SUBJECTS: Drought policy; ALP Carbon Reduction Policy; 'Big Stick' legislation.
LEIGH SALES, HOST: Australia's drought has been in the spotlight once more this week after an emotional phone call to a Sydney radio program in which a farmer from Bourke broke down begging the Federal Government for help, saying his kids had no reason to return home anymore. The Prime Minister personally rang the man, but it's prompted more questions about whether the Government's doing enough to ease the immediate pain. Labor wants to see a bipartisan drought war cabinet set up to discuss that and more. I was joined a short time ago from Parliament House by the Shadow Agriculture Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon. Joel Fitzgibbon, Labor's calling for a drought war cabinet, wouldn't farmers be hoping for a bit less talk and a bit more action?
JOEL FITZGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: Well Leigh, what began as a crisis for our farmers fast moved to a crisis for our rural townships which are literally running out of water, and I fear that we now are fast approaching a threat to our food security. And you know, we've had six years of pretty much inaction, and I think we do need to take any politics out of it. We need to sit the major parties down together and to start making some pretty significant decisions.
SALES: What are you hearing from farmers about what the Government could do sort of quickly and efficiently that would make the most difference in the short term?
FITZGIBBON: Almost every farmer, Leigh, has a different response. But at this stage, given we've lost six years, there are only two things that matter: cash and cash flow. Cash to put food on the tables to get farming families through this terrible drought and cash flow so that the farm operation can continue to the other end of this drought, which I hope is not too far away. You know, the test of viability, Leigh, which is an important test, is not whether you can make it through the seventh or eighth year of the worst drought in our history. There are of course many farms that have been in this sort of marginal column for a long time and are shifting into the unviable column for a range of reasons. But you know, you don't – you're not unviable because you can't get through year eight and nine. We need to help these people get to the other side because, you know, the Government's taking their Farm Household Allowance off them; more often more farmers are going to leave the land. And, you know, we are at risk of importing more of our food and fibre.
SALES: Barnaby Joyce made the point the other day, though, that if farmers are on the land where they've not been able to turn a profit for more than a decade, they should seriously think about moving off and getting a job elsewhere. You criticise that. But is it not common sense?
FITZGIBBON: No, I think it was very disappointing, but some hard decisions do need to be made. And that's why I think a war cabinet style approach would be helpful so that if some of those tough decisions are particularly tough for some people, then the major political parties would be making them together, and then the Government would be protected from any political backlash. I think that's critically important; it's the same concept Menzies used; Churchill used during the war, and I think we are approaching an almost wartime situation here.
SALES: How much do you think the climate change is contributing to the current drought?
FITZGIBBON: The climate change is contributing significantly. And there is no doubt that mankind is making a contribution and we have to make - take meaningful action on climate change. And I was with a group of young farmers just last week at a camp organised by UNICEF and when I asked them their views about climate change, whether it's happening, and whether humankind is making a contribution, I had a sea of hands in the air. Younger farmers in particular understand this and more and more, more mature farmers are coming to that conclusion as well.
SALES: Do you think that describing Australia as being in a climate emergency as Labor is doing is accurate?
FITZGIBBON: Well, climate emergency has become an international term for describing the inaction that's happening across the globe. Too many countries, Leigh, went off and just decided the Paris Agreement made those commitments but are not acting, and if the world doesn't do more together to mitigate, then the situation will grow worse. It will have big impacts on our economy, bigger impacts on our environment and of course big impacts on our farming community.
SALES: There's been a pretty robust reaction in your own party to your suggestion that Labor should adopt the Coalition's targets for emissions reduction. Mark Butler, your climate change spokesman, said today that the 28% target that the Government has is inconsistent with scientific advice and inadequate to meet Australia's commitments under the Paris Agreement. Has your position changed at all?
FITZGIBBON: No, it hasn't Leigh; I have a number of objectives. First of all, I want to shine a big spotlight on Scott Morrison who has his own target but shows no sign of meeting it. He's allowing emissions to rise year on year, every year. Secondly, I want to force him into action; we can't allow emissions to continue to rise. So if we can force him into action, we will know what we have to deal with if we're fortunate enough to win in three years’ time. Third, I want to make sure that whatever policy Labor finally adopts, it's one which takes meaningful action on climate change, meets our Paris commitments, and of course does so without harming our economy in anyway and without costing blue collar jobs. Fourth, and finally, I want to win an election, Leigh, because we can't give Scott Morrison six more years and potentially six more years allowing emissions to grow.
SALES: But isn't the problem from your colleagues that that 28% isn't consistent with the Paris Agreement targets?
FITZGIBBON: Well, I was talking about the next three years, Leigh. What do we do to force Scott Morrison into action? He keeps - today again in the parliament he was standing at the dispatch box claiming that he'll make his 26 to 28% target easily. That's simply not true, Leigh. We got to take the spotlight off us and get it back on Scott Morrison.
SALES: Are you bothered about the perception of having disunity in the Labor Party on this issue?
FITZGIBBON: I don't think there is a degree of disunity. I mean, we all are - we are as one, Leigh. We want to take meaningful action on climate change. But I don't want to wait another three years; I want action now. And we've got to develop strategies and embrace strategies that put the spotlight on him and force him into action.
SALES: Can I ask as well, on that, power prices? Do you think that Labor should back the Big Stick energy legislation that's in the parliament?
FITZGIBBON: Yes, I do. We should back the Big Stick legislation because it will do no harm. But that doesn't prevent us from making the point, as we should, that is not likely to have had any meaningful impact on energy prices. What has - what is driving energy prices up, Leigh, is a lack of investment and we have a lack of investment because investors are uncertain. Investors are uncertain because for six years we haven't had an energy policy in this country.
SALES: Joel Fitzgibbon, thank you very much.
FITZGIBBON: It’s a pleasure.