SUBJECTS: Bushfire recovery process; National Party tensions; Angus Taylor; coal-fired power stations.
FIONA PHILLIPS, MEMBER FOR GILMORE: Hello everyone. My name is Fiona Phillips and I am the Federal Member for Gilmore. We are at the Coachhouse at Batemans Bay today. I am here with Anthony Albanese and Chris Bowen. Look, we have been devastated by bushfires in our region. And we obviously would like people to come back. So, one of the things I did was to talk to Anthony and suggest that Shadow Cabinet come here to basically spend money and to have a great input into the local economy. So, that is what we have done. We have brought the Shadow Cabinet here today. In Batemans Bay we have had Shadow Ministers spread out all over the place, and in Mogo as well this morning, which is wonderful. I will hand over to Anthony.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thanks very much, Fiona. And thanks for the welcome, not just from yourself but everyone that we have met in this wonderful part of the world that has been doing it quite tough. We had dinner last night in Batemans Bay after stopping at Braidwood and Nelligen on the way here from Canberra. And this morning in Mogo we had breakfast in one of the cafes. We visited the confectionary shop. We visited the Indonesian shop that is there on the main street of Mogo. And we talked to locals. And we talked to visitors alike. It was good that we met a whole busload of retired people who came from a retirement village in Campbelltown to contribute to the economy here on the south coast. And we encourage more people, from Sydney, from Canberra, from Melbourne, to come. Not just to here, but also to Gippsland, to the Blue Mountains, to the north coast, to areas that have been doing it tough. We have heard firsthand from small businesses that they need assistance. The restaurant that we had dinner in last night had put in an application for support. This is a restaurant in Batemans Bay, Stingrays, that opened up their restaurant for people to sleep on the floor during the crisis here. This is a restaurant that is community-minded. But the truth is, business is dried up during what should normally be the busiest time of the year. They filled in their applications. It was in great detail. And the person who runs the restaurant is a former chartered accountant. He knows how to fill in a form. He filled in the forms, he sent it off. Many pages. And he got it back with it saying that now the program is changing, and he has to fill in more forms.
One of the things that we’ve heard from people is we need to cut through the red tape. Small businesses need cash flow. Today, we heard from Warren Sharpe from Eurobodalla Shire, who told us firsthand, in a very emotional way, how tough it was dealing with the bushfire crisis here. The actions of people like Warren save lives in this community. Lives of locals, lives of people who are visiting the region under enormous pressure. And I just pay tribute to the inspirational heroes of this community. People like Warren and others, people from the RFS, emergency services, people who made such an incredible difference during this difficult time. And of course, we know that in spite of the fact that we do have some rain today, here, the crisis is far from over in terms of the bushfire season. We need to bear that in mind as well. But with regard to recovery, the big message that we have is that timing is important. Small businesses reached the end of January not being able to pay their bills. They need cash flow and need that income support. Individuals need that income support as well. They also need support in other areas.
And today we had a submission at the Shadow Cabinet from Chris Bowen, our Shadow Minister for Health, which spoke about mental health and other health issues. And we adopted, again, a four-point proposal, constructive suggestions to the Government for practical measures that they can make. And I would ask Chris to outline what those measures are. We will advance those, again, to the Government as we have during this crisis. We have put forward practical measures. Whether it was the increasing aerial firefighting capacity. Whether it was the need for a national response to what was a national crisis. Whether it be increased use of the Defence Force. Increased support for mental health. Ecological audits. Support economic compensation for income lost for volunteer firefighters. all of these issues have seen Labor put forward constructive suggestions to the Government. And we will continue to do that.
But I do want to say that Fiona has done her community proud in the representation that she’s made, the commitment she’s had working tirelessly day in, day out alongside people like Mike Kelly, in Eden-Monaro, Darren Chester in Gippsland, and Susan Templeman in the seat of Macquarie, in the Blue Mountains and in the Hawkesbury. All of those Members have worked so hard on behalf of their communities. And Fiona deserves every recognition for the work that she’s done alongside the amazing volunteers, and people like Warren who presented a discussion to the Shadow Cabinet today. Chris?
CHRIS BOWEN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Thanks very much, Albo. I think all Australians understand that the bushfires have been a public health emergency. And just because the flames may have subsided in many areas, the emergency hasn’t ceased. It’s an ongoing health challenge for the country and it needs an ongoing response. As Anthony said in Adelaide in early January, we, on behalf of the Opposition, made a series of constructive suggestions to the Government in terms of the health response. And we acknowledge that they accepted several of those ideas and adopted several of those suggestions. But not all.
And so today, we renew our call on the Government to enable Telehealth rebates in all bushfire affected areas. The Government did adopt that for mental health consultations. But of course, while that is welcomed, it’s a much broader challenge. And here for example, on the south coast of New South Wales, there are GPs in major centres like Batemans Bay and Ulladulla, but many of the towns that are so severely affected don’t have GPs, whether it’s Lake Conjola or Bawley Point and other places where people don’t necessarily have the capacity to visit the major centres. They should be able to have Telehealth consultations with GPs and other health professionals across the board, not just mental health. So, we renew that call on the Government.
The second point is that Headspace is very important for young people and young people with mental health, particularly here in bushfire affected areas. And some specific calls, here in Batemans Bay, we need a full service offering Headspace facility urgently. The Government and the Labor Party both went to the election saying that Batemans Bay will get Headspace. The Government has previously said one will be provided by the end of this year. We need it urgently here. If you’re a young person who’s got some mental health challenges, which are related to the bushfire in particular, or broader mental health issues, you’re not going to get in the car and go to Nowra or Bega to visit Headspace. We need a full service offering Headspace here in Batemans Bay and also in Katoomba, there’s a satellite, a small Headspace, that needs a full service offering as well, which I’ve discussed with Susan Templeman, the Member there.
The final point I’d make is that there are other changes the Government is making to GPs in particular, which will have a negative impact, particular on bushfire affected areas. And we’re calling on the Government to review their decisions across the board but with particular focus on bushfire affected areas. And there are two examples I want to give. The Government’s changing the districts of workforce shortage to make it harder for some areas to attract GPs and doctors who are overseas-trained and who have restrictions on where they can work. For example, the capacity in Nowra and Ulladulla has been removed and I’ve had feedback from GPs in Nowra, Fiona has, to say this will make providing medical services in these areas so much harder, that it will challenge the viability of their practice not to have those doctors available. That must stop. And the Government, Ministers Hunt and Coulton, need to reflect on how these policies are impacting on bushfire affected areas in particular, as well as across the board. The other one is the rural bulk-billing incentive which the Government is removing from a number of regional areas. Again, I’ve spoken at length with Members of Parliament, like Joel Fitzgibbon, Meryl Swanson and Justine Elliot, who’ve made the case to me that this will have a negative impact on areas, several of which have been bushfire affected. Again, there has been correspondence between me and Minister Hunt.
I call on the Government to review their decisions to remove those bulk-billing incentives in regional areas. Yes, rural and remote areas need bulk-billing incentives for doctors, of course they do. But so do regional areas. It’s hard to attract doctors to many regional areas, it’s hard to get bulk-billing in those areas. And the last thing those areas, particularly bushfire affected areas need is to have their bulk-billing incentives removed or reduced. So, these are again, as Anthony said, as we did in Adelaide, constructive suggestions made in good faith to the Government. Just as the Government accepted several of our proposals in January, we call on them to accept these proposals we are making today.
ALBANESE: Thanks very much, Chris. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: Scott Morrison this week accused you of trying to politicise bushfires. Are you trying to capitalise on this?
ALBANESE: Well, I didn’t do an ad during the bushfire crisis. The Prime Minister authorised and ad on behalf of the Liberal Party during the bushfire crisis with background mood music, use of Defence Force imagery, and a donate to the Liberal Party button on that ad. What I’ve done, and people judge me by this, is I have put forward constructive suggestions going back many, many months. The Prime Minister has chosen to try to politicise it. Bear in mind, the day that ad appeared he had time to do the ad, but he didn’t have time to ring Shane Fitzsimmons, the head of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service and tell him about the change in Government policy.
JOURNALIST: On another matter, Barnaby Joyce and some of his rebel National MPs have threatened they could cross the floor. Is Labor going to seek to try and exploit this?
ALBANESE: Well, the Coalition are a mess. That is the truth. The Coalition are divided. They’re incapable of providing the sort of leadership that this notion needs. One of the reasons why we have a complacent and arrogant Government sitting there doing nothing is that they are internally constrained on the economy, on wages, on climate change, on energy, on so many issues. We simply don’t get leadership and a response from this Government. We get a, ‘She’ll be right, mate’ approach from Scott Morrison and his team. My concern isn’t the impact on the Coalition, frankly. That’s their business. My concern is the impact on the country. And the division is holding back the country. It’s why we don’t have a climate change policy. It’s why we don’t have an energy policy. And why they’re complacent about an economy that was struggling well before any of the crisis that have appeared in recent months. Well before. And this is an arrogant Government. And when you don’t stand for things, and don’t have a plan going forward, when you get through an election campaign with not much policy, but just by saying, ‘Well, we’re not Labor’ then that’s not enough to actually govern the country for three years. And Scott Morrison has a plan for political tactics every 24 hours. He doesn’t actually have a plan to take the country forward. He has a plan for marketing, and for political tactics, but there’s no strategic approach to the country. And Barnaby Joyce is stepping into that vacuum and holding the country back. Remember this about Barnaby Joyce. The last time Barnaby Joyce was on the hunt he changed the nature of the Coalition. We had leadership changes to both the Liberal Party and National Party level and an absolute crisis internally in the Coalition. But that was when they were in Opposition. But that is one of the reasons why we’ve had the years of inaction on climate change and energy policy. Now he is on the hunt again, with Matt Canavan riding shotgun in the Senate. That has real implications for the Coalition Government and its unity. But it has unfortunate implications for the Government and for the nation.
JOURNALIST: On the reports about the $150 million Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream program, it’s been revealed today that 40 per cent of that $150 million program went to two marginal seats that the Government were trying to retain, Pearce and Corangamite. The Government says this was simply an election promise. Does that pass the pub test?
ALBANESE: It doesn’t pass the pub test. This is sports rorts on steroids. Again. The fact is that what we have seen here is a program with no guidelines. $150 million of taxpayers’ money abused for political purposes, where the only guidelines were the electoral map and the political interests of the Government. This is a Government that is obsessed by its own political interests and has forgotten that it’s there to look after the national interest. This is a Government that treats taxpayers’ funds as if they’re the funds of the Liberal and National Parties.
JOURNALIST: What do you think this does to trust in politics in general, not just for the Government but for Labor? Because Labor doesn’t necessarily come to this with clean hands.
ALBANESE: Well, the fact is that the Labor Party, when we were in Government, we had guidelines, we had rules. And the fact is, for example, when we had a local government stimulus package in response to the Global Financial Crisis, every single local government area in the country benefited from that. Benefited from that, regardless of what the electoral map was. And, of course, the Audit Office found that the allocations were in proportion to the representation in the Parliament.
JOURNALIST: Does Scott Morrison need to come out and justify this?
ALBANESE: Well, Scott Morrison needs to explain how it is that in order to justify the sports rorts saga of Bridget McKenzie, his dumped minister, he said it was all about women’s change rooms. Well, they had a separate fund of $150 million for that. Now women’s change rooms for sporting facilities is a perfectly legitimate use of funds. What’s not legitimate is the rorting of the allocation of that. Women who happened to play sport in seats not held or not needed by the Liberal and National Party, which are marginal, are deserving of support too. And what happens here is, not just if you’re in a Labor seat, do you miss out. You miss out too if you’re in a safe Liberal or National Party seat. This is all about the marginals. If you have a look at the commitments and the public funds that went into Corangamite, just follow the money trail. Follow the money trail and what you see is a massive abuse of taxpayers’ funds because this Government thinks that the Liberal National Party equals the Government. Well, I’ve got news for them. Taxpayers pay their taxes each and every day in my electorate, and Fiona’s electorate, and Chris’ electorate, electorates right around the country. And they deserve better than having a funnel that has occurred over a range of these programs into Liberal and National Party marginal seats and seats that they were trying to get away from the Independents.
JOURNALIST: Clover Moore has questioned the independence of AFP after it has announced it has dropped its investigation into the falsified documents that Angus Taylor used to attack her. Are you concerned about the AFP’s independence in dropping this?
ALBANESE: What I’m concerned about is the fact that Scott Morrison has someone who remains in his Cabinet who he needs to ask where the document came from. This is a document that was fraudulent. Clover Moore made all of her data available to anyone who wanted to see it, including the state and federal police. This document was fraudulent. We know that is a fact that it was not real. And therefore, the office that provided that to The Daily Telegraph know where that came from. We know it didn’t come from the City of Sydney website. We know that Minister Taylor misled Parliament by saying that. That’s a sackable offense, the misleading of Parliament. Scott Morrison needs to justify why it is that Angus Taylor remains on his front bench, having misled Parliament, that’s one issue. The second issue; is where did this fraudulent document that was designed to impact a public office holder, the Lord Mayor of Sydney, come from? It didn’t come from nowhere. Someone created this document, either directly in Angus Taylor’s office or someone gave it to them. But they’re the ones who forwarded it on to The Daily Telegraph. That’s a fact that is known.
JOURNALIST: The AFP also said that there is no evidence to suggest that he falsified the document.
ALBANESE: Well, they didn’t investigate is what they have said. It is very clear that this is a fraudulent document. The people who provided that document know where they got it from. The Prime Minister needs to ask Angus Taylor where it came from. People have a right to know these things. You can’t just pretend that it didn’t happen. And it shouldn’t require, frankly, a police investigation. Shouldn’t have required any of it. It shouldn’t require any resources. It should require simply, ‘Where did it come from?’ Angus Taylor knows where it came from.
JOURNALIST: Do new coal-fired power stations have a place in Australia’s future?
ALBANESE: Well, the fact is the markets aren’t speaking about new coal-fired power stations and the markets aren’t funding them. They’re not providing insurance for them in terms of the risk that would be available. And there’s nothing to stop that of happening in recent years. But it isn’t happening. And that’s because renewables are cheaper and provide less risk. And that’s why investors want to invest in renewables. And that’s why Government ministers are speaking about public subsidies of what should be, essentially, private sector activity.
JOURNALIST: Do you think we will see new coal-fired power stations under this Government?
ALBANESE: Well, look, this Government is now in its third term. They are in its seventh year. They have this fringe group who talk about these issues and who are climate sceptics, who are also market sceptics, sceptics about the economy and the way that it functions. Truth is, there is nothing to have stopped this Government doing it. They have been there for seven years. Nothing’s happened. One of the things that this Government does, at the next election they need to be held to account, is hold out a prospect of this happening when markets are speaking and where there’s been no action on the ground.
JOURNALIST: On the Nationals division again. Do you envisage a point that perhaps Labor could actually work with these MPs who are threatening to cross the floor? Barnaby Joyce says that they will cross the floor on issues around rural and regional Australians. Do you think that perhaps Labor could work with them?
ALBANESE: I work with people across the Parliament. I have a history of doing that. We were a Government that had towards the end in 2013, we had 70 votes out of 150 in the House of Representatives. We didn’t lose a vote. We governed. We put forward strong reforms in the national interest, on the economy, on social policy, on environmental policy. This Government have an absolute majority in the House of Representatives and they can’t do anything. They’re incapable of actually having an agenda for the nation. Thanks very much
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.