Transcript - Radio interview - 4R0 Rockhampton - Friday 6 October

SUBJECT/S: Bill Shorten visit to Rockhampton; Politics in the Pub; land use conflicts; foreign investment in agricultural land; NBN; political climate; Country Caucus; Country Labor National Forum; regional issues; Turnbull’s leadership speculation.


LAURIE ATLAS: Joel Fitzgibbon, Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Shadow Minister for Rural and Regional Affairs, Spokesperson for Country Caucus, Member for Hunter.  Have I left anything out?


ATLAS: All round good bloke – I knew I left that bit out. Welcome.

FITZGIBBON: It’s great to be here Laurie.

ATLAS: Your fearless Leader arrives when, this afternoon I believe?

FITZGIBBON:  Yes this afternoon and he will join us for Politics in the Pub this evening.

ATLAS: Which pub are you in?

FITZGIBBON: In a pub with a very colourful name. The Giddy Goat.

ATLAS:  Not far to walk.

FITZGIBBON:  I am a regular visitor to Rockhampton, but I don’t remember being at the Giddy Goat.  I was at the Cri last night so I get around.  Is it new the Giddy Goat, has it been rebadged?

ATLAS:  It has been here a while.  Are pubs still a place where you can learn what the ordinary Australian is thinking?

FITZGIBBON:  Oh, absolutely Laurie.  I represent a rural electorate myself, have done for almost 22 years and I had 8 years in local government before that; and you have got to be careful not to take too much note of one particular demographic or venue. But I still think that pubs and clubs, just like supermarkets and other community facilities are great places to get feedback from people.

ATLAS:  Actually the Hunter is an interesting place because you are the Member for Hunter, but it is an interesting place, because there are many who believe you could solve our electricity problems if Joel Fitzgibbon and Members around that area would just go “c’mon open it up”, stamp on the prime agricultural land and let the gas fields be sucked for all their worth.

FITZGIBBON:  Some would say that.  

ATLAS:  You fought that?

FITZGIBBON:  I have been dealing with these land use conflicts for all of my political life.  We need diversity.  We certainly need fossil fuels, both gas and coal, and I have been a great supporter of both sectors. But we can’t allow those sectors to impinge on sustainable sectors like the production of our food, which will sustain us not for 100 years but thousands of years.  So we need to get that balance right and basically Laurie it is common sense.

ATLAS:  Is the balance right on prime agricultural land being owned by, to use that word, foreigners?

FITZGIBBON:  There is a very smart member of the Liberal Government, I like him, Angus Taylor, he is an Assistant Minister, he was one of the key authors of a report titled Greener Pastures when he was in the private sector, he was sponsored by the ANZ Bank.  What it told us was to meet all of our aspirations in agriculture into the future we will need $600 billion, that is billion with a B, worth of investment in agriculture.

ATLAS:  But to sell it to them though.  Why can’t we go more half and half as in the case, as it turned out, with Kidman properties which seemed to be a good outcome with Gina Rinehart, whether you like or dislike Gina Rinehart that is arbitrary, she is at least an Australian and she is going 60/40 50/50 whatever it is.

FITZGIBBON:  We always have a preference of course for those sort of joint venture partnership arrangements but the capital is needed and if people are looking to invest directly rather than a partnership then you have still got to give consideration to whether in net terms it is in the national interest.  All these investments need to be dealt with on a case by case basis and that ruler should be run across each of them to ensure that it is ultimately in the national interest.  But we can’t turn foreign investment around, we have relied on foreign investment, as a country, all of our natural lives.  We were an economy of the English, we could not have built the Opera House or the Harbour Bridge or any of those major, the Snowy Mountains Scheme, we could not have built any of them, without foreign investment.

ATLAS:  Did you overcook the NBN as far as this great change when Kevin Rudd first brought it out? I think your answer will be “no, the Liberals have stuffed this up” but it was a big project, there were always going to be big problems associated with it but, I was speaking to the Shadow Minister yesterday, we can’t really get a handle on what is causing the problem because it is not completely the fibre to the node, fibre to the house, fibre to the copper, really is it?

FITZGIBBON:  I had a beer with Stephen Jones last night actually and he told me about his experiences here yesterday at the forum he held.  The business community in particular are very upset and that is my concern.

ATLAS:  Did it turn out like I said it would?  I said to him it would possibly be like that Seinfeld episode The Festivus “and now the airing of grievances”

FITZGIBBON:  He said there was a lot of unhappiness in the air.  I don’t think we oversold it.  I think we said what was absolutely true and that is, if we want to be internationally competitive in the 21st Century we have to be at least as good as anyone else in the world. 

ATLAS: Was it always going to blow out in cost do you think, the NBN?

FITZGIBBON: I don’t think anyone can answer that question but I think the old adage “do it once, do it properly” is the important point.  Kevin was determined that we have the best system in the world and that is fibre to the household and Stephen has acknowledged there was all sorts of problems, but the bulk of the problems, in my experience, come because we are still using copper from the node to the household and that is very problematic.  Do you know the Government spent about $600M replacing copper that was not up to scratch?  So we are using 20th Century technology, if not 19th, $600M that could have gone into a 21st Century system.  This is hopeless in my view and a big issue here in Rocky.

ATLAS: Can I take a break and we will come back.

[break for music] 

ATLAS:  Joel Fitzgibbon is here, Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries, Forestry, Rural and Regional Australia, Country Caucus,  I rattled that off pretty quick because I want to ask you about Country Caucus itself is here to meet, isn’t it?

FITZGIBBON: That’s right.

ATLAS:  And do you look around, do you look at issues in Central Queensland?  Off you go and take them back to Canberra, is that how it works?

FITZGIBBON:  The truth is after the 2013 election Laurie, despite our very strong legacy in the regions, the rural legacy et cetera, we had done badly and we only had, I think, 14 rural and regional seats across the country.  Only one here in Queensland.  And I thought this was tragic given we are a Party born, at least in part, out of the shearing sheds of Queensland, and I asked myself how do we improve on this?  Not just for winning’s sake but to ensure every regional electorate is contestable.  In other words, the local community is deriving the benefits from the political parties closely contesting the seat.  So I did a couple of things, we formed a thing I called a Country Caucus which is a group of regional MPs meeting often in Canberra running the ruler across Government legislation and/or the Labor policy development processes. And we decided to have pretty regularly a national Country Labor forum, where both MPs and Senators and rank and file members get together to talk about the big issues in the regions and the best responses to them; and tomorrow we will do this in Rockhampton.

ATLAS:  So if you added up all the regional issues that would be on the table at any given moment, how diverse would they be from Central Queensland to rural NSW?  Would they be sort of the same, not at all the same?

FITZGIBBON:  Well I think the first thing to acknowledge is that most of the matters which are issues in our capital cities are the issues in the regions:  health; education; the environment.  Obviously there are differences.

ATLAS: We laugh when they go on about affordable housing, you know your choice, get out of Sydney or Melbourne.  You have got a choice.  We just laugh.

FITZGIBBON: I think there are a couple of things both the major political parties agree on and that is that the regions are critically important to the national economy.  It is here that we produce our food, energy and mineral resources.  Second, tyranny of distance does bring its challenges and governments of all political persuasions need to intervene on that issue and ensure that we don’t face disadvantage.

ATLAS:  See we often have southern media, southern media says “oh, you can’t have that Adani - latte, soy latte with soy milk and chai thanks - you can’t have that Adani”, we are you mate?  “Oh, I am just at a café here in Melbourne” , good, good, you tell me where the 1700 jobs are coming from.  It makes us crazy getting told by media, and in a way sometimes, southern politicians and southern university intellectuals, how we need to run our economy right here.  We have got 1700 new jobs here announced yesterday for Adani and that is fantastic.

FITZGIBBON:  It is true also Laurie that city politicians don’t always fully comprehend the issues we face in the regions.  Just like regional politicians don’t always comprehend something like the traffic congestion issues that our city colleagues face and that is why, through the Country Caucus,  we seek to, if you like, hunt as a pack and make sure the leadership group and the Caucus more generally fully understands and appreciates –

ATLAS:  Your Leader is a bit of an inner city boy , he is from Maribyrnong, inner city Melbourne.  Does he understand the country?

FITZGIBBON:  You will be surprised Laurie, because when Bill first became Leader I sat down with him and talked to him about some of the challenges we faced in the regions electorally.  I talked about that fairly bad outcome at the 2013 election and I was so pleasantly surprised by his grasp of what is happening in regional Australia.  It suddenly struck me at that point that he was an AWU organiser and if you are an AWU organiser you have spent most of your working life out there in the regions talking to people on the ground.  So I was really pleasantly surprised by his grasp, and since then, over the course the last four years, the support he has given me, the Country Caucus, and this National Labor Party Forum, he really understands the bush.

ATLAS:  Now you are a 22 year veteran of Parliament now?  So that is more than half your working life.  How has it changed?

FITZGIBBON:  I know that is hard to believe Laurie, given my youthful looks, but it will be 22 years in March, I was elected in March 1996, that was the election Paul Keating lost to John Howard.  Lots has changed.  I think politics is getting more difficult, that is not true just here in Australia but around the globe.  You see what is happening in the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain and elsewhere.  I think people’s expectations are rising and politicians are finding it difficult to meet those expectations because money is not infinite.  Money is always a challenge and that’s why we need to ensure that every cent we spend is a cent smartly spent.

ATLAS:  Malcolm Turnbull is currently a Prime Minister looking for a hug. And it seems no one really wants to hug him.

FITZGIBBON:  I am bordering on feeling sorry for Malcolm.  Malcolm, to hang onto that leadership, has sort of dispensed with everything he has ever believed in all of his adult life and that is a sad thing to watch. If I were Malcolm I would just move back onto everything that I have fought for all of my adult life and go down fighting.

ATLAS:  And that far Right of the Liberal Party, will just bury him.  Do you sense that they could bury him if they wanted to?  Cory Bernardi has already left so he is not a factor anymore But Tony Abbott and the people that support him?

FITZGIBBON:  I think Malcolm Turnbull leading them to the next election is anything but certain.  I mean there is no doubt the Right of his Party is coming after him.

ATLAS:  If not him, who?

FITZGIBBON:  Hard to say.  It is hard to believe that the Right would execute a liberal leader, and when I say “liberal” I mean to the left of the conservatives, and replace him with another liberal leader.  I think if they are going to execute Malcolm they are going to want one of their own in and has to be either Abbott, Dutton or Morrison.

ATLAS:  Peter Dutton is no certainty to win his seat at the next election.

FITZGIBBON:  That is true, that is absolutely true, if he was to become Prime Minister prior to that he would become the third only Prime Minister to lose his seat in Office.  But my theory is that Morrison is now too tied to Malcolm so it is not going to be him and I don’t think he has performed exceptionally well by any means in Treasury. 

ATLAS:  Many people seem to think he is a bit of a disappointment in Treasury.  They probably had high hopes for him as a salesman and as a man who had a grasp of issues.

FITZGIBBON:  I didn’t feel there was a need to say that because his own people are saying that.  So now you are down to Abbott or Dutton and most believe Abbott carries too much baggage and to that Dutton becomes the last man standing.  So I think it is a very real possibility and a prospect that doesn’t scare the Labor Party.

ATLAS:  I gathered that.  Well enjoy your Country Caucus.  And no doubt at the pubs tonight you will hear many issues: about a levee; stuff about the NBN; I think you will get a visit from the miners who are having a bit of an issue with Glencore at the moment.  No doubt you have heard about that?

FITZGIBBON: I will be visiting the Glencore picket line next week actually to talk to miners on the ground.

ATLAS:  Good.

FITZGIBBON:  The NBN, yeah, we have heard it all before, and of course we support the levee project and Malcolm Turnbull should stump up.

ATLAS:  I think he should too, this is 4RO, Joel Fitzgibbon.

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