The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet did not brief Scott Morrison while he was in Hawaii during Australia’s recent bushfire crisis, an inquiry has heard.
PM&C secretary Phil Gaetjens on Wednesday told the Senate committee hearing on the Black Summer bushfires that the department only learnt of Morrison’s plans to take leave on December 9.
The PM was in Hawaii from December 15-21.
Gaetjens noted that while PM&C hadn’t provided written or verbal information to Morrison, he believed the Prime Minister’s office had been keeping Morrison updated.
Morrison returned from Hawaii two days early, after facing widespread criticism.
“Over the course of the past week I have been taking leave with my family. Our leave was brought forward due to the need to cancel our scheduled leave in January because of our official government visit to India and Japan at the invitation of PMs Modi and Abe,” he wrote in a December 20 statement.
“I deeply regret any offence caused to any of the many Australians affected by the terrible bushfires by my taking leave with family at this time. 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. The commonwealth’s responsibilities have been well managed by the Acting Prime Minister, minister Littleproud and Minister Payne. As noted, given the most recent tragic events, I will be returning to Sydney as soon as can be arranged.”
Gaetjens told the inquiry he believed the PM was “well informed” of what was happening in Australia while he was away, stating Morrison had returned by the time a number of state of emergency declarations were made on December 30.
“I don’t think it’s a correct interpretation to say the Prime Minister wasn’t here during the crisis,” he said.
Greens senator Janet Rice criticised the PM’s decision to take leave.
“It seems to me that what you were telling us is that he would have had considerable knowledge about how extreme the crisis was and what was unfolding, yet he still decided to go off on holidays,” she said.
Gaetjens revealed he was also on holiday at the time.
The bushfires killed 33 people, destroyed more than 3000 homes, and burned about 12 million hectares. A royal commission into the crisis on Wednesday heard smoke from the bushfires killed 455 people and affected 80% of the population.
More than 1 billion animals perished in the fires.