Scott Morrison has rejected criticism of the Coalition’s climate change policies amid the ongoing bushfire crisis, as a growing number of MPs privately concede that the government needs to do more to match the rising tide of concern over the issue.
As firefighters continued to battle out-of-control bushfires across four states on Friday, the prime minister said it was “disappointing” that people were conflating the ongoing fire crisis with Australia’s emission reduction targets.
“We don’t want job-destroying, economy-destroying, economy-wrecking targets and goals, which won’t change the fact that there have been bushfires or anything like that in Australia”, Morrison told Sydney radio, 2GB.
“The suggestion that there’s any one emissions reduction policy or climate policy that has contributed directly to any of these fire events is just ridiculous and the conflation of those two things, I think, has been very disappointing.”
He said the government would “continue to consider our policies carefully here”, while conceding to the ABC that the bushfire crisis had elevated the debate over the government’s stance on climate change.
“I think the public opinion on this issue, has been heightened across a whole range of factors and climate is one”, Morrison said.
“But I mean, there are a range of other things…the drought, which is not unrelated to the issues we’re talking about, but the hazard reduction and how we manage that in the future, because hazard reduction has proved to be very difficult in recent times because of the drought.”
Experts have pointed to the link between climate change and an inability to undertake more hazard reduction burning, with hotter, drier conditions and a prolonged bushfire season narrowing the window of opportunity for the practice.
When asked if a national inquiry into the fires, that canvassed all issues, including climate change, could prompt a “recalibration” of the government’s climate change policies, Morrison said the government would review any recommendations arising from an inquiry.
“I’m up to discuss all of those things and there’s no hesitancy or pushback from the government to address any of those things. And I think we have to address them calmly and rationally and in proper context and perspective.”
But when pressed on whether he would revisit the vexed issue of energy policy – including the national energy guarantee that Morrison previously supported – the prime minister said that he believed the community wanted him to be “100% focused” on the response effort, rather than drawn into a policy debate.
Coalition MPs have also been asked not to engage in public discussions about the government’s climate change policies until after the current bushfire threat has passed, urging a focus on the government’s emergency response.
In a phone hook-up with government MPs on Thursday, Morrison also banned backbench MPs from doing any international media interviews, after conservative MP Craig Kelly was lambasted on UK television for denying the role of climate change.
But as the prime minister fends off criticism for the government’s climate policies, a growing number of MPs are privately conceding that more needs to be done to match the growing level of public concern about the links between climate change and Australia’s drying climate.
An update from the Bureau of Meteorology released on Thursday showed Australia recorded its hottest and driest year on record in 2019, with temperatures 1.52C above the long-term average.
MPs say that the view being pushed by Labor and the Greens that the Coalition is not doing enough has penetrated, and will be politically damaging at the next election unless Morrison charts a more ambitious course.
This would particularly be the case in inner-city seats where the issue was recognised as a key factor that won Labor votes in certain seats at the last election.
A number of MPs have already joined a cross party pro-climate action group, the Parliamentary Friends of Climate Action group, including Liberals Tim Wilson, Dave Sharma, Jason Falinski, Katie Allen, Angie Bell and Trent Zimmerman.
MPs told Guardian Australia that they believed the government needed to reposition on climate change, but recognised Morrison could not be seen to be responding in a knee-jerk fashion.
The independent MP Zali Steggall, who defeated Tony Abbott on a platform of climate change action, is hoping that some Liberals wanting stronger action will cross the floor to support her bill to establish a climate change action framework.
She is planning a public awareness campaign aimed at putting pressure on the government to allow a conscience vote on the legislation.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese said the opposition wanted to see “strong action on climate change”, but the party was still considering its position following last year’s election loss.
“We will announce our proposals based upon where we’re at closer to the election. We won’t let the government off the hook”, Albanese said.
“[But] we want the government to act immediately. We will have strong policies, but they’ll be off the basis of what the starting point is. We don’t want the starting point to be the pathetic response with no climate change policy and no energy policy that we have from this government at the moment.”
Environment minister Sussan Ley said the “majority view” within the Coalition party room was that climate change was an underlying factor for the fires.
“I would say government policy reflects the majority view, and government policy is very clear about acknowledging that climate change and dry sequence years are increasing the frequency and the risk and the intensity (of fires)”, Ley told ABC on Friday.
She said the view of Kelly, and a “minority” within the coalition, were not dictating the government’s policy approach.