SUBJECT/S: Drought assistance package; Industry assistance; Industrial relations; Senator Conroy; Qantas


SUBJECT/S: Drought assistance package; Industry assistance; Industrial relations; Senator Conroy; Qantas BARRIE CASSIDY: Now we'll go to our program guest, and this morning it's the Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Joel Fitzgibbon who joins us from our Sydney studios. Good morning, welcome.

JOEL FITZGIBBON, OPPOSITION AGRICULTURE SPOKESMAN: G'day, Barrie. I think that puts Malcolm Turnbull and every member of the Labor Party on a unity ticket.

CASSIDY: OK, well let's talk about drought this morning, though, and of course you supported the Government's drought assistance package. Was community sentiment simply too strong to do otherwise?

FITZGIBBON: I did support the package, and you would expect that given that I for a month now have been calling for much of what was in the package.

A few questions remain unanswered. We don't know how much of the money is new money. I remind you again that Barnaby Joyce took $40 million out of the concessional loan program some months ago, so we don't know whether that's been replaced or been offset. Second, we still don't know the fine detail on the eligibility criteria for the concessional loans, so we don't know what will be spent and who will qualify.

But the big question farmers are asking this weekend is: why did it take so long? And I can answer the question. The Prime Minister was concerned about this inconsistency between the Holden and Toyota and farming, SPC and farming. So he very deliberately took a long time to make the announcement, to demonstrate that he was agonising over this decision and, you know, to find a way of justifying it.

CASSIDY: But also perhaps the reason was that Tony Abbott talked of a national disaster, when did it become a national disaster? Was the problem there six months ago when you were in government?

FITZGIBBON: This is another hook, this is the hook he was looking for, Barrie. That it's interesting, I'm not sure he managed to bridge the gap in the inconsistency, because we learned in Senate estimates on Thursday evening that the new farm household package will not just go to farmers in drought.

So the new concessional loans are only for farmers in drought. But on advice I have out of Senate estimates all farmers will face this more liberal assets test.

Now, that's two Tonys emerging again. It shows it's not just about natural disaster, that in fact he has now shown inconsistency again between what he's done in the farming sector, which we welcome, of course, and what he's done in industry elsewhere.

CASSIDY: What happened, though, to that concept that farmers have good years and bad years, and they're supposed to use the good years to get them through the bad ones?

FITZGIBBON: Well true, and we have a range of incentives in place, including the farm management deposit scheme, which helps them to do so. But Barrie, you can't properly plan and be prepared for a one in 50 year event, which is most or many farmers are now facing. So these things you just can't prepare for.

These people provide our food, and of course we don't want them leaving the land. They are exposed to the vagaries of the weather like no other. Interestingly, Barrie, in terms of long-term drought, the Prime Minister's now saying look, you've got to wait for the agricultural white paper.

The extraordinary thing about that is that climate change and resources sustainability isn't within the terms of reference of the white paper, and we all know the climate is changing, weather patterns are changing. You can have a debate about carbon and all those other matters, but it is changing in a way which is making farming harder, and yet they're not looking at that issue in the white paper. That's an extraordinary omission.

CASSIDY: Yes, but given that situation that you outlined, then this assistance will encourage farmers to stay longer on land that is becoming less productive?

FITZGIBBON: Well, the concessional loan scheme, which was actually a Labor initiative, $420 million in the last Parliament, is deliberately designed to go to only those who can demonstrate that outside drought they have an ongoing viability as a farm enterprise. So I think that makes it a very decent proposal.

And you've got to remember, Barrie, these are not - this doesn't encourage farmers to take on more debt, this takes part of their debt off the books of their commercial bank and places it temporarily on the books of the Commonwealth at an interest only, low interest rate. So that's a good initiative.

CASSIDY: But nevertheless if you believe in climate change, you accept droughts are going to become more frequent, but governments seem prepared to continue to put money into it. Climate change, surely, will make some arable land become marginal, some marginal land become virtually useless. Is that factored in?

FITZGIBBON: Well climate change will continue to throw up challenges to farming communities everywhere, and that's why it's extraordinary that the Government hasn't included resource sustainability and climate change in the white paper.

It's also why it's extraordinary that in a sense this package announced this week is pretty much ad hoc and bandaid designed to deal with the current problem. Yet in six months the Government hasn't further progressed any long-term drought reform, and that's what we need to be doing in the face of this drought and in the face of changing weather patterns.

CASSIDY: More broadly now on industry assistance. Martin Ferguson, a former colleague of yours, now says it's time to let unsustainable industries go. Now that's something that Labor more broadly is resisting.

FITZGIBBON: First of all on Martin, I would say that those charging him as changing his view on these things are wrong. They don't know Martin Ferguson very well if they're saying that because he has a strong view about the productivity agenda for a long time.

Now he wasn't talking about low-paid workers, Martin. I think he was talking about, as Paul Howes was some time ago, those working in the trade-exposed mining, petroleum type industries where international competitiveness is so important. But it's Labor's view that there is sufficient flexibility within the Fair Work Act to allow the employers and employees to come together in good faith and to drive that agenda.

CASSIDY: Martin Ferguson, though, you're saying he hasn't changed then. Some are saying he's now putting these views out because he's joined big business.

FITZGIBBON: I reject that. I think he's been putting these views privately and publicly for a long time.

CASSIDY: And what about the view though? It seemed to be a fairly strong one. He's saying to Tony Abbott, in fact, that he's too timid and that he's quite modest in terms of his plans for industrial relations reform?

FITZGIBBON: Well, here we see the two Tonys again. Tough Tony, not so tough Tony. Economic rationalist, economic liberal. You know, you can write a sitcom on this if the ABC could only secure the funding. In fact after Malcolm's performance this week, you'd throw Malcolm in and it would be the two Tonys with Malcolm in the middle or something.

CASSIDY: Alright then. Not the ABC but the ABCC, the industrial watchdog, is designed to hold both sides, according to Martin Ferguson, to account. And what the watchdog does is ensure projects is built on time and on budget.

FITZGIBBON: And it also had draconian practices, Barrie, everyone knows that. That's uncontested. And these problems, the stats say, went up under the period of the ABCC, not down. I think Labor's put forward the right model, the right approach to these things. And, you know, maybe it's time for employers and employees to come together, which is what Paul Howes was saying.

There's a lot of sense in what Paul Howes was saying. We rely too much on governments to regulate everything. Both the unions and the companies, of course, want a productivity agenda, why can't they come together? Forget about who's winning the next election and the one after that, and work together to achieve just that.

CASSIDY: Is it time for Paul Howes to make a move and enter the parliament and give the parliamentary party a hand?

FITZGIBBON: Well I think he's doing an outstanding job in a very important role now. They're matters for him. And we shall wait and see.

CASSIDY: And as a former defence minister do you have any sympathy for General Campbell this week when Stephen Conroy accused him of a cover-up?

FITZGIBBON: I do, and Stephen would know that as a former defence minister, someone who maintains a strong interest in Defence and someone who has enormous regard for our military leaders, that I will be disappointed in the comments. I'm sure he recognises that, he withdrew them.

I was equally disappointed by the way Tony Abbott skitched all of his frontbenchers onto the issue in an attempt to capitalise politically from the very high regard the community generally has for our men and women in uniform. I thought that was most disappointing.

CASSIDY: Should Senator Conroy have apologised and perhaps more to the point should Bill Shorten have insisted he apologise?

FITZGIBBON: Look, maybe Stephen Conroy has apologised privately, I don't know, I haven't spoken with him about it. But I was very pleased -

CASSIDY: If he has he hasn't said so.

FITZGIBBON: Well I'm not aware he has either. But these are matters for him. I'd rather we move on, Barrie, because I don't think the men and women in uniform, those of the Australian Defence Force, would be enjoying this becoming an ongoing political issue.

CASSIDY: So there's a bit of work to be done now to rebuild the relationship between Labor and the military?

FITZGIBBON: Well, I think at the end of the day, Barrie, we'll be measured by our commitment to Defence policy and the capability and kit our Defence - our men and women in uniform - need to do their job properly. I think that will be the ultimate test.

CASSIDY: Just finally on Qantas. Are there some in the Labor Party would rather see the airline close down than to open it up to more foreign ownership?

FITZGIBBON: I'll make this point, Barrie, if I can go back to my portfolio. Here's the two Tonys again. Only a few months ago we had GrainCorp, desperate for foreign capital to remain competitive, and Tony Abbott knocked that back. Now he says the solution to saving Qantas is to allow foreign capital to come in to save another industry in another airline or another business in trouble. So the inconsistencies continue, Barrie.

CASSIDY: Joel Fitzgibbon, thanks for your time this morning.

FITZGIBBON: It's always a pleasure, Barrie.


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