SUBJECTS: ‘War Cabinet’; Pauline Hanson’s Bill; Drought Policy; North Shore Daycare Centre.
CHRIS KENNY, HOST: I want to cross back down to Canberra now and catch up with Labor’s Shadow Agriculture Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon – thanks for joining us Joel.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: A pleasure Chris.
KENNY: Now, you’re not in Cabinet, the proposal to put up a ‘War Cabinet’ on the drought among others has failed. So, you’re still in opposition?
FITZGIBBON: But I’m not giving up Chris. In fact, I just made a 30 minute speech in the House of Representatives on this matter and the debate continues as we speak. But I could have spoken for three hours, Chris, such is the seriousness of the situation we face but so is the complexity and myriad of issues that we’re trying to deal with. Look, our hand of bipartisanship was a really genuine one, Chris. I don’t know if you happened to of read my opinion piece this morning making the military analogy, but we could be facing very, very difficult times ahead if the weather forecasters are right it doesn’t meaningfully rain for a long time and I think we really do need a bipartisan approach because some tough decisions need to be made.
KENNY: Yeah I think the push for bipartisan approach on this obviously makes sense. I think the ‘War Cabinet’ is a bit of a stretch, I couldn’t imagine in any circumstances Scott Morrison welcoming Labor people into his cabinet. Obviously Labor has a contribution to make; obviously whatever plans are put forward are going to be more effective if there is bipartisan support for them. But especially given we are seeing such argy-bargy now between the Federal and State Governments over who is responsible for what, and you’ve got Labor State Governments involved as well as Coalition State Governments. Do you think there needs to be more cooperation at that Federal and State level than we’ve seen so far?
FITZGIBBON: And just before we go there, Chris, I’ll make the point Anthony Albanese’s letter to Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister, made it clear that we weren’t proposing that the Drought Cabinet be deliberative, but rather a consensus or model. Scott Morrison would have remained, of course, in control of everything the government does. But not only do we have blame shifting between the Commonwealth and the States, more likely the Prime Minister attempting to blame the States, we now got infighting within the government with these rebel and frustrated National Party MPs, typically from northern NSW and Queensland now breaking away in the party room developing their own ten point plan. Well, the last thing we need is more cobbled together piecemeal, ad hoc plans. We need a national plan and to secure a national plan we need to the Commonwealth and the States in particular, but also local governments, working together.
KENNY: Well, let’s drill down into those Federal and State divides a bit. I think we had Michael McCormack the other day saying that feed and water is not the remit of the Federal Government, the Federal Government looks after people and families; it is up to the States to look after the issues of feed and water. Now, that sort of differentiation just doesn’t cut it with people in these communities doesn’t it? This is exactly why the States and the Federal Government need to get together and have a coordinated plan.
FITZGIBBON: No, it doesn’t cut it and it certainly doesn’t cut it, Chris, in rural communities and particularly among farming families they don’t want us blaming one another. Scott Morrison is falling into that habit now. Remember, Chris, earlier in the drought when he first became Prime Minister, he said drought is my number one priority and he wanted to own it. He wanted the Australian community to see him as the person in charge, willing and able to do something about it. But now, as it’s become harder and harder for him, mainly because there has been no strategic approach, he wants to blame the States. Now, I’ve had a close read of the intergovernmental agreement on drought both the 2012 and the 2018 version, I think it is, they are almost replicas of one another sadly in many ways. And while there is some nuance about shared responsibilities and who might have the dominate role in some areas, it does not, Chris, it does not say that these things are exclusively in the domain of the States.
KENNY: Now, just some nitty-gritty on this, Pauline Hanson says she going to put up an amendment which would mean that instead of ensuring the Farm Household Allowance is doubled from two years to four years with a one off payment at the end of the four years, she’s going to move an amendment to see that that payment could be open-ended, therefore, a family could stay on that Farm Household Allowance as long as the drought lasts or the effects of the drought last. Is that something that Labor might support in the Senate?
FITZGIBBON: In Principle, we are debating this Bill in the House right now, that’s why I have just made my own contribution, but I would have moved that amendment myself – an amendment to ensure farming families weren’t cut off the payment while ever this drought is ongoing. Unfortunately, and Pauline will discover the same, it’s unconstitutional for a non-government member to move an amendment which has a fiscal implication, which spends money. So I wrote to the Clerk and had the Clerk’s advice, I wasn’t surprised I suspected it was so. The Clerk sad no you can’t move that amendment, Pauline can try but I am sure the Senate Clerk will unfortunately rule it out of order. We need to the government to see the folly of taking the most drought impacted farming families off such a modest payment while this drought is ongoing. It’s a callous act, Chris.
KENNY: Well, that’s the point though isn’t it? As you say there’s a constitutional barrier there but she’s raised the issue, you said in principle you support it, so therefore the issue is out there for the government should they choose to change their plan so that these Farm Household Allowances could be open-ended.
FITZGIBBON: Yeah, I just spent most of my 30 minute speech in the Parliament appealing to the Government to do just that. They already, Chris, cut 600 farming families off the Farm household Allowance and they will, by their own admission, cut another 500 families by Christmas – what a great Christmas present for those families.
KENNY: This is a very important point because I think you are right in that Scott Morrison identified with the drought within hours really of becoming Prime Minister last year. He has done a lot to go to regional areas, he is focused on this but there is a big backlash – Alan Jones sort of tapped into that – around the country of people angry at the government for not doing enough. If people are being booted off the Farm Household Allowance in the middle of this crippling drought, at a time where it looks like it’s getting worse rather than any hope on the horizon, that is going to create enormous angst, not to mention the hardship for the people directly involved.
FITZGIBBON: And the Prime Minister has made a real problem for himself by exaggerating what he is spending on drought. He keeps claiming he is spending $7 billion on drought, we had it confirmed in Senate Estimates just this week that that is patently untrue. He thinks he is ingratiating himself to the electorate but the electorate is asking, if you are spending $7 billion, which he is not, why are you cutting the struggling farming families off this modest, weekly allowance? It makes no sense to them; Scott Morrison needs to stop saying that, he needs to convene a drought summit or find some way of bringing bipartisanship to this issue, he needs to release the Drought Coordinator’s report – the report of Major General Stephen Day – and of course he needs to commit himself. He says he’s been waiting for the National Farmers’ Federation to draft their policy before releasing his. Well, the National Farmers’ Federation has now released its report, so it’s time for the Prime Minister, after all this time, to produce a strategic national drought plan for this country.
KENNY: That National Farmers’ Federation report calls for exit payments to help farmers get off the land; is that the wrong focus? Shouldn’t we be looking at doing everything we can to keep families on the land?
FITZGIBBON: Yeah I’m disappointed, Chris. Just like Scott Morrison’s $7 billion figure is designed as an excuse not to do more; the National Farmers’ Federation has declared it is all too hard and I don’t accept that. Look, exit payments were rejected by the productivity commission back in 2009. I’m happy for them to come back into a broader conversation, but you don’t raise that issue, Chris, at this point in time. I know the NFF is talking about the next drought, I accept that, but when farmers are struggling and their dealing with the psychological impact, they don’t want to hear the National Farmers’ Federation, they don’t want to hear Barnaby Joyce say they should just get out of the business. And Chris, who is producing our food in this country if we keep driving farmers off the land?
KENNY: Yeah, it’s a worrying angle I suppose – focus – at this particular stage. I just want to get you on another issue, Joel Fitzgibbon, you would of seen the Daily Telegraph story today about a Daycare centre on the North Shore of Sydney enlisting 3, 4 and 5 year olds to get signatures on a political issue, a cultural issue about the indigenous flag on the Harbour Bridge. This is going too far isn’t? We’ve got to leave the kids to their finger painting?
FITZGIBBON: Like every NRL fan, Chris, I am an avid fan of the Daily Telegraph, but I haven’t seen that story today but I heard you talking about it. I suppose, Chris, it does seem a little bizarre. I suppose what matters here, always, is whether there is some sort of parental consent involved here. I mean, if the families have decided they’re happy for their children to participate in this campaign that is fine because they are obviously too young to make their own decisions. But, it is somewhat strange in my view.
KENNY: Strange or going too far? Is it the manipulation of kids, involving them in something that they really shouldn’t be involved in?
FITZGIBBON: I think it hinges on parental participation. If the parents are involved, that’s one thing, but if it’s being done without the authority of the parents then that would be a very, very different thing.
KENNY: Alright Joel Fitzgibbon, thanks for your time.