SUBJECTS: Drought Future Fund, Farm Trespass Laws.
FRAN KELLY: Federal Parliament is back today for the first full sitting fortnight since the May election. It sits against the backdrop of the worst drought in more than 120 years in large parts of NSW and Queensland. One of the first debates today will be over legislation setting up the Future Drought Fund which will finance projects aimed at improving resilience and recovery. Before the election the Opposition voted against the Bill on the grounds that the initial funding of $3.9 billion would come from a separate pot of money that had been set aside for vital infrastructure projects. Prime Minister Scott Morrison says Anthony Albanese and Labor now have a second chance to do the right thing by drought stricken farmers and towns.
[SCOTT MORRISON AUDIO GRAB] Anthony sort of needs to get over the pride on these issues. I mean he is constantly looking for an excuse to oppose things. So you got to ask yourself about this guy, what’s he for? And who is he for? I can’t work it out. I now ask him, are you for the Drought Fund? Well he seems to be saying no at the moment.
KELLY: Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the Bush Summit in Dubbo. Well Joel Fitzgibbon is the Shadow Minister for Agriculture and he is in our Parliament House studio. Joel Fitzgibbon, welcome back to Breakfast.
FITZGIBBON: Great to have you back in Parliament House Fran.
KELLY: The PM says there will be no deals on the farmer’s fund, on this Future Drought Fund. He is demanding to know whose side you’re on. Will you be recommending Labor drop its opposition of this Bill? Do you want this fund?
FITZGIBBON: I’m very happy to answer the question Fran but can I begin by saying the Parliament is not divided into two groups - one group which supports giving more help to drought affected farmers and another group which does not. The Parliament is absolutely united on this question. We all want to do more for drought affected farmers. The problem is that after six years we still don’t have an effective and cohesive drought strategy. As ineffective as the government’s policies have been and I think we have plenty of evidence of that if you look on the land today, we have supported every measure. Our problem with this latest iteration is manifold really. You will recall that five and a half years on after failure the Prime Minister decided to hold a Drought Summit and on the morning of the Drought Summit he announced this Future Drought Fund. And we did he do that? Well he likes to put a big number on it. But our concerns are many. First of all the fund won’t even draw down money for more than 12 months. Now this something he announced in October last year. Our farmers need help today not sometime after 12 months’ time when the $100 million begins to be drawn down. We still don’t know what the Government is going to spend the money on. There has been no detail on that whatsoever. But most importantly we still don’t understand why the Government wants to take money away from important infrastructure projects, roads, rail etcetera including in regional Australia to pay for another important measure.
KELLY: Okay, we’ll come to some of those elements but on Friday the Bureau of Meteorology confirmed the Murray Darling Basin is in the grip of one of the most severe droughts in 120 years of records. Now the Drought Minister David Littleproud, who we speak to after 7.30, says if Labor votes against this Bill you will be politicising the misery of farmers. Why wouldn’t you support a fund like this at a time like this? Isn’t it exactly what the country needs when it is experiencing the worst drought in NSW and parts of Queensland in 120 years of records?
FITZGIBBON: Well that’s an offensive suggestion from David Littleproud quite frankly and Scott Morrison has been saying something similar. Again, we have supported every measure as ineffective as they have been that this government has been put forward over six years Fran. We are seven years into a drought and the government has produced nothing that has given any meaningful assistance to farmers and again that is just so evident to anyone who looks at the land sector at the moment. We are trying very hard. Anthony Albanese made it so clear that we will support any amount of money requested by the Government to do something more immediate for farmers. Any amount of money was basically the words Anthony Albanese used. It must have made a couple of people in the ERC a bit nervous, so we stand ready we just don’t want to take money away from regional road projects.
KELLY: The Prime Minister said this won’t be – let me quote the Prime Minister last week. Quote, ‘There is not on piece of pavement, not one dam, not one railway sleeper that won’t be funded as a result of this decision to reallocate this money because all these projects will be covered under the Government’s general $100 billion infrastructure commitment over the next ten years.’
FITZGIBBON: It’s funny isn’t it that after talking about dams incessantly over six years, in six years Scott Morrison, Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott have not built a dam but there are two points here Fran. First of all the government is always budgeting for road funding but never spending the money. Every year they spend less than they budget for.
KELLY: They reckon they will spend $45 billion over the next four years on road and rail and other major infrastructure.
FITZGIBBON: And thank you Fran for saying ‘they reckon’ because Anthony Albanese when he was the Shadow for Infrastructure stood in Question Time day in day out and read a list of projects that they had budgeted for but never funded. Can I just make one second point, The Building Australia Fund ensured a discipline. It made sure money was only spent on projects prioritised by the Independent Infrastructure Australia. This is what Scott Morrison didn’t like and this is what Michael McCormack doesn’t like. They want to be able to spend the money where ever they want it spent for political purposed rather than the economic priorities of the nation.
KELLY: Back to the notion of this fund, what’s your particular problem? You have described it before as a National Party slush fund now it is clear that it’s not going to be like that. $100 million would be withdrawn from this fund every year for drought resilience programs so this is not just handouts from you know National Party members in seats during the election campaign this would have a consultative committee to advise the Minister on which projects to fund and these would be drought experts. Doesn’t all of that give you some reassurance?
FITZIBBON: How do we know that Fran?
KELLY: Well that’s how it’s designed.
FITZGIBBON: Well it’s not designed.
KELLY: Well it’s the Minister who would be getting recommendations from a consultative fund which expertise on drought resilience.
FITZGIBBON: Can I say some the improvements to the Bill were forced upon the government in the House of Representatives last time –
KELLY: Particularly by former independent Cathy McGowan, that’s true.
FITZGIBBON: But you have more faith in Scott Morrison than me if you believe that a piece of paper that says it will be spent vaguely on X,Y and Z is a guarantee that is how it is going to be spent then again you do have more optimism than me and more faith and confidence in this Government.
KELLY: You’re listening to RN Breakfast it is seventeen to seven and our guest is Joel Fitzgibbon the Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Resources. Isn’t it the truth through, and there will be a number of Bills coming up before Parliament this week including the temporary exclusion orders for foreign fighters and the ensuring integrity legislation which makes it easier to deregister rouge unions that the government is setting a test for you this week and it’s a test that is hard for you to do anything but acquiesce on because of the election result.
FITZGIBBON: You are so correct Fran. This is a government without an agenda and is a government that went to the election promising to change nothing and that is pretty much what they intend to do. They are scrambling around for issues. I mean take the Drought Fund, they announced it in October last year and now they say it has to be passed through the Parliament this week. Their agenda is all about an attempt to wedge the Australian Labor Party but in doing so they are dividing the community and putting unnecessary fear into the community and of course creating issues that aren’t necessarily as big as they might be, not in every case but –
KELLY: Can we expect then that Labor will fold as they did on the tax cuts? That they will, subjected to this wedge, will agree to this Drought Fund?
FITZGIBBON: You can expect that as the lead on this issue I will continue to urge the government to find other ways of funding the Drought Fund without raiding the money from important regional road projects and you know at some point I will make a recommendation to the Shadow Cabinet.
KELLY: Also this week legislation to beef up the trespass laws after a series of farm invasions by animal activists. It will be 12 month goal terms for anybody who uses a carriage service, say the internet, to incite others to trespass and five years if they incite them to damage property or steal livestock. Will Labor back that Bill?
FITZGIBBON: This is almost entirely in the jurisdiction of the states and you see the states are beefing up their trespass laws.
KELLY: NSW has already just announced a new law.
FITZGIBBON: And we welcome that. We support the objectives of the Bill as you say. All it really does is make it unlawful for someone to incite a trespass or an invasion and using a carriage –
KELLY: And what does that mean and what is the definition of incite?
FITZGIBBON: Well this is the problem and I would expect we will send this to a Senate Committee to have these questions answered. We will check on the unintended consequences. Whistle-blowers for example, journalists, I mean if Channel Nine runs a video on its website and the story somehow inadvertently incites a trespass are they exempt under this Bill? They are not. There are defences in there which is recognition in itself that there are problems.
KELLY: Why do we need it if the states are beefing up their laws?
FITZGIBBON: That’s a good question. I mean this Government without an agenda likes to hop into issues which they believe are popular out there in the electorate -
KELLY: Are you going to allow them? –
FITZGIBBON: - People are concerned about the farming community. We will allow the carriage service laws to be beefed up as long as the Bill as drafted doesn’t produce a number of unintended consequences and does not unnecessarily make the law more complex. There’s even a constitutional question about separation of power in this Bill.
KELLY: Okay, Joel Fitzgibbon, thank you very much for joining us.
FITZGIBBON: A great pleasure Fran.