Scott Morrison proposes high-powered inquiry into bushfires response

Morrison rejected criticism that his government had not done enough before the bushfire season started. (AP pic)

MELBOURNE: After weeks of criticism over the handling of the bushfires scorching Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Sunday he will propose a national review into the response to the disaster, as the fires claimed another firefighter’s life.

With the Australian bush burning for nearly three months now, killing 28 people, claiming 2,000 homes and raging across millions of acres of land and wildlife, the crisis is becoming increasingly political.

“There is obviously a need for a national review of the response,” Morrison said in an interview with ABC television.

Asked whether it should be a Royal Commission, a powerful judicial inquiry, Morrison said, “I think that is what would be necessary and I will be taking a proposal through the cabinet to that end, but it must be done with consultations with the states and territories.”

Bushfires are common during Australia’s summer months, but this fire season started unusually early, often moving quickly and unpredictably, and leaving swaths of the drought-stricken land a scorched earth.

Cooler weather conditions over the weekend have brought a temporary respite, but a firefighter died on duty in Victoria, where new flames sparked. Authorities said the risk was far from over and more hot weather is expected.

Smoke again sheathed Sydney on Sunday, almost a new normal for the country’s biggest city, moving the air quality into a hazardous territory, according to the NSW Department of Primary Industry index.

Facing increasing pressure to do more to tackle climate change, Morrison, who has so far been defiant in rejecting any links between his government’s conservative climate policies and the bushfires, said his government will look into improving its performance on curbing emissions.

“We want to reduce emissions and do the best job we possibly can and get better and better and better at it,” he said. “I want to do that with a balanced policy which recognises Australia’s broader national economic interests and social interest.”

Morrison rejected criticism that his government had not done enough before the bushfire season started, but he admitted that once the fires started, some responses could have been different.

“There are things I could have handled on the ground much better,” he said. “These are sensitive environments, there are very emotional environments; prime ministers are flesh and blood too in how they engage with people.”

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese said on Sunday that the federal government should have acted earlier to address the disaster.

“The fact is that bushfires don’t recognise state and territory boundaries,” Albanese told reporters, according to a transcript provided by his media office. “And nor should the need for national leadership.”