A serious rift has developed between senior New South Wales Liberals and prime minister Scott Morrison, over his claims the state government rejected offers of navy ships to help with evacuations from south coast towns ravaged by bushfires.
Senior Liberals told Guardian Australia that the premier Gladys Berejiklian was “heartbroken” over Morrison’s claims that she had rejected earlier offers of assistance.
The claims were made over the weekend by Daily Telegraph columnist Sharri Markson, who said the premier had rejected the offer of navy ships to assist in last week’s evacuations. Markson confirmed to the ABC that she had been briefed by the prime minister’s office.
In the Australian over the weekend, Morrison was quoted as saying: “There is a major evacuation that is happening in Victoria at the moment with the HMAS Choules,” he said.
“There has been no request from NSW of a similar ADF support for an evacuation of that nature on the south coast, given that the roads are open.”
At a press conference today, both Berejiklian and the NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, again unequivocally rejected that they had turned down offers of federal help.
Asked if the prime minister was lying, Berejiklian said: “I will say this: in a state of emergency operations decisions are taken by the commissioner. It’s not for politicians to interfere.
Fitzsimmons then followed up, saying: “The answer is simply ‘no’. There has been no offer of assistance that I am aware of that hasn’t been accepted,” he said.
Senior NSW Liberals said they were “disgusted and embarrassed” that Morrison had chosen to deflect blame on to Berejiklian for the slow response from the federal government to the bushfire crisis.
NSW transport minister and member for the south coast electorate of Bega, Andrew Constance, said last week Morrison got “the welcome that he probably deserved” when he was confronted by distraught locals in the fire-ravaged town of Cobargo.
“I’d say this to the prime minister today: the nation wants you to open up the cheque books, help people rebuild their lives,” Constance, who was briefly unaccounted for while defending his Bega Valley home from bushfire on New Year’s Eve, said last week.
Berejiklian has been on duty throughout the crisis, working closely with Fitzsimmons who is in charge of the disaster response. She has visited affected areas and provided resourcing when requested by the RFS.
The RFS worked throughout last week to evacuate towns along the south coast from Eden to Jervis Bay after New Year’s Eve fires wreaked havoc and another heatwave last Saturday threatened a repeat of catastrophic conditions.
The biggest challenge was opening roads from small beachside hamlets and the Princes Highway because the intense bushfires had made downed power lines and the threat of falling trees a major hazard.
The rift is especially damaging for Morrison who was state director of the NSW Liberals before entering parliament.