ANTHONY ALBANESE MP
LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY
MEMBER FOR GRAYNDLER
TUESDAY, 17 MARCH 2020
SUBJECTS: Bushfire recovery grants; bushfire-affected businesses; coronavirus; Parliament sitting week during coronavirus issue.
MIKE KELLY, MEMBER FOR EDEN-MONARO: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to beautiful Bega. We are really lucky to have with us today, Anthony Albanese, who has come down to listen firsthand to the issues that we are experiencing on the ground here in relation to not only of course the terrible bushfire situation that we have had, and all the recovery issues that we are facing, but the double whammy that we are also experiencing now in relation to the COVID-19 coronavirus issue. It is particularly great to have Albo with us. Because Albo understands this region absolutely intuitively. And he has been a big supporter of all of the things that we have tried to do here in the past, and certainly when we were in Government, enabled the Bega Bypass, for example, which has had such terrific effect on the community from an economic and safety point of view, investing in the Port of Eden, getting an extension happening there, to enable the big cruise liners to come in, and of course supporting the Bega Hospital and Merimbula developments that we have seen. So, he has put real skin in the game. He has been a big supporter of us, also in the ongoing advocacy that we needed to support the community on the recovery process and holding the Government to account. And we have just been hearing a lot of stories in there today about the inadequacies of that recovery response. And so, we know that Albo will take that fight right up to the Government and represent this community as it should be. And that we don’t get forgotten in the context of all that is going on. So, thanks for being here, Albo. We really appreciate it.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thanks very much, Mike. And thanks to you for hosting today. Thanks also to Kristy McBain, the mayor of Bega Valley, and to the Merimbula Chamber of Commerce who all participated here today, telling firsthand the stories on the ground, about the impact of the bushfire crisis, the ongoing impact on the economy. Of course, it’s important to note the incredible stories and bravery that came from this community on the south coast of New South Wales. Extraordinary bravery from volunteer firefighters, from emergency service workers, from the entire community that stepped up in the danger that was there. We know in Eden-Monaro electorate, 11 lives were lost over that period. And no area was more affected than here. Some one million hectares burnt out throughout this electorate. So, these are a major issue. But one of the things we’re dealing with now is the recovery. And the recovery, we’ve been concerned that the payments have been too slow. We heard in the Senate estimates process that just five loans at that stage had been granted. The grants process was also too slow. And this community needs real dollars in pockets right now to stimulate the economy. It also needs to, in my view, learn some of the longer-term lessons and that funding should be flowing too. To fix the Princes Highway, bringing forward that funding just makes sense. We know for a long time that’s been an issue of efficiency, but also an issue of road safety. That’s why when we were in Government, we funded the Bega Bypass. We also know it’s an issue of particular safety during bushfire crises. Because communities with one road in, one lane going out, simply in terms of the Princes Highway, was held up. I myself was on my way down to this region and couldn’t get through during that December and January period. So, I wanted to come here to hear firsthand from individuals, from businesses, and the community, about what was needed to continue to argue the case with Mike Kelly who has been arguing so strongly in the Parliament that there’s a need to bring forward that funding. But also, in the context of the coronavirus crisis. To make sure, as I said in Sunday night with my address to the nation, that these communities aren’t forgotten with the crisis. They’ve been hit by this as well. The double whammy. This will lead to less economic activity, less people travelling, less people spending money in these communities. So, it’s absolutely vital that the bushfire response is brought forward as well. The Government next week will have legislation about the economic stimulus. One-off payments, $750 for welfare recipients and pensioners. We welcome that. But it seems to me it doesn’t make much sense to be doing that whilst just $500 million of the $2 billion notional payments is allocated this current financial year. Surely, as part of the stimulus, that funding should be brought forward as well, and should be brought forward as a matter of urgency. Because these communities are really hurting. And we can’t afford for businesses to fold, for jobs to be lost and people leaving this magnificent area. It’s such a wonderful place to live, but it is doing it tough at the moment. My visit is aimed at raising awareness of that and hopefully getting some focus on that in the weeks ahead.
JOURNALIST: On the bushfire funding, are the grants and loans that are currently available for businesses fit the purpose in light of COVID?
ALBANESE: I don’t think the money is flowing quickly enough. I believe that the Government needs to put a much greater focus on grants rather than loans. The truth is the businesses that are really struggling are reluctant to go into more debt. There’s a need for streamlining, to make sure there’s a single point of contact so that people can get their applications dealt with quickly. I have met people who filled in 17-page forms and then been knocked back and told that they need to fill in more forms. What we need here is a streamlining of the processes to make sure that money is flowing as a matter of urgency.
JOURNALIST: Just back on the $750, there’s a bit of talk in the community that this is, if we’re going into lockdown for an unknown amount of time, is this going to be enough?
ALBANESE: Well, I think there’s a case to look as well at people in the community who are casual workers, for people who are gig workers, working in the new economy, for people who are sole traders. Many of the people in this community will be working on issues of engaging their labour on a contract basis. They’re going to miss out. And we need to make sure that people who are low income workers are able to benefit as well. I met someone on the weekend who filmed the statement to the nation that I did. He’s the sole bread winner in his family, has a wife and three children. His work has dried up. This community here is a community full of artists as well, and creative workers. So many of them are going to miss out. They’re people who work as writers, in theatre, in providing services. And if they miss out and have no income for a period of time because increasingly we’re seeing a shutdown of the economy, then those people need to be looked after as well.
JOURNALIST: On the coronavirus, should the Government bail out the airlines in the event that they fail?
ALBANESE: What should happen is that charges such as air services fees, departure fees, should, in my view, be waived for a period of time for all of the airlines in a comprehensive way. Air Services Australia gave a dividend to the Government of $400 million. That’s $400 million that was collected by the airlines, paid for effectively by passengers, and passed through to the Government to help its consolidated revenue. Given that context, it’s time for the Government to put back. We know what happened with the collapse of Ansett. That saw many thousands of jobs lost and took a long time to recover, whereby we have had a stable, two major airline system, domestically, with important regional airlines like Rex playing a role in regional economies as well. I think that it would be reasonable if the Government waived some of those taxation measures, fuel excise as well is another thing the airlines have been looking at. I think their ask is modest compared with the challenge that we’re seeing. We saw Qantas’s announcement today. That is the most significant wind back by an airline in Australia’s history. They’ve had to respond to that. And they’re deserving of support, because, simply, a nation like Australia, an island continent, the airline industry is particularly important for us.
JOURNALIST: Mike Kelly, are you able to update us on where some of the big projects are up to? Princess Highway upgrade, the East West Link. The upgrade of the CBD, all of the projects that they’re at. Where are the projects at?
KELLY: Certainly, we’ve raised them first and foremost through our Shadows and through Albo. And they are very receptive and have understanding of the importance of infrastructure projects for the local economy. That’s why Albo has invested heavily in that, as a minister, and while we were in Government. Certainly, we’ve been raising these issues, and Mayor Kristy McBain has come up to Parliament to be with us to advocate in that cause. We’ve settled now on an East West Link to open up the potential for the Port of Eden which has tremendous commercial opportunities which we’ve been pursuing for some time now. But we need the inland infrastructure taken care of. Not just locally here but the effects of doing the Barton Highway to open up that possibility. But certainly, I think that we have a good consensus around the work that needs to be done on the Princes Highway and the restriction of movement on B-doubles is really something that holds us back. And I’ve had a lot of conversations with Michael McCormack about that as well. I think we’re raising the level of awareness on that and building a consensus around that. What I’d like to see is through the stimulus packages and what we see in the Budget, some firm commitment ones that front. We’d had commitments, verbally made, about for example the Barton Highway. Still haven’t seen duplication under way there and it’s been nearly seven years now. So, we need to see some actual commitment being made on these projects. And so far, it hasn’t been good.
ALBANESE: On the Princess Highway, I, as Shadow Transport Minister, committed to a much more significant bring-forward of funding. The Government allocating $500 million, which was a good thing. We allocated the same. But they allocated $50 million in the foreseeable future. We said that should be quadrupled up to $200 million. That was before what we saw over the summer. I think that that should be brought forward by even more.
JOURNALIST: Albo, what are the terms of the deal that you made with the Government about reducing numbers in Parliament next week? And does it apply to the Senate as well?
ALBANESE: What I had discussed with Scott Morrison this morning, it was a constructive discussion. We have said throughout this coronavirus crisis that we will be constructive, we will be positive wherever we can be. And I was pleased to have a direct conversation with the Prime Minister. We agreed on around about 30 pairs between the Coalition and Labor each. That would bring down the number of people in the House of Representatives to around about 90, or thereabouts, who would attend next week. Obviously, priority would be given for leave and pairing arrangements for people who were more susceptible to viruses, if I can put it that way. And to people travelling longer distances as well. We’ll be working those issues through. In the Senate, those discussions are taking place, but there will be an agreement for a pairing arrangement for anyone who needs to also in the Senate. The Senate is a built more complex because of the crossbenchers and the large numbers which are there as well. So, we will deal with that. What that means is that there will be an absolute majority of at least 76 if the Coalition and Labor vote together, which I would expect would happen on procedural issues and on others where that’s required to facilitate the passage of the legislation. We haven’t yet received the legislation. The Prime Minister has given a commitment to get that to us as soon as possible. The Labor Caucus will meet on Monday morning. We met this morning by phone. We’ll meet on Monday morning and we’ll make arrangements, bearing in mind health issues. So, many people will be on the phone rather than physically present during that meeting to consider the legislation. We’ll consider it in a constructive way. If we have suggestions, we will forward them to the Government as well as raising issues in the Parliament. But I expect that we need that stimulus package to pass and it needs to pass as quickly as possible. Parliament will have a Question Time. It’s agreed. How long Parliament sits for, we’ll wait and see how long it takes. There will be further legislation required as to some announcements that haven’t been made yet. I suspect there will be support, I hope, for airlines and I hope for other industry issues. If that has to be legislated as well, that will have to be dealt with.
So, it will be both health issues and economic issues. We will consider the legislation in a constructive way, and I’m sure that we’ll be able to work through the functioning of the Parliament in a way that protects people’s health and takes note of the advice that’s been given, but also achieves the outcome. I’m of the view, and the Prime Minister indicated as well, it’s important that Parliament continue to be able to meet. We are the nation’s leaders, and the message that it would send if Parliament didn’t meet at all, would, in my view, be a wrong message. What we need to do is to make sure that the precautions are in place. That will occur. And there’s later on, Christian Porter and Tony Burke are handling negotiations with regards to the House of Representatives, and Penny Wong, our Senate leader and Katy Gallagher, will be dealing with the Senate issues. Thank you.
JOURNALIST: Following your meeting with the Prime Minister this morning, what’s your take on how serious this is looking into the public health side of the coronavirus crisis?
ALBANESE: Look, everyone is taking this issue seriously. And I’ve said very clearly what I seek is bipartisanship as much as possible on all of these issues. That’s what people are looking for. People aren’t looking for politics. People are looking for practical responses. We’ll be constructive. I argued that, and wrote to the Prime Minister saying that Parliament should meet this week rather than next week. Obviously, the longer it goes, the more we’re seeing a clamp down on activity, including social interaction. So, in terms of that being a practical suggestion, the Government didn’t take it up. That’s a decision for the Government. We will continue to put forward constructive ideas, as I have today, about the airlines, as I have today about the Princes Highway and local community support. I said when I became Leader of the Labor Party, that I wanted to be known as the Labor Leader, not the Opposition Leader. It’s a spirit that we had with the bushfires when I made suggestions like the need for the Defence Force, the need for a national response, the need for the economic compensation for volunteer firefighters. The need for a mental health response. The need to increase our aerial firefighting capacity. Now, all of those at some stage to a more or lesser extent from taken up down the track. That’s a good thing. I see my role as being constructive, putting forward ideas on issues like this. The Australian people are as one. We will get through it. We’ll get through it. But one of the things that they’ll be looking for is to have cooperation. It was a very constructive discussion I had by phone with the Prime Minister this morning. Since then, I’ve raised a couple of further suggestions with him and we’ll see what comes of them. But I’ll continue to be constructive, along with Mike representing the local community and the other members of the Labor team. Particularly, I want to pay credit to Chris Bowen and the work that he’s done as Shadow Health Minister, and Jim Chalmers who, of course, leads our economic team. I think they have worked very hard in difficult circumstances to make sure that we’re putting forward a positive agenda that makes a difference to the Australian nation, and that’s what we all need to do at this difficult time. Thanks very much.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.