SUBJECTS: Bushfire crisis across Australia; impact of bushfires in South Australia; Government’s inaction on climate change; Labor’s consistent calls for COAG; international recognition of the Australian bushfire crisis.
ALI MOORE, HOST: Anthony Albanese, welcome to the program.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY:
ALBANESE: Good to be with you, Ali.
MOORE: Of course, he is the Federal Opposition Leader. Anthony, you are currently in South Australia, I understand?
ALBANESE: Yes. I have just arrived in Woodside, which is in the Adelaide Hills. There we have seen the impact of the fires having a devastating impact on the wine industry that is so important to South Australia, both directly and, of course, the from the spin-off in the tourism sector. But, while we are here, the dreadful news has come through about the two fatalities on Kangaroo Island. Everyone in South Australia very much relates to Kangaroo Island. This is devastating news on what promises to be a terrible day here, in Victoria, and the south coast of New South Wales.
MOORE: Absolutely. And the news from Kangaroo Island is absolutely stunning and a real indication of how fast these fire fronts can move. What is the situation where you are? And I suppose, what is the mood?
ALBANESE: The mood is very sombre. We have met with people here who have lost an enormous amount. We have volunteers on the ground. We have a meeting with one of the local Country Fire Services, as it is called here in South Australia, with the volunteers. There is a resilience here. There is no question about that. As there is in Victoria and New South Wales, and indeed months ago in Queensland. But, they thought that they had been through it. But, of course, yesterday, back it came again with an extremely hot day. Today, as that hot front moved across the country into Victoria and New South Wales, it is a bit cooler here today. And therefore, some of the threat has been removed with the exception of the extremely catastrophic conditions on Kangaroo Island where they have been asked to go to the two major settlements on KI and everyone has been asked to move to there. But, quite catastrophic conditions here and around the country. Today, we were just hoping that there was no more bad news in terms of a loss of life. So, it is quite devastating, what we are dealing with. And it certainly isn’t business-as-usual.
MOORE: No. It is definitely not business-as-usual. Anthony Albanese, you have called for a national response to the crisis. Do you think that if there had been a national coordinating effort, we would be in a different position? Because, of course, this is state-based responsibility and even today it has been run as state-based responsibilities except for the very strict border areas between Victoria and New South Wales.
ALBANESE: The state agencies are doing magnificent work. And there is certainly no criticism of them. But the difficulty has been, and the reason why I called for COAG in November when it was clear that the fire season was already well underway much earlier than usual and that it was going to be more intense than usual, is that issues like the economic compensation for volunteer firefighters, it’s just one of the issues that I raised then. You had an agreement between the Commonwealth and New South Wales, and other states having to ask rather than just having a national scheme. The issue of aerial firefighting services being given extra resources that today the Government’s looking at requests including overseas requests. I do think it would have been good if COAG has met then. It just shows that we need to listen to the experts, the former fire chiefs who I met with months ago who had some recommendations as well. But today, of course, the priority is just keeping people safe. Making sure that the response is that everything possible is being done. The evacuations from Mallacoota is something that I never thought I’d see in Australia in peacetime. But again there, it’s happening in Victoria but not in New South Wales, in terms of evacuations, because of the different state responses.
MOORE: Can I ask you though, I mean, you talk about all hands on the table and all hands on deck, and therefore the call for a COAG meeting back in November. There is this National Security Council meeting today. I’m curious as to whether you have been briefed? I mean, clearly, you’re not part of the National Security Council, but this is such an extraordinary circumstance. Should the Opposition be involved?
ALBANESE: Well, I have certainly made that offer to be involved in whatever way possible. And can I say that David Littleproud, the Minister, I spoke to yesterday, I had spoken to at least every second day over the last weeks. And he has made available briefings to myself and to our Shadow Minister, Murray Watt, on a regular basis. And his office has participated in that, as well as the appropriate officials from the Department of Home Affairs. And briefings have been made available as well as every day I get a written brief from the Department that goes out to, I suspect I get the same brief, that goes out to the ministers on the day of an update of where things are at. So, there has been very good cooperation from David Littleproud. And I thank him for that. I certainly said I was surprised that they announced that it would meet on Monday, they said that a couple of days ago, I didn’t see why that should be delayed. I have been a member of the National Security Committee as the Deputy Prime Minister. And I know that you can convene a meeting, by its very nature, on very short notice. So, it is good that it is meeting. And I am looking forward to further progress coming out.
MOORE: So, was it your understanding that meeting, which was what I understood had been called for today, has actually been delayed till Monday?
ALBANESE: No. The meeting was for Monday, but it has been brought forward.
MOORE: But you haven’t heard what the outcome has been?
ALBANESE: No, I haven’t. But I made clear as the Leader of the Labor Party that we will back any resources that are required. And expenditure which is required. The Government should be able to make decisions that will be agreed to, should it be required in terms of any parliamentary approval.
MOORE: You’ve been very cautious, Anthony Albanese, not to jump on the criticism, the chorus of criticism, of the Prime Minister. He says that the way that he was treated when he went to visit the town of Cobargo is not something that he should take personally. Is it personal, do you think?
ALBANESE: I think people will see the footage of young Zoey, 20 years’ old, with a young child and another one on the way. She had lost everything. She wanted to talk to the Prime Minister about funding for not herself but for the Rural Fire Services. She has made comments of what she thinks of the Prime Minister’s visit. The footage is there for all to see in terms of the handshake, or forced handshake, that occurred. And also, with the firefighter. I don’t think it assists for me to add comment. I am not a commentator. And I have made that point. Those people who have spoken out, Andrew Constance who is the local Liberal Party member, has made comments of his views. And I think people who look at the footage will draw their own conclusion.
MOORE: You say that you’re not a commentator. But you’re a political leader in this country. And you must be watching how we’re being viewed, not just by people who are distressed in the country, but internationally. With extraordinary front pages and extraordinary criticism of a place that is being seen around the world by many communities as, pretty much, getting what it deserves. What is your reaction to that and the country’s reputation globally?
ALBANESE: Well, people don’t deserve this. No one deserves this. People who are suffering here are not the people who make political decisions. They are people that are just trying to live their lives and make a contribution to their families and local communities. And they have been devastated by this. Australia’s reputation internationally, in terms of climate change, is embarrassing. The fact is that Angus Taylor went to an international conference in Madrid and argued for less action and argued for an accounting trick. Australia should have an interest in not just acting on climate change domestically but ensuring there is international action. At the moment, we don’t have a credible climate change policy domestically. And internationally Australia has joined other countries like Saudi Arabia and Brazil and are arguing for less action. That is, in my view, the wrong path for Australia to take. It is very clear that the science told us that we would have more extreme weather events, that they would be more intense, that the bushfire season would be longer. And tragically, we are seeing that played out. And for those people who remain sceptical about climate change, I just say that they should look at the science, and look at what was predicted, and look at the tragedy that is unfolding. We are a continent that is particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change.
MOORE: Look, it is extraordinary headlines that are being made around the world. And Anthony Albanese, as you say, no one deserves what’s happening now. But, you know, I don’t know whether you’ve seen the article on the New York Times written by Richard Flanagan, and the title is, ‘Australia is committing climate suicide’ and that reflects quite a bit of the international commentary. So, for months to come this is obviously going to be a topic of conversation. Anthony Albanese, are you’re staying in South Australia for a while? Is that the plan?
ALBANESE: No. Later today I will travel to Cudlee Creek to visit the volunteers. I am travelling with Peter Malinauskas, the state Labor Leader. Rebekha Sharkie, the independent, is the local Federal Member, I have just spoken to her. She is dealing with what is happening with Kangaroo Island at the moment. It is quite a large electorate, her electorate. So, I certainly invited her to travel with us. Later today I will travel to Melbourne tonight and will be in Victoria tomorrow. I am meeting with Daniel Andrews and with Richard Marles, my Deputy, looking at the impact that is unfolding. Very concerning. Thank goodness that the ABC is continually playing and keeping people informed, and literally saving lives. That is why we need to ensure that it is properly funded.
MOORE: Could not agree more, clearly. With a self-interest here. Anthony Albanese, thank you. The Federal Opposition Leader there talking to us from South Australia on a slightly dodgy line. But it was an important conversation to have.