Scott Morrison has cut short his family holiday in Hawaii and will return to Sydney as soon as possible after the deaths of two firefighters.
The prime minister has copped heavy criticism after taking leave during the bushfire crisis, which has triggered a state of emergency in NSW.
Intense bushfires are raging up and down the country’s east coast and millions of people are choking through thick smoke.
“I deeply regret any offense caused to any of the many Australians affected by the terrible bushfires by my taking leave with family at this time,” Morrison said on Friday. “I have been receiving regular updates on the bushfires disaster as well as the status of the search for and treatment of the victims of the White Island tragedy.”
Two volunteer firefighters were killed in a crash near Buxton, south-west of Sydney, overnight.
Geoffrey Keaton, 32, and Andrew O’Dwyer, 36, from the Horsley Park brigade, were in a truck convoy near the town of Buxton late on Thursday when a tree fell into their path, causing the vehicle to roll off the road.
The two men—both fathers of young children—died at the scene, while three other firefighters were injured and have been hospitalized. They had been able to independently free themselves from the crashed truck.
“Given these most recent tragic events, I will be returning to Sydney from leave as soon as can be arranged,” Morrison said.
The prime minister’s wife and daughters will remain in Hawaii.
“It’s unfortunate it’s come at such a terrible time, particularly for those living in and around Sydney and NSW,” he told Sydney radio 2GB. “It’s just devastating to be here and see what’s happening there, so I’m pleased to be returning.
“If I can provide some moral support to those who are out there doing it tough, then that’s what I can do, and that’s what I’ll be very glad to do.”
Morrison is still trying to arrange his return flights.
The prime minister’s office has been heavily criticized for keeping the holiday relatively secret.
His leave was brought forward from January due to engagements in India and Japan.
But many people have questioned Morrison’s judgment for going on holidays during the fires.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said the prime minister’s leave was a matter for him.
“He made the decision and it’s a matter for his judgment when he goes on holiday,” Albanese told reporters at a bushfire ground outside Sydney.
“I think one of the issues has been the lack of information and transparency around this.”
Albanese also criticized the prime minister for earlier suggesting volunteer firefighters “wanted to be” battling the relentless blazes.
“I tell you what, that was deeply felt,” he said.
“He should really retract those comments that he made because it was raised with me on multiple occasions this morning.
“Those comments are inappropriate, these people don’t want to be out fighting fires, they’re doing it because of their commitment to their fellow Australians.”
The prime minister expressed condolences and sympathies to the families of the two firefighters killed.
“They were bravely defending their communities with an unmatched spirit and a dedication that will forever set them apart amongst our most courageous Australians,” he said.
“Their sacrifice and service saving lives and saving properties will be forever remembered. I wish those injured all the best in their recovery.”
By Daniel McCulloch