SUBJECTS: Coalition Agreement, Barnaby Joyce, Hunter coal mining industry, Liddell power station, Border protection policy
PETA CREDLIN: Joining me now live from Canberra is Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Joel Fitzgibbon, thank you for your time Joel Fitzgibbon. I want to start if we can with the Joyce saga. He has resigned and has gone to the back bench. Labor is still pursuing him. Is this an issue that you are after Barnaby Joyce and any expenditure that might have happened in his time as Minister or is your real target the Prime Minister?
JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES, FORESTRY AND RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA: Well we just want to do our job as the official Opposition and hold people to account. Now there are still questions about breaches of the Code of Conduct and questions about the use of entitlements. Questions about Commonwealth money going to close personal contacts of Barnaby Joyce and you know Peta, I don’t enjoy this stuff but if we weren’t asking these questions we would be heavily criticised. This is what we are paid to do.
CREDLIN: So the Prime Minister started an inquiry headed up by Martin Parkinson, he is head of Prime Minister and Cabinet. That inquiry - we’ve now seen emails out of estimates - that inquiry instituted on the Wednesday, indeed the Prime Minister sent an email in the middle of the night at 12.30am to his head Martin Parkinson to start this inquiry. 48 hours later when Barnaby Joyce resigned, the inquiry was dropped. What do you make of that?
FITZGIBBON: Well I thought Malcolm Turnbull was very slow to initiate the inquiry that should have happened a lot earlier. My theory there is that Malcolm Turnbull, lacking any authority over Barnaby Joyce and with the complete inability because of the Coalition Agreement to move him on, decided to basically throw him under the bus by referring the matter to the head of his department. Joyce must have surely known from that point that he was going to come under increasing pressure. So I think it was Malcolm Turnbull’s belated decision to put the Bunsen burner under Barnaby Joyce.
CREDLIN: But why drop the inquiry?
FITZGIBBON: Well that’s the million dollar question isn’t. There would a lot of people out there in the community who have been in some sort of trouble over the years who would have loved to be able to just walk away and therefore at the same time make the charge against them go away. I think the Australian people would still expect the Prime Minister through his Departmental Head to follow through on that inquiry. If we want people to have faith and confidence and respect in and for the system then surely that inquiry should have been completed. I do note that allegedly at least that was a decision for the secretary himself.
CREDLIN: Okay let me just ask you about the Coalition Agreement. You have been pursuing the Coalition through the courts to gain access to the Coalition Agreement. That is sort of the relationship agreement that sits between the National Party and the Liberal Party. I reckon I’d be one of the few people who interview you who has actually seen a Coalition Agreement. It’s not as sexy as you think Mr Fitzgibbon but nonetheless, it’s your right to go chasing for it. The Government won’t release it. I have to make the point though, there are plenty of secret deals between unions and 50 per cent of the votes at your National Council in July are given to the union. At a great bulk, I’d have to say 90 per cent of your campaign money comes through the unions. We don’t get to see those secret agreements. So if you get the Coalition Agreement, are you going to make public these union Agreements?
FITZGIBBON: Well if it isn’t sexy, as you put it Peta, and you should know then why is Malcolm Turnbull spending tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money, in fact we now know $87,000 worth of taxpayers’ money so far trying to keep that Coalition deal a secret and I think it’s pretty extraordinary actually that no one before me over all these decades have ever bothered to ask for a copy of the Coalition Agreement. Surely there is nothing more fundamental to our democracy than the deals that are done to allow the Prime Minister to take office. Malcolm Turnbull should just release the document if there’s not much in it. My search began off the back of an article in the Telegraph two days after Malcolm Turnbull became the Prime Minister. That article written by Simon Benson was obviously backgrounded by members of the National Party and it made all sorts of claims about what policy initiatives the Nats had dragged out of Malcolm Turnbull in order to secure their support. You think you may know what’s in the agreement, I don’t know. But certainly if there is not much in the agreement the Nats have misled the author of that article.
CREDLIN: Well I think maybe they didn’t need such a strong agreement with John Howard or Tony Abbott maybe it was more administrative and maybe it’s different now. We’ll move on to your seat.
FITZGIBBON: Can I just say Peta, can I say on that apparently there is a side letter too with the Coalition Agreement. I don’t necessarily expect you to respond to that and you might not be in a position to but maybe the Coalition Agreement per se is not very sexy but maybe the side letter which attaches to it, which I would consider part of the Coalition Agreement might have some more interesting information.
CREDLIN: Well when you get it, I expect to see the union secret agreement the Labor Party put on the table at the same time. You come from a coal mining area Joel Fitzgibbon, in fact you are one of the only members of the Labor Party who lives outside of a capital city or a coastal region, so you are out there in regional and rural Australia. Labor seems to be hardening its position on the Adani Coal mine. That is surely not going down well in your community?
FITZGIBBON: Well I can’t let that pass Peta, I am not one of just a few who represents an electorate outside the capital cities. There are many of us these days and in fact many more before the 2016 election. Look I’m a strong supporter of the coal mining industry. It has brought great wealth to my local region and I am a strong supporter of the union movement which is trying to ensure workers, conditions, entitlements and of course relative pay proportions remain strong at a time when the coal mining industry itself remains strong. Sure we have come off the back of the mining investment boom but we are still exporting record amounts of coal out through the port of Newcastle. We support companies being profitable and they are but we also expect the workers to be fairly compensated.
CREDLIN: I dare you to go down to the Batman by-election and say exactly what you just said to me because that’s not the language of the Labor Party in the inner city Greens fight in Batman. The Labor Party is letting the message out of Batman sound as though you are an environmental warrior party that is prepared to dump coal jobs and workers jobs to win that seat. You have just given what I consider the old traditional Labor line that many people used to respect.
FITZGIBBON: Well I’d invite you to show evidence of where we have seen that down in Batman. As your colleague Graham Richardson has pointed out, it is silly to suggest we go down to Batman campaigning on coal mining. What Bill Shorten has done is put some qualifications around the Adani mine in Central Queensland, of course a project that is arguably raising false hope for many people and he is just making the point all these projects have to stand on their own two feet, both economically and environmentally. That has always been the case in the Hunter by the way. They shouldn’t need to rely on taxpayer subsidies.
CREDLIN: Well the Hunter rail line, correct me if I’m wrong, the Hunter rail line that takes the coal from your mines in Hunter to the port was actually built by the Government and is still owned by the Federal Government.
FITZGIBBON: For all the period since the 1970s when the big Upper Hunter Basin became available through the open-cut methods, all the infrastructure including to the port were all paid for by the companies themselves.
CREDLIN: It is the rail line I am talking about, the coal rail line is still on the Government’s books and it has been for some time, paid for by taxpayers.
FITZGIBBON: The third track investment, the dedicated rail line to port was an opportunity taken by the Australian Rail Track Corporation by an equity injection by the Commonwealth; an opportunity to make some big money for the taxpayer at the height of the coal boom. It is a much different thing than taking the risk of laying the foundations via the taxpayer for a new Basin.
CREDLIN: Joel Fitzgibbon that is complete polly-waffle speak. I like the guy that I used to know, the Joel Fitzgibbon the former auto-electrician who was on the tools before he came into Parliament.
FITZGIBBON: And small business person.
CREDLIN: And small business, again a rarity in the Labor Party. I want to ask you just quickly about the Liddell Coal Mine [sic] it is slated for closure, if you are pro-coal – if you are pro-coal mining, if you are pro – working class, which I do believe Joel they are all the things you stand for, what are you going to do about Liddell? Do you stand for a new clean coal-fired power station for that region?
FITZGIBBON: I absolutely do. If the Upper Hunter wants to remain the powerhouse of NSW, a title it has carried for a long, long time, it needs to make the transition to cleaner sources of energy. That is what AGL wants to do. My focus is on ensuring that AGL invests the lion’s share, up to $3 billion it is talking about investing in the Hunter Valley. So we will have coal-powered generation through Bayswater for many, many years to come. They will do some efficiencies there to upgrade both the capacity and its environmental credentials. We will have alongside that gas-fired power generation, large-scale solar, and hopefully pumped hydro and battery storage. We can put our heads in the sand and demand that we just keep doing things the way we have always done them, or you can move with the times to ensure that we modernise and create employment well into the future. Liddell can’t be kept operating beyond the date set by its owner.
CREDLIN: Let me be very clear, I am not talking about another Liddell coal-fired power station. I am talking about a high efficiency, low emission coal-fired power stations that have been built, 1600 of them odd, built in places like Europe, it is not just in Asia. Would you support that sort of power station, coal-fired, clean energy, best new generation power plant for your area?
FITZGIBBON: They need investors Peta. Governments don’t build power stations anymore. The private sector does.
CREDLIN: If the private sector put it on the table, would you support it?
FITZGIBBON: If the private sector wants to invest in a new coal-fired power generator in the Hunter of course they are welcome to. The problem Peta is that it is so hypothetical, it won’t happen. We need to be ahead of the game; not waiting for someone to come along in the unlikely event to invest in a new coal-fired generator. We need to be fighting for and offering guidance to those prepared to invest in new forms of capacity right now.
CREDLIN: At the Labor Party National Conference in July there will be a push from the Left to do away with border protection policies. They don’t support the “turn-backs”, they don’t support off-shore detention. Where do you stand on the issue?
FITZGIBBON: We are the only major party, the only party at all, that opens up our Conference to the media and to the public more broadly. I have no doubt that we will have a conversation about immigration and boat-people at the Conference. What you will see from the Labor Party absolutely, no matter what the outcome, is some way of addressing the appalling situation we have at the moment.
CREDLIN: OK, don’t squib it on me, do you Joel Fitzgibbon support boat turn-backs and do you continue to support off-shore processing?
FITZGIBBON: I support the current policy. I don’t support any initiative that would incentivise the people-smugglers again but the way the current Government has handled what should have been transitionary initiatives has been appalling and it is about time we took on this issue front on and delivered a better outcome both for the Australian community and for those who have been fleeing persecution and civil war, whatever it may be.
CREDLIN: We don’t always agree with everything but I do appreciate you being so frank tonight. Thank you Joel Fitzgibbon.
FITZGIBBON: A great pleasure.