Australian Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce says he was misrepresented over his comments that suggested two people who died in bushfires were "most likely people who voted for the Green party".
Joyce was slammed as "disgusting" over the remarks made on Sky News this morning.
The comments came after chief political reporter Kieran Gilbert asked Joyce about his claims that The Greens were to blame for increased bushfire risk because of the party's opposition to hazard reduction burns, particularly in national parks.
Gilbert noted that fire authorities said they had done hazard reduction burning ahead of the season and asked whether they needed more resources.
Joyce agreed they may need more resources but also more regulations to allow them to get into national parks and do hazard reduction in a more substantial way, before adding:
"I acknowledge that the two people who died were most likely people who voted for the Green party, so I am not going to start attacking them. That's the last thing I want to do," Joyce said.
"What I wanted to concentrate on, is the policies that we can mitigate these tragedies happening again in the future. That's where I'm going to focus."
Joyce told The New Daily that he was actually trying to urge politicians to be more respectful of the alternative community where bushfire victims lived.
"The people who live there are in a commune basically," he said. "Wytaliba is an alternative community. They don't vote for me, they vote for Greens, and I've got no problem with it. They agree there should have been more burn reduction, fuel reduction."
Joyce said critics were "wantonly misrepresenting" his remarks, news.com.au reports.
"My point is I was saying 'just be careful, you don't understand'," he said.
Joyce's comments have been slammed on social media as well as by Labor senator Kristina Keneally, who raised them during Environment Senate Estimates.
"How does he know who they voted for and why does it matter? They're dead, they died in a bush fire — isn't that enough?" Senator Keneally said.
The Greens are being blamed for the increased bushfire risk as two states face catastrophic fire danger today.
In an interview with The Australian, Joyce said the Greens had increased the bushfire threat because of the party's opposition to hazard reduction burns, particularly in national parks.
"The problems we have got have been created by the Greens," Joyce said.
"We haven't had the capacity to easily access (hazard) reduction burns because of all of the paperwork that is part of green policy.
"We don't have access to dams because they have been decommissioned on national parks because of green policy."
Joyce's comments come after a Queensland volunteer rural firefighter Tyson Smith also blamed environmental authorities for failing to do hazard reduction burns.
The "authority figures that have stood for environmental protection" over the past five years are "directly responsible for this devastation", Smith wrote in a Facebook post.
"The fuel loading we are seeing out on the ground is ridiculous. We are looking at 5-10 years of growth, this fuel source is making these fires untouchable, we can't even get near them to fight them."
Smith said the environmental authorities who have a put a stop to reduction burns — which include controlled burning, mechanical clearing like slashing undergrowth, or even reducing the ground fuel by hand — "need to be held personally accountable for the losses people have endured. People have lost their lives as a direct result of the decisions made by the environmental authorities!"
The firey ended the post, asking, "Tell me why these enviros shouldn't be stood up in front of a judge and charged with manslaughter? Enough is enough!"
This morning Greens MP Adam Bandt was asked about Joyce's comments during an interview on ABC RN, and whether the party was cautious about backburning.
"We support hazard reduction burns," Bandt said.
"We support effective and sustainable backburning strategies guided by the fire authorities, we will listen to what the fire authorities say is necessary."
Bandt said fire authorities had made the point in recent days that it was harder to do effective backburning because fire seasons were getting longer due to climate change.
He said former and current fire chiefs had also made the point that the amount of backburning necessary to avoid catastrophic fires was becoming impractical because of increasing drought.
But RN Breakfast host Hamish Macdonald brought the conversation back to criticisms made by Joyce.
"Do you acknowledge that the fire authorities are having difficulties getting into national parks to do backburning at appropriate times?" Macdonald asked.
Bandt responded: "I've listened very closely to what fire authorities have been saying over recent days and I have not heard them say that that is their primary problem".
Macdonald hit back with: "Have you heard them say that it is a problem?"
Bandt tried to steer the conversation on to the comments about "unprecedented" conditions but Macdonald pulled him back.
"I appreciate that you are trying to take this conversation elsewhere," Macdonald said.
"But I am seeking a pretty direct answer to this question, and that is whether you acknowledge that there are problems for the fire authorities getting into national parks, to do the backburning when they have the opportunity? It may not be the primary cause that's been outlined to you, but do you accept that it is part of the problem?"
Bandt answered: "We support effective backburning strategies guided by the fire authorities, so if the fire authorities have something to say on that point, of course we'll listen.
"But we are not in power in the NSW Government, the Liberal Government is in power there, so if people like Barnaby Joyce have got concerns they should direct them to there."
While many people use the terms interchangeably, hazard reduction is done ahead of bushfire season to reduce the intensity of fires if they do happen, while backburning is done as a last resort to stop a fire that's already burning.
A Queensland Department of Environment and Science (DES) spokesperson said the agency had worked to reduce fuel loads and minimise the impact from fires by carrying out planned burns.
"The department takes its obligations in regards to fire management very seriously, with priority given to protecting life and property, particularly where urban and rural communities adjoin our parks and forests," the spokeswoman said.
"This year, since January, there have been 296 planned burns conducted in protected areas, covering more than one million hectares. This (is the) most hectares treated by planned burns in five years."
In an article on The Conversation, Professor David Bowman of the University of Tasmania explains that the purpose of fire reduction burning is to reduce the intensity of fires by removing things such as leaf litter.
It has to be done frequently to be effective and this has raised concerns among ecologists.
"In Victoria, for instance, the 5 per cent fuel-reduction target means a given area of bush will be burnt every 20 years," he wrote.
"But ecologists are concerned that such high frequencies can have damaging effects on plant and animal species that require longer fire-free intervals to complete their life cycles."
Bowman said there was debate about the effectiveness of fuel-reduction burning, given that a huge area of landscape needs to be treated.
"It is also dangerous work, which carries a risk of destroying houses and infrastructure if the fires escape control."
Another serious side effect was smoke pollution.
"Because of these constraints, attention is increasingly being focused on managing fuel without burning," he wrote.
"This can involve using herbivores and thinning vegetation, including burning the debris in specially designed portable furnaces that have low smoke emissions."
Bandt has caused controversy in recent days after he suggested the Prime Minister Scott Morrison was responsible for the dangerous bushfire conditions, because of the government's lack of action on climate change.
"We have been told for decades now that unless we keep coal in the ground and cut pollution drastically then the risk of fires like this is going to increase," Bandt told RN on Tuesday.
But his comments linking the bushfires to climate change were slammed by Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, who said people didn't need to hear the "ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time".