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World

Australia's Prime Minister Cuts Vacation Short To Deal With Wildfires

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In Australia, wildfires have killed nine people and destroyed scores of homes. And yet, Australia's prime minister was away on vacation with his family in Hawaii. Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he now regrets that decision, and he's apologized.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER SCOTT MORRISON: I've obviously returned from leave. And I know that that has caused some great anxiety in Australia, and Jenny and I acknowledge that. If you had your time over again and you had the benefit of hindsight, then would have made different decisions.

GREENE: Morrison cut his vacation short after facing intense backlash from the public. And there remain what is being described as catastrophic fire conditions, so these problems might continue.

Let's turn to Australian Broadcast Corporation reporter Julia Holman, who has been covering this and joins us on Skype from Sydney. Hi there, Julia.

JULIA HOLMAN: Hi. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: Well, thanks for coming on again and reporting on this. I mean, this is one of the worst fire seasons Australia has ever seen. I mean, can you talk about the prime minister's decision to leave for vacation in the first place and then what fallout he's faced here?

HOLMAN: It's been a totally bizarre decision. I mean, in the first place, his office denied that he was in Hawaii. Then he was photographed on the beach in Hawaii...

GREENE: Oh, wow.

HOLMAN: ...The cat was out of the bag. And then he said - oh, I promised my daughters that I would take them on this vacation. He has young daughters. We understand that he's got a busy job and he might like to see his family, but it's gone down terribly in Australia.

The volunteers who - the firefighters who fight these fires, most of them are volunteers. So they're all saying to their families - sorry, we're going to have to put off our holiday. Many of them are going to be fighting fires on Christmas Day. So you can imagine how badly this is being received here in Australia. I mean, two firefighters died last week fighting these devastating fires. So it's an extremely dangerous condition - set of conditions. To have the prime minister jet off to the other side of the world has been a terrible look and really angered a lot of people.

GREENE: Well, I want to ask you about something else that Morrison said. I mean, he's - the topic of climate change and whether climate change is causing these conditions that have led to these fires has come up. And this is what the prime minister said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MORRISON: There is no argument about the links between - in my view and the government's view and any government in this country - about the links between broader issues of global climate change and weather events around the world. But I'm sure people equally would acknowledge that the direct connection to any single fire event - it's not a credible suggestion to make that link.

GREENE: I mean, that sounds a little cagey. What is his government's position, that climate change might not be the cause of this?

HOLMAN: They're saying that it's - well, I don't actually want to say what they're trying to say because I'm confused about what they're actually...

GREENE: It's hard to figure out from that, yeah.

HOLMAN: ...Trying to say. I mean, what we know, though, is that climate scientists are saying, you know, things like drought are being exacerbated by climate change. We are in the middle of the worst drought in our history. We're not expecting rain, you know, for months. That's what the forecasters are saying.

So - but - I mean, climate change is a very toxic issue in Australia. Prime ministers have lost their job because they've been trying to implement climate change policies. This current government actually came to office with the mandate that they would axe the carbon tax that was in place before they came to government. So it's a very toxic issue here and - as are the bushfires, which will continue to rage as the debate around climate change rages as well.

GREENE: And then the conditions, as we said, remain. I mean, so these fires are not expected to end anytime soon.

HOLMAN: No. And we're expecting more devastating conditions within the week. So these bushfire fighters are going to be fighting these fires probably for months to come.

GREENE: That is Julia Holman, who reports for the Australian Broadcast Corporation. Thanks so much.

HOLMAN: Not a problem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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