SUBJECTS: Ley’s PMB; live sheep exports, AGL's rejection of offer to buy Liddell Power Station.
GREG JENNETT: We are joined in our studio by Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon. Before we get to the numbers and the politics of the Sussan Ley Bill, I put it to you, yourself could be Agriculture Minister within 12 months. What’s your timeline in Government if it is not sorted beforehand for the closure of this industry?
JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES, FORESTRY AND RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA: Well tragically the Government has seemed to deny us any opportunity to do anything about this coming northern summer trade. We would immediately put a stop to that trade. Obviously it wouldn’t have effect in 2018 but certainly would have effect in 2019. From day one we would begin the work to phase out the whole trade probably over a five year period.
JENNETT: So in a sense you match up with the Sussan Ley plan. What do roll in as far as industry assistance and transitional money to help by the farmers or the abattoirs and slaughter houses?
FITZGIBBON: Well I was a part of the discussions and negotiations on Sussan’s Bill and I insisted you can’t transition farmers any more quickly than five years. We would need that time to put them on a better path. There are about six or seven portfolios involved here. This has to be a whole of Government approach. It ranges from workforce issues which is probably the biggest challenge, to skills to visas because no matter how well we do on workforce we will rely on somewhat on overseas workers. We have things like energy costs and quarantine and inspection costs. We have got to further expand the markets for frozen and chilled meat so there is a lot of work to do but I am confident we can do that and farmers can come out the other side in better shape.
JENNETT: What do you think some of the costs involved in that transition? Particularly as far as the Government is concerned. What are some of the costs?
FITZGIBBON: We don’t yet know and it is very hard from Opposition. Take workforce and skills for example, how much money will the Government need to invest to give to provide the incentives necessary to build that workforce. It’s a great tragedy in Australia where we have processors working at less than full capacity because they simply can’t secure the workforce they need and indeed in some cases particularly in this time of drought, can’t secure the supply of meat they need.
JENNETT: Is your caution on this front instructed in some way by the lessons learned from 2011 and the cattle export ban to Indonesia? Is that why you would proceed in a more carefully coordinated matter?
FITZGIBBON: As hard as 2011 was, what I did learn is that if a Government has the wit and is sufficiently determined to reflect community attitudes you can put an industry on a sustainable footing and that’s what we did with the cattle sector. Sheep is much different. The science is in and the Government has ignored the science. The RSPCA, the Australian Veterinary Association, all of them are saying the same thing. You can’t guarantee animal welfare standards on these long voyages to the Middle East.
JENNETT: Alright now let’s get to the politics of what might happen before a Labor Government if you want to imagine a Labor Government as I’m sure you do. The timeline before that, we have this Sussan Ley Bill, your side of the House is down a number of Members at the moment. At what point in time do you think Labor starts to engage in the Parliament in some way procedurally in this Sussan Ley Bill.
FITZGIBBON: Obviously with the pending byelections we have gone from 69 seats in the Reps to 65. The Government is obviously determined not to have Sussan’s Bill debated in the House. We would need an absolute majority of 76 to have it brought on for debate so while ever we are down those Members, it’s all too hard. We will wait for the byelections and see what they return. If we can get back to 69 and Sussan and Sarah Henderson are prepared to consider their positions and vote with us we are already at 71. There are at least three crossbenchers so you are getting pretty close to the magic 76.
JENNETT: You are pretty close but you’re not there though. That’s when Government s get pretty preoccupied don’t they on the work of the whips and the assurance of the backbench and that they will not cross in large numbers? It’s a tall order what you are talking about.
FITZGIBBON: Well Sussan and Sarah Henderson had a lot of backbenchers sitting behind them today offering their support. Many of them have pulled me up in the corridors of Parliament House offering their support. But what I would like to think will happen is when the Government sees this is becoming an overwhelming issue for the Parliament, then they might move themselves. We don’t want this to be a political arm wrestle or a controversy. We just want to meet community expectations and the Government should really come on board and should certainly allocate some time in the Parliament to allow Sussan Ley’s Bill to be debated.
JENNETT: There is not much that David Littleproud as Minister or Barnaby Joyce as his predecessor have had to say on this that leaves them much room to manoeuvre. It is a fairly forlorn hope isn’t it on your part?
FITZGIBBON: That’s right, Malcolm Turnbull remains the victim of the extreme right. You see Barnaby Joyce out there jibbering again today. He caused this problem when he gave the industry a free leave pass to do whatever it liked. He created the wrong culture so he takes heavy responsibility for all this. The Government finds itself in No man’s Land. It is trying to appease the moderates in its party room and the right wingers. It has delivered a package that doesn’t meet the science. It won’t work and of course it has upset the right as well because it is so heavily regulated the industry.
JENNETT: Well I guess David Littleproud would contest that and say you have to give it time.
FITZGIBBON: David Littleproud has left the country and the community is expected to believe that magically the standards he announced last week will be imposed by the same regulator this week. Not likely.
JENNETT: Can I go to an issue close to your home base here in the Hunter. This was the decision by AGL not to sell Liddell. Just for those who don’t watch these things closely, if you owned something worth nothing and someone offered you $250 for it, why wouldn’t you sell it?
FITZGIBBON: Interestingly a conservative Government in NSW basically gave those generators away to the private sector. Malcolm Turnbull now, revved up by Tony Abbott, Barnaby Joyce and others wants to compulsory acquire those generators. Those generators are owned by shareholders. We have an extraordinary situation in the 21st Century that a conservative government is now forcing people to sell their assets. Liddell is critical to AGL’s plans for the Upper Hunter region and the investment in new renewables capacity and of course an upgrade of Bayswater, a gas peaking station. Malcolm Turnbull needs to get out of the way. He is frustrating and delaying investment in jobs.
JENNETT: It is noticeable they weren’t talking about a compulsory acquisition today. What the Energy Minister was talking about was AGL actually guaranteeing the short fall that the gap I think it is 850 megawatts of power. Why is that not a reasonable demand, even if they don’t get into purchasing this plant?
FITZGIBBON: First of all the looney right in Malcolm’s party want to both accept the money to buy the generator. I would rather it spent on roads in the Upper Hunter thank you very much. The private sector is making the private investment. I have seen AGL’s plans and they are very confident that they will fill that gap, but only if Malcolm Turnbull gets out of the way and stops playing politics with such an important issue. Energy, as much as the live sheep trade looks like rattling on as a matter for debate around here for a while. Joel Fitzgibbon, thanks for your time today.
FITZGIBBON: A pleasure Greg.