SUBJECTS: Drought Fund; Newstart; Farm Trespass Laws.
KIERAN GILBERT: Joining us now is the Shadow Agriculture Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon. Thanks so much for your time. On the drought and this money, that $100 million, that the Government says is going to go into drought adaptation and response out of its fund. Apparently, if Labor had have agreed earlier they would have earned $67 million – or there about – in interest.
JOEL FITZGIBBON: That is just a ridiculous proposition and just shows the desperation of the Government. Let’s think that through in a couple of ways – the Government could have put this Bill to the Senate prior to the election. You know what probably would have happened? The same thing that’s going to happen this week – we would’ve put up the good fight to have the money spent earlier and to not raid the money away from regional roads, and the Bill would’ve passed through if we’d lost that fight – as it would in the Senate. They could’ve introduced the Bill in the first sitting week of the new Parliament when they introduced seventeen other Bills, but they did not. So, we haven’t delayed anything, but think about this too, Kieran. If the money would’ve earnt more in the drought future fund than it would in the building Australia fund, the question is: why? It’s sitting in one fund rather than the other fund, why? The reason is – for six years because they don’t like the discipline of the Building Australia Fund, they haven’t’ renewed its mandate. So, instead of getting higher returns it’s been getting what I would call, to keep it simple, bank interest. So the Government should now explain if $67 million has been lost because it didn’t move from one fund to another quicker – why have we lost money?
GILBERT: So you’re saying it’s their fault because they should have been adopting the mandate of that Building Australia Fund, but in terms of …
FITZGIBBON: Absolutely. It’s an admission.
GILBERT: But have Labor really picked the right fight in this? Because you were going to back it anyway so why not just say “yes”?
FITZGIBBON: Well, you can’t say we were going to back it anyway because we genuinely didn’t know whether we might win the fight, and our fight was a very legitimate one. They have been in Government for six years and just haven’t delivered for farmers in terms of a drought response, and this is not going to help the farmers – at the very earliest until sometime after July, the end of July, or July 1 2020. Now, that’s the time the money can be drawn down, it’s not the period in which the money will be spent. So, I think I’m reasonable – it’s reasonable for me to claim that it will be something like two years before any of this money hits the ground. So we were worried about delaying the spending – the investment – they can’t tell us how the money is going to be spent – no detail there whatsoever – and of course, we were concerned that they were raiding the money away from regional road projects.
ANNELISE NIELSEN: The thing is, their argument, is that they have their own infrastructure programs. When you say they don’t agree with the mandate of the Building Future fund, they certainly have their mandate now. So, what was the opposition – why would you not want to get that money out to farmers? Really, when it’s just sitting there.
FITZGIBBON: No, we haven’t delayed anything. The money was never going to be drawn down until post July 1, 2020. We have not delayed anything, and the two points about their other road infrastructure money – the first is that they don’t like the discipline of the Building Australia Fund. Anthony Albanese put this architecture in place. It forces governments to invest in the projects on a merits basis. So, the projects go to Infrastructure Australia and they say: ‘these are the projects we believe should be invested in, these are the projects which produce the greatest economic return’. That’s the architecture and then the BAF money goes to those projects. The National Party, in particular, hate this construct because they don’t want to be investing this money on a merits basis. They want to be pork barrelling and sending the money where it delivers them the greatest return. So, this is one of the fictions. The second is, every Budget in recent years this Government has promised to spend X, but only spent Y. They’re promising big numbers on roads in the Budget but they never spend the money they say they were going to spend. So, I take it with a grain of salt when Scott Morrison says, “Oh well we’ve got billions over here already we’re going to spend on infrastructure. Well, I think it’s a great leap of faith to take that on face value.
GILBERT: This morning we asked the Deputy Prime Minister about the push by Barnaby Joyce and others for an increase in Newstart – and the Newstart allowance – because obviously it effects many people and the towns effected by drought they’re on unemployment benefits and so on. It’s not just people in the cities, many people in the bush – as you well know – struggling on a low payment. Mr McCormack says that those unemployed should move to another town, to think outside of the square. You’re not necessarily going to find a job in the town where you grew up.
FITZGIBBON: Well, you know this guy he’s supposed to represent a regional community but has no idea about what’s happening in regional Australia. He believes that if you leave Sydney or Melbourne you automatically get a job in Wagga or Orange or in Cessnock in the Hunter Valley. Well, I can tell you, Kieran, people in my home town of Cessnock will find that a very, very strange proposition, indeed. You don’t automatically get a job in the bush. It’s not necessarily easier to get a job in the bush …
GILBERT: But he’s saying you might have to move to somewhere like Dubbo, or somewhere where there is a booming economy, low unemployment – is that a fair enough proposition?
FITZGIBBON: And I know people do that all the time, Kieran. I have three adult children and none of them live in my home town. They’ve all moved elsewhere to work. So, this is not a work of genius on the part of Michael McCormack, it’s something you say when you don’t have anything meaningful to say.
NIELSEN: So, aren’t you on the same page though then? Aren’t you both saying that maybe people do just have to leave the regions, head to cities to find jobs, and is that something that you could possibly sell to the regions?
FITZGIBBON: We already have a very mobile workforce here in Australia, and people already do this all the time. Again, it’s something you suggest when you don’t have a jobs policy – when you don’t have a vision for either people’s aspirations or, indeed, a vision for rural and regional Australia.
GILBERT: One final question before you go on the trespass, toughening of the legislation in terms of New South Wales, but also federally, do you welcome that onto farms?
FITZGIBBON: I sense in the gallery here in Parliament House that people are starting to work out that this is a Federal Government trying to play themselves into an issue because they think it’s a popular thing to do. We have no problem with the objectives of the so called ‘trespass laws’ – although they are not trespass laws they’re about the use of carriage services – but we’re worried that it’s just impinging upon what the states already do, and therefore making the law unnecessarily complicated. But more particularly we think it lacks protections for journalists – I know you have an interest in whistleblowers – and there are even some questions about the constitutionality of that bill. So, we’re open to supporting it – well, our posture is to support – but it will be reasonable for us to ask a committee to have a look at it to make sure there aren’t any unintended consequences because they’ll need to be dealt with.
GILBERT: Joel Fitzgibbon thanks. Talk to you soon.
FITZGIBBON: A pleasure.