Opposition Labor Party has pressed the government to consider compensation for volunteer firefighters. Calls for Prime Minister Scott Morrison to resign have grown after the public learnt he was holidaying in Hawaii during the bushfire emergency.
Australia’s beleaguered prime minister announced on Tuesday that volunteer firefighters from the federal public sector will receive paid leave entitlements in a move to help contain wildfires that have ravaged parts of the country.
About 5 million hectares of land have burned nationwide over the past few months, with nine people killed and more than 950 homes destroyed. New South Wales, the country’s most populous state, has received the brunt of the damage, with around 850 homes razed in the state.
Authorities have warned that the fires in New South Wales could fester for months, causing more angst for exhausted firefighters.
The opposition Labor Party has pressed the government to consider compensation for volunteer firefighters.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, however, said that federal public servants who volunteer with state rural fire services to battle the blazes would get 20 days of paid leave on top of their regular annual and sick leave.
"With bushfire seasons starting earlier, one of the things I've heard on the ground is that some people are dipping into their other leave entitlements to stay out there battling blazes," Morrison told reporters in South Australia, which last week had 86 homes destroyed after wildfires flared in catastrophic conditions.
"Today's announcement is about ensuring our volunteer firefighters can keep focused on the job at hand," the prime minister said.
Morrison urged the private sector to implement similar measures.
"We know this does not address the situation for self-employed and small businesses directly, but it does mean those working for larger organizations can step in and take some of the load from those volunteers who work for themselves or small businesses," he said.
Cooler temperatures Tuesday in New South Wales provided temporary relief, but authorities warned that conditions could deteriorate this weekend due to warmer and windier weather.
Fire danger ratings remained very high in parts of southern New South Wales, and were between high and moderate for the rest of the state.
Meanwhile, South Australia state police said that wildfire victims were being targeted by possible scammers in an attempt to access personal financial details.
In the suspected scam, victims received phone calls from people claiming to be from their bank and offering to provide disaster relief funds before asking for bank details.
Morrison's Hawaii holiday
Calls for Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to resign have littered social media platforms after it was revealed he was holidaying in Hawaii while the country battled a bushfire emergency. His return has failed to douse the criticism.
Voters have taken to social media calling for leadership at a time of crisis, and along with some of the country's political editors, have criticised Morrison's refusal to take tougher action on climate change.
Similar to the criticism of US President Donald Trump by American comedians, Morrison has been ridiculed on social media, portrayed as a deformed creature sitting in a burned-out forest on Christmas Day patting a lump of coal he calls "precious" to a flying superhero called "Bullshit Man".
On Twitter on Tuesday, #NotMyPrimeMinister, #MorrisonMustGo and #ScoMoResign were the top trending topics in Australia after a viral video showed a volunteer firefighter, Jacqui, shaking hands with Morrison as she said "not my prime minister".
"Jacquie is all of us," Twitter user Yabba said. Another user @bugwannostra tweeted "she's only saying what more than 12 million think..."
The tweet prompted Morrison to issue a clarification on Tuesday. "Indeed, as Jacqui joked with me yesterday, I’m not her PM, because she's British, Boris Johnson is," he tweeted.
Millions of hectares torched
Devastating bushfires have burnt more than 4 million hectares of land across five states and killed nine people since September.
Uncontrolled fires are still burning in South Australia, after ripping through the state's prominent wine region, and around the country's largest city Sydney.
Hazardous smoke blanketed Sydney for days this month, heightening public anger and raising political pressure on the government to do more to battle climate change.
When it was revealed Morrison and his family had slipped away to Hawaii for a holiday voters became angry.
On his return, Morrison further inflamed his political critics by saying there would be no change to climate policy and denied suggestions of a split within his government after his deputy agreed more action was needed.
He also ruled out holding a summit with the nation's fire chiefs and compensation for thousands of volunteer firefighters who have battled blazes for months.
A series of photo opportunities of Morrison with firefighters and animals affected by the fires was ridiculed on social media on Tuesday.
Morrison stunned the nation in May by winning an election, securing a parliamentary majority, but his political capital six months later is now being questioned.
"He has lost any personal link to that deep, crucial, reservoir of gravitas we confer, automatically, on our PMs simply because of their position," The Canberra Times newspaper columnist Nicho las Stuart wrote on Tuesday.
But some analysts say it is too early to write Morrison's political epitaph, but concede Australia's summer bushfires may eventually see a change in climate policy.
In Australia, the world's largest exporter of coal, climate and energy policy, have infused politics for a decade, helping to bring down both liberal and conservative lawmakers.
Australia is one of the world's largest carbon emitters per capita due to coal-fired power plants. It has pledged to cut carbon emissions by 26 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, but critics say Morrison is paying lip service to the commitment.
"These bushfires could potentially lead to a shift in public opinion and public concern on climate change that we have not seen in Australia so far," said Haydon Manning, professor at the college of business, government and law at Flinders University.