SUBJECTS: Bushfire crisis; bushfires; Labor’s call for compensation for volunteer firefighters; rail manufacturing in Australia; new roll-out of Comcar fleets.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Today in the briefing from David Littleproud’s office once again, there’s a reminder that we continue to live in very dangerous times. It is expected to heat up tomorrow. And there are fires now burning in New South Wales, in South Australia, to catastrophic proportions, and areas like Gippsland in Victoria have also lost 100,000 hectares. During this, what is a prolonged fire season, we’ve lost 10 lives. We’ve lost over a thousand homes and hundreds of thousands of hectares of bush land lost, including 900,000 hectares in the Blue Mountains National Park alone.
I throughout, since mid-November, when I wrote to the Prime Minister, have raised a number of practical proposals, given the extraordinary circumstances that we find ourselves in, one of those is support for volunteer bush firefighters. This is an issue that has been raised with me consistently, whether it was in the Shoalhaven yesterday, the north coast of New South Wales, up in Queensland, around Rockhampton, or whether it be in the Blue Mountains or Hawkesbury regions. This is an issue which is proving to be unsustainable. And yet another day, another day of no support or announcements from the Government or the Prime Minister. The fact is that even his own senior ministers now are saying their concerns. They are getting that direct feedback, people like Darren Chester yesterday, who expressed his concern and the need for the Government to change policy. But what we hear from the Government is that Scott Morrison said that it was a distraction. He then said it was a state issue. He then said, most disturbingly, that bush firefighters, the volunteers, wanted to be there. That has caused particular angst from volunteer firefighters who are committed to their local communities. They do not want to be in circumstances whereby they are risking their lives and giving up their livelihoods in order to show their commitment to the local community and to their fellow Australians.
What we need is action from this Government. It is about time it happened, because it is simply unsustainable. So just as Paul Keating acted in 1994 and John Howard acted, today is the day that Scott Morrison has to actually listen, has to actually see through the smoke that’s clouding our cities and our regions, and come up with a plan to assist our volunteer firefighters.
JOURNALIST: David Littleproud has said repeatedly that an announcement was imminent, what do you make of this from the Prime Minister?
ALBANESE: Well, Mr Littleproud has been good throughout this period in terms of providing briefings. They have spoken to him a number of times. The Prime Minister is essentially teasing our volunteer bush firefighters by having ministers say that an announcement is imminent, without making it. The truth is this can be fixed, it can be fixed very easily, the provisions are there under existing legislation. That has been pointed out to him for weeks. I wrote to him in mid-November. Campaigns have been launched by the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin, it has been running a campaign for many, many weeks. This has been an issue and you have had, quite frankly, statements like it’s all about the ethos of volunteerism. Well, let me tell you, ethos doesn’t put food on the table for families, doesn’t pay mortgages, it doesn’t pay rent. The Prime Minister should make an announcement, if he’s going to make it, immediately. People are really doing it tough. I’ve met firefighters who have been in the field working nine days in ten since September, with no income. I’ve met firefighters who have taken out loans to pay for the essentials of life. They are really struggling.
And the truth is that this is not business-as-usual. The problem here is that the Prime Minister has continued to argue, essentially, that this is normal, that this is business-as-usual, in order to not want to change tack when it comes to climate change, when it comes to support for our volunteer bush firefighters. But this is not business-as-usual. This is extraordinary circumstances. It may well be, tragically, if the science is right and it has been proven to be right up to this point, that this is the usual into the future. What that requires is a coherent Government response regarding the new circumstances we find ourselves in, issues like adaptation, issues like management of our national parks, issues of management of how we manage people fighting these dreadful bushfires for prolonged periods. When people speak about volunteerism, they normally speak about a day or people who give up some of the time. They might give up a week at a time. What we are seeing is people giving up months. And the Prime Minister now having minister after minister teasing that the Government is going to do something and then no announcement.
JOURNALIST: Do you think that they have been slow to act?
ALBANESE: They have been appallingly slow to act. I wrote to the Prime Minister back in November. I called for a number practical measures. Practical measures like bringing COAG together to ensure that the cooperation between the national and state governments and the agencies was as good as can be. I called for support for volunteer firefighters, back then. I called for a plan with regard to adaptation. We’ve had calls from the ex-fire chief just asking for a meeting with the Prime Minister, and they still can’t get one. The fact is, this Government has pretended that this is business-as-usual. And they’ve explicitly said so in rejecting the calls for support for our firefighters. And once again, the calls were said, it was called a distraction and it was called a state issue. And it was said that these firefighters wanted to be there.
JOURNALIST: What kind of form do you think this should take? Should it simply be a monetary payment, or should it be more?
ALBANESE: Look, what it needs is a comprehensive response. I deliberately have left the Government with space in terms of I wrote to the Prime Minister. We released that letter after a couple of days. He wrote back to me in November, he rejected this proposal. Since then, I haven’t been prescriptive. I recognise that we are the Opposition, not the Government. He actually said at one stage that the Opposition haven’t come up with fully-costed policies here. We don’t run Treasury and Finance. They’re the people who do fully-costed proposals. What I have said is very simply, the principle should be that no one who’s fighting a fire should be faced in a position of not being able to provide the essentials of life for themselves and their family. Taking out loans is quite absurd, the position that people have been in. These brave and courageous firefighters deserve our praise. They deserve our support. But, they deserve something practical as well, which is financial support in order to be able to provide those essentials of life.
JOURNALIST: And in Minister Littleproud’s press conference this morning, he was saying that the Prime Minister has been in discussions with the New South Wales Premier. Do you think this is something that should be done across the board nationally?
ALBANESE: Well, of course it should be done across the board which is why it needs a national response. The Prime Minister has continued to say whether it was when he was on his holiday in Hawaii where told someone that it was a state issue. He’s continued to speak about state issues. This is a national crisis. Fires are not stopping at state boundaries here. This is an extraordinary circumstance whereby from the north west of Western Australia, down to the corner of Victoria, across to Queensland and central Queensland, down to South Australia, and of course, New South Wales, which has been the hardest hit, have been devastated here. And because the fires have been so extensive, I’ve met firefighters who were in Central Queensland, who then were in northern New South Wales, who had then been protecting their homes around the Hawkesbury. These are brave people. The person who I met yesterday who gave us the briefing, Mark Williams, who’s in charge of the Shoalhaven response, he started working up at Glen Innes in August. He’s been going ever since. And many of his team have been doing that as well. So, you have the extraordinary circumstances whereby people have been, during recent months, fighting fires far away from their home, at the same time as having to ring home and check that their home is still there when they return. This is an extraordinary national effort where we are seeing the best of Australia, people helping out their mates, people looking after their community. The least we can expect is that the Prime Minister will look after those people who are looking after their fellow Australians. And that is all I’m asking for. I’ve been asking for it day after day, week after week. It’s now month after month, for a response from the Government that recognises the scale of this crisis and has an appropriate response.
JOURNALIST: What do you make of the Finance Department’s decision to replace the 142 fleets of Holden Caprice Comcars to Toyota Camrys and BMW 6-series?
ALBANESE: Well, that, of course, is a decision that the Government has to justify. But this is the same Government that encouraged the Australian car industry to shut down. In recent times, just yesterday, I was at there again saying that we need a national rail procurement policy. In this country, in this state, we have very little light rail and there’s been issues with the rollout of light rail massively, over a billion dollars over budget. But one thing that people might not realise yet is that the tracks aren’t of the same gauge. We have hardly any light rail in Sydney, they don’t match up. The rail carriages that have been bought for Queensland are currently being redone at a cost of $380 million to taxpayers. And they are doing that in Maryborough. And I witnessed that refit just weeks ago. Victorian and WA are doing things, we need to make things here. We don’t make cars here anymore as a direct result of this Government. The Coalition Government farewelling our car industry. And therefore, wherever we purchase was going to be a foreign-made vehicle.
JOURNALIST: Does it pass the pub test though? Federal politicians rolling around in German luxury cars that cost about $150,000?
ALBANESE: Well that’s a decision for the Government. So, it’s up to them. It’s up to the Government. They make the decisions. And one of the things I’ve tried to do since I have been Opposition Leader is point out that I’m the Opposition Leader. It’s up to the Government to defend the decisions that they make without consultation with us. Labor wasn’t consulted on any of this, nor was Labor consulted when the Government campaigned to shut down the Australian car industry. It is a direct result of the shutting down of the Australian car industry that we can’t, now anymore, have Australian-made vehicles in this country. And that’s a tragedy because we make buses, we make trucks, increasingly state Labor Governments are making rail carriages. The truth is that we have to be a country that makes things. It’s in our national interest for us to do that. Thanks very much.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.