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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 said on Sunday that he would call for a high-level government inquiry into the response to the country’s devastating bushfires. But he did not signal a significant shift in policies to curb carbon emissions, as many had hoped.

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

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 that response, 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 significant 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 were dispatched to rescue people stranded on beaches after flames and deadly smoke blocked escape routes.

Mr. Morrison has declined 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, and in his interview on 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 nation like Australia. But climate scientists say that the government’s targets are low to begin with and that emissions have been rising under Mr. Morrison’s government.

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

“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 Australian National University in Canberra, the 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 said such inquiries could 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 over his absence. 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 harangued by residents of one town in a video that spread across the internet and social media.

Regardless of people’s views of Mr. Morrison, a recent rule change within his conservative Liberal Party means that he will almost certainly remain prime minister for the next two and a half years, Professor Blaxland said.

Given the present crisis, Professor Blaxland said that Australians needed rise above politics.

“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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