Australia

Scott Morrison addresses 'communication breakdown' with fire authorities over defence deployment

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison says it was up to state leaders to inform the fire authorities about plans to deploy army reservists.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has sought to repair strains in his relationships with state authorities after a crucial bushfire announcement caught emergency bosses by surprise.

NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons welcomed news from Mr Morrison that up to 3000 army reservists would be deployed for bushfire recovery, but said he only found out through media reports.

"I was disappointed and I was frustrated on one of our busiest days," Mr Fitzsimmons said on Sunday of Saturday's announcement.

"They apologised that in hindsight they could have done better with communicating that."

RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons says he was disappointed to learn about the federal government's plans via the media.
RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons says he was disappointed to learn about the federal government's plans via the media.
AAP

Victoria's Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp also confirmed he had received no official notification before the announcement.

Mr Morrison hosed down the issue during a press conference on Sunday morning, complimenting state authorities and conceding there had been a communication breakdown.

"The decisions we took and enacted were a statement about the scale of the crisis - it is in no way a statement on the performance of the state and territory agencies," the Liberal leader told reporters in Canberra.

"There was a breakdown of communications at the defence liaison level with the headquarters yesterday. We've addressed any issues that have arisen from that."

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she was told of the prime minister's announcement before it was made.

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said it was up to state leaders to inform the rest of the public service.

"How states then advise their own bureaucrats is an issue for them," Senator Reynolds said.

Mr Morrison also defended a much-criticised video posted on the Liberal Party's twitter account detailing the government's bushfire response after it was labelled "shameless" and a breach of political advertising rules.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during a press conference on the governments' bushfire response at Parliament House in Canberra, Saturday, January 4, 2020. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch) NO ARCHIVING
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds announced the ADF would play a greater role in bushfire recovery, but no one told the RFS.
AAP

"It wasn't a Liberal Party-sponsored ad, it was authorised by me. I'm the leader of the Liberal Party," Mr Morrison told reporters.

Mr Morrison said he would "reject absolutely" any suggestion the video was a political advertisement.

"The postings that we've made have been to inform the community about what the commonwealth government has been doing."

British broadcaster Piers Morgan said the video was a "self-promotional commercial with cheesy elevator music".

"This is one of the most tone-deaf things I've ever seen a country's leader put out during a crisis. Shameless & shameful," he posted on twitter.

The Australia Defence Association - a non-partisan public-interest watchdog - accused the government of breaching rules around political advertising.

"It's a clear breach of the non-partisanship convention. You shouldn't politicise defence force support agencies like this," executive director of the ADA, Neil James, told SBS News.

"After they had made a formal announcement that was shown on every tv station and they'd also [sent out] departmental and ministerial press releases, what was the point of the ad?"

"Clearly they have dragged the defence force into party political controversy and there was apparently no thought of that risk occurring and that's quite frankly, disgraceful," Mr James said.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd was also outraged.

"On a day we have catastrophic fire conditions, in the midst of a genuine national crisis, Morrison, the marketing guy, does what? He releases a Liberal Party ad! He is no longer fit to hold the high office of prime minister," Mr Rudd tweeted.

Mr Morrison took to Twitter to defend the video late on Saturday, saying it was a legal requirement in Australia to include an authorisation on all video messages used by MPs on social media.

The prime minister has also faced criticism for not acting sooner to bolster the nation's firefighting capabilities and for going on holiday to Hawaii during the crisis.

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