SUBJECT/S: Review of 2016 year in politics, Hunter mining and agriculture industries, economic forcast, Newcastle Knights ownership.


HOST: Always an interesting year in politics and it was no different in 2016. Joel Fitzgibbon the Federal Member for Hunter, Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and Shadow Minister for Rural and Regional Australia joins me on the program now to have a look at this year just gone and maybe what’s ahead next year. Joel, good morning.

FITZGIBBON: Hammo, great to be with you.

HOST: Now before we get into a review of 2016, I also want to ask you about the Knights and the big announcement yesterday which we will be covering in some detail at 8.30. Earlier, this year or even last year, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull both said they wanted an improvement in Question Time in the behaviour of MPs. Did that happen in your view?

FITZGIBBON: That certainly didn’t happen Hammo. It was hardly a major concern to me. I mean Question Time lasts for a bit over an hour each day and is not what you see for the balanced many hours that make up the rest of the Parliamentary day. It’s a bit of theatre and some ways a bit of fun and is about, I suppose, influencing what the journos have to say during the six o’clock news that night and what the newspapers have to say. Question Time is a very special and serious event too because in our Western democracy it’s the key place for holding the Government of the day to account. It’s a serious thing and it’s strange the way we go about it, but in the end it works pretty well.

HOST: Okay, well answered. 2016, just looking back now, what were the biggest challenges for you personally in the role that you have in the opposition.

FITZGIBBON: I think it was a very busy year politically and was a great year for political junkies and we can talk about the year that was both locally and globally. It’s no complaint, but I think politics is getting tougher. It’s getting busier and is becoming more demanding and the issues more complex as the global economy changes. Community expectations are high and people want their politicians delivering in real terms. One of the things that’s driving it is the Brexits and the Donald Trumps of the world, or the phenomena that they, are is that I think people feel like they haven’t really benefitted all that much from dramatic economic change over the last few decades and they are suffering change fatigue and they are rightly expecting more of their political representatives and of course as part of that, minor parties like One Nation are emerging and re-emerging putting pressure on the political parties. It’s tempting us, I suppose, to break away from the more orthodox and traditional thinking which in itself is a challenge, so it’s been a tough year politically and an eventful one but as one always I enjoyed.

HOST:  Joel, do you think the Government and the Opposition saw Donald Trump coming?

FITZGIBBON: I think we should have seen Donald Trump coming after the Brexit result in the UK that should have been a sure sign to us we should be expecting the unexpected and certainly was a dramatic year. We had the crazy primary election season in the US culminating in Donald Trump just before that, Brexit and of course the UK Prime Minister. What is the result of that? Well we saw Malcolm Turnbull take us to a very unusual and rare double dissolution election and rarer, an eight week long winter election campaign which again saw the re-emergence of Pauline Hanson and other minor groups. Along the way we of course watched the emergence of the Grey Hound ban and the council amalgamations here in NSW which eventually cost the Deputy Premier his job. We had council elections thrown in the mix along the way and had the Northern Territory Government smashed out of office and indeed the chief minister there lost his own seat in the election. We of course finished the year off with the surprise resignation of John Key just across the ditch in New Zealand so there has been plenty happening.

HOST: Federal Member for Hunter and Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and also another role as Shadow Minister for Rural and Regional Australia, Joel Fitzgibbon with us on 1233. Joel, a little closer to home, and right in the thick of where your responsibilities lie, the coal industry seems to be on the improve after a very tough couple of years. Would you concur?

FITZGIBBON: Absolutely Hammo and even when things were very, very tough, we were still exporting record volumes of coal out of the Hunter. It’s the price that was knocking us about. It collapsed effectively and that dramatically changed the dynamic and the investment phase of the boom had fallen off. All the big jobs and the money are in the construction phase of mining and once the mines are up and running and producing, basically it’s pretty capital intensive and doesn’t take so much labour so it was a double whammy there, but the price is on the march, thankfully, making a huge difference…can you hear that cat in the background talking too?

HOST: Yes I can.

FITZGIBBON: That’s making a huge difference and what we are seeing is some of the bigger players walking away from coal for various reasons and some of the more junior players coming in and filling the void. I think things are looking pretty bright.

HOST: As a Labor man through and through, have you had a look or have close contact with, for instance, the union movement who are concerned about the fact with the downturn there were not only significant job losses across the Hunter in the coal industry, but because the coal industry to a great degree was on its knees, many of these companies were re-employing people under much varied and lesser work conditions than they may have left the industry. Is that something you are aware of?

FITZGIBBON:  I am aware of it and of course I talk to the unions all the time and share the unions’ concerns. It’s business to create wealth in this country and its business that create jobs but there is an ongoing role for government and governments need to make sure companies can’t exploit workers in that way. Yes sure, companies need to be competitive, profitable and flexible but we have always offered them that opportunity. Labor in particular in the Hawke and Keating years and the legacy of them still lives on where we introduced more enterprise bargaining and flexibility in the workplace. That’s the right way to go about it and we will keep a check on those who try to do it any other way.

HOST: It would be unfair when I talk about coal and ask you about the coal industry, you are also very much responsible for rural and regional Australia. How do you manage the balance there? It sometimes appears that rural industries and coal are at loggerheads.

FITZGIBBON: It is difficult and challenging Craig and there is no doubt about that. I have been dealing with land use conflict in all my almost 29 years in politics. I had eight years in local government where it was an issue and for almost the last 21 years in Federal Parliament, but we have managed it well in the past and I do believe we can continue to manage it well into the future. I do believe those industries can live in harmony, it’s tough and governments need to put some tight rules around the development and operation of coal mines but we have done it well in the past and think we can continue to do it well in the future.

HOST: Look into the crystal ball for us for a moment, 2017 do you see conditions, do you see an economic improvement in the Hunter and what are some of the things you think will be on the agenda next year?

FITZGIBBON: Like politics it is unpredictable. That last September quarter result on the National Accounts we received late this week was a real concern. Like Brexit and like Trump, no one saw it coming and economists are still scrambling to properly explain it. It might have been an aberration driven largely by a dramatic economic fall off in Western Australia but if we get another one in the December quarter, a result we will find out about next year, then we are technically in recession.

HOST: Is that right?

FITZGIBBON: That’s right, two consecutive quarters of economic growth equals technically a recession, something we avoided even through the global financial crisis and if that happens Craig then we all need to have a look at ourselves. Malcolm Turnbull came to power -  I know Saturday morning isn’t a time to be partisan and political - but he came to power offering great hope and said he knocked off Tony Abbott mainly because of the management of the economy or Tony Abbott’s failure to produce what he promised, but since then we’ve gone backwards. We need strong leadership in this country at the moment, particularly as the minor party forces around the globe tempt us to verge from our course. Sadly Malcolm Turnbull is not offering it and he needs to offer it, or get out of the way and let someone through who is prepared to do so.

HOST: A final one for you Joel as a very keen rugby league man over many years and obviously a close supporter of the Newcastle Knights, we are going to be covering this community based model and the plan to go to that and regain control of the club from the NRL. What do you make of it on the detail you have seen so far?

FITZGIBBON: I certainly congratulate Nick Dan and his mates for having a crack and know that will be welcomed by many in the community who want two things. They would like to see a team that includes the locals and one that is devoted to the local breeding ground and bringing on juniors and seeing local people in the team and they of course want to win. Absolutely that’s important to every fan of course, but I think they would be welcoming of a model which puts the fans more in touch with the leadership of the club and gives them some ownership of the club. Whether that is viable of course in what is a big business these days, rugby league, is another question but good on them for having a crack.

HOST: Indeed it will be an interesting couple of months I think. Certainly a degree pf excitement around the table yesterday but we will have to wait and see on that on the success or otherwise of the model and how much the community want to buy into that. Joel always good to talk and I appreciate your time this morning. Have a great Christmas.

FITZGIBBON: Merry Christmas Craig to you and all of your listeners.


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