SUBJECTS: Drought policy, emission reduction in agriculture, Immigration cases.
LAURA JAYES: Federal Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon. Joel Fitzgibbon, good to see you. Not to diminish the prayers for rain. It’s important to solve the drought it’s a multipronged approach you might say from this Government. They have put money on the table as well. Are you praying for rain or what do you do?
JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES, FORESTRY AND RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA: Prayer can only help Laura and I have no problem with the Prime Minister encouraging people to pray, but I’m more concerned about what he’s not doing and what his Government hasn’t done over the course of the last five years rather than what he is doing or encouraging others to do.
JAYES: What has he not done and what can he do immediately? Let’s not talk about the long term approach just yet to drought-proof our farmers, but what can be done immediately that the Government is not doing?
FITZGIBBON: Well we have supported every initiative the Government has taken Laura throughout this long and protracted and severe drought. We have been very disappointed by how slow they were to recognise and acknowledge the problems people were having accessing the income support payment which goes to farmers not just in drought but who are in dire straits for any reason. We were warning the Government in 2014 that there was a very big problem but no they constantly said, everything is okay, there is nothing to see here. They argued that in Senate Estimates and indeed in the House of Representatives. In fact, it was Barnaby Joyce’s embellishment of a question from me back in 2014 which caused him to doctor his Hansard which of course had consequences for many. But they needed to get that fixed more quickly but it’s impossible to talk about drought Laura until the Government, including the Prime Minister, is prepared to acknowledge that our climate is changing and is becoming more challenging for our farmers and until you do that, and until you accept that responding to that in both mitigation and adaptation terms is the right way forward then you can’t address this very serious problem.
JAYES: Joel Fitzgibbon, drought has always been part of the landscape for farmers and it may be becoming more frequently. So, if it’s always been part of the landscape and you argue and many others do that climate change is becoming more and more of a factor, what changes in your strategy to tackle it then?
FITZGIBBON: Well there has to be a long term strategy and back in 2008 the Commonwealth and the States agreed that we did need a new way forward, but sadly Barnaby Joyce cheered on by both Tony Abbott - and I’m losing track of all the Prime Ministers - Malcolm Turnbull dispensed with that reform program and we now lost five years so I don’t have any immediate responses to how we make up for those lost years. All I can do is to support every initiate the Government is prepared to take and the Labor Party has been doing just that, but continue to push the Government so we can take a bipartisan approach back to where we began. We can’t make up the last five years but we can start now and start rapidly and that’s what we need to do. We have got to make sure that this – the climate will change but we will still have these peaks and troughs in terms of climate. Our aim has to be that the people who are in trouble this time around with this peak in the drought are not the same people in trouble next time around.
JAYES: Yeah right, so what’s happening at the moment? How dry is it particularly in your electorate but is it the reality that some farmers that have carried on generations and generations of a family farm business will just simply go out of business this time?
FITZGIBBON: Well it is true Laura that there are some properties that have always been marginal at best. If you look back at the history of farming in Australia, a lot of these farms were soldier settlement blocks and Governments didn’t always give away good blocks of land at the time. They became consolidated overtime and they have always been difficult. As the climate changes Laura they potentially move from the marginal column into the unviable column.
JAYES: What are we talking about there? I mean are we are talking about obviously water intensive farming. Cotton has become a lot more efficient in recent times so what are those marginal practices or areas of farming that are now looking like they are just not sustainable?
FITZGIBBON: Well every case is different. Look it’s not popular to say it, but I have heard my counterpart David Littleproud say it as well, some of these properties will not be viable into the future and we have to acknowledge and recognise that and work with it but others can be made more viable whether it be through water infrastructure, whether it be through regenerative farming practices, improving soils and therefore moisture absorption and retention et cetera. So there are lots of things we can do, but we need a Government prepared to push these issues. We need our Research and Development Corporations to have a focus not only on the science but on getting that science down inside the farm gate. You know, I heard the Prime Minister say earlier that Barnaby Joyce is employed to be out there listening to people, but who is he listening too? You can put your last dollar Laura that he hasn’t spent five minutes talking to a scientist or an expert in regenerative or holistic farming, or people generally –
JAYES: But why would that help now? If he is a special envoy for the drought now, why would it help talking to scientist now? Isn’t that – Barnaby Joyce is charged with the immediate problem, not the long term.
FITZGIBBON: What is he going to do Laura? I mean he was Minister for four years.
JAYES: Okay fair enough.
FITZGIBBON: And not only did he do nothing, he reversed the reform process. If Scott Morrison does need an extra hand out there, that person should be focusing on the medium to long term strategies while the Government deals with the in-drought issues. If he was serious that’s what he’d be doing and if Barnaby Joyce was serious and David Littleproud was serious, they’d be spending more time talking to scientists and other experts about how, while we are dealing with the in-drought stuff, while we are helping people as best we can, how we ensure that those same people aren’t in trouble next time around?
JAYES: Farmers are in a different category when you look at businesses around Australia. Small business don’t get this type of help and hand up from taxpayers’. Look I don’t step away from that and I don’t think it should be any different. Farmers hold a special place in our community and they provide a life-giving service really. They provide our sustainability and they provide our primary produce. They should be in a different category, but as we talk about farming practices as droughts become more frequent that we will just phase out. Do you believe that those particular farmers need to be helped in a subsidy or some other way from Government to close and maybe to look at other ways to do farming, new industry to move into?
FITZGIBBON: And farmers are rightly highly regarded. They are the providers of our food and they’re known to be hardworking and committed to that cause. Part of the historic agreement the Commonwealth and the States struck in the InterGovernmental Agreement in 2013 was to say that in future income support, which is now known as Farm Household Allowance, should only be given on a temporary basis. It was agreed that Farm Household Allowance would be issued for three years in total and you can opt in and out but three years in total. Why did Ministers and Governments, with the support of the NFF and others support that? Because the idea is that you can’t be on income support forever, so it was to give people three years to either invest more, change their practices or leave the land, whatever was there choice. Now, the problem is since 2013 we have not progressed that reform. The Government has already had to extend the Farm Household Allowance by a year. That is a good thing and a welcome thing, but it’s no solution Laura to those who are going to remain marginal in the long term because of changing climatic environment.
JAYES: Climate change affects farmers more than any of us arguably. What is Labor’s policy – I mean farmers do do their bit to get down emissions but what is Labor’ policy in trying to get farmers to reduce emissions even further. What are you asking farmers to do?
FITZGIBBON: Well the Research and Development Corporations are already doing good work ensuring that our farm sector does reduce emissions. And the Labor Party has made it very clear each time it has made a commitment to a carbon abatement program that we will exclude the farm sector. The irony about the current debate is that Scott Morrison and his cohorts have been promising to, if you like, reduce the weight of carbon reduction on the electricity sector. So if you reduce the load on one sector, and you remain committed to your international obligations, and it seems a bit unclear if they are or are not, then the only way you get there is to look to another sector, it’s the great irony.
JAYES: So what’s your policy. So do you want to do more in the electricity sector and by the current targets Labor has in place, does that mean that you don’t have to touch the farming sector in order to meet your targets?
FITZGIBBON: Well the cheapest and most efficient way and the most obvious way to reach our targets is in the energy sector.
JAYES: Yes sure
FITZGIBBON: It’s far more expensive –
JAYES: Are you asking farmers to do anything above and beyond what is already happening now?
FITZGIBBON: We of course encourage the farm sector to continue down the path of relying on the science and technology to reduce their emissions, of course we do. And in fact the MLA and the red meat sector has a goal of being carbon neutral by a certain year, I forget which decade it is. So we encourage that but we have never threatened or had a policy to impose a constraint on the farm sector.
JAYES: Yeah because you get to this point and some on the left who would like to see much, not of your Party, but I just think in the general sense of this debate, want to see a much greater reductions in emissions. They are talking about farming practices and you know to reducing stock levels because of carbon emissions that cows release into the atmosphere from belching and farting. You just get to a ridiculous point in the debate when you start talking about that. Do you think when you are talking about that in a serious sense, you just start losing the general public?
FITZGIBBON: And the only people I have heard talk about that are right wing members of the now Scott Morrison Government and as I say the great irony of that is that it the same people who want to -
JAYES: Really, who?
FITZGIBBON: Who? Barnaby Joyce would be a very good start. I think I have heard the Craig Kelly’s of the world say something similar. This is the craziness of the debate. It’s the same people raising that fear who are oppose -
JAYES: They are saying the exact opposite though aren’t they?
FITZGIBBON: No, no
JAYES: They are saying we don’t want to do this and if the Government goes down that path we are out.
FITZGIBBON: What happened Laura, when Barnaby Joyce and his friends declared there should be no carbon constraint within the NEG whether it’s alive or not now, no one knows, then the experts said well if you are going to meet your obligations you are going to have to find that reduction somewhere else, typically in transport or in the farm sector. So Barnaby Joyce started screaming, oh well this is getting ridiculous, hang on you guys are causing the experts to make these comments. But the Labor Party has never given any consideration to seeking emissions reductions out of the farm sector.
JAYES: One final questions, looking at the au pair issue, I’m told that you had sought or made representations to Peter Dutton’s office in 19 different cases when it comes to particular visas since he became Immigration Minister back in 2014. Do you remember what any of those cases were? Were they for au pairs? Any information you would like to offer?
FITZGIBBON: I have personally?
FITZGIBBON: Well that’s news to me. I can remember the last one. The last one was a gentleman living in the Western side of Lake Macquarie in my electorate, he was an Irishman and he was living with a woman who he had fathered maybe two or three kids to and for whatever reason the authorities were sending him back to Ireland and on that basis separating him from his family. He advised me that his children had disabilities of some sort. It seemed like a case reasonable to put to the Minister. I am always cautious not to argue any side of the case in particular, but I think it’s right for Members for the Parliament when people are being drawn away from their families -
JAYES: Did you get a positive outcome from making that representation?
FITZGIBBON: Depends how you measure a positive outcome. I understand he is still in the country on some form of bridging visa, but the matter has not come to a close. But no au pairs.
JAYES: No au pairs, okay. Joel Fitzgibbon, thanks for your time.
FITZGIBBON: A pleasure Laura.