Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Firefighting PM taking heat for warming

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BRISBANE -- Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has always exuded such an aura of macho mystique that his out-of-office-hours role as a firefighter is a seamless fit.

Like Ronald Regan in the saddle on his Californian ranch, like Gen. Douglas MacArthur sucking on that corn cob pipe, like Liberace draped in sequined cape and ostrich feathers -- some men just have a knack for giving a clear physical expression to the spirit burning within.

So few Australians were alarmed when their PM, who is also a boxer, bike rider, surfer, footballer and all-round athlete, was discovered last Saturday to have donned his fluorescent fire gear and displayed his dexterity with large hoses while striding around the Australian bush.

The PM pulled a 14-hour night shift with the New South Wales Rural Fire Brigade in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, and it was not as if his colleagues didn't need an extra hand from a dedicated volunteer with 10 years' experience in the trade.

Fires are once again threatening hundreds of thousands of Australian homes as the bush fire season, which usually waits until around Christmas, arrives early.

Already tragedy has struck with a 43-year-old pilot of a water bomber dead after a crash Thursday morning near Ulladulla where a 3,800-hectare bushfire burned out-of-control.

Another householder closer to Sydney also lost his life after a heart attack as he struggled to save his home from the flames.

Australians are briefed almost hourly with updates on a natural threat that only appears to be increasing as temperatures in one of the world's warmest countries soar.

And it was in that context that Abbott, the firefighter, came under some political fire of his own.

Abbott's Liberal-National Coalition, which won power in September, has made rolling back Australia's carbon tax one of it priorities. The new PM, widely credited with once describing climate change as "crap,'' has also abolished the Climate Change Commission headed by Tim Flannery, and internationally renowned climate change author and scientist.

And on Thursday, Environment Minister Greg Hunt cited Wikipedia as one of his sources during historical investigations into the role of bush fires in Australia.

"We'll trust the scientists, not Wikipedia,'' cried the Australian Greens who see the early outbreak of lethal blazes as proof of the validity of global warming.

The Los Angeles Times some years ago identified Australia as carbon's first victim. That label has not eased the growing sense of alarm among some residents who see these infernos no longer as a portent of an ugly future, but that ugly future's arrival.

No less than global warming's patron saint, Al Gore, warned Australians on the ABC Wednesday about politicians who deny carbon's influence on temperature and climate.

"It reminds me of politicians here in the United States who got a lot of support from the tobacco companies and who argued to the public that there was absolutely no connection between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer,'' he said.

Greens MP Adam Bandt suggested that while Abbott may be physically fighting fires, government policies are causing them.

The Melbourne-based MP pointed out Australia in the past 12 months has recorded the hottest year, month and day on record.

"Tony Abbott has picked this time to say he's going to rip up action on global warming, which is going to mean these are the kind of fires we will see more often,'' he said.


Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 25, 2013 A13

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