SUBJECTS: Barnaby Joyce; Drought inaction.
PAUL TURTON: The Federal Government’s former special Drought Envoy, Barnaby Joyce, delivered value for money during his period in the role. A letter from Drought Minister, David Littleproud, tabled in parliament last week said that the government couldn’t comply with the request to release the Drought Envoy’s report because no document exists. And Mr Joyce has since told the ABC that he sent numerous reports of the drought to the Prime Minister including via text messages. There have been travel records which have been uncovered which reveal that Mr Joyce spent less than three weeks in drought affected communities outside his electorate while he was engaged as the Government’s special envoy, and he claimed $675,000 in expenses for the nine months in the role. Now Labor’s Shadow Agriculture Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, says the amount of money spent and the limited amount of work in affected communities raises serious questions about Mr Joyce’s work as the envoy, and the Member for Hunter joins me now on the line. Joel thanks for coming on the program.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: Great to be with you Paul.
TURTON: So, what’s the problem here? The Prime Minister has said there was no requirement in the role for him to produce a report – and he hasn’t – and he says he was in touch with Prime Minister regularly. Why is that not enough?
FITZGIBBON: Well, that’s one of five different stories, Paul. First of all, Barnaby Joyce said that he understood he wasn’t required to deliver a report; then he said he did deliver a report; and then he said he delivered multiple reports; and then he said he sent text messages. I mean, he’s all over the place and what the Prime Minister needs to do explain is what he was expecting of the Drought Envoy when he created this new position it seems especially for Barnaby Joyce and, just as importantly, what value for their very significant investment in the role did taxpayers receive as a result of that investment – it seems not very much Paul.
TURTON: Joel, aren’t you opening up a can of worms here by suggested that MPs should be accountable for the money we spend on them? We could point that cannon at pretty much all of you couldn’t we?
FITZGIBBON: That’s very funny Paul. Well, I think that would be a great idea, the more transparency we have in these matters the better. But, what this indicates is a few things. Obviously Joyce was agitating a fair bit from the backbench when Turnbull – when Morrison became the Prime Minister and this was a way of giving him something to do to keep him from agitating in the Parliament and, you know, attempting to springboard his way back into the Cabinet. But more particularly, and this is what really worries me, it’s another attempt as an excuse to do nothing. You know, we had the Drought Coordinator, the Drought Envoy, the Drought Taskforce and the Drought Summit, and of course these were all ways of demonstrating or pretending they were doing something when every drought stricken farmer will tell you that they are not really receiving anything at all. It was also an attempt of promoting false hope, you know, kept telling farmers the Envoy was going to do this and that – and X,Y,Z – when in fact I don’t believe Scott Morrison ever expected the Droughty Envoy to do anything meaningful, and as soon as Barnaby Joyce pulled the same and he spent all his time shoring up his position in his own electorate rather than travel to some of the more drought affected places around the country.
TURTON: Joel Fitzgibbon, what can be done though? Barnaby Joyce, Scott Morrison; they can’t make it rain? What should they be doing?
FITZGIBBON: Well they should have started six years ago Paul. We – something historic happened right back in 2012, all the state governments with the Commonwealth Government with the support of all the farm groups, and the major political parties, decided we need to tear up the unsuccessful, unproductive drought programs we had in this country – real expensive too they were – and start again. So, we tore up the old program but five minutes later Tony Abbott was elected, Barnaby Joyce became the Agriculture Minister, and they stopped the process of developing new policies in its tracks. In fact, they abolished the COAG Committee charged with progressing the reform. So, six years we can’t get back but if we had done something in those six years, for example, build some water infrastructure, build resilience on farms, get an income support payment for farmers in need which actually works, and of course change the behaviour of both our urban and farming communities and we might not be facing the very, very dire straits we are facing today.
TURTON: Mr Joyce has called you a goose; I suppose you have been called worse things even by your own colleagues from the Victorian left?
FITZGIBBON: You can be sure about that Paul, but what Barnaby Joyce missed is it wasn’t me who initially charged, or suggested, he didn’t deliver a report. It was his own Drought Minister, David Littleproud. So I often use a process in the Senate to order the production of documents. I asked for two things: I asked for the Drought Envoy’s report, and I asked for the Drought Coordinator’s report. Well, I got two answers. David Littleproud, on behalf of the government, said well I can’t give you Barnaby Joyce’s report because he didn’t write one, and sadly he said I can’t give you the Drought Coordinator’s report because it’s cabinet in secret. So, I don’t know which one is worse because we know there is a Drought Coordinator’s report and we suspect, Paul, that Major General, Stephen Day – good guy – who put in a lot of energy and work into the process was critical of the government’s failings on the drought front – that’s the only conclusion we could come to because why wouldn’t a report funded by the taxpayer be available to the public for their interest. I mean, what could possibly be in that document…
TURTON: It couldn’t be privacy or secrecy considerations surely?
FITZGIBBON: I don’t believe so Paul. Major General Day is a professional guy, I had a debrief with him after he completed his work. I’ve got as bit of an idea of what’s in it and that’s what the government doesn’t want people to know.
TURTON: Well what sort of things are in the report Joel?
FITZGIBBON: I’m not going to speculate, Paul. But, he wouldn’t be doing his job properly if he didn’t identify the failing – the many failings in the government’s drought response which, by the way, has been very, very little. They talk a lot about concessional loans so they can put big price tags on what they are spending but, in fact, more debt or the shuffling of debt is not really any assistance to farmers. There are a couple of good programs that put some money into local councils to help rural communities, but that program, and the other one that put money into charities, have now closed. I mean, and farmers have now been taken off the so-called Farm Household Allowance – the income support farmers get when they get in trouble. So think about that Paul, when in the middle of the worst drought in history and farmers are having money taken away from them by this government because the government claims they’ve now been Farm Household Allowance for four years and that’s too long.
TURTON: Joel Fitzgibbon thanks for joining us.
FITZGIBBON: A pleasure Paul.