Guest Joel Fitzgibbon MP On Opposition View Of The Government's Drought Assistance Package

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TUESDAY, 18 FEBRUARY 2014 SYDNEY SUBJECT/S: Drought assistance package; Polls.

VAN ONSELEN: Well agriculture is very much on the front pages, the Prime Minister has toured drought effected areas unfortunately for him in the photos it was raining at the time but were are told that doesn’t lift a drought formally we’ll talk now to the Shadow Agriculture Spokesperson, Joel Fitzgibbon about it, thanks for being here.

JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE: It’s a pleasure. I’m not sure if it was fortunate or unfortunate

VAN ONSELEN: Well unfortunate for the PR but fortunate for the farmers I suppose.


VAN ONSELEN: But sometimes when that happens and you get a drought that is broken by too much rain because of the ongoing drought it then can create greater likelihood of floods can’t it? Because of the dryness?

FITZGIBBON: But that’s not the question here unfortunately as heavy as the rain seemed that down-pour will go nowhere near toward breaking this drought.

VAN ONSELEN: Why is that, I mean, I’m not obviously a farmer you’d be surprised to know that.

FITZGIBBON: They need 100mls in a week and more in the week after and the week after that, it’s so dry. So it looked heavy and it was heavy but only for short duration and it won’t be enough.

VAN ONSELEN: Ok, now straight to the point, are you going to pass this though the Senate, this package that Tony Abbott has put forward.

FITZGIBBON: Well, we don’t know what the package is

VAN ONSELEN: (interrupts) oh common you do, there’s been an announcement…

FITZGIBBON: (interrupts) That’s the, well

VAN ONSELEN: (interrupts) There has been an announcement they have given us some details

FITZGIBBON: No, there’s no announcement


FITZGIBBON: What’s the package?

VAN ONSELEN: Well yeah (laughs) I’m interviewing you thank God

FITZGIBBON: The Prime Ministe,r you know he is empathising with the farmers, that’s good. He didthe tour, that’s good. He now realises, or he says he realises, that something needs to done, he has sort of danced around and talked about the sort of things that he is thinking about but we have had no announcement. But yes, I have been extending bipartisan support for weeks obviously

VAN ONSELEN: (interrupts) Yeah, but hang on

FITZGIBBON: some (inaudible) in at so we don’t know…

VAN ONSELEN: I’ve got my notes now so the Abbott Government package add $240 million to the existing $420

FITZGIBBON: no, he hasn’t said that

VAN ONSELEN: Lower the rate from 5% to less than 4.5%

FITZGIBBON: (interupts) No he hasn’t said that. These are controlled leaks going into the media and I think some of them come from Barnaby Joyce - the Minister  -but

VAN ONSELEN: (interrupts) Ok, then if they are right

FITZGIBBON: (interrupts) None of those words have ever passed the Prime Minister’s lips

VAN ONSELEN: Ok so let’s put that to one side


VAN ONSELEN: Assuming that these leaks are more than just scuffle but, adding $280 million lowering the rate to 4.5% or less, 10 year repayments rather than 5 year and a $2million limit on debt each farmer can refinance up from $650K, is that package you would support?

FITZGIBBON: All basically things that I have been calling upon them to do over the course of the last few weeks, although I do make the point

VAN ONSELEN: (interrupts) so if that’s what the package is you’ll pass it.

FITZGIBBON: Well we had $420million Farm Finance Package. That’s a package which gives debt relief to farmers and they’re talking about adding to that now and making the test more liberal, we support that. Unfortunately so far all that they have done is taken $40 million out of that package so we welcome more expenditure on Farm Finance we think that’s a good way to deliver some relief.

VAN ONSELEN: ok, but in other words in your inclination will be

FITZGIBBON: (interrupts) is to support

VAN ONSELEN: to pass the package

FITZGIBBON: Absolutely…

VAN ONSELEN: It’s as simple as that…

FITZGIBBON: My inclination is to support, I mean you’ve got to put some caveat on these things but our inclination is to support whatever the Prime Minister decides to do to help farming families who are in crisis.

VAN ONSELEN: Ok let me come from another direction on this. Should there be some economic liberalism in the thought process about this because some farmers, Judith Sloan talks about it in the Australian today and some farmers are what you might call unsustainable farmers should they really be propped up. Yes drought conditions but no perhaps because it’s not the kind of farming that is realistically achievable without assistance.

FITZGIBBON: Well my view if you like on industry welfare is that the first answer should always be “no” and then you look at these things on a case by case basis. And I think there are some very powerful arguments for intervening in agriculture. We in fact designed the Farm Finance package so that it only went to those who could prove that  - in the absence of drought or whatever the other intervening event might be - they had long term viability, that’s the whole idea yes.

VAN ONSELEN: Is that the one that Barnaby Joyce is concerned wasn’t signed off on by the states yet?  I mean there is a suggestion coming in out of the government that this was sort of half-baked as a package despite  a long term drought before they got into office.



FITZGIBBON: There was one state not signed off on before I left office and that was Western Australia simply because they were looking at a different way of spending it and

VAN ONSELEN: (interrupts) When you talk to the government they rattle off more than that

FITZIBBON: (interrupts) No

VAN ONSELEN: In terms of the states

FITZGIBBON: That’s not true

VAN ONSELEN: Untrue then?

FITZGIBBON: When I became Minister in July it was true that we were yet to sign final agreements with each of the states. By the time I left office Western Australia was the only outstanding state.

VAN ONSELEN: Ok, Can I just ask on a complete side issue to the drought, do you in hind sight now looking back and you weren’t the Minister at the time, do concede that the suspension of the live cattle trade was probably one of the biggest outside of natural disasters, one of the biggest disasters for farmers back then.

FITZGIBBON: Well I did travel to the beef forum in Mount Isa before all those cattlemen -beef producers  - as Minister and I said it was highly regrettable the pause.  I did make the point though that there were many that will still argue that we would have never successful implemented ESCAS  - that’s the new supply chain which protects animal welfare  - without the pause. So there are two arguments to the story. But look, it was highly regrettable, it did a lot of damage and I look forward not back.

VAN ONSELEN: So when you say highly regrettable if you were Minister at the time you would like to think that you wouldn’t have done it

FITZGIBBON: I’d like to think that if I was Minister at the time that things might have been done differently, yes.  But I don’t want to criticise Joe Ludwig either because these were heady times. You’ve seen the Four Corners report, you saw the community outrage.

VAN ONSELEN: (interrupts) but it was knee jerk in hindsight

FITZGIBBON: Well, let me say this. I’m a great supporter of the industry, we need to make it sustainable and it won’t be sustainable without a certain level of community support and ESCAS - that is the supply chain insurance scheme that protects animal welfare - provides that community confidence, or I’d like to think it does.  And again, some would argue that we would have never have had it without the pause.  But regrettable, damage done, I accept that. Kevin Rudd and I did a lot I think to repair that damage with the $60million package when Kevin went to Indonesia. We’re looking forward not back.

VAN ONSELEN: Before we run out of time, looking forward I’ve got to ask you about the polls you know that. Out today Bill Shorten’s numbers have collapsed. He is still ahead of Tony Abbott but that’s hardly no surprise, he’s always been unpopular. The size of the collapse is the issue isn’t it. I mean at the end of the day you guys talked a lot about polls when you guys were in Government. Bill Shorten has got to be careful here, that’s a massive fall in the Neilson poll on the back of last week’s fall in the News poll.

FITZGIBBON: Look I will just say my criticism of Tony Abbott is not that he is talking about drought but it’s that he refuses to put a package out. Farming families are going to bed every night still wondering if there is going to be a package. On the polls, I’m not avoiding the question. I do note also that Bill was coming off a very high base, a very high base

VAN ONSELEN: (interrupt)(in auditable)

FITZGIBBON: And that always makes for a bit of a fall and as you say yourself, still ahead of Tony Abbott which is a pretty good place to be.

VAN ONSELEN: Well ahh… pretty good place to be that’s deeply unpopular being ahead of Abbott it’s like

FITZGIBBON: (interrupts)No no no, an Opposition Leader being ahead of the Prime Minister of the day..

VAN ONSELEN: (interrupts) He’s behind on the primary he’s behind on the two party vote and it’s so early on. I guess where I’m going with this is whether if there is ever time for a Party to think about whether it needs to recalibrate it’s message it’s now, it’s after a heavy defeat at an election a defeat that could have been even heavier by virtue of the style of the Government leading up to that and you talked a lot about that at the time. Surely it’s time isn’t it for Bill Shorten, I’m not suggesting that anyone undermine him, but surely it’s time for Bill Shorten and people like yourself senior Shadow Ministers to get together and to try to find what is it that you have to do differently from the last Government to be able to go forward and do well.

FITZGIBBON: And Bill certainly doesn’t have to worry about…

VAN ONSELEN: (interrupts) Sure

FITZGIBBON: a threat to him that’s for sure but yeah look you have to get the narrative right but you also have to stick to your principles. One of the mistakes that the Labor Party made after the 96 defeat was practically walk away from the Hawke Keating legacy in many senses and that was very damaging.

VAN ONSELEN: (interrupts) But their legacy was a cracking economic legacy where I don’t know if you could say that about the Gillard Rudd Legacy economically. GFC aside, you know, it was a different legacy economically you would have to say for Hawke and Keating.

FITZGIBBON: You could argue that but where would we I mean where has there been the opportunity to change that narrative, where have we had a fight yet where we have had that opportunity. I mean these are early days for Abbott but early days for the opposition too and we wouldn’t expect to be in a particularly strong position this soon after such a strong defeat. We’ve got plenty of time to turn that around and we will.

VAN ONSELEN: Ok, I appreciate you being here. Thanks for your company.

FITZGIBBON: It’s a pleasure.


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