“Tell the prime minister to go and get f---ed, from Nelligen. We really enjoy doing this s---,” he told a television news crew as he leaned out of his firetruck window, accusing Australia’s leader, Scott Morrison, of providing inadequate support for the volunteer brigades on the disaster’s front lines. Morrison had faced public anger for vacationing in Hawaii as the fires escalated, and for pinning responsibility on state-level officials to shoulder the burden of the emergency response.
At the end of that day, Jan. 4, Parker collapsed on the roadside.
Parker says that after his political rant received wide media coverage, he was removed from his position as a volunteer with the Rural Fire Service, which is largely responsible for battling blazes outside the state’s urban areas. He says he received a message from his local brigade telling him he had lost his role because of his remarks, and to return his truck because the RFS was about to send the police to look for him.
Officials dispute Parker’s account, which he aired during a television interview Sunday, and a spat has ensued over whether Parker was punished for his criticism of Morrison. RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said Monday that Parker had not been dismissed, but noted that “that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some conversations locally with his volunteer peers.”
A spokesman for the force added separately that RFS officials were “looking into” what had occurred at the brigade level to determine what was communicated to Parker.
Parker faced a backlash of his own on social media on Monday when it emerged that he was a supporter of Pauline Hanson, leader of the far-right One Nation party.
Regardless of the merits of his claim, Parker has come to embody the anger of Australia’s fire-choked summer, while shining a light on the burden shouldered by volunteers who account for the bulk of the country’s firefighting force.
Nearly 200,000 volunteers form the backbone of the state-based volunteer services, including 70,000 in New South Wales, the world’s largest volunteer force. Every summer, many of them put aside regular jobs and lives to help fight the fires that torment communities in the world’s driest inhabited continent.
Heavy rain in recent weeks has helped extinguish many of the fires. But the scale of this season’s devastation — more than 30 dead, thousands of homes destroyed, and an unprecedented portion of the country’s forests burned — has triggered anger and debate about the country’s climate policies, especially Morrison’s defense of Australia’s coal industry. It has also revived questions about the sustainability of the volunteer firefighting system, as climate change makes fire seasons longer and more intense.
Parker said his anger toward Morrison, who leads a conservative coalition, flared when the prime minister was asked in December whether volunteer rural firefighters should be paid.
Morrison responded that firefighters “want to be out there defending their communities,” and that the government did not see a need to turn the state-based volunteer firefighting system into a professional service.
Speaking about Parker’s case on Monday, Morrison told reporters that “of course” the firefighter should not be dismissed, adding that he was pleased that this did not appear to be the case.
Meanwhile, a GoFundMe page has been set up by Parker’s neighbors to collect donations to help him rebuild his fire-damaged home.
“Paul hasn’t been able to work, and therefore he has not generated an income, due to his volunteering work with the Rural Fire Service,” the page reads.
Parker said Monday he felt the RFS had tried to “backpedal” following the publicity about the dispute.
“When you’re told that they were going to call the police if you hadn’t brought the firetruck back, and that you’re being stood down for foul language — that doesn’t mean ‘come back tomorrow,’ ” he said in an interview.
He does not plan to return to being a volunteer firefighter. “They broke my heart, they broke me as a person, they destroyed my will as a volunteer,” he said of the RFS.
The episode has earned Parker a substantial bar tab at his local pub.
Joel Avery, the licensee of the Steampacket Hotel in Nelligen, said people had been continually coming in and adding to the tab.
“At first $500 turned up; now the money just keeps on coming,” he said.