SUBJECTS: Labor’s calls to suspend first day of Parliament as a sign of respect for bushfire crisis; Bushfire crisis across Australia; recovery process for the bushfires; Government’s lack of climate change policy; Government’s inaction on climate change; Labor’s principles regarding climate change; Calls for a Royal Commission into bushfires; US travel advice to Australia.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: During this catastrophic bushfire season we have seen 26 Australians lose their life. I note also last night another four firefighters were injured fighting fires in the Blue Mountains. This season will have a long-term economic, social and human impact on this country. That is why when Parliament resumes on the 4th of February, we can’t just do business-as-usual. And it would be appropriate, as I have written to the Prime Minister, that the first, and indeed, only item of business on that first sitting day would be a motion of condolence, acknowledging the loss of life, those who have been injured and those who have lost properties and everything that they own. But also, one that would acknowledge and thank our firefighters for the extraordinary bravery that they have shown looking after their fellow Australians. It is also the case that in that letter to the Prime Minister I have conveyed Labor’s position adopted in the Shadow Cabinet on Thursday that we would facilitate the passage of any legislation that was required for reconstruction, recovery, for payments that might be needed for individual Australians, or payments to communities through local government or other community organisations. We will facilitate the passage of that on the first week if any legislation is necessary. And I have asked the Prime Minister for advice on that. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: Have you received a response from the Prime Minister?
ALBANESE: I have not as yet received a response from the Prime Minister. I would expect that would be forthcoming. This was put forward as a constructive suggestion, so that preparations can be made. I have proposed that the Prime Minister move a motion that it would be supported, firstly by myself as Leader of the Opposition, and then you would have a debate which would enable those members of Parliament, as well as senior members in terms of Shadow Ministers with particular responsibility, to be able to outline their experience over the coming months since Parliament rose at the beginning of December. It would be appropriate for that to happen. We of course have had similar motions and then adjournments of the Parliament. Over the death, for example, of Bob Hawke. Over the Black Saturday fires indeed, there was a similar response. So, it is put forward constructively, well in advance, so the Prime Minister can give it consideration. But it just seems to me, and in the debate that we have had in the Shadow Cabinet in Adelaide on Thursday, that is not really tenable to do anything else on the first day back. Of course, prior to Parliament sitting there will be the usual church service that takes place in the morning as well and that will have a particular sombre note to it.
JOURNALIST: The climate protests around the nation, particularly in Sydney, are these expressions on climate change going to make a difference in any way to policy?
ALBANESE: They are expressions of people’s frustration with what the people demonstrating believe, and I certainly think, is a lack of action when it comes to climate change. We are a democratic society. One way that people can express their views is by doing it publicly. That is an important thing. It’s also important, can I say, that while people do that, that people not be disrupted going about their everyday lives as well, because that would alienate support. But I think it is perfectly legitimate for people to express their views in that way, as they do in writing to parliamentarians, as they do through social media, as stated by ringing the local radio station and expressing their views.
JOURNALIST: Is it likely that we will see changes to hazard reduction policies rather than changes to climate policy?
ALBANESE: We need to actually look at what is happening. I would say with some of the reports that idea, I have sat with, for example, the head of Katoomba RFS at their headquarters, and they went through the hazard reduction that they were able to do for example, just to the north of the lower Blue Mountains, and provided some protection and barrier for communities around Winmalee and Springwood. That occurred last Easter. People in Sydney may recall that sitting was blanketed in smoke during that period, and there were some complaints. That is what was
going on. Hazard reduction. The idea that hazard reduction cannot take place at the moment in parks that are managed by the New South Wales Berejiklian Government is just not the case. What we do need to do is to actually take climate change seriously. But obviously we need to assess, do national parks have enough resources? For example, when I was in Casino, the head of Casino RFS spoke about there being a difficulty with some of the hazard reduction that would have taken place because people were out there fighting fires that began in the first half of 2019.
JOURNALIST: Was it appropriate for those protests to occur yesterday whilst these fires are still being fought?
ALBANESE: That is up to others to judge. People have a right to express their views. I think that my priority has been the immediate. But it is understandable that people want to express their views. What they should not do is do so in a way that takes away resources from where they are needed in terms of emergency services.
JOURNALIST: What kind of action do you think would satisfy the thousands of people who have protested?
ALBANESE: It would help if we had a Government that actually acknowledged climate change was real and did not play around with it. It would help if we had a Government that did not go to an international conference while these fires were burning and argue for less action on the international stage, not more. And that argued for accounting tricks rather than reducing emissions. Climate change is real. We need to listen to the science and we need to respond to it. We should have in my view, the Prime Minister should have met the former fire chiefs, I met with them. They are experts, they have hundreds of years of experience. They wrote to the Government as far back as April, requesting a meeting. It is important here that we listen to the science. I note as well the Australian Academy has made a statement, again, reaffirming the view that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is real and that it is having an impact. There is also an overwhelming clear view that the Government, when it comes to its emissions policy, it does not have a credible climate change policy. It doesn’t have an energy policy at all. And the Government cannot continue to pretend that black is white, pretend that they are taking action at the same time as essentially people like Craig Kelly have been running the Government’s agenda for it.
JOURNALIST: The changes to those policies, do you think that they would have prevented the bushfires?
ALBANESE: I have said very clearly, and the people in the Government who say it a right too, you can’t just look at what we do here in Australia by ourselves. We are 1.3 per cent of global emissions. The problem here is that we are not doing enough domestically, and we are arguing for less action internationally as well. We, in the past, have led on various environmental issues. Australia played a very responsible role in the global agreement that drove down CFCs and helped to deal with the issues that were there. And the Ozone layer. Australia has played a remarkable international role in protection for Antarctica, for example, and various other international issues. We have been responsible about the issue of whaling. What we have seen here though, on climate change, is that Australia is one of the recalcitrant nations at the Madrid conference who are arguing for less action, not more. Australian citizens know that, and they are frustrated by it. Because Australia is particularly vulnerable to these extreme weather events that the science tells us will come more often and will be more intense.
JOURNALIST: No one can deny that we need the formal condolences processes when Parliament returns. But isn’t there a greater urgency now, coming out of this event, for action on a policy level re climate change? Will the Opposition be taking lead on the charge?
ALBANESE: One of the reasons why it’s important when it comes to the condolence motion and the congratulations for the bushfires, that be separated out from the scrutiny that needs to happen in the Parliament. Labor intends to hold the Government to account for its actions, including ensuring that the reports that are there about people being denied payments who are in bushfire areas who’ve been impacted, that those issues are all scrutinised. Labor will play a role, whether it’s in looking at scrutiny of an individual payment from a department to an individual in those areas, or whether to the larger framework issues of how we deal with management of our national parks, how we deal with the challenge of climate change. We’ve already said there needs to be a health response. In particular, one that engages on mental health issues. We’ve also said there needs to be a national ecological audit. We’ve seen catastrophic consequences for our ecology for our native animals, birds and insects. We need to have an assessment. And the truth is that Victoria is doing that, New South Wales isn’t doing enough there. But we need a national approach to that as well. One that looks at, when I had the briefing in Melbourne, one of the concerns there is that in the Gippsland region, some of the fires have been so comprehensive that the vegetation when it grows back will be very different from what was there beforehand. We need to analyse what’s the impact on native species who use that habitat and all of a sudden, it’s changed. And of course, we know that the way the ecosystems work is that if you change one element, it has an impact on the whole system. Because everything is connected to everything else. And so, we need to have that comprehensive analysis. Parliament will play a role in that. But Parliament can have a role in that on day two. I think the idea that we would have a bushfire resolution and then go straight into Question Time is in my view, not constructive and not in the interests of uniting the nation in a way which gives appropriate respect to the loss of life and to the courageous efforts of our firefighters.
JOURNALIST: From day two can we expect that Labor will harden its climate change policy on emissions and other issues?
ALBANESE: Well, Labor will have a considered approach to detailed policy development. That’s what we’ll do. We won’t be making policy on the run. But we believe climate change is real. We believe we need a policy that drives down our emissions domestically, and that we play a role internationally in the reduction of global emissions.
JOURNALIST: You said whatever inquiry may happen into the bushfires would need to include a promise from the Government to fulfil its recommendations. Do you actually support a Royal Commission? Or would you like to see an alternative response?
ALBANESE: Well, we’re considering the views of people like the RFS Commissioner in New South Wales, for example. We want to get that feedback. Again, a Royal Commission, if it’s announced, won’t be reporting the first week of Parliament, they’ll be reporting in a year’s time. What we need, and I’ve said, we still have never had during this season, I find it extraordinary, we’ve never had a COAG meeting in any form during this process. And I think that there are a range of measures that need to be put in place immediately. There will be coronial inquiries as well. So, I’m not opposed to a Royal Commission taking place. I do think, though, that the Government has had a range of reports before it that it hasn’t bothered to respond to up to this point. And I make the point that it is no good having an inquiry if recommendations sit on the shelf. And in terms of the senate inquiry that reported at the beginning of last year, still hasn’t been responded to.
JOURNALIST: What message could be implemented immediately? What could the Prime Minister do today?
ALBANESE: Well, he could immediately call and set up the establishment of a national ecological audit for example. He could convene a meeting of COAG in terms of environmental ministers. He could guarantee the funding for the Cooperative Research Centre on bushfires, where funding runs out on the first of July next year. It needs that funding certainty to do the research. He could convene a meeting of COAG health ministers to look at the health impacts, to look at where the analysis goes, what the impact is of smoke on communities, what are the health impacts, how can we take preventative measures, how can we ensure that appropriate mental health support is in these communities. We could, for example, as we’ve recommended, lift the cap on the number of appointments with mental health doctors in order to make sure that people can get the assistance that they need. He could, for example, ensure that schools are able to access, people to come into those schools when school returns in a few weeks’ time to make sure that there is a liaison system to make sure that kids who are traumatised, who have gone through all this, are not left on their own. There’s a range of measures that can be done, as well as of course, the payments I had recommended payments for local government. Some of that has happened. There will need to be considerable more investment in economic infrastructure to make sure that those communities are rebuilt. He could for example, as well, when it comes to agriculture, if you look at the impact that this has had on the wine and grape growing industry in South Australia, some of them have lost their income down to zero. They won’t have income next year, or the year after, or the year after, or the year after that. Industries like that will need an industry assistance package. All of these things need a comprehensive response from the Government. They can’t wait for a long inquiry. In some cases, what they’ll do, things like the ecological audit, should as we go along, point to action on an interim basis. Because we simply can’t afford to pretend that this issue is business-as-usual.
JOURNALIST: Just for some clarity around the last question that asked. Do you actually support a Royal Commission? Yes or no?
ALBANESE: Well, we haven’t seen a proposal for a Royal Commission by the Government. I’m not opposed to a Royal Commission.
JOURNALIST: But do you support it?
ALBANESE: I’m not opposed to a Royal Commission. If you ask the same question, you get the same answer. Big tip. I’m not opposed to a Royal Commission, but we want to see proposals. And we’re listening to, frankly, people on the ground, like Shane Fitzsimmons, I think their views are worth considering. And the coronial inquiries, all of that timing, that decision doesn’t have to be made now. I’ve given consideration to perhaps even people who could do it. If there is going to be a Royal Commission, the Opposition would expect to be consulted about the Commissioner. That hasn’t always happened in the past. It would need to be someone like the former Chief Justice of the High Court or another senior person in order to conduct the inquiry. We can’t afford for this to be a political inquiry. It has to be one that’s prepared to get down into the facts. There will be an inquiry, I’ve got no doubt, whether it is a Royal Commission or some other form of inquiry, there will be a significant national inquiry. That has to happen after an event such as this.
JOURNALIST: Will that inquiry be pointless without considering climate policy?
ALBANESE: Of course. Climate policy has to be a part of any of these issues. And the impact of the drying of our continent has had an impact on this season. We know that’s the case. We go back to the Garnaut report, to go back to inquiries and my point about not just leaving them on the shelf, if you look at Ross Garnaut’s report of 2008 to the Government, a public report that went through the science that was advised by the CSIRO and by all the greatest scientific and economic experts, Professor Garnaut was of course an economist, not a scientist. He looked at the impact of climate change, and he spoke specifically in that report about the bushfire seasons being potentially catastrophic. And the year that he spoke about was 2020. It’s a pity that those recommendations, and that the action that was being taken on climate change was walked away from in 2013 for short-term, opportunistic reasons by the Coalition.
JOURNALIST: What is the latest in terms of [inaudible]?
ALBANESE: Well, the concern is that, and I would say my office has been in contact with US officials yesterday, my concern is that if there are recommendations in terms of travel advisories from nation states, like Australia does about countries, that suggests that Australia somehow is not as good a place to come as it has ever been, then what that will do is have a negative impact on our economy. At a time when we need more people to come to Australia, not less. We need people to go to those communities. We need Australians domestically, as well. A community like the Blue Mountains, one road along the escarpment, essentially survives on the basis of tourism. And it’s critical that those hotels and motels and restaurants that have been empty, that they fill up. And that Australians are able to do that. It is critical that Australians give thought to how they could over the coming months, visit the south coast, visit Gippsland, visit the north coast of New South Wales. It’s so important, but it’s also critical, I think, that the Australian Government contact relevant nations and encourage them to not discourage people from coming to Australia. Because that will mean that the economic impact on those local communities is more severe than it would be otherwise.
JOURNALIST: Has the Prime Minister’s office indicated that they will lobby to the President about this issue?
ALBANESE: Well, quite frankly, Simon Birmingham has made some positive statements about the need to act as the Tourism Minister. But I think this requires a higher level. For the United States, which is our close friend and ally, it is the case that the phone can be picked up by the US at various times asking Australia for assistance. This is a time where Australia at the most senior level should pick up the phone and ask for US assistance. We are certainly getting that assistance on the ground from firefighters from the US, from Canada, from New Zealand, from so many other countries who are helping out our exhausted firefighters. But I think at that level as well, we could ask for some support for the US administration in encouraging people rather than discourage people to come down under. Thanks very much.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.