Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison cut short his visit in the southeastern town of Cobargo on Thursday after angry residents accused him of insufficient action in dealing with the wildfires which have ravaged the small New South Wales (NSW) town.
Two Cobargo residents lost their lives to the blaze earlier this week and many more lost their homes. A 63-year-old father and his 29-year-old son died in a house as the fires ripped through their town. A 72-year-old man remained missing, according to NSW police.
During Morrison’s visit, one inhabitant shouted, “You won’t be getting any votes down here, buddy. No Liberal [party] votes – you’re out, son.”
— Reuters (@Reuters) January 3, 2020
Another woman yelled out, “How come we only had four trucks to defend our town? Because our town doesn’t have a lot of money but we have hearts of gold, prime minister.”
Other people joined in on berating the prime minister, chanting “idiot.”
As Morrison was ushered out of the town, the woman called after him, “What about the people who are dead, prime minister? What about the people who have nowhere to live?”
In response to his reception in Cobargo, Morrison told local Australian broadcaster ABC, “I understand the very strong feelings people have, they’ve lost everything, and there are still some very dangerous days ahead.”
“My job is to ensure that we steady things through these very difficult days and support the states in the response that they are providing.”
Meanwhile, the navy launched mass evacuations on Friday ahead of an extreme heatwave and heightened fire danger over the weekend.
Morrison’s response to fires
At his first official press conference since the fires, Morrison defended his response to the fires and his climate policy as “sensible.”
“The best way to respond is the way that Australians have always responded to these events and that is to put our confidence in those who are fighting these fires,” Morrison said on Thursday.
“I understand the fear, I understand the frustration, but this is a natural disaster, which is best dealt with in a calm, systematic manner …”
At the same time, the prime minister stressed that he would not change his policies at the expense of the economy.
Amid criticism of his policies on climate change, Morrison insisted that Australia was meeting the challenge “better than most countries” and was fulfilling international targets.
Critics, who have deemed Morrison a climate change skeptic, said that climate change factors contributed to the country’s fire crisis.
Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal and liquefied natural gas.
Morrison, a strong supporter of the coal industry, blamed the country’s three-year-long drought is causing the fires.
The prime minister was criticised for going on a family holiday to Hawaii in December in the middle of the crisis. He eventually decided to cut his trip short and apologised to the public.
Death toll rising
More than five million hectares (12.35 million acres) across Australia have been scorched by bushfires and more than 1,400 homes have been destroyed.
The death toll has risen to at least 17 people and dozens more are still missing, according to the Australian Associated Press.
The prime minister encouraged people waiting for help or stuck in traffic jams “to be patient … help will arrive.”
Morrison said that the fires will burn for “many, many months … unlike a flood, where the water will recede, in a fire like this, it goes on and it will continue to go on … until we can get some decent rain.”