Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison hastily left the bushfire-ravaged town of Cobargo on Thursday after furious locals berated him for his inaction on the devastating bushfires that killed two people and razed the town’s main street days earlier.
A father and son lost their lives when a destructive blaze roared through Cobargo on Monday. Dozens of buildings in the historic town, about 531 km south of Sydney in the state of New South Wales, were lost.
The prime minister’s subsequent visit to “offer comfort” as not well-received. A video of the interaction shows Morrison grabbing and shaking the hand of a woman who had refused to offer her hand.
“I’m only shaking your hand if you give more funding to the RFS,” the Rural Fire Service, she said during the forced handshake.
“So many people here have lost their homes,” she added.
Another man shouted out, “You won’t be getting any votes down here, buddy.”
“Go back to Kirribilli. We might burn that down! I don’t see Kirribilli burning after the fireworks!” another man shouted.
The prime minister’s Sydney harbourside residence in Kirribilli had a prime view of New Year’s Eve fireworks that went ahead despite intense debate and a total fire ban in the state.
He has received sustained criticism for his handling of the fires and was forced to return home early from a Hawaii holiday in December after outrage that he would leave the country during a national crisis. On Wednesday, he again raised eyebrows by hosting Australia and New Zealand cricketers at his house, saying that the national disaster was happening “against the backdrop of this test match” and that Australians could be “inspired” by cricket during this difficult time.
Morrison has also repeatedly refused to back down on his government’s climate policy and dismissed calls to curb coal use as “reckless” and “job-destroying.”
As the prime minister hurried to his car in Cobargo, another woman cried out for help with funding.
“This is not fair. We are totally forgotten about down here. Every single time this area has a flood or fire, we get nothing,” she said.
“If we were Sydney, if we were North Coast, we would be flooded with donations and emergency relief.”
As he was leaving, people swore at him and shouted that he “should be ashamed” that he “left the country to burn.”
Andrew Constance, the local member of parliament for Bega, said that the prime minister got “the welcome he probably deserved” from locals in his electorate.
“I say this to the prime minister today: The nation wants you to open up the checkbooks, obviously help people rebuild their lives.”
In a separate incident, the prime minister was snubbed by a firefighter when he tried to shake his hand. “Tell that fella I’m sorry. I’m sure he’s just tired,” Morrison said to another fire official afterward.
“No, no, he’s lost a house,” the official replied.
Morrison addressed his reception in Cobargo later, telling the ABC that he was “not surprised people are feeling very raw at the moment.”
“And that’s why I came today, to be here, to see it for myself, offer what comfort I could,” he said.
“They’ve lost everything, and there are still some very dangerous days ahead. We’re going to do everything we can to ensure they have every support they need,” the prime minister said.
The fires have destroyed more than a 1,200 homes in New South Wales alone, and at least 17 people have died, with many more unaccounted for around the country.
A state of disaster has been declared in the state of Victoria ― the first time the powers have been used since they were introduced in 2009 ― and the military is evacuating residents in disaster-hit zones. A state of emergency has been declared in New South Wales for seven days from Friday.