SUBJECTS: Election results, rural and regional Australia, agriculture policy, Labor leadership.
MICHAEL CONDON: Rural Australia was on display in the Hunter electorate, local Labor Member Joel Fitzgibbon saw a 10 per cent swing against the two party preferred. He now holds the once safe Labor seat by just a margin of 2.5 per cent. There was also a surge of support for the Nationals candidate and also for One Nation. Well why did we see this sort of resurgence? Joel Fitzgibbon joins us now, good afternoon.
JOEL FITZGIBBON: Good to be here Michael.
CONDON: So what was it; One Nation? Mining jobs? What were people concerned about in your electorate and I guess sort of translate nationally as well.
FITZGIBBON: Well we had a protest vote on Saturday on two fronts: a reaction to some of the things we promised to do, but more particularly a reaction to many things that we were never going to do which became subjects of a mythical scare campaign.
CONDON: This is the death tax?
FITZGIBBON: The death tax, the retiree’s tax, the anti-coal mining policies – all rubbish. But if you leave yourself open to a scare campaign then that’s what you can expect to have.
CONDON: Now were people worried too about the Adani issue and mining jobs and that. Mining is a big employer in your electorate, was that a concern?
FITZGIBBON: It was a core issue. The Labor Party equivocated over Adani, we were too nuanced and coal miners everywhere, and coal mining communities, interpreted that as a opposition to the project. We rightly said on Adani that it had to stand on its own two feet without taxpayers subsidies and it had to meet the most stringent environmental tests. But what we didn’t say is that if it can do both of those things we would welcome the investment and the jobs and people in coal mining communities right throughout the country interpreted that as a party walking away from the mining industry. Our political opponents exploited that and the rest is history.
CONDON: What about some of the other issues we have been talking about in terms of climate change and global warming and the Darling River, and the drought? We have heard a lot of people concerned about the lack of action there on the environment, or is that not really the case, is that just a very vocal minority that’s getting out there and getting more attention on those issues than maybe they deserve?
FITZGIBBON: Everything that is wrong in the regions on that front has occurred under this conservative government for the last 6 years. Our climate change policy was light touch, the government should have embraced it and taken a bipartisan approach to it. The government has no meaningful drought policy – no meaningful drought policy.
CONDON: What about the big drought fund?
FITZGIBBON: The non-existent drought fund – it does not exist – it does not exist. This hopeless government did not even put the drought fund through the parliament. It’s stewardship program is a step slightly finally in the right direction but $30 million dollars is a joke – it will do nothing. We had a climate change policy and other policies that would have helped farmers build resilience with our $400 million Farm Productivity and Sustainability Fund. We had our $40 million fund to help farmers and foresters to design, or working with them design methodologies for putting them into the carbon market, that would have given farmers new sources of revenue and therefore diversity and resilience to drought. We had a suite of policies, including the minimal farm gate milk price. I heard Kath say there was division in the dairy industry, yes there was. Farmers on the ground loved it; farmer leadership did not like it for whatever reason.
CONDON: So you think that is dead in the water, it won’t be part of the National Dairy Plan?
FITZGIBBON: It won’t be part the National Dairy Plan my goodness! This government said it was giving farmers false hope with reckless policy, ridiculously compared it to the failed Wool Reserve Price Scheme which itself was a National Party initiative. We were offering meaningful government intervention in an industry which is on its knees and the government should have embraced it but of course politics denied it that choice.
CONDON: What about what we saw in some seats, although somebody has texted in to point out that there was quite a swing in some of the booths against Mark Coulton, the first preference swing in one of the Coonamble booths was down 28 per cent and in 8 per cent against him across the Parkes electorate generally. We did see in your electorate a strong support in some of those booths in Cessnock for One Nation and for other parties like UAP and strong vote for Nationals like Barnaby Joyce – is that a move back to some of those more conservative policies or is it more about the scare campaign issues?
FITZGIBBON: Well the National Party lost votes in my electorate, lost them in Barnaby Joyce’s electorate and lost them in Mark Coulton’s electorate. The protest vote when to independents and One Nation and we warned a vote for One Nation is a vote for the Coalition, for Scott Morrison in particular, and now of course we’ve lost that opportunity to roll out those programs to help farmers diversify their income, protect dairy farmers and put them into that carbon market and of course on the Murray Darling Basin, we were taking a responsible and sensible approach and this government for the last six years has only one thing to show for its Murray Darling Basin Plan and that is chaos and crisis.
CONDON: Do you think that, well, there has been this call for the royal commission, that’s off the table, that’s just not going to happen, the royal commission into the northern basis, the issues of over-extraction, the issues of the fish kill and also the concerns about a lack of a real sort of climate policy. Do you think that will all be thrown out the window by the new government?
FITZGIBBON: Well obviously, Labor lost the election, we have to reflect on that and take lessons from it but what is gone is our additional investment in health, in education, telecommunications, and of course our dairy minimum farm gate milk price, our $400million Farm Productivity and Sustainability Fund, our $40 million fund to help built methodology for the carbon market, they’re all gone now sadly. We have to take responsibility for that but it’s a great shame.
CONDON: Sometimes though when parties win elections they pick up some of the policies from the opposition and run with them.
FITZGIBBON: Well I’d appeal to the government to pick up all those policies because health and education is important, if not more important in the regions, as it is in the capital cities and you know after six years farmers must be starting the think that they’re not doing very well under this government and we need a new direction and the government really should look very carefully at some of the things we were proposing, including the removal of the so-called water rule which is stopping investors planting forests where forests are likely to grow and that indeed would have brought extra sources of revenue for our farmers.
CONDON: But you, but doesn’t have a problem with the blue collar workers and in your seat, the mining workers, when they’re pushing policies that are obviously against what the blue collar workers actually want.
FITZGIBBON: No we’ve allowed our opponents to run scare campaigns on that front but I’ve said today many times that, if we are to be successful we need to move back to the political centre and stay firmly there, we need to reconnect with our working class base and we need to show an even greater focus on the regions because, well for all the right reasons, but we need to garner support in the regions, we can’t form government without a requisite number of regional seats and we didn’t get that number of seats on Saturday.
CONDON: Okay we’re getting a number of texts here saying that you’re a bit of a sore loser and your policies might have been harmful to Australian agriculture, how do you respond to that?
FITZGIBBON: Well there’s no validity to any claim that our policies were harmful to Australian agriculture, we take full responsibility for the loss but I don’t think we lost on any of those issues, I believe we lost because we allowed ourselves to be exposed to scare campaigns on this mythical retiree tax, an inheritance tax and in particular we opened up a flank and allowed ourselves to be accused of being anti-mining. We didn’t have any anti-mining policies but we gave our opponents an opportunity to run that line.
CONDON: And the other issue, I’ve got another text here, that people didn’t like Bill Shorten, that was the main issue and that they didn’t trust him.
FITZGIBBON: Well Bill Shorten did an outstanding job and worked harder than I can ever imagine anyone doing, and we had a great suite of policies, but you know somewhere along the track we gave them the opportunity to run that scare campaign and we suffered as a consequence. But now we have to establish a new leader and we should review all our policies, some will be kept, no doubt some won’t be.
CONDON: Are you going to be a candidate for that, as leader?
FITZGIBBON: Well I made it clear this morning that -
CONDON: You’re thinking about it?
FITZGIBBON: I’m thinking about it. I want each of the party candidates to bring the party back to the centre, to reconnecting with our blue collar base, to showing a greater focus on the regions. I want someone from the regions at the centre of the decision making process and you know, if they’re not prepared to commit to that, well I’ll consider running myself.
CONDON: Joel Fitzgibbon, thanks for joining us on the program today.
FITZGIBBON: A great pleasure.