A tree on fire yesterday near Tahmoor, New South Wales 
Photo © Dean Lewins/EPE-EFE/Shutterstock

A recent Facebook post shows the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, up a ladder installing a fleet of neon reindeer across his roof’s guttering. ‘No matter what’s going on each year,’ he says, ‘getting in the Christmas spirit has always been such an important part of our family life. I do the lights.’

Unfortunately, Morrison hasn’t been able to enjoy his light show in the lead up to Christmas Day. This week, while Australia faces an unprecedented environmental catastrophe, the prime minister flew to Hawaii with his wife and children for a ‘well-deserved’ holiday.

In the last three months of 2019, fires across the country have burned more than three million hectares. Nine people have been killed and up to a thousand homes have been lost. The destruction of animal and plant species – including ancient Gondwana forest – beggars the imagination. Sydney has been blanketed in smoke on and off for weeks. Wednesday was the hottest Australian day on record (surpassing the record set the previous day). And summer – the real fire season – has only just begun. Every year it starts earlier.

‘It is clear that climate change has contributed to setting records of this type,’ says the manager of climate monitoring at the Bureau of Meteorology. But faced with daily inescapable evidence of disaster – people wearing masks in Sydney’s streets; unending evacuation messages running along the bottom of TV screens – our incorrigible man of the people has been oddly reticent. When Queensland suffered floods in February, the prime minister was quickly on the ground, touring the damage. The fires have proved more complicated for him.

Climate change denialism is such a mainstream part of Australian political life – and an accepted position across our dominant media corporation, News Corp – that it’s surprising to hear government officials speak with any candour about global warming. In mid-November, with bushfire conditions graded as ‘catastrophic’, public servants from the New South Wales Department of Planning, Industry and Environment attended a conference on adapting to climate change. They were directed not to discuss the links between accelerating temperatures and the bushfires raging around them. ‘It’s an absolute disgrace to be talking about climate change while we have lost lives and assets,’ the state’s deputy premier said.

We’re yet to discover whether the effects of these firestorms – conservative rural communities’ sense that they are living under siege; the blanketing of capital cities in smoke; the immense financial cost – will force a long-term shift in climate policy. Morrison, when he’s been available for questioning, has been forced to backpedal on his claims that Australia’s carbon emissions have no connection to the fires. Now he acknowledges that climate change is a factor, ‘amongst many other issues’.

Morrison is the most religious prime minister this deeply secular nation has ever elected. On the May election trail, News Corp showed footage of a cap-wearing ‘ScoMo’ shearing sheep or turning sausages at local barbecues. But another video, taken with Morrison’s permission, showed him joining enthusiastically with the worshippers talking in tongues at the service he attends every Sunday at Sydney’s Horizon Church. Horizon preaches a strain of Pentecostalism that believes the End Times are coming (‘for the lord will execute judgment by fire’ etc.). Could it be that at some level the PM counts God’s will, if not his wrath, among the ‘other issues’ causing the fires?

On the days when the air quality in Sydney is 12 times the ‘hazardous’ threshold, it is interesting to ponder whether the Pentecostalists are as appalled and frightened as the rest of us, or comforted by a belief that God’s will is being exercised and, as believers, they’ll be all right. Could Morrison’s strangely stifled response to the mega-blazes have something to do with his evangelical faith?

No doubt the reason is more mundane. Famous for bringing a lump of coal into Parliament and lauding it as a God-given civilising force, Morrison continues to receive backing from the coal lobby, and his premiership rests firmly on the support of the climate change deniers in his government. You might think Australia would be the last country on earth to allow new super mines to add more fossil fuel to the load. But Morrison, refreshed from his trip to Hawaii, plans to do just that.