SUBJECTS: Employment in Regional Australia; Newstart; Drought Future Fund; TEO legislation; Farm Trespass Laws.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: I want to bring in my first guest the Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Resources, Joel Fitzgibbon. Joel Fitzgibbon welcome.
JOEL FITZGIBBON: Great to be with you PK.
KARVELAS: Firstly, should people move to the country if they don’t have a job?
FITZGIBBON: This is just more blame the victim mentality from the National Party, isn’t it PK? I remember very vividly, John Cobb, the former Member for Clare saying that young people should get themselves a lift into town to get a job. It invoked in my mind the idea of young people hitch hiking in order to secure themselves some employment. Look, it’s absolutely misguided. The idea that there are just jobs waiting for people from the city in the bush is an ill-informed one and it would come to a surprise to many in regional communities where they have high unemployment rates themselves, and you know, what we need to do is empower young people with the skills they need to secure the jobs of the 21st Century and on that basis Michael McCormack should reflect on the cuts they’ve imposed on institutions like TAFE over the course of the last six years.
KARVELAS: Okay, in its essence though is there some merit in the argument here that if you’re long-term unemployed perhaps considering – I’m not suggesting making it the rule – but for people to consider moving to places where clearly – I mean I spoke to the NFF yesterday and they said, you know, we need workers in regional Australia.
FITZGIBBON: And people do move PK. I’ve known many of them, but what Michael McCormack fails to grasp is that some of these young people, in particular, find themselves confined to a particular regional community. They don’t have the money for the airfare, the train fare, whatever the mode of transport may be. Where are they going to live when they get to the other end? Do they have the money to pay the rent? They might be living with their parents. So, this is not a complex issue, but again, many young people do move in a quest for work and they do so very, very successfully. We need to hear from Michael McCormack what the Government is going to help to do to assist people in doing so, rather than just being critical of those who haven’t been able to do so for whatever reason.
KARVELAS: Labor has today revised your position on Newstart. So, the position now is quite explicit – you think there should be an increase. So, will you articulate what the increase should be?
FITZGIBBON: Well it would be a bit cute to be talking about a review of Newstart when so many are doing it so tough, and then deny an increase of some sort needs to be part of the solution, but from my own perspective we can’t allow this to be a sort of binary debate where it’s either $75 for everyone, or $75 for no one. We need to get the economics right on what the amount might be, but we also need to focus on the thing we were just talking about – incentivising the system for example, strengthening reciprocal obligation conditions et cetera. Let’s talk about this in a more sophisticated way, and again, of course in very large part that comes back to skills opportunities and this Government again has been cutting those opportunities now for six years.
KARVELAS: Okay, you said it was a bit cute to offer a review without an increase, so does that mean your position at the election was a bit cute?
FITZGIBBON: No, no, I didn’t say that. I said it would be cute to say we’re going to have a review but we don’t believe an increase is part of the mix …
KARVELAS: But that’s what you’re previously saying.
FITZGIBBON: No, I don’t think that’s what we were saying at all. Obviously, I remember a number of our spokespersons saying at the time, obviously you’re not having a review to reduce Newstart. So, obviously it’s not enough, but it’s very, very expensive – very expensive. We’re talking about billions of dollars annually to increase it, for example, by a rate of $75. So, surely there may be some better ways to invest that money, ways of ensuring that we transition people off Newstart. So, there are a mix of things we need to do, but it’s got to be a more sophisticated debate than whether we increase it by X or not increase it by X.
KARVELAS: Okay, but at the end of the day does Labor believe that there should be a Newstart, a lift in Newstart immediately?
FITZGIBBON: Labor is conscious of the fact that Newstart hasn’t grown in real terms since the early 1990s, and that’s a ridiculous situation and we need to do something about it, and we need to do something about it sooner rather than later.
KARVELAS: You mentioned strengthening mutual obligation – I wrote down some notes – what do you mean by that?
FITZGIBBON: Well, we need to incentivise the opportunity to work, and reciprocal obligation has been part of the equation, I think, since Keating’s working nation right back in the early 1990s. So, we need to condition these payments where conditions can work, and we need to invest in people to ensure we help them make that transition off Newstart and onto something better for them.
KARVELAS: On your own portfolio, you say Scott Morrison’s plan to tackle people who are activists who want to invade farms as being essentially just a populist idea, and you also have warned that it could harm journalists – so does that mean you’re going to oppose the legislation?
FITZGIBBON: I also, PK, said that we support the objectives of the Bill, but I made two points – one, this is already covered by existing law. The trespass laws in the states as we speak are being strengthened and there is plenty of advice to suggest that there are unintended consequences in this Bill, and the protection of journalists and whistleblowers are amongst those concerns. There are no exemptions for journalists or whistleblowers in this Bill. There are what they call ‘defences’, but the way that the Government has designed the Bill so the onus of proof is on the defendant to prove that they’re not in breach of the law, and that should be of concern to everyone and there is some questions about the constitutionality of the Bill.
KARVELAS: Okay. So let’s accept – so, if you’re concerned on two fronts, why would you vote for it?
FITZGIBBON: Well, we will send it to a Parliamentary Committee, and we’ll have it tests, and maybe just maybe PK – I mean, I live in hope, I’m an optimist – the Government might see fit if the committee makes recommendations to amend the Bill so that we can have an effective Bill, a Bill that’s not going to be challenged in the High Court and a Bill which protects our farmers from overzealous activists.
KARVELAS: Do you have any commitments? Have you spoken to the relevant Ministers, I think it’s Bridget McKenzie and it’s also David Littleproud. Have you spoken to them about this?
FITZGIBBON: Well that would be preemptive. We have sent it to a committee. This is a fairly standard thing to do. If the committee identifies some problems in the Bill then we take them to the Government and we have a conversation about whether the Government is prepared to embrace the changes. If they are well that’s great we can get the Bill through quickly. If they are not we will probably move the amendments ourselves in the Parliament. Our job PK is to make sure the law that is being proposed does what it is proposed to do. There is plenty of advice around that there are unintended consequences in this Bill but we are keen to ensure that farmers and farming families aren’t adversely affected by overzealous activists. There is no doubt about that.
KARVELAS: Why did you go through yesterday slamming the Drought Assistance Fund when you are going to vote for it anyway?
FITZGIBBON: Well because we were still hopeful as is with the case with the so called trespass laws that the Government might see some sense. It was pretty clear to me and others that the Government didn’t have the crossbench in the Senate tied up necessarily again our job is to make laws as good as they can possibly be and there are a whole number of flaws in that drought package the least not being the fact that no farmer is going to see any money out of this for at least a couple of years. We still don’t know exactly where the Government intends to spend the money so we are always a little bit concerned about anything the National Party is involved in there. Most of all we don’t want them robbing the money out of the roads budget because regional roads investment is very, very important in regional Australia and very important to our farmers.
KARVELAS: The Temporary Exclusion Order Bill puts a significant amount of power in the hands of the Home Affairs Minister. Are you comfortable with that?
FITZGIBBON: We are comfortable with the work of the Joint Intelligence and Security Committee. You know it is becoming known around the world as world’s best practice because it has been able to work in a bipartisan basis and a cooperative basis and has done very good technical work. All we want PK - because this is a different bill than the one that was previously presented. The Committee has made recommendations to improve the Bill and we want the Government to embrace those amendments.
KARVELAS: But they have told us already. This is why it is a key question for you. They have already told us they will not embrace those recommendations that you were pushing and Labor has endorsed today in the Caucus meeting that if you can’t get those changes through you will still vote for it. Why would you still vote for it if you think it is not a good Bill?
FITZGIBBON: PK I’m still hopeful and it’s all right for the Government to say it’s not going to accept the recommendations. I’ve heard that on many occasions and as a view the Labor Party will continue to fight to make sure this is good law and of course –
KARVELAS: And if you lose that fight and I think you already have but if you lose that fight?
FITZGIBBON: I will leave it for Kristina Keneally to answer those questions but we want it also to be a law that’s not subject to challenge in the High Court. We want to keep Australians safe and law which is subject to High Court Appeal or very vulnerable to appeal is not one which secures Australia.
KARVELAS: So what is your instinct then? If that’s your fear and you can’t get your amendments supported by the Government should you then be standing firm and say no we won’t vote for this Bill because we think it’s vulnerable.
FITZGIBBON: No, my instincts are always the same on these issues, whether it be the income tax, Future Drought Fund or whether it be TEOs. If we believe there are things that can be done better, we should fight for those things all the way to the last post.
KARVELAS: And then what happens at the last post? You’ll vote for it anyway?
FITZGIBBON: Well I will await for Kristina Keneally to come back and make some recommendations to us.
KARVELAS: Labor has been criticised for being too inclined to pass National Security legislation including legislation that has the potential to restrict the freedom of the press. Are you enabling that by not sticking to the principles at the last moment, because ultimately you will be waving this through as you have waved a range of other things through?
FITZGIBBON: How is it PK that Scott Morrison uses these lines like ‘whose side are you on?’ His done it with the drought package, he has now done it with national security issues. This is not the way to give effect to national security laws in this country and he needs to go back and put his faith in the joint Parliamentary committee which has been working so well. The public domain is not the place, at this stage of this debate, to be having this conversation. The right place is in the Joint Parliamentary Security and Intelligence Committee.
KARVELAS: We have seen this now with tax, the Drought Fund and foreign fighters – Labor opposes, goes on the record and says that some of these things are bad then ultimately supports the legislation. What’s the strategy here?
FITZGIBBON: Well no one would expect us not to try PK. I mean the drought package is fundamentally flawed because it draws money away from regional infrastructure projects.
KARVELAS: If it fundamentally flawed why would you vote for it?
FITZGIBBON: Because the flawed bill in this circumstances is better than none because in six years they have done nothing effective on drought. They have done nothing to help in a meaningful way our drought affected farmers so you know we have no choice to stand out of the way, having failed to make it a better bill and having failed to protect $3.9 billion worth of roads and infrastructure investment in regional Australia.
KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us. That is Labor's Agricultural Spokesperson.