SUBJECTS: Drought inaction; Compensation for farmers; Drought cooperation
BEN FORDHAM, HOST: Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Joel Fitzgibbon, is accusing the Prime Minister of deserting farmers. Scott Morrison is defending his drought policies after facing off in an interview with Alan Jones this morning. The Prime Minister says there's no magic wand or cash injection that can solve the current crisis. He says the Farm Household Allowance has already been expanded to allow families access to the payments for up to four years. The PM also says he's increased the size of those payments, which is about $250 a week. Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon is not satisfied. He says the four year household allowance doesn't help when you been in drought for a decade. He joins me on the line – Joel Fitzgibbon good afternoon.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: Great to be with you Ben.
FORDHAM: The Prime Minister called you a ‘dill’ in question time today. How do you respond?
FITZGIBBON: Well you know you're under the Prime Minister’s skin, Ben, when he refers to language like that – it's just schoolboy stuff and, of course, on Alan’s program this morning he had more side-step than Joey Johns. And during question time today, he was forced to make a couple of admissions. First of all, he admitted for the first time under pressure that not one cent of his $5 billion Future Drought Fund will go to desperate farming families. In fact, I’ll quote. He said “the Future Drought Fund is not to provide direct financial assistance payments to farmers; it’s there to provide direct support for water resilience projects.” Ben, the second admission was this…
FORDHAM: - but isn’t that because it's a Future Drought Fund?
FITZGIBBON: Well, he keeps talking about – he says, Ben, he's spending $7 billion dollars on drought – it is just a fib. I’ll tell you how he gets there. The Future Drought Fund is going to grow to $5 billion in capital, but he's going to draw down $100 million dollars of it each year but not until late next year, but not one cent of that will go to farmers. Secondly, he's got about $2 billion worth of concessional loans in the lowest interest rate environment in our lifetimes. Now, most farmers believe shuffling debt or taking on more debt in the middle of the worst drought in our history is all that much help to them.
FORDHAM: Look, I sat in a room last week when Scott Morrison outlined all of the things that he's doing for drought affected farmers, not because he was beating his chest in any way, in fact, he was quite upset by the whole thing, I think, as we all are, and he explained a lot of things like that he's tweaked like the Farm Household Allowance. I think he said previously, you could only access it two years out of every 10 and he thought, well, that led to farmers being reluctant to access it because they thought if I use it now, I can't use it later, which is why he expanded it to four years. It seems to me like he's trying to do everything in his heart to help farming communities.
FITZGIBBON: Well, we long ago extended a bipartisan hand, Ben. This should not be a subject of political infighting, but the reality is, no matter what he says about changing Farm Household Allowance from three to four years, as we speak 600 desperate farming families have already had their payment cut because they've been on it for more than – well, for the four year period. And tomorrow there will be more and the day after there will be more again. And I was going to say he admitted today that the big 50% announcement he made on Sunday towards dams in New South Wales, that is a 50% contribution towards the New South Wales Government, is not all cash but half of it is concessional loans, which will have to be repaid. Now, he doubled down in the Parliament today, he said I checked my media release so I never ever said it was cash, but we checked his media release, Ben, and that’s exactly what he said. He wanted everyone to believe he was giving the money directly to New South Wales when in fact he expects New South Wales to pay the money back.
FORDHAM: Well, what would you do differently? If you're in government right now, in fact, you can – you can make a commitment right now and if you get into government then everyone will hold you to it. What are you going to do if given the opportunity?
FITZGIBBON: Well, the first thing I'll say, Ben, is at the bush summit in Dubbo, Anthony Albanese did a pretty extraordinary thing. He stood up in front of Scott Morrison and the big crowd present and he said ‘Prime Minister, whatever it takes we will write you a blank check. Whatever you want to spend, we will back. You will get no opposition from us now. What would I do? What I wouldn't have done six years ago is stall…
FORDHAM: No, no, no – just focus for me. Focus for me on what you would do.
FITZGIBBON: But this it is important, Ben. Just a sec. He stalled the drought reform process, he even abolish…
FORDHAM: No, no, no. Joel, Joel, I'm asking you a question. I want you to answer it. What would you do? I don't want to hear about what you wouldn't have done six years ago.
FITZGIBBON: There are four foundations to this Ben. First, your properly address mitigation. Emissions are rising every year under this government and even if only under the precautionary principle we have to get those emissions down to dismiss any link between…
FORDHAM: No, no, what would you do to help the farmers who are struggling in the draft right now? Let’s focus the answer on that.
FITZGIBBON: Ben, I’m getting there. The second foundation or pillar is adaptation. We need to invest the money needed to help people change their behaviour both on farm with issues like water efficiency, and soil health, etc.
FORDHAM: But hang on Joel, I’ve got to jump in because the criticism of the Prime Minister this morning on Alan Jones’s show by a lot of his listeners focused about the here and now; what are you doing here and now to help us farmers? So can you answer that? What would you do here and now that the Prime Minister's not doing?
FITZGIBBON: And the third goal is infrastructure investment, including water infrastructure, they’ve been saying for six years, Ben, they're going to build dams. In fact, Barnaby Joyce said they were going to build 100 of them, but they still haven't built a dam despite all their pronouncements. And the fourth pillar is you've got to have income support, Ben. You've got to have a welfare payment for those farmers in their six, seventh and eighth year – they have viability, Ben, but they can't – they can't survive in the middle of the worst drought in our history. And those payments should not be cut off from those who are the most desperate farmers amongst them because Farm Household Allowance is really hard to qualify for, too hard for many farmers and now he's just cutting them off Ben. Can you…
FORDAM: So you would make access to that Farm Household Allowance indefinite would you?
FITZGIBBON: I wouldn't necessarily make it indefinite; I would make sure that people aren’t getting cut off while we are still in this terrible drought. The test of viability, Ben, shouldn't be whether you can make it to the eighth or ninth year. Some people are viable in normal circumstances, but some simply can't…
FORDHAM: Ok so nobody would be taken off the Farm Household Allowance while we are still drought declared?
FITZGIBBON: My offer is to Scott Morrison right now, Ben, you bring forward – when he when he brings for the amendments he’s already proposed….
FORDHAM: Hang on, just answer that for me…
FORDHAM: If you were in government, nobody would be taken off the Farm Household Allowance if they were still in drought?
FITZGIBBON: If we're in government, no desperate farming family would be taken off Farm Household Allowance in the middle of this terrible drought. It's the greatest act of bastardry I've seen from the Commonwealth Government in the history of the Federation. It's a callous act. And Scott Morrison should move to do something about it.
FORDHAM: And as far as the cost of that, well bugger the cost you’d just wear it?
FITZGIBBON: Well, two things, Ben. I did a bit of a – well, on the back of an envelope calculation – to put these people who have been taken off, these 600 families, back on it might cost you $6 million if it’s over a 12 month period. That's a lot of money in anybody's language. But when Scott Morrison keeps spinning that he’s spending $7 billion, I mean, it's a minuscule amount and it's something that can really make a difference. And again, Anthony Albanese said, he tells Scott Morrison, just do whatever it takes, and we will back you but for some reason, Ben, he's not prepared to do it. And as a result, they got farmers being literally forced off the land.
FORDHAM: Your colleague, Mark Butler has told Labor MPs at a caucus meeting today that he'll lodge a motion for debate in Parliament declaring a climate emergency. Do you support that?
FITZGIBBON: Yeah I do. I worked with Mark on the wording of that. I think it's a very – it's very reasonable language and highlights the fact that the climate is changing, that it’s having an impact. We can also see that our landscapes are on fire; our towns are running out of water. It acknowledges that this government signed up to the Paris agreement, it signed up and it made a commitment. And it's not making – it's not honouring that commitment. Emissions are rising every year, and it calls upon the government to act and I think that's a very reasonable call. And of course, a number of countries, including the UK have – which have made the same sorts of pronouncements.
FORDHAM: Where do you stand on the calls to mobilise the defence force to get in there to drought ravaged regions to help wherever they can?
FITZGIBBON: Well, we might have the answer to that, Ben, if Scott Morrison would give us the report of Major General Stephen Day, the Drought Coordinator. I mean, the Major General is best placed to determine whether the defence force could play a role, and who knows, in his report he may have made a recommendation, Ben. But, again, Scott Morrison will not give us the taxpayer funded report, which only leads us to conclude there are criticisms of the government's response to the drought in that report and he made some recommendations which for whatever reason aren’t palatable to Scott Morrison.
FORDHAM: Okay, Joel, thanks for coming on the show.
FITZGIBBON: Good on you Ben.