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Prime Minister Scott Morrison defends government’s response to bushfires

The Advertiser 2020-01-12 05:02:00

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he would never have gone through with his family trip to Hawaii had he known then what he knows now about the country’s bushfire crisis.

Mr Morrison this morning defended the government’s response to the devastating fires as “extraordinary” but conceded there were things he could have handled better.

“In hindsight, I would not have taken that trip knowing what I know now,” he told ABC Insiders host David Speers this morning.

“One of the great difficulties in any job, as you know, David, is balancing your work and family responsibilities. It had been a very busy year.

“I’d made a promise to my kids and we’d taken forward that break, as I explained when I came back and I thought I was very upfront about my contrition on that.”

Mr Morrison admitted it was a bad move not to make a public announcement although he denied he slipped out of the country secretly.

“I texted Anthony Albanese on my way out the door so I wasn’t secretive about it … I’ve followed the same practice on two other occasions. The office won’t do that again. You learn from these things.”

Mr Morrison denied a report in the Australian Financial Review yesterday which accused the Department of Home Affairs of sitting on a federal government plan preparing for climate change-related natural disasters for 1½ years before catastrophic bushfires hit last month.

“That’s not true David,” he told the Insiders host.

“That’s not true?” Speers replied.

Mr Morrison said $130 million was put aside in the last budget to establish the risk plan.

“It has gone to the Minister of Emergency in June this year and they’re working with local governments to put this in place,” he said

“This is one of the issues that deal with the big issues in response to climate changing and that is the resilience and the adaption that we need in our community right across the country to deal with longer, hotter, dryer seasons that increase the risk of bushfire.

“So I think that (AFR) report took that out of context and I’m not being critical. I’m saying we put $130 million in the budget to deal exactly where what you’re talking about, which is one of the many other important responses to climate change.”

Speers: “So you’re saying there was no sign to you before this season that the Federal Government needed to do more?

Mr Morrison: “The recommendations that were put to us were acted upon.”

Speers: “And there were no recommendations that you should be looking at mobilising defence, working with the states civilian authorities to prepare for this?

Mr Morrison: “Not in terms of what had been done in previous seasons and the arrangements we had where we respond to requests for the state. Those requests were significant …

Speers: “You’re talking about responding to requests. I’m suggesting given you had fire chiefs warning this was an abnormal fire season, you had the Home Affairs Department …”

Mr Morrison: “There was no advice that said the ADF (Australian Defence Force) should be able to act unilaterally and to deploy on its own initiative in response to any fire event. No, there was none of that advice.

“But what we did do — I authorised with the Defence Minister for a trial run of the national callout of the reserves. That was approve bid the Governor-General. That was approved by the Governor-General. That was done in November.

“The decision we took ultimately in the new year, at the worked through on January 2. Then the callout which required the approval of the Governor-General on the Saturday.

“That was the first time, ever, that there has been a call-out of our reservists to respond to a disaster to the best of our knowledge. That is an unprecedented action of a Commonwealth Government.”

But immediately after the interview Mr Morrison’s claim about the ADF was called out on social media, where people pointed out former prime minister Kevin Rudd called the military in over the Black Saturday fires.

The ADF were called in in 2013 to assist in the BM bushfires. Morrison is full of shit!

— Doug Cameron (@DougCameron51) January 11, 2020

Scott Morrison claiming on Insiders that this is the first time there have been calls for the Federal Gov to be involved in bush fires. I’m sure that’s not how @MrKRudd remembers Black Saturday.

— Chris Bowen (@Bowenchris) January 11, 2020

The prime minister – who on Sunday announced a new $76 million package to provide counselling to firefighters and residents in affected communities — has come under criticism for not doing enough at a national level to prepare for the bushfires which have taken the lives of 28 Australians.

Mr Morrison, who plans to take a proposal for a bushfires royal commission to cabinet in coming weeks, has also faced insults and anger from locals as he visited bushfire-hit areas.

“There are things I could have handled on the ground much better,” he told the ABC.

“These are sensitive, emotional environments. “Prime ministers are flesh and blood too in how they engage with these people.

“When I went there I went there in good faith, with Jenny on occasions, to provide what consolation I could. They’re very strained environments … you would do things differently and learn from every event but the important thing is the actions we have taken.”

Mr Morrison said the scale of the bushfires was “unprecedented” and had created a situation in which Australians were demanding a greater response from the federal government than had been provided in the past.

“That was not something that was recommended going into this fire season,” he said.

“There is a very new appetite, a very new expectation.”

He said his government had acted on all recommendations put to it before the bushfire season.

Mr Morrison said the mental health package would ensure communities could address the traumatic emotional toll the “unprecedented” bushfires have had on people.

“We need to ensure the trauma and mental health needs of our people are supported in a way like we never have before,” he said.

Free counselling sessions will be available through recovery centres and Service Australia sites to address short-term trauma.

Youth-focused Headspace will get $7.4 million to boost services in 12 fire- ravaged regions and to speed-up the construction of its Batemans Bay centre.

Firefighters and other emergency personnel will be able to access more intensive support through better-funded specialist organisations.

Almost $30 million will go to boosting telehealth services and doubling the number of free psychological therapy sessions bushfire-affected people can access through Medicare.

Originally published as Scott Morrison defends fire response