SUBJECTS: Bushfire crisis across Australia; Prime Minister’s announcement of compensation for volunteer firefighters in NSW; Government’s lack of energy policy.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Good morning. Thanks for joining me. Labor welcomes the shift in position from the Prime Minister when it comes to compensation for volunteer firefighters. Labor has been calling this since November, when I wrote to the Prime Minister over a month ago, saying that COAG needed to be convened to have a national approach to the bushfire emergency.
This is a national crisis. It is one that doesn’t recognise state boundaries. It is one where thousands of volunteer firefighters have been in the field, saving lives, saving property, protecting communities. They deserve our praise. They deserve all the thanks that can be given to them for their bravery, for their courage, and for their commitment. But at the same time, they also deserve more than just thanks. Because many of them have been put into financial hardship due to their commitment to their local communities, and to others, sometimes vast distances away from where they live. The Prime Minister dismissed the calls for compensation. He said it was a distraction. Then he said it was just a state issue, and then he continued to argue against it, saying, indeed, that volunteer firefighters wanted to be there. They don’t want to be there. No one wants these bushfires to be occurring. But given that they are, given the commitment that’s there, the least we can expect is that just as volunteer firefighters have put in for local communities and for their nation, the nation should give back to them. And they shouldn’t be forced into a position of being in poverty, being unable to pay their bills, take out their mortgages, pay for food for their families. But many of them have actually had to take out loans, just to survive on a day-to-day basis while they are showing such incredible courage and commitment.
So, I welcome the fact that New South Wales volunteer firefighters will be able to receive up to $6,000. But what we need here is a national approach. I don’t understand why it is that the Prime Minister has just negotiated with the New South Wales Premier, rather than convening COAG and getting an approach across the nation. One of the things that I’ve seen on the ground is that many of the firefighters I have met have been from interstate. People from Victoria helping out in the North Coast. People from Queensland helping out. People in South Australia helping out here in New South Wales before they return home to defend their own local communities. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: (Inaudible). How is it that different from a Federal approach?
ALBANESE: Well, he’s come to an arrangement with the New South Wales Premier and then after that, he’s had some contact with other states and through the media, invited them to participate. I don’t understand why the payments can’t just be made directly to individual firefighters rather than be given to the states and then given to individual volunteer firefighters. It seems that the only justification I can see is that the Prime Minister wants to be able to maintain that this is a state issue. This is a national crisis. And the fact is that at the moment, as of now, the only firefighters who will be eligible for this are people who happen to live in New South Wales. What about the South Australians? And Victorians? Who have given up more than 10 days, travelling across, at their own expense, into New South Wales to fight fires? Travelling to Queensland.
This has been an issue that was raised with me across the country. It’s been raised with me in Rockhampton, in Casino, on the South Coast of New South Wales, in the Hawkesbury, the Blue Mountains. People I have met, some of whom have been in the field, fighting fires for many, many months. The head of the South Coast RFS, who I met with and gave us a briefing, Mark, down in the Shoalhaven, just days ago, he began in August in Glen Innes. I met someone in Bilpin, who was then protecting his own community, but he has been fighting fires since September in Tenterfield. There are so many volunteer firefighters who I have seen. I saw people from the Central Coast who are up on the North Coast. I saw the same brigade out in the Hawkesbury, more than a month later.
The fact is, why is it that COAG can’t be convened to make sure that there’s a national approach here? Common sense tells you that Australians know this is a national emergency. It’s gone from north Western Australia, all the way through South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, and in Victoria. I spoke to Darren Chester yesterday. There is 100,000 hectares of Gippsland forest has been burnt under bushfires there. What we’re seeing today, it’s expected to be again catastrophic conditions in some parts of Australia, in South Australia, New South Wales. This is a national issue that requires a national response. The Prime Minister has dismissed it as a state issue previously. He said that it’s a distraction. The truth is that this is necessary, and we need to also start to put in place measures that would last beyond just this current crisis because, quite clearly, the science is in. It tells us that we can expect longer bushfire seasons and more intense. Unfortunately, the science is proving to be correct.
JOURNALIST: A lot of the actions people can take to combat bushfires can take place outside the duration of the fire season. Back-burning is one of the things that Darren Chester has suggested, a back-burning payment, for firefighters outside the fire season. What do you make of those calls?
ALBANESE: Well, look, Darren Chester is trying to be constructive in this. That’s a good thing. I welcome anyone being constructive. Labor during this crisis has put forward practicable proposals, about COAG being convened to meet, to get a national approach. We’ve called for the Prime Minister to meet with the ex-fire chiefs, who have hundreds of years of experience between them. We’ve called for a changed position on climate change to deal with the long-term. We’ve called for action to occur supporting volunteer firefighters. All of these measures have to be considered. The immediate concern has been the financial position that many of these firefighters have been put in. One of the concerns about when I was in the North Coast, months ago, around Casino, part of the report that we had there was that some of the back-burning wasn’t able to be done when it normally would during the cooler months because they were fighting fires. They have been fighting fires since the first half of the year, in places like Rappville, near Casino, on the North Coast of New South Wales. What that meant was that some of the processes that would normally have occurred weren’t able to be conducted. Now, that goes to; have we got adequate staff in our national parks? When I met in Katoomba, the briefing that I had a few days ago, one of the positives that has occurred there is that back-burning did occur around Easter. People in Sydney might recall that they were impacted by the smoke that drifted across the entire city at that time. But what that’s done is provide a buffer that is absolutely critical at this time. It’s protecting communities like Winmalee and other places in the mid and lower Blue Mountains, because that back-burning occurred. So, we need to put in place the best planning measures possible. And this is a crisis. It requires national leadership and it requires the best coordination possible.
ALBANESE: Well, look, the truth is that Australia can’t act by ourselves. That’s the truth. But it’s also the truth that we’re not doing enough domestically. We don’t have a serious credible climate change policy. We don’t have an energy policy in this country. And we also aren’t acting internationally. Australia went to the Madrid conference, where Angus Taylor was one of the recalcitrant states, arguing for less action, not more. We were arguing for accountancy fiddles, rather than reducing our actual emissions. And the Government can’t have it both ways. They say that Australia acting alone justifies them not doing anything domestically. But they also are undermining international action. And that is of real concern.
We do need to reduce our own emissions. We do need a national energy policy. We need a plan to deal with climate change. We need to deal with adaptation. But we also need to be arguing on the international stage for strong action. Australia used to do that. The first act of the Rudd Government was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and to come back into the international community. The fact is, though, that now Australia, along with a few other states at that conference, were arguing for accountancy fiddles, and were undermining international action. And it was a very disappointing outcome from the Madrid conference. Thanks.
JOURNALIST: The Prime Minister has said that it shouldn’t set a precedent for permanent payments but if, like you say, the bushfire season is becoming the new normal, do you think these payments should be permanent?
ALBANESE: Well, these are matters that need to be discussed at COAG. Because, the truth is that we actually need that longer-term approach of how we deal with circumstances which are not business-as-usual. The problem here is that the Prime Minister has regarded, up to this point, our current circumstances as business-as-usual. He’s been reluctant. After he came back from his holiday in Hawaii, he said that there should be no change to climate change policy. And he rejected on countless occasions any compensation for volunteer firefighters such as that which he’s announcing today. We know that there’s a precedent. The Keating Government had a precedent. The Howard Government had a precedent. It’s up to the Prime Minister to explain why he’s been so reluctant up to this point, even though volunteer firefighters have been in the field, not for days or weeks, but months. Thanks.