SUBJECTS: Drought policy: Farm Household Allowance; ALP Climate Policy
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: 2GB host Alan Jones's morning radio program could often be a safe space for the Prime Minister, but not this morning. Scott Morrison took a battering from Jones about his government's drought policy and also the talkback audience went hard over the government's handling over the drought. And the Prime Minister isn't the only one feeling the heat. Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon was also, well, reportedly savaged in Labor's factional caucus meetings last night on his position on what the government – what the Labor Party should do on emissions reduction targets. He's in the studio with me now welcome to the program.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: Welcome back to our place PK.
KARVELAS: Yes, I am here in Parliament House live; exciting really. Let's start with the drought. Labor wants the government to be spending money from the Future Drought Fund now. What specifically do you want them to be spending the money on?
FITZGIBBON: Well, what we learn again in question time today and confirmed is that Scott Morrison has been loose with the truth on drought. He keeps saying he is spending $7 billion a year on drought and of course, that's fanciful; he's spending nothing like that. And, you know, I don't know he's talking to, PK, because farmers know they're not receiving this money. So, he needs to, you know, show some contrition, give up on that – that fanciful language – and come back to Earth a bit. Today he admitted that not one cent of the so called Future Drought Fund money will go to struggling drought affecting farmers. And this is in part how he gets to be 7 billion. He counts the capital value of the Future Drought Fund and says he's spending five, whereas what he's doing he's parking money away earning in the interest allowing the fund to grow he's going to draw down $100 million each year but not until late next year when farming families need support now. But even when he does start drawing down $100 million a year, which sounds a lot of money, but in the scheme of things is fairly modest. Not one cent of that will go to drought affected farming families; it rightly will go to some innovation technologies.
KARVELAS: Well, that's what he argued, in fact, in Parliament he called you a 'dill' as you know. And he said that's the point of this future fund, it's about protecting people in Australia in the future.
FITZGIBBON: You know the Prime Minister is struggling when he starts calling juvenile names and other members of parliament; he was in trouble today. I was interjecting; it was very clear that he miss-stepped. He didn't mean to say that. But he lost his lines, and he very clearly admitted that not cent of that money will go to drought affected farmers, now he's been having us all believe for the last many years that he's spending all this money when, indeed, none of that $5 billion is going to farmers – that's problem one. The other $2 billion, of course, comes in the form of concessional loans, now most farmers long ago came to the conclusion that taking on more debt or shuffling debt from one person to another is not going to help them. So, his contribution has been really modest, and I've got a pretty strong theory on this. He and Malcolm Turnbull thought it was going to rain at some point. No one could of conceived that this drought would be so protracted; so hot. And they just kept kicking it down the road. In 2013, they stalled the National Drought Reform Program; they even abolished the COAG committee charged with developing the new drought policy. And ever since then it's been piecemeal. They thought they were going to looser an election, of course, and to their pleasant surprise they did not, and now they're still carrying the responsibility but they don't have a drought plan.
KARVELAS: Well, the NFF has been critical of them as well. So they are under some pressure, it's true. At the weekend, the Federal and New South Wales Government's announced funding for new dams in that state. Is that a good approach?
FITZGIBBON: Well, essentially they promised 100 dams in 2013 and Barnaby Joyce kept going on about it, so did Scott Morrison, so did David Littleproud; they are yet to turn a sod of soil. Then on the weekend, suddenly they decided they're going to give all this money, they say to New South Wales, but what we learned today is that half of what they said they were going to give New South Wales will be in the form of a repayable concessional loan. So, now today in question time, he doubled down – he made a mistake here too – he doubled down and said "no, read my press release, I always said it was going to be in part about concessional loans. Well, we've checked the media release, PK, he never ever said that. On Sunday, he wanted the Australian community to believe that he was giving all this money to New South Wales when, indeed, he is not, he's giving half of that money - true. But the balance will be in the form of concessional loans and in the big scheme of things, he is really only shuffling money out of his rural infrastructure fund anyway; the money was already there. He's not been able to get the states to take up this money in the past because the requirement is that they match it and many states just don't have the money.
KARVELAS: If you're just tuning in, Joel Fitzgibbon is my guest – he's the Shadow Agriculture Minister – 0418226576 is that text line. Obviously the government can't make it rain. Do you have any sympathy for the problems they face in trying to find solutions for farmers?
FITZGIBBON: I think the key point there, PK, is that we've been offering bipartisanship from the very beginning of this, constantly, and Anthony Albanese did an amazing thing. He went to the Dubbo Bush Summit - I don't know what his finance shadow thought about his commitment – but in front of Scott Morrison and a very large crowd, he looked Scott Morrison in the eye and said "Prime Minister, whatever amount of money you need to spend, you've got a blank cheque. We will back you, just go and do what you need to do." Surprisingly, Scott Morrison hasn't taken up that offer. Now the Farm Household Allowance is a perfect example; they are taking people off Farm Household Allowance in the middle of the worst drought in our history. If you've been on it for four years, then they're taking it off you. Now, you know, restoring that money for those 600 families that have been taken off, and the ones which will be taken off in the not too distant future, maybe it might cost $6 million for the year. Now he says he's got $7 billion, we now know that not to be true, but in the scheme of things, you know, he could just be restore that payment for their 600 farming families - these are the most destitute - Farm Household Allowance, is really hard to secure, as so many farmers will tell you, for some it's just been too hard. So if they want to, PK, they need it. And this puts food on their table; I just can't believe that a Prime Minister in the seventh or eighth year of the drought will just pull that money on those people. And the important thing here is that whether you can make it in the eighth or ninth year of the drought is not the test for viability. A lot of these farmers are viable; they just can't make it through the worst drought in our history. He should restore that payment, and we stand ready to support that initiative.
KARVELAS: Let's talk about another issue which is dominant today. Do you believe that we are having a climate emergency?
FITZGIBBON: Well, climate emergency is the term that has been adopted by the UK, Canada, France, Portugal, Argentina, Ireland, and I'm told some sometime soon New Zealand, so that's been the term used to describe, the way I put it, of so many signature countries to the Paris Accord, and not to do the things they said they were going to do and as a result, temperatures look like rising beyond sustainable levels. So yeah, that is an emergency because if we keep on that trajectory, we are going to have here – It is going to have a huge impact on our economy, our natural environment and our farmers.
KARVELAS: So you support Labor's position that they push - you pushing this motion for a climate emergency?
FITZGIBBON: Well, absolutely because what it's saying to Scott Morrison, and indeed in some other countries - as you know, the US has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement - what its saying is we need you to honour the commitments you made. Now, Scott Morrison's – not the government – Malcolm Turnbull lead the government at the time - they went to Paris and signed an agreement to take action keeping warming below two degrees, and they are clearly not living up to their commitment. Emissions are rising year on year.
KARVELAS: So how can you them be arguing for Labor to adopt the 28% reduction?
FITZGIBBON: Well, what I've been arguing is that we are now in opposition for three years and we need to do all we can to get Scott Morrison to turn that rising trajectory around and start doing what he promised to do.
KARVELAS: How is he going to turn it around by Labor matching his policy?
FITZGIBBON: Well because I think we need to get the focus on him. You know, he's very good at talking about Labor all the time, and I want the focus on him. I want more and more Australians are realizing that every year for the last five years emissions have been rising, not falling. I want them to know that when he stands at the dispatch box in question time and says, bizarrely, that he'll get to his Paris target in a canter – that is patently untrue.
KARVELAS: Your colleagues, Mark Butler, for instance, who is the Shadow Minister responsible for climate change says this 28% reduction that you say Labor should adopt wouldn't actually meet the Paris target.
FITZGIBBON: Well, Australia is 1.3% of global emissions. And we certainly need to do more than enough to be able to preach to others who aren't acting so you can't go to the United States or China, for example – in between them they are 40 or 40% of global emissions – and say you need to do better if we are not ourselves honouring our Paris targets...
KARVELAS: But Mark Butler says, and I'm going to take you to the question, 28% doesn't actually meet our obligations. Do you disagree with him?
FITZGIBBON: Well, we are going to have a debate of the next couple of years.
KARVELAS: Do you disagree with that? Do you think it can meet our obligations?
FITZGIBBON: PK, the science on this is all over the place; very difficult to determine exactly what gives you Paris and what does not give you Paris.
KARVELAS: Mark Butler and other senior colleagues say it's clear.
FITZGIBBON: What matters is that Mark Butler and I, and Anthony Albanese, and the rest of our party are absolutely committed to meaningful action on climate change; absolutely committed to honouring our Paris commitments. But we should be just as determined to expose Scott Morrison for allowing emissions to rise and delivering no architecture that looks anything like getting us to our Paris commitments.
KARVELAS: So do you stand by your position of 28%?
FITZGIBBON: Well, in my speech I posed just a question. I said what would happen if we said to Scott Morrison look, or we are already offered Scott Morrison a political settlement and then say, and then he no longer had the capacity to complain that somehow it's all Labor's fault for which he constantly does. The whole world would then focus, I would have thought, on the fact that he's emissions are rising and not falling. That was the point I was trying to make
KARVELAS: So you stand by that call?
FITZGIBBON: I don't regret posing the question in my speech, and you should read the speech because…
KARVELAS: I have.
FITZGIBBON: Oh good, I'm impressed – that's exactly what I did. I said imagine what Scott Morrison would do if we reached a political settlement?
KARVELAS: So you don't regret the way you handle this?
FITZGIBBON: I don't regret doing everything in my power to highlight the fact that he's allowing emissions to rise every year and the fact that when he says that he will meet his Paris targets in a canter, he's telling porkies again and no I don't regret trying to think aloud about strategies that might finally hold him to account and demonstrate that he has failed.
KARVELAS: Do you accept you've lost because your colleague, Mark Butler, say no, we're not going to adopt that idea? We're not going to 28% - do you accept you've lost?
FITZGIBBON: Well in the next couple of year we'll have a conversation about what our targets may look like...
KARVELAS: But he said that's not the position Labor will arrive at. Is he wrong?
FITZGIBBON: We will have the conversation; I'm not going to go and get into that. What I will say is that the only thing the Labor party can do to turn rising emissions around over the course of the next three years is to put maximum pressure and focus on the fact that Scott Morrison continues to allow emissions to rise.
KARVELAS: Your colleagues are filthy at you aren't they?
FITZGIBBON: There is various views in the caucus...
KARVELAS: I know because they were all in the newspapers.
FITZGIBBON: About my – about my speech last night, but I think that almost universally, well certainly universally they want to win an election, and they know that we've got to reposition on carbon. We certainly got to maintain our absolute commitment to take meaningful action. We got to think long and hard about how we do that and take the electorate with us.
KARVELAS: So this 28% figure that you raised in the speech, which you did, is that kind of a bargaining position? Do you accept that it will be longer than 45% reductions, but perhaps higher than 28%?
FITZGIBBON: What I was saying – what I was doing was asking people to think about where Scott Morrison would go if we went to him and said, look, this blues has now been going on for more than two decades. Why don't we sit down and find a political settlement so that for the next three years, at least, we might achieve some reductions in carbon emissions rather than continual rises in emissions.
KARVELAS: Do you accept, though, that that's been inconsistent with declaring a climate emergency?
FITZGIBBON: No because I think the emergency, and again, that's the term being adopted internationally now, so if you want to be part of the international movement to pressure countries to act in a meaningful way to honour their Paris commitment, or stick to the common language. I'm comfortable with that language because...
KARVELAS: The language has to be met by actions, Joel, and you're suggesting matching the government. So your colleagues say, well, it doesn't make sense.
FITZGIBBON: No, I'm suggesting finding strategies to ensure that Scott Morrison is probably held to account for two things, one, missions arising every year and two, he's – he's in no way on track to meet his own commitments under the Paris Agreement.
KARVELAS: Now I asked you before but I just want to be certain of this. I know your colleagues have said – Mark Butler came right out and said not we're not going to 28% - do you accept you've lost?
FITZGIBBON: Well what I accept is that, in the lead up to the last election, we didn't have the Australian community with us. We exposed ourselves to scare campaign. We will need to learn from that. But that doesn't mean we don't remain absolutely committed to meaningful action on climate change.
KARVELAS: And this 28% reduction figure that you raised; do you accept that Labor is not with you on this?
FITZGIBBON: I'm aware there are various views and the caucus.
KARVELAS: Would you say yours are massively in the minority?
FITZGIBBON: Look, many people in the caucus and in the Labor movement more generally are pleased that we're having a conversation about how we deliver in a meaningful way without exposing ourselves to scare campaign. And my immediate interest, again, is doing something about – I want to do something about rising carbon output over the course the next three years.
KARVELAS: What's your message to the colleagues who leaked about the meeting, there was emotion for instance, that was going to denounce your position and what you did?
FITZGIBBON: People know well, PK, that I like to allow a good policy debate within the party. I've never – I would never try to stifle the debate. We are a broad church in the Labor Party, but we certainly share common values and those debates are really good. And look, if people want to – if people want to leak those conversations, that's no skin off my nose, I'm pretty relaxed about it.
KARVELAS: Joel thanks for coming.
FITZGIBBON: A great pleasure.