Defence chiefs have been told to work more closely with state authorities during the national bushfire crisis after a political storm over a failure to consult on an unprecedented deployment of 3000 reserve troops to confront the threat.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison blamed a “breakdown” among defence personnel for the confusion over the mammoth military intervention after state fire leaders revealed they learned of the move “informally” or through the media.
Mr Morrison vowed on Sunday to fix the problem and apologised to NSW Rural Fire Service chief Shane Fitzsimmons, who aired his frustration at not being told of the Australian Defence Force deployment until its sudden announcement.
In another escalation in the federal response to the fires, Mr Morrison declared he was open to holding a royal commission into the crisis and announced a new National Bushfire Recovery Agency to be led by former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin.
The new agency is expected to work for two years on the recovery, matching the agency set up to respond to the Queensland floods last year.
Federal cabinet will meet on Monday to discuss the cost of the intervention, with Mr Morrison ruling out a levy to raise funds for the task while signalling there would be more spending in the federal budget in May.
The tension over consultation and coordination undermined the federal and state response to the fires at a time when Mr Morrison was on the defensive over his decision to go on holiday before Christmas and his release of a social media video on Saturday night to promote his response to the fires.
Former prime minister John Howard, who spoke to Mr Morrison on Sunday morning, said the Prime Minister was being unfairly attacked.
“It’s obviously an incredibly difficult time for the country. We obviously talked about that and he discussed the responses the government is making,” Mr Howard told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
“He’s quite capable of handling all those things himself but I’m very supportive of him. I think he’s handled this very difficult issue very well.”
Asked whether Mr Morrison’s holiday in Hawaii had been a mistake, Mr Howard said he was not going to criticise the Prime Minister for a holiday.
“I can’t do that. I know the intensity and the pressure [of the job] and I don’t think anyone can suggest that he’s anything but an incredibly hard-working person. It’s a hard job,” he said.
Mr Morrison telephoned NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews on Saturday morning, soon after a national security committee of federal cabinet approved the defence deployment and the leasing of four large air tankers.
The federal government assumed the states would pass the information on to Mr Fitzsimmons and his Victorian counterpart, Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp, but this did not occur.
“All I can say is I wasn’t aware of it, I found out about it via the media reports,” Mr Fitzsimmons told Nine’s Today program. “We then spent a fair bit of time with the military liaison and the Commonwealth liaison that are embedded here in our centre trying to understand what the details were.”
Mr Crisp said he was not “formally notified” about the federal decision.
“There was a breakdown in communications at the defence liaison level with the headquarters yesterday,” Mr Morrison said.
The Prime Minister said this had been addressed with the ADF and in talks with the state premiers and fire chiefs.
‘Many views in hindsight’
A frustrated Defence Minister Linda Reynolds told ADF staff on Sunday to fix the problem so that defence liaison officers posted with each fire authority passed on information more quickly.
Asked if his response to the crisis was too slow, Mr Morrison said there were “many views in hindsight” and there would be a review of this bushfire season, but that his government was stepping up its response.
“The scale of the disaster is enormous and it is a reminder of the terrible threat that nature provides in this country,” he said.
“My answer to Australians is, yes, you can be confident that the government, the state government, the local governments and all agencies are putting everything they have into this.”
Mr Andrews made no criticism of Mr Morrison and said he intended to work “side by side” with the Prime Minister.
‘This has been a knee-jerk political response’
But a senior NSW minister responded to criticism of Ms Berejiklian by saying the Prime Minister had “tried to tear Gladys down to save himself”.
“We have seen her on TV each night standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Shane Fitzsimmons. But what we haven’t seen are the visits, support and leadership she has shown away from the cameras without any fanfare,” the minister said.
“So you can imagine how gutted we all felt when Scott Morrison returns from holidays and tries to throw her under a bus to save himself.”
A senior government source said Ms Berejiklian found Mr Morrison’s actions as an “irritation more than anything else”. “I think it is pretty clear to everyone that he has been trying to regain momentum after the Hawaii trip,” the source said.
Another senior Liberal MP said: “I think there is disbelief at how disconnected Morrison is. This has been a knee-jerk political response. The best thing he can do is keep quiet and keep out of the way.”