Morrison offers medal to firefighters as Albanese warns against 'business as usual' after fires

Paul Karp
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Anthony Albanese has warned Australia cannot treat unprecedented bushfires as “business as usual” and Scott Morrison extended eligibility for the national emergency medal as the bushfire crisis coloured national celebrations on Sunday.

Australia Day – a source of political contest due to growing calls to move the date from 26 January, which marks the start of European colonisation – instead united the two leaders in expressing gratitude to emergency services workers and firefighting volunteers, who have been battling blazes since September.

But the Labor leader used a speech in the fire-ravaged Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, to note that predictions of a longer, hotter, drier summer increasing the bushfire risk had been borne out and to warn Australia is “at a turning point” in its response to the crisis.

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“This is not business as usual,” Albanese said. “This is not even fire as usual.

“We can no longer comfort ourselves with the poetry of Dorothea Mackellar and the thought that it’s always been like this, that this is the price we pay for living on a beautiful but unforgiving continent.”

Albanese described the idea Australia had “no way of predicting” the scale of the crisis as a “fiction”.

“We have had expert warnings – some from months ago, some from years ago, even a decade ago – that our fire seasons would become longer and more intense, exacerbated by the forces of climate change.”

Albanese also suggested a way forward on the issue of reconciliation, arguing that an Indigenous voice to parliament and process of truth-telling would “bring us closer together as a nation”.

He acknowledged that the first encounter between Indigenous Australians and European settlers was marked by “desperation, resistance, loss” and “the tragic triumph of brutality”.

He described 26 January as an occasion to “acknowledge the past, particularly those who suffered as result of the arrival of the first fleet on this day in 1788”.

“We cannot pretend our history began on this day in 1788. We cannot deny the trauma that accompanied the birth of modern Australia.

“But a voice and truth-telling would take us farther from that and bring us closer together as a nation.”

Earlier, Morrison announced that fire, police, ambulance and emergency services volunteers and workers, defence force personnel, reservists and overseas personnel would be eligible to receive the national emergency medal for their service in the 2019-20 fires.

Established in 2011, the medal has previously been awarded to 15,000 recipients for service in Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires of 2009, the Queensland floods of 2010-11 and Cyclone Yasi.

At the national flag raising and citizenship ceremony in Canberra, Morrison said that Australia’s national identity was not marked by a “negative or exclusive tribalism”.

“Rather, it is the positive identity that comes from living a life as a good citizen and [as someone] who thinks and believes in something greater than their own self. This is the greatness of Australia. This is the strength of Australia. This is our secret.”

Morrison described Australia as “the best place on Earth” and suggested it was a fundamental part of the national character to be “hopeful, even in difficult times”.

He then led the citizenship ceremony by asking new citizens to recite the pledge: “From this time forward, I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people, whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect, and whose laws I will uphold and obey.”

In prepared remarks to be delivered at a citizenship ceremony at the Sydney Opera House, seen by Guardian Australia, Labor’s shadow education minister, Tanya Plibersek, was to say that she had “always loved” the pledge.

She suggested every Australian student should be made to learn it because “it’s an elegant expression of what it takes to be a good citizen – of the rights we hold and the responsibilities we owe”.

The comments provoked an angry response by some on social media.

The former deputy Labor leader has expressed admiration for the pledge as far back as 2011.

Plibersek argued that patriotism should be embraced by social progressives as a form of social inclusion and solidarity.

“Contrary of what some people seem to think, patriotism is not about exclusion,” she said. “It’s not about policing the boundary of who does or doesn’t count as Australian.

“Patriotism, like mateship, is about solidarity. It’s about what we owe each other as citizens.”