SUBJECTS: Additional Drought Funding; Unions; Equine Welfare; Extinction Rebellion.
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: I want to bring in my next guest, Joel Fitzgibbon is the Shadow Minister for Agriculture. Joel Fitzgibbon welcome.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: Good to be with you PK.
KARVELAS: So Labor has offered the Morrison Government a blank cheque on drought. Now some estimates have put the cost of the National’s proposal at $1.2 billion; are you happy with that kind of spend?
FITZGIBBON: Well, as Anthony Albanese told the Bush Summit in Dubbo many, many months ago now, we are for backing anything the government reasonably wants to do. And there’s not been one piecemeal drought announcement in the last few years, or indeed the last six years, that we haven’t supported. So, we stand by our farmers, we stand by rural communities affected by drought and we do still want to work on a bipartisan basis. But sadly Scott Morrison has rejected that offer from us and he’s left the running to himself, and yet the National Party, his own Coalition party, has called it out as has the National Farmers’ Federation. He does not have an overarching strategic plan and his response has been massively inadequate.
KARVELAS: Ok, but he’s deliberating or ERC? And of course, Cabinet will be deliberating on this this week, we know this to be true. Should the figure be over $1 billion, is that something Labor backs?
FITZGIBBON: Well, it’s going to be expensive, PK, and this is the reason I offered to, or Anthony Albanese and I, offered the drought cabinet concept because the money required will be large and some tough decisions might need to be made in the end if the drought becomes more and more protracted. So, our invitation was for him to work with us so if there are difficult decisions to be made, whether on the expenditure side or the other decisions side, then we would be making them together and he wouldn’t need to be concerned about a political fallout.
KARVELAS: Sure, but he said no to that so under the parameters that are now available to you, if the government were to spend a billion dollars, would you find that reasonable?
FITZGIBBON: Well, it would be irresponsible for me to put a number on it. But given the Prime Minister has been running around wrongly claiming he was spending $7 billion for the last few months then I have to say a billion dollars sounds pretty modest. This is a horrific drought, there’s no sign to an end sadly, and the challenge is going to become greater and greater. And it really concerns me PK that he is going to make another announcement this week or at least come up with another piecemeal policy approach. We’ve had a policy announcement almost every week for the last month and, again, it’s not just me frustrated, it’s not just farmers and rural communities frustrated, the National Party is becoming increasingly frustrated and, of course, the National Farmers’ Federation is becoming frustrated.
KARVELAS: Should the government be looking at building desalination plants and piping that water back to regions, is that something you would support?
FITZGIBBON: I think everything has be in the mix here, PK. I’ve said it a number of times, and I don’t like saying it, and I hope I’m wrong, but we may be facing a calamity here. It may not rain for another year. It may not rain for another two years and this is why the government needs a strategic scenarios plan so that it can ask itself what if it doesn’t rain meaningfully for another year, two years or three years, like a general going into battle, he would have a plan for each of those scenarios. And it’s another reason why he needs to release the report of Major General Stephen Day, the Coordinator General for Drought. Now, he was a well-resourced person. He was an energetic, committed person. He really put his all into that job, and having originally seeing some of his battle plans, I will call them, ill be very surprised if he didn’t produce a very comprehensive report. So, a good start would be to have that report released and hopefully it can lay the foundation of finally building an overarching national drought plan.
KARVELAS: Just on another issue, something I just mentioned, Racing Victoria says it will spend $25 million on a program to improve the welfare of racehorses, including tracking, a database that tracks them, and rehoming, and a welfare taskforce as well; do you welcome this?
FITZGIBBON: Look, anybody in food production, or indeed in sport, who isn’t very alert to growing community concern about animal welfare is making a mistake, and I am very pleased that they’ve responded so very quickly. I hope we will see that in other states as well. I’m very close to the thoroughbred breeding industry, PK, it’s very large of course and I’m very proud of it in the Hunter Region, most of it in my own electorate, so I know how important that is to the economy. I know how important racing is to the economy and one can’t exist without the other. So, we want the industry to be proactive, we want it to be on the front foot, we want it responding, and I am pleased to see them doing so.
KARVELAS: Would you like to see other racing bodies step up and offer similar commitments?
FITZGIBBON: Well, I think it would be a mistake and, therefore, I would like them to be responding. It would be a mistake for them to take growing community concern about animal welfare lightly. That applies to all sports and, again, to all food production involving animals.
KARVELAS: Is the future of the industry under threat if it can’t clean up its image?
FITZGIBBON: No, I don’t think so because it’s demonstrated it can be proactive, it has been quick to respond, it’s a popular sport and it’s worth a lot of money to our local economies. So, governments of all persuasion should be working with the industry to keep it alive and well, but also to ensure that it’s doing the right thing by animal welfare standards. But I’m just as concerned, PK, about how this abattoir incident could have occurred given this was an export abattoir, which means it is regulated by the Commonwealth, it has or should have a Commonwealth Vet onsite, and it poses the question how could this of happened and how could it have had happened without the Commonwealth’s knowledge. Why did we have to wait for an ABC report to find out what went on in that abattoir?
KARVELAS: Would it help to have a Federal Racing Minister?
FITZGIBBON: I don’t really see the point, PK. I mean this…
KARVELAS: Well if you want a – you know, talk about Commonwealth and responsibility, it gives someone responsibility doesn’t it?
FITZGIBBON: Well, I took to the last election on behalf of the Labor Party an animal welfare policy which included the development of a national office of animal welfare. So, you strengthen the cooperation between the Commonwealth and the States, I certainly support that.
KARVELAS: How concerned are you about the growing anger in the union movement on free trade agreements? Does it represent a split? Is Labor being tested now by the union movement? I know the CFMEU says they won’t donate to the Labor Party.
FITZGIBBON: Well, obviously I am concerned about the restlessness in the union movement and some of the concerns they hold are very legitimate ones and they are based on exploitation which has occurred under older and other agreements. So, they are right to be alert to ensure on behalf of their members that these trade deals are of net benefit, or overarching benefit, to Australia. So we are on the same hymn sheet there but…
KARVELAS: Well they don’t say that you are. The union actually say that the position adopted by Labor under Anthony Albanese goes against the platform that you agreed to in National Conference.
FITZGIBBON: Well, the fact is, PK, we are in Opposition and these free trade agreements are presented to us as a yay or nay. We don’t, unfortunately, have the opportunity to amend them, we have to say yes or no. And we pressed the government, and full marks to the government to being cooperative on this front, Anthony Albanese put ten measures to the government, largely around investor-state mechanisms, labour-market testing, employee exploitation etc, and they were accepted by the government. So, we worked hard in consultation and in cooperation with the trade movement to have the government embrace some improvements and some changes – that’s a lot better than saying no, PK, because there is a large economic benefit to Australia in signing these agreements. Labor is the party of trade liberalisation, it first started under Gough Whitlam, a lot done of course in the Hawke and Keating years, continued in the Rudd Gillard years; we began many of the trade agreements signed off by the current government. So, we are proud, we are a small trading island continent relatively isolated from the rest of the world. Free trade is a good thing as long as the agreements are right, and we’ve done our best to make these agreements to be the best they possibly can be.
KARVELAS: Your leader, Anthony Albanese, will give a speech on Labor values tomorrow; what are you hoping is in that speech?
FITZGIBBON: And I’ll be there, PK, and I look forward to it and I know it will be a very, very solid speech both presenting to the country his ambition for our nation and making it clear what the Labor Party stands for, and I think it will be a good speech and set down some key principals for Labor going forward.
KARVELAS: There is a new book out that argues that Labor has adopted too much identity politics by progressives; is that a view that you share?
FITZGIBBON: Well, I’ve had some very public views on the record, PK, about the future direction of the Party…
KARVELAS: Do you think the Party has adopted identity politics?
FITZGIBBON: I think the Party needs to be careful to stick to its core business, and that is demonstrating it’s a progressive Party while at the same time looking after its traditional blue-collar base, and it’s the second part of that equation that I’ll be working on very hard of the course of the next three years.
KARVELAS: Do you have a problem with blue-collar being in the Labor Party and representing the Labor Party and should you perhaps look at quotas?
FITZGIBBON: I don’t think quotas. I think the idea of quotas is a good way of bringing attention to this subject and on that basis, I welcome that contribution. I don’t believe we need quotas. What we really need to do, PK, is win more regional and rural seats because when you win more rural and regional seats, you have more rural and regional people sitting around the decision-making table providing input from the regions around Australia. That’s what we really need to do and therefore we need to get this balance right and put ourselves in a winning position in 2022.
KARVELAS: But is part of the problem that Labor – you know, you look at the parliament and it’s now full of people who are not blue-collar people and don’t represent working-class Australians; do you accept that critique?
FITZGIBBON: No, I don’t like the suggestion that because someone has been a trade union official or leader, or worked in politics previously, they are not well versed in, and well credentialed, to be an effective advocate in the parliament, I reject that. But a mix is good and what we need to do…
KARVELAS: But you don’t have an adequate mix, isn’t that the critique?
FITZGIBBON: Well, it’s axiomatic that we don’t hold sufficient rural and regional seats and those rural and regional seats are typically blue-collar in nature. So the object has to be to build that representation and to build further representation in regional Australia, we need to ensure that we are there for regional Australia and that we do support key industries in regional Australia, typically the industries of the coal mining industry, the manufacturing industry, those which provide blue-collar jobs for the people that we traditionally represented.
KARVELAS: Victorian Police are expecting significant protests by Extinction Rebellion to disrupt the international mining and resources conference in Melbourne; what’s your message to those protestors?
FITZGIBBON: Well, my message first of all is that I respect absolutely the right of people to express their view and to protest, but I suspect that they don’t do their cause all that much good when they are disrupting ordinary people just trying to go about their daily lives, who might actually share some of their concerns. So, I think they are at real risk of overreach. You know the Labor Party, for example, is acutely aware of the environmental concerns that they have and what they are protesting for, and we will take a suite of policies into the next election to accommodate some of those concerns. But this thing seems to be going on and on and on now, and I think more and more people will become more frustrated by the protest and, you know, that frustration will work against the very cause they are supporting.
KARVELAS: Attendees have been advised not to display delegate badges or lanyards or mining branded clothing outside the conference; what do you think of that?
FITZGIBBON: I don’t know, PK. I’m not in charge of the security arrangements. I don’t think I can add to what I’ve already said.
KARVELAS: Ok, fair enough. A politician without an opinion is a politician that needs to be applauded. Thank you so much Joel.
FITZGIBBON: Good on you PK.