SUBJECTS: Drought Policy, Farm Household Allowance, Emma Husar.
FRAN KELLY: Joel Fitzgibbon joins us now from Barcaldine in Western Queensland. Joel Fitzgibbon, welcome back to Breakfast.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES, FORESTRY AND RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA: Great to be with you Fran.
KELLY: You’re up in Western Queensland, more than half of Queensland is drought declared with little prospect of decent summer rain, that’s what the bureau is telling us. What have locals been telling you about the drought?
FITZGIBBON: Well they are telling me Fran that it is every bit as bad as we have been hearing in all the media reports. They are very stoic up here and people have their heads high but they are expressing no optimism at all about rain in the future so they are now going to that next phase and asking themselves what happens next and sadly, no one has any real answers.
KELLY: Well rain is the answer I suppose and we can’t make that happen. Meanwhile the Government has offered this $12,000 top up to their assistance payments in two tranches. Labor, you have said and Bill Shorten has said that is not good enough and you should just be able to get those $12,000 in one go and get it next month. Why is that going to make much difference and aren’t there challenges there even with the concerns you’ve raised about the Centrelink struggling under the current load?
FITZGIBBON: Look Fran, we are desperate to send a bipartisan message. The last thing farmers and farming communities and the towns affected want is politicians bickering over drought policy, but the Government makes it so hard and it is so frustrating. We have been saying for four years now that the Farm Household Allowance was failing both in its design and in its delivery and now Malcolm Turnbull pops up one Sunday and says, ‘oh look, we’ll give $12,000 away’.
KELLY: That’s because people have told him they can’t pay their bills and can’t pay their car rego. They need some cash right now. That’s why isn’t it?
FITZGIBBON: But then Fran, he doesn’t properly explain how it’s going to be easier to access it. He has changed the asset test which we support, that’s great but he has done nothing around making it more easy for people to access it. We know that over the course of the last four years that too many have been unable to do so and changing the asset test threshold won’t improve that situation for many and we are saying, look we aren’t in Government but here is an idea. Many people are saying to us including on this particular tour that $12,000 is not enough but if I am going to receive $12,000 I need it now. So we are saying why stage it over two payments, six and six? Every situation is different in terms of every farming family. Why not give them the option – it’s in the same fiscal year, why not give them the option to take the whole $12,000 now or indeed six and six or if they want, $2,000 every month for six months.
FITZGIBBON: Let the farming families decide how they can best utilise this money.
KELLY: Bill Shorten also said Labor in Government would fund another 100 jobs for Centrelink workers specialising in dealing with farmers affected by drought. How would having additional Centrelink officers going into rural homes, because that is part of the plan, differ from the current plan for rural financial counsellors to meet with people in their homes? Isn’t their double up there?
FITZGIBBON: Well because this is a misrepresentation by the Government on a key role of rural financial counsellors. We need them to be working with farming families and farm businesses on the broader issues like their business model and how they might change their practices. How they might invest their finances to give them greater economic diversity. Centrelink people are the front line and at the front line in dealing with these needs applications and the problem is the application forms. I don’t want rural financial counsellors necessarily spending all their valuable time because there are too few of them, filling out paper work for farming families. Let’s get Centrelink, the front line people who make these decisions on that front line helping people on the ground.
KELLY: Labor is also promising a $20 million for a Regional Economic Development Fund, this would build on the existing Drought Communities Program which is $35 million over four years but what sort of projects get funded under this kind of project?
FITZGIBBON: Well every council Fran has a project it would like to proceed with but can’t afford. And they are usually shovel ready and of course when they are progressed they create local jobs and what has been reinforced for me over the last couple of days in Central West Queensland is that the drought is of course affecting not just the farmers but the businesses in the town as spending is down. They are adversely affected so we have got to get economic stimulus in local communities. The council is the best vehicle for that and they have the projects ready to go and we should be helping them to fund them.
KELLY: You’re listening to RN Breakfast and our guest is Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon. He is a member of the Labor Party Federally but in NSW. Today the NSW ALP will receive the report into the allegations against Labor MP Emma Husar and allegations of bullying and other such things. This report won’t be made public. Why not? Shouldn’t this report be released?
FITZGIBBON: Because this is an internal report.
KELLY: So much for internal, all the allegation have been leaked and we all have read them.
FITZGIBBON: Unfortunately Fran and that has the potential to do great harm to people’s reputation. We are not just talking about Emma Husar, but we are talking about people who have made submissions to that inquiry. They are entitled to both natural justice and procedural fairness but of course anonymity. Because of course many of them have entered into this exercise on that basis. Imagine in the future - politics is a highly charged game- imagine in the future if there is an allegation against someone and witnesses won’t come forward to allow to come to proper conclusions because they fear those submissions being made public so this is a very reasonable and normal thing to do and this is a hopeless attempt by Malcolm Turnbull again to turn this into something about Bill Shorten which is absolutely desperate and ridiculous.
KELLY: Talk about hopeless though, the report as we read includes recommendations about how future complaints should be handled, given that some of these allegations are more than 6 months old, shouldn’t that be recommendation number one that they be handled more speedily?
FITZGIBBON: Well certainly I think that would be a good recommendation and we are living in difficult times when we have different and higher standards expected of us and we are all in a way learning as we go as we attempt to meet these new standards and the last thing we should do is blow the whole thing up by meeting the demands by Malcolm Turnbull that we should do it this way or that way because he hasn’t shown very good form in this area himself.
KELLY: Well never mind Malcolm Turnbull, briefly we are almost at the news, but the fact that this has been so widely leaked Buzzfeed has received a whole document as we now know. Is there going to be an investigation into that and should there be? Just briefly.
FITZGIBBON: That is a matter for Kaila Murnain and –
KELLY: Do you have a view?
FITZGIBBON: - And those directly involved. Well I would hope that in the future inquiries like this, the details don’t end up on the front page of our newspapers. Of course.
KELLY: Joel Fitzgibbon, thank you very much for joining us.
FITZGIBBON: A pleasure Fran.