Australia’s Leader Calls for Inquiry Into Government Response to Fires

Australia’s Leader Calls for Inquiry Into Government Response to Fires

SYDNEY, Australia — Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia on Sunday said that he would call for a high-level government inquiry into the response to the country’s devastating bushfires but would not budge on emissions targets that climate scientists say are too low for a fossil-fuel producing nation.

The suggested inquiry, which Mr. Morrison proposed during a televised interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, came on the heels of the news that a firefighter died overnight in the state of Victoria, site of some of the worst of the seasonal fires that have swept parts of Australia since October. At least 28 people have been killed in the fires so far.

Mr. Morrison and his government have been harshly criticized over their response to the monthslong crisis.

The proposed inquiry, known as a royal commission, would look at the response to the fires, including the deployment of emergency services to deal with blazes that crossed state borders, streaked across mountain ranges and forced the evacuations of thousands of people along the country’s eastern and southeastern shorelines.

The journalist who interviewed Mr. Morrison on Sunday, David Speers, said afterward that the prime minister’s call for a “historic change,” mostly involving how resources are used to combat disasters, fell short of what many Australians were hoping to hear: a plan for a dramatic shift in his government’s policies to curb emissions and invest more in renewable energy.

This fire season has been the worst in Australia’s recorded history, burning millions of acres of land and at least 3,000 homes. The number of wild animals killed because of the fires has been estimated at over half a billion and rising. At one point, navy ships had to be dispatched to rescue people stranded on beaches after flames and deadly smoke blocked escape routes.

Mr. Morrison has refused to consider major changes to policies on renewable energy, fossil fuels and coal. The mining and export of coal are key industries in Australia’s economy. In his interview Sunday, he reiterated that he would not put jobs at risk or raise taxes in the pursuit of lower carbon emissions.

Mr. Morrison has repeatedly said that enough was being done to curb emissions, particularly for a smaller country like Australia. But climate scientists say the government’s targets are low to begin with, and that emissions have been rising while Mr. Morrison’s government fights to emit even more.

On Sunday, Mr. Morrison said Australia’s “new normal” was a changing climate that would require the country to adopt better disaster management and relief policies.

“These are the areas of climate-change action that I think need greater attention because they’re the things that are practically affecting people’s daily lives here in Australia, where we can do practical things that will make us more resilient and ensure that we’re safer,” he said.

“It isn’t just restricted to bush fires,” he said. “It deals with floods, it deals with cyclones, it deals with the drought which is affected by these broader issues. Adaptation and resilience is key to that. Building dams is key to that. Native vegetation management is key to that. Land clearing is key to that. Where you can build homes is key to that.”

“And that is as much a climate change response as emissions reduction,” he said.

Some critics said that royal commissions, which can take a year or more to conclude, are often interpreted as a way for the government to delay meaningful action on a divisive subject.

“It’s a fob-off, they always are,” said John Blaxland, a professor at the Strategic and Defense Studies Center at Australian National University in Canberra, Australia’s capital. “They give you a good 18 months of political grace for the issue to die down politically and then shelve it when it comes out.”

Mr. Blaxland acknowledged that such inquiries can also be cathartic, giving the government a way to demonstrate action and leadership, a quality that Mr. Morrison has been widely criticized as lacking in recent weeks.

In December, as firefighters battled worsening blazes, Mr. Morrison left for a vacation in Hawaii, returning only after nationwide outrage at his absence. He has been defensive about taking the time off and not informing the public. On Sunday, he said that would not happen again.

“In hindsight, I would not have taken that trip knowing what I know now,” he said. “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.”

During visits to some fire-ravaged areas shortly after his return from Hawaii, Mr. Morrison was roundly harangued by residents of one small town in a video that spread across the internet and social media.

Regardless of what view people have of Mr. Morrison, because of a rule change within his conservative Liberal Party, he will almost certainly remain prime minister for the next two and a half years, Mr. Blaxland said, adding that in the face of the present crisis, Australians needed to put politics aside.

“Our circumstances are so dire, we can’t afford to just continue to bicker,” he said. “We have this cavalier approach to our security that’s fostered and bred a political narcissism that we can no longer afford. We’ve got to rise above our petty differences and come up with solutions, not just for the next election but for our grandkids.”

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