MELBOURNE - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison faced enraged hecklers and an angry firefighter in a town ravaged by bushfires, piling pressure on the leader amid an unprecedented crisis that has killed at least 18 people.
A firefighter refused to shake Morrison's hand when he visited the town of Cobargo in New South Wales state on Thursday.
Video footage showed Morrison tried to grab the man's hand, who then got up and walked away, sparking an apology from the prime minister. A local fire official explained that the man had lost his house while defending others' homes.
Another man blasted Morrison for watching fireworks over Sydney Harbor from his official waterfront mansion, Kirribilli House, while fires raged further south on New Year's Eve.
"You won't be getting any votes down here, buddy. You're an idiot," the man shouted.
"I don't see Kirribilli burning after the fireworks," he screamed.
Morrison said on Friday he didn't take the attacks personally.
"I understand the hurt, the anger and the frustration," he said in an interview on 3AW radio.
"Whether they're angry with me or they're angry about their situation, all I know is that they're hurting and it's my job to be there to try and offer some comfort and support," he said.
Morrison had walked away from a Cobargo woman who urged him to provide more funding to the town and state firefighters.
"This is not fair. We're totally forgotten about down here. Every single time this area has a flood or a fire, we get nothing," another woman shouted as Morrison drove away.
Even a state politician from his own Liberal party whose seat is in the region took a swipe at the prime minister.
"To be honest, the locals probably gave him the welcome he probably deserved," said New South Wales transport minister Andrew Constance.
The prime minister, who won a surprise election victory last May, ended 2019 on a sour note with fires raging across 5 states while he took off on a family holiday to Hawaii. Facing criticism, he cut the holiday short and apologized for making a mistake.
He urged locals and holidaymakers, who on Thursday were forced to evacuate fire ravaged areas, to be patient, but he is facing criticism for not doing enough to fight the underlying causes of the bushfires or combating the crisis.
"The challenge now is the scale of what we're seeing across several states now. Those resources are being stretched," he said on local radio.