THURSDAY, 19 DECEMBER 2019
SUBJECTS: Bushfire crisis in Australia; comments made from China’s Ambassador to Australia on Uighurs; Manus Island men detained in Melbourne.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thanks for joining me. As we can see all around us, these bushfires are not ‘business as usual’. This is a devastating time. And I want to pay tribute and thank all those firefighters, whether they be permanent, or whether they be volunteers, for their extraordinary efforts that they are making to keep their fellow Australians safe as well as saving property. The fact is that these fires have been going for a very long time. And these firefighters are exhausted. We need to provide them with the same level of support that they are providing their community. There have been requests made now for some period of time, for the Government to have a policy, whether it be through taxation, whether it be through a special grant, whether it be through special leave entitlements, to look after people who have been in the field now, not for weeks, but for months. They still have to buy food for their family. They still have to pay their rent or their mortgage. And many of them simply have been without an income because of their commitment to the local community. Scott Morrison, when this was raised with him, said that they wanted to be there fighting fires. The truth is that no one wants to be fighting fires. But people are doing it because they have to and because of their compassion, their courage, and their commitment to their local communities as well as their nation. Many people have travelled interstate to provide that support. Can I also say on the fires, Scott Morrison seems to think as well, Michael McCormack yesterday was saying that the smoke would just blow away, that somehow this is just a case of, ‘Nothing to see here’. Well, if there is nothing to see here, it is because the Government can’t see through the smoke that is clouding our cities, our towns and our regions. Because these fires are not business as usual. It is about time the Government responded to my correspondence now of over a month ago, calling for issues to be dealt with, including the issue of volunteer firefighters, including aerial support in terms of infrastructure, sitting down across the levels of government. New South Wales has been declared a state of emergency. This is a national emergency. It is crossing state boundaries. And it is going to get no better in the foreseeable future. What we need is a Government that is prepared to provide leadership. And at the moment, we are not getting that leadership from the Morrison or McCormack Government. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: Should the Prime Minister return from his holiday, given New South Wales has been declared a state of emergency?
ALBANESE: Look, all of these are matter for the judgment of the Prime Minister. I haven’t been critical of his decision. I have said that people will make their own judgment about that. And he has to make those decisions. But quite clearly the problem here isn’t one individual. The problem is the whole Government is not moving. And people can see that. This Government is complacent. It is complacent about bushfires. It is complacent about drought. It is complacent about the state of the national economy. It’s complacent about climate change. Sending Angus Taylor, a national embarrassment, to become an international embarrassment representing Australia at a time where we have this devastating impact, which there is no question that whilst, of course, we’ve had fires before, what the science has told us is that the bushfire season would be longer. We’re seeing that. It would be more intense. We are seeing that. Droughts would be more intense, which would exacerbate the issue of dryness of the land which is feeding into these devastating fires. The science has said this would happen, and it is happening. And we have a Government that says, ‘there’s nothing to see here’ because they can’t see through the smoke that’s clouding our cities.
JOURNALIST: Do you think that this is quite devastating conditions we are seeing across the country is the new normal?
ALBANESE: We, of course, had all the records broken just two days ago, and today might break a two-day old record for Australia’s hottest day. Something is going on here. And for the Government to pretend that it’s not, for the Government to still have no climate change policy, no energy policy, but no, also, immediate leadership when it comes to dealing with the issue of today, these bushfires, no issue to deal with these exhausted firefighters who are saying that they want some assistance. That is what is more than regrettable. This is a Government that just wants to be clapped as it runs around doing a victory lap since the May election. They are not a Government of action, of actually putting in place the proper mechanisms that are needed to provide support for the community. Kids are being kept home from school or from universities. Carols are being canceled. School concerts are being canceled. People are justifiably worried about the circumstances. They know that it’s not business as usual. The only people who seem to think it’s business as usual, are Scott Morrison and Michael McCormack.
JOURNALIST: China’s Ambassador to Australia has denied that the Communist Party is engaged in the mass detention of Uighur Muslims, calling it fake news. What’s your response? Should Australia be doing more to show its disapproval?
ALBANESE: Look, the footage and facts are there for all to see, that the Uighurs are not being given the appropriate human rights that they all deserve, every citizen of China deserves. And we have been right to speak up about that in the past, we should continue to do so. We can have a relationship and dialogue with China, as we should, whilst expressing our values which are about human rights, and that people shouldn’t be persecuted because they are part of a minority.
JOURNALIST: The Ambassador has also rejected Marise Payne’s concerns that the Australian Dr. Yang is being mistreated in detention. Is China flouting international law and human rights and getting away with it?
ALBANESE: Well, Marise Payne is right to raise these issues. And we stand with the Government on those issues and no doubt with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, because they do a good job making representations on behalf of Australian citizens. This citizen has been kept detained without charge. That’s not the rule of law being applied. He hasn’t received the sort of support in terms of legal advice, access to family, that we would expect. And the Australian Government is quite right to make strong representations about that.
JOURNALIST: But is the Australian position tricky or stuck in a sense because we rely on China so heavily for trade?
ALBANESE: We should never confuse our economic interests with our values when it comes to human rights. And that’s why we should be prepared to speak up on human rights, to do it in a way that is straightforward. In the great Australian way, whilst maintaining other relations. It’s important that we have dialogue with China. But part of that dialogue is us stating our views. And we should never be frightened of doing that.
JOURNALIST: And finally, Mr Albanese, how concerning is it that 45 men from Manus Island, who’ve been transferred to Australia under Medevac laws, are being detained in a Melbourne hotel?
ALBANESE: Well, once again, what we see from this Government is the lack of transparency. They need to provide answers of why these men are being kept there, what their circumstances are, what the plans are in the future. This Government doesn’t like transparency and doesn’t like being accountable. And they need to do that because at the end of the day, they haven’t been elected to just do what they want. They are accountable to the Australian people. And they need to explain what these rather strange circumstances are, of people being kept in a hotel in Melbourne, without any information being given. This Government continues to run into issues, because they won’t just be upfront. Indeed, I think the issue with the Prime Minister being on leave would have been handled much better, if they had just been upfront about how long he was away for and the circumstances. As it is, the problem is, people want to know what their Government is doing. What we have is a Government that is addicted to secrecy and addicted to hiding from the public, and one that just isn’t transparent. Thanks very much.