The former prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has said he “can’t explain” Scott Morrison’s behaviour during Australia’s unprecedented bushfire crisis and that his successor had “downplayed” the catastrophe and had not behaved the way a prime minister should.
Turnbull made the extraordinary criticism of Morrison during an interview with the BBC on Wednesday, in which he also blamed News Corp and rightwing thinktanks in Australia for promoting climate change denialism.
He “could not explain” why Morrison had refused to meet former fire chiefs – who early last year attempted to warn him of the risks posed by the coming fire season – and then decided to holiday in Hawaii in the midst of the crisis in December.
“Everybody knew we were in a very dry time and as a consequence the fire season was likely to be very bad,” Turnbull said. “So rather than doing what a leader should do and preparing people for that, he downplayed it – and then of course chose to go away on holiday in Hawaii at the peak of the crisis.
“I can’t explain any of that. It’s not consistent with the way in which a prime minister would and should act.”
Morrison cut short his family holiday to Hawaii after two volunteer firefighters in New South Wales died. He came home two days early and apologised, saying he “deeply regretted” any offence caused.
But he was then heckled on a visit to the fire-ravaged town of Cobargo in NSW, where three people died, and mistakenly said that nobody had died on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island, where two people had died.
“I do not know why Scott Morrison has acted the way he has,” Turnbull said. “I’ve known him for 20 years, at least. I can’t explain his conduct.”
Morrison’s personal approval rating and rating as preferred prime minister fell in the first polls after the bushfire season began.
“I can’t explain why he didn’t meet the former fire commissioners who wanted to see him in March last year to talk about the gravity of the threat,” Turnbull said.
In November the former fire chiefs said Morrison had turned down a meeting with them because his government “fundamentally doesn’t like talking about climate change”.
Turnbull also criticised the role of rightwing politics in Australia and the Murdoch press in promoting climate denialism.
“If you go to any of the rightwing thinktanks or read the Murdoch press it is just full of climate denialism,” he said. “And it is designed to deflect from the real objective which has to be to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
“To be a climate change denier is a badge of honour on the right wing of politics here and in the US, and it is mad.”
Turnbull said Australia was “in the frontline of the consequences” and needed to act on the climate crisis to show the world that it was important.
“How many more coral reefs have to be bleached, how many more million hectares of forest have to be burned?” he asked. “How many more lives and homes have to be lost before the climate change deniers acknowledge they are wrong?
“If a country like Australia is not prepared to grapple with this issue seriously, itself being in the frontline of the consequences and being an advanced, prosperous, technologically sophisticated country, with the means to do so, then why would other countries take the issue as seriously as they should?”
On Tuesday Morrison said reducing fuel loads with hazard reduction burns was at least as important as reducing carbon emissions to prevent future bushfire disasters.
“Hazard reduction is as important as emissions reduction and many would argue, I think, even more so because it has an even more direct practical impact on the safety of a person going into a bushfire season,” he told the Australian.
In November former heads of the NSW, Queensland, Victorian and Tasmanian fire services said they were not allowed “to utter the words ‘climate change’” even though it contributed to longer, more intense bushfires.
“Bushfires are a symptom of climate change,” said Neil Bibby, the former chief executive of Victoria’s Country Fire Authority.
“Firefighters are the immune system that gets rid of that symptom. But [the problem is] still there.”