‘Excuse me, I can’t breathe’: Australia PM blasted for press conference on religious freedom bill as Sydney chokes

Kate Ng
Getty

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison is facing a barrage of criticism for holding a press conference on a new religious discrimination bill instead of giving more urgency to the bushfire crisis.

A redraft of the bill was released on Tuesday, and comes as Sydney experiences choking haze caused by massive bushfires on the outskirts of the city.

The Australian government planned to introduce the bill to parliament in November, but decided to delay it after backlash from religious groups and equality organisations.

The amended bill will allow religious institutions, including hospitals and care providers, to continue hiring staff on the basis of their religion.

There are a number of religious hospitals, aged care services and retirement home providers in the country that are largely represented by non-profit group Catholic Health Australia.

The bill also allows specific health professions – such as midwifery, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, and psychology – to object to carrying out procedures that go against their faith, but prohibits them from refusing to provide care based on the patient’s faith.

During the press conference, Morrison also rejected calls for the federal government to do more to help firefighters battling the fires.

According to the Guardian, he said the firefighting crews are on rotation and added: “[The] fact is these crews, yes, they’re tired, but they also want to be out there defending their communities.”

He also rejected suggested to professionalise volunteer firefighters, who have been helping the crew without pay for weeks.

Morrison said volunteers are “a big part of our natural disaster response” and the country has “always” depended on volunteer effort to deal with such issues.

Taking to social media, angry Australians have decried Morrison’s inaction on the bushfires, calling him “out of control” and “without empathy”.

Mehreen Faruqi, a Greens party senator for New South Wales, tweeted in response to Morrison rejecting assistance to firefighters: “Just f*** off.”

Since the bushfire crisis broke out several weeks ago, Sydney’s air quality index has reached 12 times the level deemed hazardous.

Visibility is poor in the city, reduced to as little as 500 metres in some areas, and health authorities have urged the public to stay indoors.

Dr Richard Broome of the New South Wales Health department, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation the city is experiencing “some of the worst air quality we’ve ever seen”.

Morrison has also been criticised for heading to New Zealand to address the volcano eruption that took place on Monday, which has so far claimed five lives and injured 30.

One Twitter user wrote: “NZ volcanic eruption that [has] taken so many lives is a tragedy. Volcanic eruptions [are] unpreventable. On the other hand, actions could be taken to limit the escalating catastrophic bushfires claiming lives and homes here in Australia. Of course Scott Morrison has rushed to NZ.”

As many as three Australians are feared dead and 11 more are unaccounted for when the volcano on White Island erupted.

New Zealand police have said the death toll is expected to rise, and there have been no further “signs of life”.

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