SUBJECTS: Royal Commission into Australian bushfire crisis; climate change; Adam Bandt as new Greens Leader; National Party leadership spill; Building Better Regions fund; sports rorts; coronavirus; Religious Discrimination Bill.
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: I’m joined now by the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese. Anthony Albanese, welcome.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Good afternoon.
KARVELAS: Prime Minister Scott Morrison has written to state and territory leaders proposing that former Defence chief Mark Binskin lead this Royal Commission into the bushfire disaster. New South Wales and Victoria have both announced their own inquiries into bushfires. Is there value in a Federal Royal Commission?
ALBANESE: Well, I think there is some doubt over it, but it is a decision for the Government rather than the Parliament. Certainly, the Prime Minister didn’t have the courtesy of consulting Labor about the appointment of Mark Binskin. He is obviously a very distinguished person. But I would have thought that on an issue like this, the Opposition should have been at least consulted. Certainly, there is a range of inquiries, not just the official ones from New South Wales and Victoria, but of course the loss of life means that there will be coronial inquiries as well. And we have a range of other reports and inquiries that have been held in the past. What we need to do is to make sure that the starting point is looking at what the recommendations have been, looking forward in terms of what issues might need to be taken up, taken further. And the Opposition also hasn’t been consulted on the terms of reference. So, we’ll wait and see what the terms of reference of any such Royal Commission would be.
KARVELAS: Just to be clear, you are saying that you think the Opposition should be consulted on the terms of reference and should be brought in with the Prime Minister to make these decisions together?
ALBANESE: Yes. Well, if the Prime Minister wants to do these things in a non-political, bipartisan way, then that requires, by definition, some consultation. That hasn’t occurred.
KARVELAS: Are you surprised it hasn’t occurred?
ALBANESE: I am, frankly. I would have thought that common courtesy should mean that occur. During recent months, the Opposition, we have put forward a range of constructive suggestions. We wrote, of course, I wrote to the Prime Minister on November 22 last year, calling for a COAG meeting to get better national coordination, calling for greater involvement of the Defence Force, calling for economic compensation for volunteer firefighters, for a range of measures including an increase in our aerial firefighting capacity. All measures that were eventually, with the exception of COAG meeting, eventually happened, after at the beginning of the process being rejected by the Prime Minister. Even today sitting in the Parliament and the nature of it is something that I wrote to Scott Morrison about at the beginning of January and called for. So, we’ve continued to put forward a constructive suggestion. I would have thought that consultation about the terms of reference was a very basic thing that should happen.
KARVELAS: Apparently Daniel Andrews himself has said he doesn’t want a COAG. He is, of course, a Labor leader, he is the Premier in Victoria. Do you accept that perhaps not all the leaders thought this was a good idea?
ALBANESE: No, he said that later on. It was the Prime Minister’s decision to cancel COAG that normally would have been scheduled, and then to not convene a national coordination body at the stage of November, he wrote back essentially saying that nothing needed to change. Well, the fact is that things did change. There was then a national involvement. There was intervention and use of our Defence Force. There was economic compensation for volunteer firefighters. There was an increase in our aerial firefighting capacity. All of these things were dealt with. But they were dealt with much later on.
KARVELAS: After you took over as Leader, there was a repositioning on the value of the coal industry, coal workers’ jobs, and the pace of decarbonisation. Has the ferocity of the bushfire season changed Labor’s view, or your view, about the urgency of this issue?
ALBANESE: No, my view is that climate change is an urgent issue. It is something that I wrote the policy that we took to the 2007 election as the Environment and Climate Change spokesperson. Policy such as ratification of Kyoto. Policies including, of course, the 20 per cent Renewable Energy Target by 2020, that has been the most significant element in increasing the capacity.
KARVELAS: Okay. But do you think there has been a change in sentiment from voters? Because no doubt after the election, Labor, and very famously people like Joel Fitzgibbon, were out saying that perhaps your climate change policies were too ambitious and were scaring voters.
ALBANESE: I haven’t said that, Patricia, and I’m the Labor Leader.
KARVELAS: So, what is your view, then, about the public’s sentiment and view on climate change, the bushfire season, and what they want political leaders to do?
ALBANESE: My view is that climate change is a serious issue and the public want action on it. What they want is action that is practical, that makes a difference, that reduces emissions. That’s what my framework is. They want to see emissions going down, because they understand that also Australia can’t do it by ourselves. Australians want our nation to speak up strongly in international forums. We’re not doing that at the moment. We went to Madrid and argued for a weaker target, not stronger action, by arguing that somehow you could have carry-over credits and do an accounting trick, rather than actually reduce emissions. But one thing Australians have been doing for some time, Patricia, is voting with their wallets. They’re putting solar panels on their roofs. They’re taking action to reduce their own carbon footprint, because they know that just as good action on climate change is good for jobs, lowers emissions and lowers prices, their own individual action is lowering their household bills as well.
KARVELAS: Let’s move on to another issue because the Greens have a new leader in Adam Bandt. Will the Greens be a bigger threat under his leadership to Labor in some of the progressive inner-city seats?
ALBANESE: Look, our opponent is the Coalition. And that is what we’re focused on. The Greens remain essentially a Senate-based Party. We’ll see how it works having their only Member of the House of Representatives as the leader. But I don’t see that it will make an enormous difference. From time to time, Adam Bandt’s rhetoric is more extreme than Richard Di Natale’s rhetoric was. But we’ll wait and see how that plays out. The truth is that I’m running for Prime Minister against Scott Morrison, not against the Greens or Clive Palmer or One Nation or anyone else.
KARVELAS: Let’s talk about that extreme language, because he said today that Scott Morrison’s action on climate change had led to three times as many deaths as the bushfire crisis we’ve just seen. Is that a view you share?
ALBANESE: It is not a view that I would put. And that’s why I haven’t put it, Patricia. And I don’t think that you advance your cause, your objective, by coming up with strong rhetoric that has people who agree with you agreeing with you even stronger. We lost the last election. We have a very conservative Government, indeed, without plan for the country, but they were elected. What we need to do is convince more people of the need for a Government that is more in tune with what we need to do on the environment, including climate change, and what we need to do to support jobs and to support an economy and an aspiration. A Government that’s prepared to do changes like in the social justice area such as increase Newstart. To do that, you’ve got to engage people and bring them with you. Being engaged in abuse such as the quote that you just used, in my view, isn’t a great way to bring people with you.
KARVELAS: The Nationals have re-elected Michael McCormack. Mr McCormack says the issue is now resolved. Do you accept that?
ALBANESE: Good luck with that, Michael. You have an extraordinary effort. I mean today, the Parliament came together, I wrote to Scott Morrison, and then it was agreed that we would concentrate today on the condolence motion for the victims of the bushfires, the bushfire victims’ families. Many of them, of course, were here today in Parliament. And it was a solemn occasion when we had morning tea with people who have lost their loved ones. We also wanted to commemorate, and indeed, thank the brave firefighters who have put their own lives on the line over weeks and, indeed, many months. And that was the focus of today. And this has had a particular impact, of course, in regional Australia. And what do the Nats do? They’re all about themselves having a leadership ballot on a day like today. I just thought that was incredibly self-indulgent. I see no reason why that self-indulgence will stop. You have Matt Canavan sitting on the backbench, you’ve got Barnaby Joyce. If he’s the answer, I mean, I would just hate to think what the question is.
KARVELAS: Just on a couple of other things if we can whiz through them. Labor Infrastructure spokeswoman, Catherine King, has asked the Auditor-General to take a thorough look at the Building Better Regions fund, it is a regional infrastructure program. Michael McCormack administers it. Is there any reason, in your view, that it is similar to the sports rorts issue?
ALBANESE: Just that the outcomes, overwhelmingly, favour Coalition members. And the fact of the timing. You’ve got pattern of behaviour here. And interestingly, with the sports rorts saga, you have just such an obvious, blatant, industrial-scale rort. And you have the Government saying, ‘There’s nothing to see here.’ You have a Government that’s prepared to say, ‘Don’t worry about what the Auditor-General said, we’ll worry about what the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff says’ and continuing to justify this behaviour.
KARVELAS: So, we’re going to see Question Time over the next week and you can give us an insight into Labor’s strategy during that. Will you be pursuing the sports rorts issue?
ALBANESE: Well, you will have to be paying attention tomorrow, Patricia, at 2 o’clock.
KARVELAS: I will be, but you can surely give me a preview of what your questions will be, Anthony Albanese. Will sports rorts be part of it?
ALBANESE: We don’t normally, you see, release, even though the Government has released its talking points for today to the entire press gallery and everyone else, and I’ve got a copy of that, we tend to not release our tactics pack a day in advance. We’ll have a discussion tomorrow morning. But I would be very surprised if sports rorts don’t get a reasonable run over the next week, and indeed, months. Because there has been no transparency here. We still don’t have a list of those clubs that missed out that had high scores in favour of clubs that basically got almost zero. One club got four out of 100, and got funding. And another club who made an application got 98 and didn’t get funding. So, work out that.
KARVELAS: Just moving on to something that has happened this afternoon. An embassy official in Canberra has expressed Beijing’s displeasure at Australia’s recent Coronavirus travel ban, claiming there was not enough time to be alerted. What do you make of that? Is that fair criticism?
ALBANESE: Well, Australia has got to make decisions in our own national interest and taking the advice of the medical experts. And that is a position which the Government says that it has done. It is one also that I don’t seek to politicise. And I think there is nothing more important than keeping Australian citizens safe.
KARVELAS: There were also reports that returning Chinese students were intercepted by Border Force, had their passports taken, visas cancelled and they were effectively put under house arrest, are you alarmed by that?
ALBANESE: I am not aware of that. And I’m not going to comment on something I have just heard from you. I would seek a briefing before I would comment on a matter as sensitive as that.
KARVELAS: I understand that. It has been reported that 98,000 Chinese students who were studying in Australia have been stranded overseas by the travel ban. Are you worried about not only their welfare but the economic impact of that decision?
ALBANESE: Look, the economic impact will be severe, there’s no doubt about that. Foreign students play an important role in the business model of the Australian university sector. That is a good thing for the university sector. It is also a good thing, in my view, to have interaction between Australians and people overseas, whether that be overseas students studying here, and I also think it is a very good thing when Australians go and study overseas. So, that interaction is very important. But it obviously is particularly important for the business models of those universities. My understanding is that they’re working up a response to it and trying to work these issues through. But at the same time, as I said, I have no criticism of any decision which says we are putting the health interests and the advice of medical experts first.
KARVELAS: Just briefly, on religious discrimination and the legislation there, some of your colleagues think the legislation isn’t needed at all and should be abandoned. What do you think?
ALBANESE: Well, we haven’t even seen it yet.
KARVELAS: But do you think there is a case, there is a need, for it?
ALBANESE: I’ll wait and see what it is. I support freedom of religion, and I don’t support discrimination on the basis of religion. Just as I don’t support discrimination on the basis of gender, or sexuality, or race, or other issues as well. I think we need to ensure that people do have the freedom to practice their religion. But we should also ensure that any measures don’t increase discrimination in other areas. So, we will examine legislation if it is presented. And we have been in consultation with a wide range of groups, religious groups, legal groups, groups including, I met last week with a group that included the Australian Medical Association, the Australian Industry Group, unions, groups concerned about equality for gay and lesbian Australians, a range of organisations as well as legal groups, ACOSS. So, I’ve met with a whole range of people about this in terms of consultation process. And that’s what you would expect me to do. I’ve met most of, now, the religious leaders around the country as well.
KARVELAS: Anthony Albanese, thanks for joining me.
ALBANESE: Thanks very much, Patricia.