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Bushfires Burn Morrison’s Popularity to the Ground, But New Policy Pronouncements Fall Short

The Twitterverse imagines how Scott Morrison’s Liberal coalition would have responded to the First World War. Photo: @jimmyraynes/Twitter

Public outrage and grief over a raging, climate-fuelled bushfire crisis have finally begun burning Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s popularity rating to the ground, as members of his governing Liberal coalition divide into camps over his hints at more aggressive carbon reduction targets.

With just 37% public approval, down eight points since early December, Morrison was polling behind Labor leader Anthony Albanese in a Newspoll survey released Monday, Reuters reports [1].

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“It is Morrison’s worst showing in the poll since he took over leadership of the ruling Liberal Party in August 2018 when a backbench uprising ousted [3] former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull,” the news agency writes. “The poll was taken after Morrison announced a A$2 billion bushfire recovery fund and called out 3,000 army reservists to back up state emergency workers—responses that were viewed as belated.”

With Australia’s usual bushfire season not yet at its midpoint, “at least 28 people have been killed in the fires [4] that have destroyed 2,000 homes, and razed 11.2 million hectares (27.7 million acres), nearly half the area of the United Kingdom,” Reuters says. “Morrison has come under attack for being slow to respond to the crisis, even taking a family holiday to Hawaii while fires were burning. He acknowledged during a television interview on Sunday that he had made some mistakes.”

“Prime ministers are flesh and blood, too, in how they engage with these people,” he said [5] in a TV interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He added that bushfire zones “are sensitive, emotional environments” and “there are things I could have handled on the ground much better.”

“We have heard the message loud and clear from the Australian people,” said Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, during a media event to unveil a new A$50 million (US$34.56 million) wildlife protection fund. “They want to see a federal government adopt a very direct response to these natural and national disasters.”

But while Frydenberg, Morrison and their team may have been reading the low double-digit numbers in the Newspoll release, the bigger numbers associated with the bushfire disaster seem to be beyond them. With the government committing A$2 billion for bushfire recovery as of Friday, after trying hard to treat the fires as a state-level problem, University of Queensland economics laureate John Quiggin estimated [6] the total cost of the fires at $100 billion or more.

On Sunday, the PM said his government would propose a royal commission on the bushfire season and might strengthen its carbon reduction commitments, while warning that the blazes in the country’s southeast are a “new normal”, The Guardian reports [7].

“In the years ahead, we are going to continue to evolve our policy in this area to reduce emissions even further,” Morrison said. “We want to reduce emissions and do the best job we possibly can and get better and better and better at it. I want to do that with a balanced policy which recognizes Australia’s broader national economic interests and social interest.”

But he didn’t step away from his allegiance to his country’s climate-busting coal and liquefied natural gas [8] (LNG) industries, nor from his insistence [9] on carrying over carbon credit from the 1990s-era Kyoto Protocol to back his claims of positive movement under the contested Article 6 of the Paris Agreement.

“Australia is the only country relying on carryover credits [from Kyoto] to meet its Paris 2030 target of 26% to 28% of 2005 levels by 2030, which critics say do not represent the cuts required to limit global warming to as close to 1.5°C as possible,” The Guardian writes [10].

“In meeting and beating those targets, we will always be taking up the opportunities of measures that enable us to achieve lower emissions, but lower emissions at the same time as we stay true to the policy I took to the last election,” Morrison said. “We’ll reduce our emissions further without a carbon tax, without putting up prices, and without shutting down traditional industries upon which regional Australians depend.”

Even that decidedly half-hearted promise of action created divisions in Morrison’s governing Liberal-Nationals coalition, with moderates welcoming his remarks but conservatives put off [10] that his “symbolism” on carbon cuts could damage the country’s economy.

“I’m excited we are starting to move in the right direction—but we have a lot more to do,” wrote Victoria State Liberal MP Katie Allen on Facebook. “I have been and will continue to be a strong voice for climate action inside the tents.”

“The prime minister has rightly identified there’ll be more evolution of policy to cut emissions, but not jobs, and I look forward to contributing to that important evolution,” self-styled modern Liberal MP Tim Wilson told Guardian Australia.

Queensland Nationals MP Llew O’Brien retorted that tougher climate targets would be “pure symbolism at the expense of the economy”, while former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce warned of a rural backlash. “To the person in the weatherboard and iron, the solution is not: you’ll lose your job and we’ll put up your power prices, because that is not a solution, that is another problem,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports [11] hundreds of thousands of people affected by wildfire smoke that was all real, not at all symbolic. Smoke filtration masks were in such short supply that they had to be rationed to the most vulnerable, some government offices were shuttered, and distress calls, ambulance runs, and emergency room visits soaring. “It’s sort of like medicine meets Mad Max,” said one doctor.

“A key question lingers as the fires that began last year continue to burn, in some cases merging into mega-fires: What are the long-term health implications of so many people exposed to thick smoke for so long?” the Post writes.

Some towns in New South Wales face the prospect of running out of water [12], while an unprecedented marine heat wave last month was killing fish [13] in ocean waters surrounding Australia.

On Twitter, meanwhile, @jimmyraynes published [14] a four-part parody imagining how the Morrison government would have answered the call in the First World War.

“Australia has promised Britain 50,000 more men. But there are 11 million German troops so why should we bother?” reads the first cartoon.

“Boys, stay home,” urges the second. “After all, we only produce a tiny percentage of the world’s soldiers.”

“Enlist later. Maybe,” recommends a faux recruiting poster. “Let’s wait a few years and see what other nations are prepared to commit first.”

“Relax!” advises the final frame. “We have carryover credits from the Boer War.”