. From there he shuffled into politics, eventually becoming state director of the Liberal Party — Australia’s conservatives — and managing director of Tourism Australia. He’s held bureaucratic posts across immigration, social services and the treasury, has led the Liberal Party since 2018 and was elected prime minister in an upset in 2019. Throughout it all, he’s remained a rugby fanatic — in 2016, Morrison was deemed the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks rugby club’s top ticket holder.

He now faces a career-defining challenge reminiscent of President George W. Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina striking New Orleans in 2005, says Tiffen, noting that the situation has triggered arguments about what warrants state versus national intervention. “Morrison’s supporters say that the arrangements between our levels of government mean it’s unfair to criticize Morrison’s response,” says Claire Kimball, former senior Liberal government and corporate communications adviser. “Those constitutional arrangements see our state governments responsible for land management and the frontline emergency response, not the feds.”

Meanwhile, news about California’s wildfire devastation — the Golden State’s season comes just a touch earlier than Australia’s — resonates with Australians. People in both places debate whether there’s been a failure of management, says Christine Forster, councilor of the City of Sydney. “Here, most of the discussion is focused on whether there has been an inadequate amount of controlled hazard-reduction burning during the cool winter months” as well as not letting property owners clear surrounding vegetation, she says.

Trying to show off the actions he’s taking, Morrison released a video on social media on January 3 — but it was immediately lampooned online, including the creation of a snarky Twitter account mocking the Prime Minister as #ScottyfromMarketing. The video looked like a Liberal Party advertisement, says Tiffen. “It’s just one huge PR disaster after another,” he says.

Even though climate change is a bigger and more complex problem than one government can solve, Morrison has made himself an easy scapegoat. As the most populous — and tourist-heavy — areas on Australia’s east coast and south are threatened, people are looking for answers. “Fairly or unfairly, it’s our national leader Scott Morrison who many have looked to blame for what is a terrible situation,” Kimball says.

The next Australian election is due in 2022 or sooner, but this likely won’t be Morrison’s last brush with fire. “It’s really a big turning point … for the climate change debate in Australia,” Tiffen says. “The threat of climate change is not just something in the future, but it’s something that’s happening now.”


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