Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison has cut short his holiday to Hawaii amid growing criticism of his leadership during a bushfire crisis ravaging huge areas of the country.
Since September, blazes in eastern Australia have killed six people, destroyed more than 700 homes and blanketed towns and cities including Sydney in smoke.
On Thursday, two volunteer firefighters heading to a blaze in Sydney’s south-west also died when their fire engine was hit by a tree.
New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, has declared a state of emergency for a second time in two months.
The country is also facing a historic heatwave – the national average temperature broke the previous records on two consecutive days this week.
As the crisis rolls on, many Australians have accused the prime minister of failing to provide reassurances or support to fire-hit communities.
Mr Morrison and his government have also faced a mounting backlash over their climate policies.
How has the government responded to the fires?
Mr Morrison has called the fires a “national disaster”, but he has often been accused of downplaying the severity of the crisis.
He has readily offered “thoughts and prayers” to victims , toured fire zones and praised crews – most of whom are trained but unpaid volunteers.
Mr Morrison rejected calls for greater funding of firefighters, saying existing resources were sufficient and that volunteers “want to be there”.
He later pledged an additional A$11m (£5.7m; $7.5m) towards aerial firefighting.
Much criticism has focused on the government’s support for coal-fired power plants. But the Labor opposition has also attracted anger over its pro-coal policies.
Several protests have been held, including thousands of people coming onto the streets in Sydney , where the air quality has been pushed to hazardous levels.
One woman left the remains of her home, destroyed by a bushfire , outside parliament in Canberra. On them she had written: “Morrison, your climate crisis destroyed my home.”
Their views are not shared by all, however. Others have placed the blame for the fires on a severe drought, the sheer amount of dry land there is to burn, and what they view as natural weather cycles.
Why was Morrison’s holiday problematic?
Mr Morrison’s decision to go on holiday with his family had not been publicly announced, but his office said the opposition leader Anthony Albanese had been told.
In the media and on social media, suggestions that he should not be “missing in action” at a time of crisis escalated, particularly as he had once been critical of a fire commissioner for doing the same.
Phrases such as #WhereisScoMo, and #FireMorrison have been trending online.
Mr Albanese had said the PM was entitled to a holiday, but criticised the “lack of information and transparency”.
Mr Morrison’s office initially denied he was in Hawaii, but then a picture emerged on social media apparently showing him posing with other tourists on a beach drinking a beer.
On Friday, Mr Morrison confirmed he was in Hawaii but was returning early.
His announcement came shortly after two firefighters – both volunteers and fathers of young children – had been killed. They are the first firefighters to die in the crisis.
“Given these most recent tragic events, I will be returning to Sydney from leave as soon as can be arranged,” he said in a statement.
He said the country had been well-managed in his absence, but: “I deeply regret any offence caused to any of the many Australians affected by the terrible bushfires by my taking leave with family at this time.”
What has the government said on climate change?
Australia, with its coal-dependent economy, 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.
The UN has also identified Australia as one of seven G20 nations needing to do more on their climate promises.
Australia has warmed overall by slightly more than 1C since 1910, with most of the heating occurring since 1950.
While bushfires are a natural part of the Australian cycle, the Bureau of Meteorology has said the rising heat has exacerbated drought which in turn has made dangerous fires more frequent and more intense.
The group Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, made up of former former fire chiefs and emergency leaders, has accused the government of being “missing in action” on climate action and ignoring calls for a crisis summit.
Mr Morrison – prime minister since last year – has suggested reining in the country’s emissions would be a drop in ocean.
“To suggest that at just 1.3% of emissions, that Australia doing something more or less would change the fire outcome this season – I don’t think that stands up to any credible scientific evidence at all,” he said recently.
Deputy PM Michael McCormack rejected such questions as the concerns of “raving inner-city lefties”, adding: “We’ve had fires in Australia since time began.”
More recently, Mr Morrison has acknowledged climate change as one of “many other factors” in fuelling the bushfires.
But he has dismissed direct links between the fires and his government’s policies.
“Let me be clear about this – climate change is a global challenge. Australia is playing our role as part of this global challenge,” he said on Thursday.
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