'Sack Scomo' Protests Criticize Australian Prime Minister Over Wildfire Response
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Sack Scomo - that's the slogan for several student-led protests set to sweep across Australia tomorrow. Scomo is short for Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Protesters are demanding action on climate change, and the prime minister is a longtime climate change skeptic who's repeatedly expressed support for coal mining.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRIME MINISTER SCOTT MORRISON: Mr. Speaker, this is coal. Don't be afraid. Don't be scared.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The treasurer...
CORNISH: That's then-Treasurer Scott Morrison in the Australian Parliament three years ago. Louise Yaxley is a political correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. She joins us now.
And, Louise, we're talking about these protests tomorrow, but let's talk about how Morrison is faring overall. What can you tell us?
LOUISE YAXLEY: Well, Audie, some people are saying that this could be his Hurricane Katrina moment, the equivalent of George Bush and the criticism he faced for his response and whether it was fast enough to Hurricane Katrina. And Mr. Morrison is certainly facing criticism for the way that he initially responded, stumbles along the way, and then the deeper problem for him of how he handles climate change within his party. And of course, as you say, that's been a long-term problem in Australian politics for a decade or more, so he's got quite a problem on his plate.
CORNISH: You used the analogy of Hurricane Katrina. Can you talk about some of Morrison's perceived missteps?
YAXLEY: Initially, the problem was that he was on holiday and he didn't tell the Australian people that he'd gone to Hawaii. He ended up having to cut that trip short, come back because there were two firefighters killed fighting fires while he was away.
He was then very defensive about that trip. That led to further problems, where he was talking to people who'd lost their homes in the fires, who'd had their communities destroyed. They were quite angry with him, so people who didn't want to shake his hand, for example, because they were critical and angry with him, he reached down and grabbed their hand anyway and did this very weird-looking thing of trying to get them to shake their hand, even though they were holding it firmly by their side. He's now trying to roll out a lot of services. He's called in the Army Reserve. He's done a lot of things to respond to that crisis now. But along the way, there have been some problems.
CORNISH: Tell us more about his skepticism about climate change and how that's affected his ability to respond.
YAXLEY: He would certainly say he's not a climate change skeptic. However, as you pointed out, he walked into the parliament with a lump of coal three years ago. And that is something that was quite shocking at the time because Australia is so dependent for exports on coal that this has affected Australia's ability to respond on climate change policy for a decade. He has skeptics in his own party who have quite a bit of power and will agitate to keep Australia's response low and to not change the policy. Mr. Morrison says Australia is meeting its international obligations.
CORNISH: How will all this affect Morrison politically in the long term? I mean, as you described, there is a big constituency of people who support, for instance, the coal industry, people who are going to be more reluctant to institute more climate change regulations, so what does this mean for Morrison going forward?
YAXLEY: The initial priority is to keep fighting these fires and to deal with what is a national crisis and an emergency, so the government is pouring money in there. The effectiveness of the response to rebuild the towns, et cetera, I think will have a big impact on how well he rides this out. There is certainly discussion going on, though, quietly behind the scenes within his party about whether this will need to see a change of policy.
CORNISH: Louise Yaxley works for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. She's bureau chief for Parliament House.
Thank you for speaking with us.
YAXLEY: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN MAYER SONG, "PAPER DOLL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.