SUBJECTS:  Country Caucus, Carbon Farming Initiative, Repeal of the Carbon Tax

JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR RURAL AFFAIRS:  This morning we had our first meeting of the Country Caucus, clearly putting the aspirations and challenges of rural and regional Australia at the top of Labor’s agenda.  I congratulate Justine Elliot, the Member for Richmond who will chair the Country Caucus and Lisa Chesters who will be the Secretary, she is of course the Member for Bendigo.  Together, and with the rest of the team, we intend to ensure that all of Labor’s policies and all of Labor’s responses to Government legislation are determined through the lens of the interests of rural and regional Australia.

In addition, we will be out there campaigning, we will be making sure that every rural and regional seat around the country will be hotly contested, that’s good news for the people who live in those electorates because competition brings outcomes for them.  We are making it clear – top of our agenda.  I am looking forward to working with the Country Caucus as the spokesperson on both agriculture and rural affairs to ensure Labor is as competitive as it possibly can be at the next Election.  I will be happy to take your questions.

JOURNALIST:  I suppose to get rural and regional Australia on side you will probably have to convince them that to put a price on carbon is in their best interests.  How do you expect to do that?

FITZGIBBON:  Well it is interesting that there is a bit of scepticism in rural and regional Australia on the carbon front, but it is interesting that the sector most affected by climate change is of course, the land sector generally.  That’s why we need to be acting on climate change. I thought I might get a question on this so I brought just two of probably 50 reports that I have on my desk in my office into climate change.  One is the Productivity Commission report on drought, no drier economic think tank than the Productivity Commission!  And the other is one from the Centre for Policy Development entitled “Farming Smarter Not Harder”.  Both of those reports, and many others, make it clear that climate change is going to be an ongoing issue for the farm sector.

We need to work out how in the future if we want to be part of the “Dining Boom” how we are going to produce more with less.  So it is a big issue for the farm sector, it’s up to Country Caucus and our Leader, and the Party more generally, to bring the farm sector with us, to bring rural and regional Australia with us, to encourage them and convince them that we need to be acting on climate change – that it is not just a price on carbon, it is things which Labor was doing previously:  Reef Rescue: Landcare, that this Government is destroying; our Carbon Farming initiatives which of course was doing real things for farmers – unlike the Carbon Farming Initiative Tony Abbott has been talking about today.

JOURNALIST:  Given that there was a lot of talk in the press conference that Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt just gave about the Carbon Farming Initiative saying that legislation has been put aside for the moment, given the challenges that went on getting the Carbon Tax through and the delays and dealings with the Palmer United Party and other crossbenchers, what sort of challenges will they have trying to get the Carbon Farming Initiative through the Senate now?

FITZGIBBON:  It has to be said that given the problems they had getting the repeal bill through the Senate, they are unlikely to get their Carbon Farming Initiative through the Senate, simply because it will not be effective, the land sector will not be able to compete in the reverse auction with other sectors in this economy.  They should not be calling this initiative the “farming carbon initiative”, stealing Labor’s term, because it frankly has very little to do with the farming sector.

JOURNALIST:  What does it have to do with?  Can you explain it in simple terms?

FITZGIBBON:  Well, Minister Hunt would have you believe that the land sector, farmers, will be successfully competing in a reverse auction for funds to improve their abatement programs on the land.  The fact is they will not be price competitive, they will not be securing those grants, unlike under the former Labor Government where we were giving real money to the farm sector to both reduce our carbon emissions and but also to improve their productivity.  We had farmers everywhere using carbon farming initiatives, Reef Rescue for example, to reduce the impact on the environment and at the same time increase their productivity.  There is nothing in Minister Hunt’s package which will do so.

JOURNALIST:  Just going back to the Country Caucus, how will you differentiate your policies, if and when you have any, to what, say, the National Party are trying to achieve for rural Australia?

FITZGIBBON:  Well the National Party doesn’t have any policies.  We have had 10 months of policy inertia while we await an Agricultural White Paper.  We have not yet seen the Green Paper which was due in June and I still can’t believe we have a White Paper process which doesn’t have amongst its terms of reference any reference at all to resource sustainability.  The biggest issue facing our land sector - yet this Agricultural White Paper, written of course by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, not the Agriculture Department, makes no reference to natural resource sustainability, and therefore gives no hint as to how this Government might ensure that in the future, so that we might participate in the Dining Boom, we are able to produce more food with less resources.

JOURNALIST:  Do you expect energy providers to lower their prices?

FITZGIBBON:  Well you know Mr Abbott has made a lot of so-called increases in energy prices as a result of the carbon tax.  We all know that almost all of that increase has come from additional investment in infrastructure including poles and wires.  I think the Prime Minister is about to be caught out.  If prices don’t drop it can only mean two things:  that he was wrong about the carbon tax impact on power prices; or he hasn’t been able to ensure that any savings involved are passed on to consumers.  So I would say “watch this space”.

JOURNALIST:  What is your message to power companies now that the carbon tax is dead?

FITZGIBBON:  Well my message to power companies is to do the right thing by consumers to any extent that the carbon tax was affecting power prices there should be a commensurate decrease.  But, consumers I suspect will see very little change because the reality is the carbon tax was having very little impact on power prices.

JOURNALIST:  Do you expect that you would have to apologise to Agriculture for the impact the carbon tax made and do you accept the National Farmers’ Federation’s argument today that it did cripple the industry?

FITZGIBBON:  Well I read the National Farmers’ Federation’s media release very carefully and yes, they did welcome the repeal of the carbon tax but I did think they had some very very strong hints in there of their concern about the ineffectiveness of Greg Hunt’s Carbon Farming Initiative.  I think the NFF knows there is nothing in the CFI for them even if Tony Abbott is able to get it through the Senate.  It looks to me now like we are going to have no climate change policy in this country and that is bad news for the sector affected most, that is, the agricultural sector.

JOURNALIST:  Given that there was a lot of rhetoric about the carbon tax being a by-product of the Labor/ Greens/ Independents alliance, how would you describe now the political collection of different forces that have led to its repeal?

FITZGIBBON:  Well I am not going to try to run commentary on the makeup of the Australian Senate.  They are a disparate lot and they are proving to be a hard mob to negotiate with.  I will focus on Labor’s policies, compromised policies are never perfect and the carbon tax wasn’t perfect, we went into the last Election promising to scrap the carbon tax, our policy remains to scrap the carbon tax, but we will only do so when we are sure we have an alternate climate change policy in this country and of course that alternate policy should be some sort of market-based mechanism like an emissions trading scheme.

JOURNALIST:  Animal welfare rights will be a big issue in regional Australia, if Labor is to win over their support would you be supporting Senator Chris Back’s legislation that he is thinking of putting forward in terms of farm protection trespassing laws?

FITZGIBBON:  Well we condemn all forms of cruelty to animals, of course we do, but what we look for of course is the right balance in all these things.  I think there is merit in Senator Chris Back’s proposal although I haven’t seen the detail and of course there would be a Party process involved but we need to ensure that those in the sector are doing the right thing but we also need to ensure that animal welfare groups aren’t crossing the line and more importantly ensure that if they have evidence that should be passed on to the authorities and it be passed on in a timely fashion.  Thank you very much.


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