Morrison said that if a proposed royal commission or national inquiry into the bushfires goes ahead, it should examine how states are reducing fire risks.
“You talk about action on climate change, that’s what that is—hazard reduction is action to take account of the climate we’re living in, which is a more challenging environment over the next decade and beyond, and hazard reduction is as important as emissions reduction,” Morrison told Sky News in an interview on Tuesday.
The prime minister pointed out that currently in Australia, “there is not a national system of reporting to track how hazard reduction is progressing.”
He added that there are a number of issues at hand, such as land-clearing laws, and how native vegetation and national parks are managed, that require more transparency.
“These are all responsibilities of the states, and I’m not making any argument for the federal government to be intervening in any of these areas. But there is, I think, a very reasonable expectation people have that there are national standards [and] transparency around how this is being achieved,” he said.
Morrison said that if a royal commission does go ahead, he wants it to run for just six months or less: “I don’t think it needs to go for 12 months. I don’t think it needs to go for more than half that period of time, and I will want answers to ensure that we’re prepared as we go into the next fire season.”
Morrison added that there have been “100 inquiries or thereabouts” that have been conducted since the Ash Wednesday bushfires in February 1983.
The federal government deployed 890 Defence Force personnel in December 2019 in response to the bushfires “under the respond-to-request instructions” from state governments, Morrison said.
On Jan. 4, the federal government changed the “respond to a request” instruction to a “move forward and integrate” instruction. That gave the Defence Force Chief authority to act regardless of a state government request, wherever and whenever they were needed to respond to the bushfires.
Morrison noted that since the change in instruction, “we’re now at over 6,500 personnel. They have provided amazing support in cooperation with the states.”
“All through December people were saying to me ‘why aren’t you calling out the defense forces?’ Well, we had, the defense forces were engaged,” Morrison said. He pointed out that the change in the instruction to “move forward and integrate” involved the first-ever, “never been done before” compulsory call out of the military reserve forces in response to a bushfire crisis that Australia has seen.
“I want to know where the authority is established for the Prime Minister, for the Federal Government, to be able to take the initiative … Now that’s no criticism of the state governments; I want to make this very, very clear. They have done an amazing job, and particularly in fighting the fires that they have done has saved countless lives, saving countless properties, they have been extraordinary.”
The bushfires in Australia’s east have killed 29 people and many millions of animals, both wild and domesticated since September. More than 2,500 homes have been destroyed.
Morrison in early January committed AU$2 billion (approximately $1.37 billion) over the next two years to a bushfire recovery fund for those affected by the latest blazes.
On Monday, Morrison announced a federal relief package that would give businesses with significant damage or a notable dip in revenue because of the fires access to grants, loans, and tax help.
“Businesses and organizations that have sustained damage as a result of the fires can access up to $50,000 in grant funding (tax-free),” read the announcement on the prime minister’s website.
“To provide maximum flexibility for eligible businesses, loans of up to $500,000 will be offered for businesses that have suffered significant asset loss or a significant loss of revenue. The loan would be for up to 10 years and used for the purposes of restoring or replacing damaged assets and for working capital.”
Reuters contributed to this report.