SUBJECTS: Bushfire crisis across Australia.
RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Welcome everyone. We have just received a briefing this morning from Victoria’s Emergency Services Commissioner, Andrew Crisp. What is clear is that this is an unprecedented event. The amount of area which is being burnt out, it is threatening thousands of homes. We have seen significant loss of life. This is actually going to change the ecology of the area forever. It is a very significant game changing event. But what is also clear is the professionalism of those whose hands we are in. From the Australian Defence Force, through the firefighting agencies, through the police, through all the emergency services workers. An incredible effort is being put forward to support Australians in a moment of crisis. You cannot come away from a briefing such as we’ve just had now without having an enormous sense of pride about the way in which Australians come together to help each other in a moment of crisis such as this.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: I want to thank the Victorian Commissioner and the Victorian Government for facilitating the briefing to us today. What we see is the professionalism of people dealing with what is a national crisis. There have be 900,000 hectares lost in Victoria alone, and the concern is, as we were told, that this is very early on in what is normally seen as the bushfire season. There’s many weeks, and potentially months, to go of this crisis, and the potential spread of the danger zone from the east to the west and the north of Victoria. We also had the opportunity to thank those extraordinary volunteers who are giving up their time, giving their commitment to their fellow Australians. Here there’s literally hundreds of people working, and they are working around the clock to keep people safe, to protect properties and to do what they can to restrict the damage which is being done. Of course, it relies upon an act of nature to put these fires out, considerable rain. There is some rain, of course, here in Melbourne at the moment that will have no impact, effectively, a 5 or 10mm dropping won’t make a difference to these fires. What we have seen take place in Mallacoota is something that you expect to see in wartime, not in peacetime. And I do want to pay tribute to the extraordinary efforts that are being made. And efforts being made by people formerly associated with emergency services. But also, just Australians helping out each other. What we are seeing is the concept of mateship being played out on a day-to-day basis, with people helping their neighbours, people helping people that they have never met, to make a difference to them. And I just say, we continue to hope that everyone stays safe. The priority is saving lives. But quite clearly, a national disaster on this scale will take enormous recovery time. Enormous recovery time in terms of repairing infrastructure. Recovery time in terms of the impact on the ecology on flora and fauna in the affected areas. Most significantly, though, an enormous time of recovery on the human impact. Those who’ve lost loved ones. Those who will continue to suffer from physical, as well as mental, health, as there are issues as a result of being involved in these fires. Our thoughts and our thanks continue to go to those in areas affected today, particularly given we’re here in Victoria, but throughout the country. One of the things about these fires is they don’t recognise state boundaries. And that’s why a national response was required. That’s why I wrote to the Prime Minister calling for that national response, a long time ago in mid-November. And that was rejected at the time. We now have an acceptance yesterday from the Prime Minister that this is a national issue. And that is an appropriate response. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: How do you think the Prime Minister’s handle this national response issue given that just recently the RFS Commissioner in New South Wales has complained as to how the reservist deployment was handled?
ALBANESE: Well, I’ve been determined, during this crisis, to focus not on Scott Morrison but the focus on those people who are impacted by these fires. We have been determined to put forward constructive suggestions. The suggestion that we have a national response coordinated by COAG, in a meeting in November. Putting forward the constructive response of the need to increase our national aerial firefighting capacity that we made at that same time, after we made the election commitment way back in March of 2019. And yesterday, that response finally occurred. The day-after-day that I called for economic compensation to those volunteers, who essentially were fighting fires each and every day but still had to put food on the table for their families, that has been my focus. Putting forward constructive ideas. It really is up to the Prime Minister to explain how it is that he was able to ring the Police Commissioner about Angus Taylor but didn’t ring the Commissioner for the Rural Fire Service in New South Wales about a significant change in policy and strategy that he announced yesterday.
JOURNALIST: What do you think of the Prime Minister using the announcement in an advertising campaign?
ALBANESE: I think people will draw their own conclusions as to whether that’s appropriate or not. I frankly, have been determined to not be critical of Mr Morrison and his performance. I have been very focused on outcomes. But I was, quite frankly, stunned that the Government could make a decision of having a Party-political ad that soon after the announcement. We had, six weeks ago, we were calling for a national response. It took six weeks for the Government to agree to a national response and six minutes for them to put out an authorised Liberal Party ad which can only be seen as being for Party-political purposes at a time where it requires national leadership and it requires a nonpartisan and non-political approach. Richard?
MARLES: The first thing besides this, the Australian Defence Force has to be above Party politics. Scott Morrison and the Liberal Party do not own the Australian Army. They don’t. Yesterday was one of the worst weather days in this horrendous fire season. And what the Prime Minister chose to do on that day was to go out and make a Party-political ad. I mean, we need, in a time of national crisis, national leadership. We need a Prime Minister who is the Prime Minister for all Australians, irrespective of how they vote. But if Scott Morrison can’t see himself as being anything more than a Liberal Party agent, then ultimately, he is not the Prime Minister for anyone. I mean, what this is about and what we saw this morning is the loss of homes. This is about the loss of lives. This is an unprecedented event, which is enormously scary for the whole nation. And what we need is a Government which is there providing support for people, providing a sense of comfort, and providing national leadership. What this is not about is the popularity of the Prime Minister. What this is not about is Liberal Party polling. What this is not about is making a Party-political ad. And what this is not about is Scott Morrison’s own image. And you know, this is not a once-off. From the very first moment that Scott Morrison’s office lied about his holiday through until yesterday’s extraordinary advertisement, what we’ve had is Scott Morrison actually being quite disinterested, really, in the national interest and entirely focused on his own self-interest. And so, it’s not surprising to me that there is an enormous amount of anger out there about the way in which this has been handled, and particularly about that Party-political advertisement.
JOURNALIST: So, are you saying that he’s more focused on the political nature of this rather than the people that have lost their homes, the people that are missing, people who have lost family members, is that what you are saying?
MARLES: Well, what I’m saying is yesterday was one of the worst days in what has been an unprecedented, horrendous fire season. And on that day, what the Prime Minister decided to do was engage in an act of making a Party-political advertisement, which was all about his own image.
JOURNALIST: The public outcry seems to be getting worse each day on the Prime Minister and his response. What do you think is the message that you’re hearing from firefighters and those on the ground that he is not receiving?
ALBANESE: One of the things that I’ve been determined to do is to speak to people on the ground. Yesterday I was in the Adelaide Hills. And speaking at Cudlee Creek Country Fire Service. The men and women there, they have one fire truck. It is the centre of their community. And I just want to focus on them rather than on Scott Morrison. And I think the problem with the ad is that everyone knows that Scott Morrison is an advertising guy. Everyone knows that. And the problem here is that the focus of people on the ground isn’t on ads. It is on saving lives, saving property, saving the community, helping each other out. That’s the Australia that I love. That is the Australia that does all of us proud and is in our character, in the concept of mateship. It’s not ads from an advertising guy. And yesterday in South Australia, two people lost their lives on Kangaroo Island. Kangaroo Island has been devastated. The Hills continues to be under threat. At the same time, in East Gippsland you have an unprecedented circumstance of the evacuation of people, of people being under threat. The south coast of New South Wales, I’ve been receiving messages from a friend of mine who is stuck in Pambula. She’s got a two-year-old daughter, she can’t get out. Our focus cannot be, at this point in time, on Party-political ads. It has to be on people and on ensuring that we do everything that we can under what is absolutely a national crisis. To save lives and to save properties. But the other thing that we have to do is to not pretend that you can just say that the black is white. And yesterday the Prime Minister said yesterday that it had been in-train for some time, yesterday’s announcement. Well, why wasn’t it done? If these things are in time, if every time a policy changes, be it volunteer firefighters’ compensation, be it an increase in the aerial firefighting capacity, be it the decision to have a national approach rather than a state-based approach. If all of these things, every time they were announced, the change in policy, is put that it’s not actually a change in policy, then I think people look at it, they look at his statements about the discussion with young Zoey in Cobargo, and they look at the footage and what Scott Morrison said happened there. And they draw their own conclusions. What we need here is that we should be not engaged in spin. What we need here is absolute substance. And that’s what we saw this morning upstairs. Substantial responses. Just people doing enormous tasks. And that’s a good thing. And that’s what I want to concentrate on. Thanks very much.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.