SUBJECTS: Drought; Drought Policy; climate change; Gladys Liu
HAMISH MCDONALD: The dire situation already facing many drought-affected farmers could be about to get a lot worse. There are predictions today that large sections of the Murry Darling Northern Basin could dry up altogether this summer with no water available to flush through the system. Stanthorpe is one farming town in southern Queensland which will run out of water altogether by Christmas unless it received heavy rains in the next few months.
Joel Fitzgibbon is the Shadow Minister for Agriculture. He’s calling on the Federal Government to produce a comprehensive drought policy to deal with extended dry period. Good morning, welcome back to breakfast.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE AND RESOURCES: Great to be back, Hamish.
MCDONALD: The Government readily admits today that there is no water in storage to replenish river flows in the northern part of the basin. Dams and reservoirs are down to just nine per cent of capacity that means no water entitlements for irrigators either. What kind of an impact will this have on farmers in northern New South Wales and Queensland?
FITZGIBBON: A very serious one, Hamish, and I was in Stanthorpe very recently and what I saw there was something facing a calamity – empty to near empty dams, I saw orchards where the apple trees had been pulled, I spoke to vegetable growers who have decided not to plant this season because there simply isn’t sufficient water available. I spoke to people about what’s happening in nearby Tenterfield, where they’ve brought in mobile desalination plants to draw very salty water out of old bores out of desperation. So, we are facing very, very challenging times.
MCDONALD: When you say calamity, I mean, do you think Australians would be surprised at the state of towns like Stanthorpe and the surrounding areas?
FITZGIBBON: I think if they visited those towns themselves – and no doubt, many of them have – they would be somewhat taken back, and find confronting what they see there, and they’d be really concerned if they had conversations with local people who are now rationing their showering, for example, and don’t really see any hope of any near-time rain, and are wondering what they do next.
MCDONALD: Water is obviously becoming a very vexed, and very politicised issue in Australia. In recent summers, the Commonwealth water holder has released water to replenish the system, but the Environment Minister, Susan Ley, says that won’t be an option this year, and that could mean sacrificing wetlands – important wetlands – such as around lakes in northern New South Wales. Is that the right priority? Should farmers be given priority over the environment?
FITZGIBBON: The right priority is to put in place, finally, a comprehensive drought plan, or strategy, something we’ve lacked for the last six or seven years. This drought has now been with us for at least seven years, it will probably be declared soon the worst in our history, and yet we’ve had a drought coordinator, a drought envoy, a drought taskforce, a drought summit. Now we’ve got, the Prime Minister claims, a drought Cabinet Minister. The problem is, as demonstrated yesterday, it turns out the Drought Minister is also a climate change denier. It’s not a very good start.
MCDONALD: Sorry, just to be specific though, because this is a policy that does relate to dealing with the drought, and I want to gauge your view on that – is it right to prioritise farmers over key environmental areas, including wetlands?
FITZGIBBON: No, because we need to continue to strive to secure the right balance. Eventually, when the environment can’t offer water you’ll be providing no assistance to farmers. So it’s got to be about balance. It’s got to be able proper environmental management, and, of course, it all starts with the very foundation that is an acceptance and an acknowledgement that the climate is changing, that we are in our practices as humans making a contribution towards that, and we need to take meaningful action to change our behaviour.
MCDONALD: And can I just clarify what you were referring to there, you said the minister responsible is a “climate change denier” – are you referring to David Littleproud and the comments he made on this program this week?
FITZGIBBON: David Littleproud told the nation yesterday, live on television, that he doesn’t accept climate change, nor that we as human beings are making a contribution to it, Hamish. You know, one of the most…
MCDONALD: To be fair, I think his comments have been that he believes that the climate has always been changing and that Australia has always been adapting to climate change, and that policies must be based on the best available science.
FITZGIBBON: And yet, he doesn’t accept that man has role to play, or humankind has a role to play, in addressing it, and the very foundation of a comprehensive drought policy is an acknowledgement of that, but it’s more than that. It’s about mitigation. It’s about adaptation, which is largely about our behaviour. It’s about infrastructure investment, and of course, it’s about financial support for farmers in the short-term while we try to get them through this very difficult period. All of those, of course, are areas of policy failure for this government.
MCDONALD: I mean, are governments of whatever political persuasion, just stringing farmers along by saying you’ll be able to get through this when very clearly there are parts of Australia that may not be able to produce in the future in a way that they have in the past, and that water may not be available in the way that it was in the past, if we accept the science in relation to climate change?
FITZGIBBON: I think sadly that is true, and when Scott Morrison became Prime Minister he said our farmers would be his number one priority, but sadly his so-called quiet Australians have been the forgotten people – the farmers have become Scott Morrison’s forgotten people. No real action on his part despite the fact that it’s very, very clear based on all the advice that this thing is not going to get better any time soon.
MCDONALD: But are you saying that if you were in government, you would turn around and say to these people actually you are going to have to leave the land?
FITZGIBBON: Well, if we were still in government, the former Labor Government’s Carbon Reduction architecture would still be in place; architecture of course recklessly torn up by this Government.
MCDONALD: Sorry, this is a question about the now. This is not the past; you are not still in government. If you were to form government in the future, what would you say to these farmers?
FITZGIBBON: Well you can’t deny the past didn’t happen Hamish. We’ve lost seven, near eight, years now of opportunity to take action both in mitigation and adaptation, and sadly we can’t get that time back. So now we need to re-double our focus, re-double our efforts on those four points I made: mitigation, or another words, climate change action; adaptation, things like regenerative farming, changing the practises of both farmers and consumers more generally. This government loves to talk about building dams – they call it, but I rather prefer to water infrastructure – yet haven’t built any water infrastructure in six years, unlike the former Labor Government, and of course the attempt to extend financial support has been an abject failure.
MCDONALD: Can we just look, though, at what the Government is doing, you’ve described farmers as the new forgotten people of Australia, is that really fair? The policy range includes the Future Drought Fund, the Household Income Support Scheme, and the Drought Co-ordinator: doesn’t that amount to a series of policies to do the things you’re talking about?
FITZGIBBON: Well the Future Drought Fund is an initiative taken six years into office after dispensing with all the former COAG approach to drought policy, and they tore that up after the 2013 election. The Drought Fund will not deliver any assistance until next year; that is eight years into a drought period. We still don’t know who that money will go to and how it will be spent. The Farm Household Allowance, which is the latest version of the income support governments provide to our farming families, has been a failure – many farmers haven’t been able to access it. It’s all been too hard to manage and, of course, it’s time limited so many farmers are now coming off Farm Household Allowance; they are being denied the payment. And of course now Barnaby Joyce tells us that he’s happy for our farming families to be subject to the Cashless Welfare Card – well that’s a terrible insult for farming families going through the worst drought in our history.
MCDONALD: We are going to be talking with John Hewson shortly; he’s joining a number of crossbenchers to call on parliament to declare a climate emergency. Would you support such a declaration?
FITZGIBBON: Well look I don’t think words mean all that much Hamish – I want action. Again, we can’t get back the damage the Coalition government has done over the past six years, but I again extend a bipartisan offer to work with the government on a drought strategy on those four points I’ve been talking about. We can’t afford to wait any longer, people are hurting, and the situation is going to grow worse.
MCDONALD: Another issue for farmers is the so-called vegan activist bill before the Senate which creates a new Commonwealth offence of up to twelve months gaol for anyone who encourages trespassing on farms or private land. A recent parliamentary enquiry found that this is just, to quote, “virtue signalling by the government” – there was argument in caucus yesterday about the bill – why is Labor supporting the crackdown when the offences are already captured by state laws?
FITZGIBBON: Because while it’s true that this bill is no more than a clumsy attempt by Scott Morrison to deal himself into an issue already being properly dealt with by the states. It’s also true that people in rural Australia, farmers in particular, and I speak with them, live their days in genuine fear of being victims to this sort of activity. Things are tough enough in rural and regional Australia without them having to be concerned about those matters – in my view, and was, that we should stand with those farmers.
MCDONALD: Questions separately have been raised about a Liberal MP, Gladys Liu, today about her suspected links with Chinese propaganda groups. Does she, in your view, have questions to answer on this?
FITZGIBBON: Does certainly appear to be the case and, of course, she made the situation worse last night with what was a train wreck of an interview in which her loyalties, at the very best, seem confused and I think it is now incumbent on her to make a statement in the parliament reassuring Australians, particularly those in her electorate, that she is a fit and proper person to be serving in House of Representatives. But more particularly I think it’s now time for Scott Morrison to make a similar statement, either in the parliament or outside parliament up until now, just like Angus Taylor, he has been prepared not to speak one word of defence for Gladys Liu and I think the Australian people deserve that reassurance.
MCDONALD: If she says she doesn’t recall membership, therefore it can’t have been active, is that enough? Does membership in any of these organisations or groups require absolute clarification?
FITZGIBBON: It’s not a defence I would be running Hamish.
MCDONALD: Joel Fitzgibbon, thank you.
FITZGIBBON: A great pleasure.