Scott Morrison is the prime minister of Australia, and he has come under heavy criticism in recent months for his handling of the Australian wildfires. These bushfires have been raging since October 2019 with no end in sight, and are responsible for the deaths of at least 31 people as reported by Time, including three U.S. firefighters who died when their air tanker crashed.
So far, the wildfires have burned through an area that’s roughly the size of Florida, destroying about 2,000 homes and killing one billion animals countrywide. NASA is using satellite imagery to highlight the progression of the wildfires, with many photos showing thick smoke blowing from Australia’s east coast. In the state of New South Wales alone, as of January 30, there are “51 fires burning, 20 are not contained. More than 1,600 firefighters are in the field. Heatwave conditions are forecast for next 3 days.”
According to the National Interagency Fire Center’s Twitter post on January 27, the U.S. “has sent 242 wildfire personnel to Australia. Currently, there are 208 deployed; 34 have returned home.”
Although Australians are familiar with wildfires that occur every summer, studies from the past decade predicted that bushfire seasons would start earlier and be more severe than in the past. Australia has experienced a drought in the past year and the hottest and driest temperatures ever recorded. The whole situation has put a spotlight on the prime minister of Australia and his handling of the crisis.
Here’s what you need to know about Scott Morrison:
1. Scott Morrison Defended His Response to the Wildfires Amid Growing Hostility During Visits to Affected Areas
From the start of the wildfires in Australia, the 51-year-old prime minister has faced criticism from the public about his handling of the situation. The first signs of reproach started when the bushfires were beginning to spread and he was spotted on a family vacation in Hawaii. He faced increasing public outrage, and eventually flew home a day early at the news that two volunteer firefighters had died. His visit to the fire-devastated village of Cobargo made headlines when he was berated by angry locals. In a viral video of the visit, he was seen forcefully shaking hands with a resident as well as a firefighter in separate settings where both had said they didn’t want to shake his hand.
On December 28, 2019, Morrison announced that volunteer firefighters in the state of New South Wales, where the worst of the wildfires are raging, would receive compensation for spending so much time away from their regular jobs. This was a reversal from his previous position, which came under fire by opposition parties and the general public.
Morrison released a statement in early January that 3,000 reservists were being dispatched to help fight the bushfires. This announcement was met with some frustration from Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, who said that he felt “disappointment” at having found out this information through the media, and not from Morrison himself.
Fitzsimmons is not the only fire services member who has criticized a decision by the Morrison government. Back in November 2019, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported that 23 former fire chiefs tried to warn Morrison as early as April of that year that the country would need more water-bombers to tackle fires that were getting bigger and quicker than in previous years. In ABC’s report, former New South Wales Fire and Rescue Chief Greg Mullins said: “We have tried since April to get a meeting with the Prime Minister. It’s clear now we won’t get that meeting.”
2. Morrison & His Government Continue to Assert That There Is No Direct Link Between Climate Change and the Wildfires
Morrison and his government are firm on their climate position, reiterating that there is no link between these bushfires and climate change. Australia’s emissions reduction minister, Angus Taylor, says there is no need for the country to cut its emissions more aggressively. The government’s position is that cutting emissions further would hurt their economy, especially the exports of coal and gas.
Recently, Australia was targeted by the Climate Change Performance Index and received the worst rating for climate policy for 2020, with the report concluding that “experts observe that the newly elected government has continued to worsen performance at both national and international levels.” It goes on to say that Morrison’s government is a “regressive force in negotiations” and notes that many Pacific Island nations have criticized Australia’s “lack of ambition.”
In November 2019, Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack angered environmentalists when he said in a radio interview, as captured in the video above, that the link between the wildfires and climate change was “the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies.” Although the science of climate change is complex, the scientific consensus is that Australia’s wildfires will only become more intense and frequent, as reported in November 2019 by the BBC.
3. Morrison Is a Social Conservative Who Is No Stranger to Controversial Policies & Public Criticism
Morrison is a socially conservative prime minister who has faced scrutiny and criticism over his views in the past. In 2016, he claimed on ABC Radio National that opponents of same-sex marriage, like himself, also face “hate speech and bigotry.”
In 2017, Australians were asked to vote on same-sex marriage via a mailed survey. At the time, Morrison was the federal treasurer, and he said in an interview that every Australian should vote and he wanted them to know: “I am voting no, it is OK to say no and people should know that.” The public vote result was 61.6% in favor of same-sex marriage, so the matter went to parliament.
Since then, he has been asked if his personal views on same-sex marriage have changed. As reported by The Guardian, at a press conference in Perth, he said: “It’s law and I am glad that the change has now been made.” He continued, “people can get on with their lives, that’s what I am happy about. I always support the law of the country.”
Morrison has also faced strong opposition to his firm detention policies on asylum seekers, both from his time as minister for immigration from 2013 to 2014 and as prime minister. This policy, which President Trump tweeted his praise and support for in 2019, outlines that asylum seekers who try to get to Australia by boat will be barred from the country.
There are about 1,000 migrants who have been intercepted at sea and held on Nauru or Manus Island. This policy and the conditions at the detention centers have received criticism by human rights groups and the United Nations. The UN’s working group on arbitrary detention has deemed that Australia’s indefinite detentions without charge are unlawful.
In 2018, The New York Times reported that Scott Morrison has a trophy of a model migrant boat in his office with the words “I Stopped These.”
4. Morrison Became Prime Minister in August 2018 & His Conservative Coalition Won a Shock Re-Election in May 2019
The past decade has been a turbulent one for Australian politics, with a number of leadership challenges cutting each prime minister’s term short. In part because elections occur frequently, about every three years, leaders who are unpopular with the public in polling or with their colleagues in the party have been swiftly replaced. In Australia, the prime minister is not elected by the voters but is instead the leader of the party or coalition that wins a majority in parliament.
In August 2018, with an election looming in the next year, the center-right Liberal-National Coalition forced a leadership contest to oust the former prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Scott Morrison, the treasurer at the time, won the internal party vote and became the 30th prime minister of Australia. Morrison, known as “ScoMo” around parliament, had a difficult first year in office, largely because he did not control a majority government. The government had a poor public image due to continuous infighting, and matters weren’t helped by a stream of scandals, including the resignation of Member of Parliament Andrew Broad over a sex scandal.
Morrison’s conservative coalition won a surprise re-election, and a majority government, on May 18, 2019. Throughout the two years before the election, Morrison’s party was well behind their opponents, the Labor Party, in all opinion polls. It was the general consensus that it would be Labor’s turn to form a government. The result was a major upset, which Morrison referred to during his post-election speech in the video above as a “miracle.” He also thanked the “quiet Australians” who had gotten his party elected: “It has been those Australians who have worked hard every day, they have their dreams, they have their aspirations, to get a job, to get an apprenticeship, to start a business,” he said. “These are the quiet Australians who have won a great victory tonight!”
5. Morrison Met His Wife in Church as Teenagers & They Now Have 2 Daughters
Scott Morrison is the first Pentecostal prime minister in Australia. He is known to have a very close relationship with the church, which is actually where he met his wife Jenny. They started dating at the age of 16 and were married at 21. They struggled to conceive for 14 years, undergoing IVF treatments, infertility tests and surgery, a struggle that Jenny opened up about in an interview with The Australian Women’s Weekly back in 2015. At the age of 39, after a long and heartbreaking journey for the Morrisons, Jenny gave birth to Abigail in July 2007, and two years later to Lily. Both were conceived naturally.
Jenny has spoken candidly about the difficulties they have with raising their daughters in an age where social media and mobile phones are such fixtures in young people’s lives. In addition to the mental health concerns associated with social media, there is a security risk that comes with being the children of such a prominent figure. Jenny has said in an interview last year that their daughters aren’t allowed Instagram, Snapchat, or any social media accounts, and they also aren’t allowed mobile phones.
Unlike in the United States, the First Lady of Australia is able to enjoy a relatively private life, out of the spotlight, without a budget, staff and official responsibilities. Jenny Morrison is a former registered nurse who now lives a low-key life with her husband and their daughters. She drives them to school every day, and spends some of her time promoting causes dear to her heart like mental health programs. She also frequently travels with the prime minister on his official visits, and met Donald and Melania Trump in Washington in September 2019. President Trump even told Sky News Australia presenter Paul Murray that he enjoyed meeting the down-to-earth wife of Australia’s leader: “Jennifer, his wife, is somebody that loves your country very much, I can tell you that. We spoke for a while and she truly loves your country.”