SUBJECTS: Drought policy; Climate Protestors; ALP Election Policies
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Let’s start on drought. David Littleproud, who is the Minister responsible for the drought, says he is waiting for the National Farmers’ Federation’s drought strategy so it can be considered by Cabinet and incorporated into the Government’s response. Isn’t that reasonable?
JOEL FITZGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: No it’s extraordinary PK. I mean, six years ago this Government put a pause on the drought reform process started by the former Labor Government through the COAG process. Indeed they abolished the COAG Committee charged with progressing that reform based on five key principles agreed by COAG and that was going to give us a new look, a more proactive and long term and more strategic drought response for the future. Now six years on, that work has not been done. What is really extraordinary is that now after six years the government – the Minister is saying its ok we are waiting for the National Farmers’ Federation to write our drought policy for us. I think most Australians would be somewhat surprised by that, and on the question on the report from the Coordinator General, which I think might be the circuit breaker to getting us back on track, the Minister can’t have it both ways, he says that it’s under consideration by Cabinet and therefore a secret, but yet at the same time he has told the Australian people that there is nothing in Major General Stephen Day’s report that the Government hasn’t already acted on. Now, it can’t be both and it was extraordinary also last week when Treasurer Frydenberg, who had been charged with going out and learning more about the drought after six years on the part of the Government, as is the Prime Minister said is the person who runs the budget, he admitted that he hadn’t even read Major General Day’s report. So, it is all pretty chaotic PK.
KARVELAS: Ok, you have demanded the Auditor-General examine the drought assistance fund after a million dollars was given to a shire which then gave back the money because it wasn’t needed. Is this the only case you are aware of where a mistake was made?
FITZGIBBON: There are lots of speculations swirling around that there are other local government areas that are only marginally in drought or indeed not in drought at all. And then you’ve got area, including in my own electorate, where neighbouring shires under exactly the same circumstances, one is getting it and across the border, the other shire Singleton is not getting it. There are plenty of examples of things going wrong and, I mean, the very fact, PK, that two Fridays ago the Prime Minister came back from Washington, he realised people were waking up to the fact that their action on drought has been underdone. So he made an announcement on the Friday, and then last Friday just a week later, he made another announcement. I mean, if that’s not emblematic of the chaotic approach they are taking to drought, I don’t know what is.
KARVELAS: David Littleproud said the data used to make that assessment was made before a rain event, and dairy farmers in the northern part of the shire are still facing difficult conditions; have you over-egged this? Because clearly, you know, it’s not just about the day and looking at the area and saying hey it’s looking kind of green today, they make considerations based on a broader range of data and projections.
FITZGIBBON: No the only thing over-egged, PK, is the Government’s approach. They say they are spending $7 billion on drought and we know it is nothing like that. And that’s one of the things I want the Auditor-General to further tease out. But on the council grants, a million dollars is a lot of money in anybody’s language PK – certainly to you and me – but a million dollars for a council that are designed to create economic stimulus locally is not a lot of money. You know, it might build a substantial roundabout in the town for example. Now that is sure to create a little bit of economic activity, maybe a couple of casual jobs taken on board throughout the course of the project, but it is not going to save one of these towns which are literally running out of water. So that’s the first point. But when the Mayor himself – the council itself is resolving unanimously to give the money back, well I will go with the council, not with David Littleproud’s claims on what his department is telling him.
KARVELAS: Well clearly the Government is looking at spending more money on drought. They’ve foreshadowed this, we know this, the Treasurer conceding that more money should be spent after his own drought tour; will Labor give bipartisan support for the Government to perhaps ramp up the amount of spending that is going to drought in Australia?
FITZGIBBON: Absolutely PK, and Anthony Albanese did a really extraordinary thing at the bush summit in Dubbo a few months ago. In front of Scott Morrison and hundreds of other people, he wrote a blank cheque. He said: Prime Minister, whatever you want to spend to do more to our farmers and drought-affected communities, we will back. Sadly though, Scott Morrison has never really taken up that opportunity. But I think, PK, a lot of people would be asking if Scott Morrison is spending $7 billion on drought relief, where is it? Because the farmers they talk with; the farmers I talk to are saying they are seeing none of it. So there are two scandals here. The first is that the Prime Minister says he is spending that he is not actually spending. And two, any money that is being spent isn’t being properly targeted and is not having the effect people expect it to have.
KARVELAS: You were critical of the ALP’s election policies and platform, in particular what you saw as a abandoning of communities that depend on coal mining – communities like yours. What do you make of this wave of protests now – the climate strike; Extinction Rebellion; Spring Rebellion?
FITZGIBBON: Well I would say a few things PK. First of all, I’d say I absolutely respect the right of people to express their view. Second though, I am not sure they do their cause good by disrupting normal citizens trying to make their way to work and back – having said that, history shows that a level of civil disobedience like that is the very thing that gets attention – that’s what you and I are doing now, discussing the protest and we saw it throughout the Vietnam War – there are plenty of examples. The other point I would make is this: while I agree with them that this Government and nor any other Government around the world is taking sufficient action on climate change, I disagree that we have to lose our coal seam gas industry, or our coal mining industry, to meet our international obligations on climate change.
KARVELAS: The Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, has been scathing of the Extinction Rebellion protestors. He has called for them to lose their welfare payments and face tougher penalties. Do you think the penalties in place for these disruptive protests are tough enough?
FITZGIBBON: I don’t know what the state penalties are PK. But, you know, Peter likes to play the hard man; paint every protestor as someone on the dole and of course that is not the case. There is a whole broad range of people protesting in our capital cities, not just here in Australia, but across the world, and that’s what you’d expect from Peter. They are always trying to distract from the obvious; people are out there protesting in our capital cities and elsewhere because this Government and others are not taking meaningful action on climate change. PK, in his county, under this government, our carbon emissions are increasing, not reducing. Now that’s just not good enough. We can take meaningful action without giving over our coal jobs, or other blue collar jobs, but this Government is making no effort and yet they continue to tell the public that they are on track to meet their Paris target. They clearly are not PK.
KARVELAS: But you talk about coal and its future, do you see an end for coal and what sort of timeframe do you think will coal mining will be over in Australia?
FITZGIBBON: Well, look, I think thermal coal will be in demand internationally for at least 30 years and probably longer as countries like India and China further coming out of developing status. They will consume all the gas, coal, nuclear, wind, solar they can get their hands on. Still 60 per cent of the world’s electricity is generated from thermal coal, so that will be strong for a long, long time.
KARVELAS: So do you think Labor should support thermal coal for the next 30 years?
FITZGIBBON: PK, Labor has always had a policy which supports the mining and the export of coal. That has never changed and I don’t expect it to change.
KARVELAS: You say that, but you actually argued after the election that you don’t think that it seemed that you did have that policy. So now you say you always had the policy I don’t know if voters thought that.
FITZGIBBON: What I – what I said, PK, was that Adani became very emblematic and people saw us equivocating over Adani and then that gave an opportunity for our political opponents to paint us as being anti-coal. *Inaudible* when you open yourself up to a scare campaign, as I said, that’s what you can expect. But remember, PK, by value 60 per cent of our coal export is actually metallurgical coal. And those developing nations will have a strong demand for that metallurgical coal for many, many years to come too. And remember as I have said publically before, it takes about 200 tonnes of metallurgical coal to make one wind turbine. So if we want China and India in particular to further modernise, they will need that metallurgical coal to build the renewables for their future – both thermal coal for making solar panels, for example, and of course metallurgical coal to make wind turbines and the like.
KARVELAS: On that issue, the Prime Minister’s been trying to put pressure on China for instance to be considered a developed country, and one of the issues is of course about its emission and targets that they should be more ambitious. Do you think that they should ramp up their ambitions as well and be considered a developed country?
FITZGIBBON: Well, it’s another distraction from the Prime Minister…
KARVELAS: But is it a distraction? They are responsible for a pretty sizable part of the world’s emissions. Is it really a distraction or is it really a normal part of the debate?
FITZGIBBON: A huge amount of the global emissions and that’s why we won’t achieve too much unless we have China and India dramatically reducing their emissions as well. And that’s why our thermal coal – clean and efficient – will help them in that process as will our metallurgical coal. But on the question on China’s status within the – in that system, the WTO – the Prime Minister really hasn’t identified what the problem is. He says he wants a solution but he hasn’t yet identified what the problem is and how indeed their status in the WTO is a primary problem for Australia. Sure it’s a problem for the US, and we know that story, but he hasn’t – before you talk about fixing a problem, you got to identify what the problem is.
KARVELAS: Victorian Labor’s submission to the Federal Election review has blamed a one-size-fits-all campaign that failed to take into account state differences. Should state branches be giving a greater say over policy?
FITZGIBBON: Well state branches are independent. I mean the Australian Labor Party is a federation and most of the organisational work is done by state branches. They have a very important role to play. The federal election, for example, in NSW is won by the state branch. So they already have a substantial role to play they have delegates to the party’s national conference to make a contribution to policy. So I think that’s something now. I don’t think, PK, that was our big problem at the last federal election.
KARVELAS: What was it then?
FITZGIBBON: It’s funny you ask that, I will be making a speech to the Sydney Institute tomorrow night.
KARVELAS: Please tell me – what will you say?
FITZGIBBON: Well – I’m – I’m keeping my powder dry.
KARVELAS: Alright, give me a couple of lines? No, you are not getting away with that – give me your headline?
FITZGIBBON: I’ll send you a copy of the speech at the first opportunity.
KARVELAS: Just give me – I’m not going anywhere. You’ve met me enough times to know that. Just give me a sense of what you are going to say.
FITZGIBBON: Well, I’ve already said publically that our policies were too many and too complex. And Australians are inherently conservative and they looked at the complexity over here, they didn’t understand it all that well and they looked at Scott Morrison’s very simple message which was basically a promise to change nothing – and he’s still promising to change nothing basically – and they played it safe. But I’ve talked about things like Adani and the way we equivocated there. I’ve said previously that when we were saying that we were going to take money from the rich and give it to the poor, we didn’t define who the rich were, and people were right to come to the conclusion that we may have been talking about them. You know, my coal miners who earn pretty good wages were amongst those people.
KARVELAS: Joel thanks for coming in.
FITZGIBBON: A great pleasure.