SUBJECTS: Washington Visit; China; Drought Policy; Paris Targets
DAVID SPEERS: Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Resources, Joel Fitzgibbon, thanks for your time this morning. Before we get to drought, though, what are your thoughts on how this visit is going for Scott Morrison? Do you welcome the fact that there seems to be a close bond between the two leaders?
JOEL FITZGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: Great to be with you David. Look, visits by Australian Prime Ministers are always important; they are our most important strategic partner. But I am concerned, and I think it was somewhat predictable that that moment when US President accused China of being a threat to global security while sitting alongside the Australian Prime Minister won’t be an insignificant moment in Australian political history.
SPEERS: Yeah, you’re right it is pretty strong language – just tease out what you mean by that. Do you think this signals that the US is viewing China now as a military threat, and what other consequences then for Australia?
FITZGIBBON: Well in accepting the invitation, Scott Morrison did what any Australian Prime Minister would do, including I’m sure a Labor Prime Minister, but Scott Morrison must of certainly predicted or known that the US President would use the visit to send certain messages to China. And I can just pick up what you and Laura said about invitations to China, why would Beijing have extended an invitation to an Australian Prime Minister over the last two or three years when our language and rhetoric towards to China has been so bad? And everybody who works in diplomatic circles know that an invitation from any country is not extended until they are sure they know what the answer is.
SPEERS: Are you satisfied in the way Scott Morrison has handled this issue – China – while sitting alongside Donald Trump there?
FITZGIBBON: Well I think it was a very awkward moment – that particular comment – but I think the timing of the event is also awkward and I think Washington has been very strategic in its timing. We are in the middle of a trade war – a trade war between the United States and China – a trade war that is going to do significant damage to Australia, including Australia’s farmers, and we need to put all our efforts into de-escalating that war and playing a role in bringing it to an end. And, again, I think the US President was being quite strategic in the timing of the invitation.
SPEERS: To be clear, when he says China is a threat to the world, do you agree?
FITZGIBBON: Well we are certainly living in a multi-polar environment geopolitically, and something we haven’t dealt with since the 19th century and our institutions really aren’t shaped to handle what we currently face. And if Australia as a middle power wants to have influence in maintaining global peace and security, it really does need to demonstrate it’s a middle broker, someone who is able to mediate between the various larger powers – more powerful countries – and that’s a very, very complex challenge and we need to get that balance right and I am not sure Scott Morrison got the balances right at this point in time.
SPEERS: Why do you say that?
FITZGIBBON: Well remember that China is about a third of Australia’s exports. Our relationship with the United States is a very important one, first and foremost it is a security relationship, our trading relationship with them is important but it is less than four per cent – again China’s is around 30 per cent. China will continue to grow in the region, it will have an enormous influence in the region, and that influence will grow. And we, again, as a middle power seeking to exert power around the global should be playing broker and mediator in those challenging relationships around the globe, not necessarily demonstrating that we are growing closer and closer to partners which are describing China as an adversary.
SPEERS: But to just tease out what you are saying there: you agree that Morrison should have gone to the United States – accepted this state visit – but should he be making it clearer that Australia doesn’t agree with that language.
FITZGIBBON: Well you can’t just say I am not going to Beijing because I have not been invited. You’ve got to create the environment in which you are invited and in which you are able to accept an invitation. Again, Scott Morrison is blaming Beijing for a lack of invitation, and most Australians who watch the attitude and the language used by Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull over the last few years are asking themselves: well, why would Beijing extend an invitation?
SPEERS: Just quickly on Iran; you would have seen what Donald Trump had to say sitting alongside Scott Morrison about Iran. The Prime Minister has clarified we’re only committed to patrolling the Strait of Hormuz. Are you reassured by that? Or do you worry we might be dragged into something more?
FITZGIBBON: Well that’s certainly where that commitment should end, and I welcome his statements on this matter. What we don’t know, David, is what was said on all of these matters behind the scenes. I mean, it’s alright for Scott Morrison to go to Washington and have the cutlery out, the black tie, and the champagne and all the rest. What we don’t know, you and I, and the rest of Australia, is how forceful Scott Morrison was behind the scenes. But at least on this matter, he’s made it very, very clear that he wants de-escalation not escalation.
SPEERS: Let’s turn to the drought situation here. Look, there are towns in NSW right now, in particular Dubbo, Cobar and so on, that are apparently going to run dry as soon as November unless there is significant rainfall before then. What do you think needs to happen right now to help those people?
FITZGIBBON: Well, that’s right David. Our landscapes are burning, our towns are running out of water, our farmers are facing a calamity, and we have a government like a rabbit in a spotlight that doesn’t know what to do about it. The great shame is for the last six years we’ve missed a big opportunity to build that response. The Bureau of Meteorology has been warning since 2014 that this was going to be a protracted severely hot drought. And the response has been slow, if non-existent, and we can’t get back those six years. But, we could have a government today, again, for a second time, this is going to now be our number one priority. But, Scott Morrison is having a good time in Washington, and again I say that invitation should have been accepted, that’s what an Australian Prime Minister needs to do, but there are a lot of farmers back in Australia and regional communities doing it very, very tough asking the very important question: Scott Morrison where are you? We need you and we need you to do something, and we needed you to do it yesterday.
SPEERS: What should the government be doing though, when you say that, what should be doing they are not doing?
FITZGIBBON: Well, you have got to have a foundation or a foundational framework for building real drought responses. First and foremost, you’ve got to accept that the climate is not only changing but humankind is making a contribution towards it. Then you have to have adaptation – I’ll come back to that if and when I can, but that’s about changing behaviour both on farms and in urban communities. On farms, it’s largely about innovation, regenerative agriculture, science that takes you to the very best farming processes. Then you go to water infrastructure, particularly water infrastructure. Now this government said six years ago it was going to build a hundred dams – dams here, dams there, dams everywhere. And there has not even been a sod of soil let alone built a dam. So water infrastructure is very important; we’ve got a lot of catch-up to do there. And the fourth point is you’ve got to provide income support to farming families who for no fault of their own just can survive in this current drought. It’s a form of Newstart with a more generous assets test because farmers hold big on farm assets. But this government has completely mismanaged that process and indeed, we now have the government taking farming families off what is called Farm Household Allowance because they say they have been on it too long.
SPEERS: Just to pick up on the adaptation point, are there types of farming that are going to be unsustainable in these places?
FITZGIBBON: Yes. And I was very pleased to hear the Prime Minister say that himself – Scott Morrison say that at the Drought Summit. And that reminds me, David, we’ve had a Drought Coordination, a Drought Envoy, a Drought Taskforce, and a Drought Summit but no action. Already a lot of farmers are moving further south to more welcoming conditions. Our historic settlement pattern was one which rolled out in a different climatic environment, and sadly, there will be some areas where the farming practises of old won’t be sustainable into the future.
SPEERS: So you think there are going to be drought-stricken parts in western NSW or western Queensland that can no longer be farmed?
FITZGIBBON: Yes, and the number of farm entities in Australia has been dramatically falling now for a decade, in part because of consolidation – in other words, people are buying up a number of farms and consolidating them to secure economies of scale, but also because some of the areas where we used to successfully farm just aren’t going to be sustainable going into the future. And, David, we live on the driest inhabitable continent in the world and it’s getting drier. You can forget for a moment what is causing it; it is getting drier and the science says it’s going to get drier into the future.
SPEERS: The question then is, Joel Fitzgibbon, to what degree does government go in supporting these farmers if that land is unsustainable and can’t be farmed? Should taxpayers continue supporting farming in those areas?
FITZGIBBON: Well in 2012, David, something really historic happened. The federal government, and all of the state governments, with the support of all the major political parties, the NFF and all the other farm groups, agreed that we need to tear up all the drought programs and start again. They could see that they were ridiculously expensive and weren’t delivering a return on investment and weren’t really helping farmers. And part of the agreement was to develop a new suite of policies in part based on that idea that in some places farming won’t be sustainable, people will need to make adjustments, and government should help those people make those transitions. But the problem is, David, in 2013 when the Abbott Government was elected the first thing they did was just put a break on that reform process, and indeed they abolished the COAG committee which was charged with developing the new architecture or framework. And a very important part of that was that restructuring and that ability to help farmers who do have viability, help strengthen that viability, and move to better practices, more water efficiencies etc. Now David, we’ve lost six years – six years and sadly no government can get that back – get those years back – but that’s a really important area of regret for me and should be an area of regret for Scott Morrison as well.
SPEERS: Yes. One of the things you have been pursuing is just what reports Barnaby Joyce provided the government in his role as Drought Envoy. Now he says he did actually provide multiple reports to the government – David Littleproud says there is no document exists – are you aware that Barnaby Joyce did actually produce some sort of recommendation?
FITZGIBBON: Well, Barnaby Joyce could resolve this today couldn’t he David? He could just release his reports to government. I suspect David Littleproud is correct, there aren’t any. It was one of the reasons, or course, why I made the request for the report – I strongly suspected that there wouldn’t be one. We all know what the Drought Envoy was about – two things really. It was about keeping Barnaby Joyce – an active and energetic Barnaby Joyce – quiet on the backbench as Scott Morrison moved closer and closer to a federal election. And, of course, it was about giving him the additional staff and resources, travel entitlements etcetera, so he could run around the country pretending the Morrison Government cared about what’s happening in rural communities, in particular with respect to drought. And it was just a political play, and they’ve been exposed, and again Barnaby Joyce could produce the documents today – I see yesterday he has changed his story again. He said he didn’t produce a final document because he was sacked from the job. Well, he might have been sacked from the job but he could have still, if he was committed to drought and helping rural communities, have produced a report.
SPEERS: We will follow that up. You mentioned just finally, Joel Fitzgibbon, you need to acknowledge climate change is a contributor to the weather patterns we are seeing – fair enough – but Labor’s climate policy, you’ve had some views on this post-election, should Labor stick with a 45 per cent emissions reduction target by 2030?
FITZGIBBON: Well Labor needs to regroup. What we were promising to achieve, or hoping to achieve, over a 15 year period is now a six year period because Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull sat on their hands and did nothing over that period of time. David, our carbon emissions are going up year on year, not down. Angus Taylor, the Energy Minister, has admitted that. So the task just got a lot different and looks a lot different. So we will regroup, but we will take meaningful action on climate change.
SPEERS: But the 45 per cent by 2030, is that now impossible?
FITZGIBBON: Well the timeframe has changed dramatically, so we would be foolish to not take a new look at how we go about the commitments this government, not us, this government made in Paris. But if we are going to preach to the rest of the world their commitments to Paris we have to be seen to be meeting our own targets here in Australia. Australia is about 1.3 per cent of emissions; China is around 25 per cent, and as a global community, if we were going to get emissions down, we need to help the big emitters reduce their own emissions, and of course China is chief amongst those; India important too. So if we want to preach to them an urgency to do more in their own countries, we need to be able to demonstrate that we are on track here in Australia to meet our own commitments, and we simply aren’t meeting those commitments – we are not on track to do what we said we‘d do in Paris, and on that basis we are hardly in a position to be preaching to others.
SPEERS: Joel Fitzgibbon, Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Resources, thanks for your time this morning.
FITZGIBBON: A great pleasure David.