SUBJECTS: Bushfire crisis across Australia; bushfire recovery process; support for people impacted by bushfires; Government’s announcement of extra emergency assistance given to agencies; Karen Andrews; the Government’s inaction on climate change; Labor’s principles on climate change.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Good morning. Thanks for joining myself and Bill Shorten here in what is a smoky and hazardous city of Melbourne. It is extraordinary that we now have a circumstance whereby tennis matches are being called off. People are not going to work. It is having an impact each and every day in our cities. But, of course, the biggest impact is in the communities directly affected. And today I want to reiterate my thanks to the firefighters who continue to work, emergency services workers, to those volunteers, to those Australians who are assisting their fellow Australians and assisting, as well, their fellow Australians with more than two appendages, our native animals and the fauna, the people going out there making a big difference every day. Today we want to concentrate on two issues. The first, Bill will outline one in more detail. But the need to ensure that those people who have been impacted by this disaster are given the support that they need. It should never have been the case that people who have been impacted by the fires were told, ‘No, you’re not in the right area because the maps are wrong’. It should be the case that people have a single point of entry in order to get the support that they need. And there’s examples of how that can be done, such as occurred after the Black Saturday fires. We need to make sure that on top of the trauma that people are experiencing, as a direct result of this national emergency, that trauma isn’t added to by having to deal with red tape and bureaucracy in order to get the support that they need and that they deserve. So, Labor will continue to hold the Government to account. We think it is a good announcement and, indeed, one that we had called for, that extra emergency assistance is being given to agencies like Red Cross and St Vincent de Paul. That’s a very good thing. And Bill will outline in more detail there.
But I did want to comment on the rather extraordinary statement by Karen Andrews that having a debate about climate change is a waste of time. And the fact that Karen Andrews has today, as the Science Minister, decided to actually talk to some scientists about the impact of climate change. You almost couldn’t make this up. The fact is that there has been a decade wasted by the Coalition as a result of the fact that a small rump of people have held the policy back for a long period of time. We shouldn’t forget that in 2007, both John Howard and Kevin Rudd went to an election with a mandate for a price on carbon and for action on climate change. For ratification of Kyoto. 2007. Thirteen years later, the Coalition are having a debate whether climate change exists or not.
Well, you can smell it. You can feel it. You can see it. The impact of climate change and the devastating effect it’s having on human beings, but also on our economy, on the way our society functions, as well as on our natural environment. The fact is that the Coalition can’t be trusted to actually take action on climate change. Because every time they put their toe in the water they get pushed back. And they withdraw from the action that is required. I might ask Bill to make some comments.
BILL SHORTEN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR GOVERNMENT SERVICES: Thanks, Anthony. And good morning, everybody. Whilst the scale of these bushfires is unprecedented, the fact that my home town of Melbourne even is blanketed in smoke and a couple of evenings ago we had the worst air quality in the world, this is unthinkable. The reality is that we do know how to respond to bushfires. Quite frankly, I am surprised at the Government’s slow response to helping the victims of the bushfire trauma. We have precedent, not for the scale of the fires, but for what to do when the fires hit. Labor is calling upon the Morrison Government, to, as a minimum, adopt the standard used after the Black Saturday fires of 2009. What I mean by that, there are simple payments which are available to bushfire victims and have been in 2009 and to the flood victims in Brisbane in 2011. Essentially, that’s a $1,000 payment if you have been out of your house, your primary residence, for two days or more, if your utilities were damaged and terminated and you’ve just got a fridge full of rotting food. This is common-sense. But I’d encourage Mr Morrison and the Government, rather than running around like headless chooks about how to handle this, just have a chat to some of the people who went through the earlier disasters. It was John Howard in 2006 who created the $1,000 disaster relief payment after Cyclone Larry. Now, we in 2009 and 2011 made sure the money got out to people. If you’re the victim of a natural disaster you should have a hand, not a kick in the guts. You shouldn’t need a lawyer, or to fill out a 16-page form, you shouldn’t need to convince someone when your records might be burned, when you are in trauma, and you have a car full of kids sleeping in the local supermarket car park, that somehow you were affected, and some bureaucrat says you weren’t. There are a lot of dedicated people working on the bushfire recovery, a lot of dedicated public servants. But the Morrison Government now needs to provide a helping hand, not a kick in the guts. The precedents are there on what to do. We have been very constructive. Anthony has shown leadership and wants to work with Government. But these bushfires have been unfolding since well before Christmas. I’m like millions of Australians, when I see the shocking pictures, at the very least I expect the Federal Government to know what to do. It’s not good enough for Mr Morrison to say it’s not a Federal responsibility. John Howard created these payments. Kevin Rudd implemented them in 2009. Julia Gillard rolled them out in Brisbane in 2011. Now is not the time for the bean counters to be running relief. Provide a bit of generosity. Understand people have been traumatised. Let’s get on with the business of helping people with the long journey of recovery. A bit of generosity at this point of the bushfire cycle would go a long way.
ALBANESE: Thanks, Bill. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: How many different government agencies do people need to reach out to get all the help they’re entitled to?
ALBANESE: That’s part of what we’re saying. One of the things that happened after the bushfires, Black Saturday, was that people had a single point of contact, so they knew who to go to, whether it was social security, health or mental health support. The problem at the moment is that a whole range of people have given direct feedback saying they get told, ‘No, you’re ringing the wrong person. Ring someone else’. And at a time when communication is difficult in these communities, at a time when many people are transient, they have lost their home. The idea that they can’t have that support directly, and I know the Victorian government has taken the lessons and is putting those measures in place for its state services. This should be something that is practiced across the board. It should have been place, frankly,
before now. Bill?
SHORTEN: I remember travelling up to Marysville, Flowerdale or to Kinglake, Australians who haven’t lost their homes to bushfires, or haven’t gone through the immediate trauma are sympathetic. But you’ve got to understand if you’re in the middle of the fires, your records are burned, if your house is damaged or gone. If you’re a small business. You might be in the town, so you weren’t physically touched by the fire, but no-one is coming to stay or use your services. If you are a farmer who has had hundreds of kilometres of fences burned down, it is a giant mental kick in the head. Where do you start? How do you start again? If you’re an older person, you think, ‘How do I start again in my life?’ And then all of a sudden you got 14 different government departments. It’s overwhelming. What was designed for the bushfires of ’09, where 173 people tragically lost their lives, 3,200 homes burned to the ground or damaged and countless farms and businesses affected. We introduced the notion of a case manager. It is like having a PA, a personal assistant. You get a trained social worker or someone who has 20 or 30 families at a time and that is your single point of contact. The problem with this Government, they’re obsessed about digitisation. I think Stuart Robert, the missing Minister is out there saying, ‘Just get on Twitter’. Twitter is not a response to a crisis. I think the Government should perhaps climb down off their high horse where they say, ‘it is not a Federal responsibility’ or, ‘we haven’t seen it before’. Yes, you have. The books have been written. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. But we think a case manager approach makes sense. One person. Not someone who says I’ve lost your file. When you’re in the middle of a disaster with a lot to get through. You need one person, a case manager.
JOURNALIST: Just to clarify, I think there are case managers, were they implemented by the state government or the Federal Government last time and as long as that person is there does it matter which level of government is implementing it?
ALBANESE: They were done in cooperation. I’ll give you a practical example from Fiona Phillips, Member for Gilmore. She has been out in the field, I have been with her, visiting community and trying to make a difference. Previously, every Member of Parliament had a Centrelink Liaison Officer, who for any issue with Centrelink in the Electorate of Grayndler, or of Maribyrnong, you could ring up that person and they would help navigate the system. Fiona Phillips has been told during the bushfire crisis that person is no longer able to perform that role. So, there’s no point person for her to ring, as a Member of Parliament, let alone as an individual. And part of what we have been saying since November, when I wrote to the Prime Minister calling for a national response to what was a national crisis, calling for COAG to meet to coordinate the national activity, is that across the state boundaries, systems are being rolled out differently. And the Victorian government has been very proactive. But it needs a national system that’s uniform. These fires don’t recognise state boundaries. Nor should our Federal Government.
JOURNALIST: Do you agree that the supermarkets should be careful not to put a squeeze on supplies at this time?
ALBANESE: Absolutely. This is a time whereby every Australian, whether they be an individual, whether they be someone in Government, whether they be a business, needs to do all they can to minimise what has been a devastating impact on individuals, families and communities. And farmers, one of the other issues, we’re speaking today about the impact on individuals, but the other impact is on businesses. On farmers who have lost everything. I’ve visited wineries and grape growers in the Adelaide Hills who, their businesses just disappeared. They won’t get a dollar of income this year, next year, the year after, the year after that. If they are going to survive, they’re going to need some form of industry assistance. Farmers who’ve lost everything as well in the Southern Highlands, across the south coast, Gippsland, as well as the regions in South Australia, farms were impacted very early on. In Queensland, of course, central Queensland and the Sunshine Coast. This has had a devastating impact. And business, by and large, there are some great stories of businesses doing the right thing. When I met people who needed a fridge from the Country Women’s Association to keep goods cold overnight, one of the big two, there are only two, delivered the very next day. And we’ve seen a great deal of responsibility there. So, that’s a good thing. And we would call upon all businesses to do what they can to contribute to the effort. What we know is that little kids collecting, holding lemonade stalls to get 5 cents and 10 cents from people to give to the firies, or to help with the koalas, or to help their fellow Australians. Business needs to be just as generous and just as warm-hearted as the Australian people are.
JOURNALIST: A question for Mr Shorten, if I may. If the fires had happened before the last election, do you think there would be a different outcome?
SHORTEN: First of all, what matters here is people have been affected, the fires. I’m not going to speculate what might have happened or what might have been different. Let’s be direct here. This is not about politics. This is about the fact that we’ve had an unprecedented scale of fires. We’re seeing weather records tumble. We’re seeing the cities blanketed in smoke. It is unthinkable for the people living in the cities of Australia that we now have the worst air quality in the world. But what really matters is that 28-plus people have lost their lives, businesses are dislocated, people are unemployed. It is not a matter of the election. It is a matter of having the best possible response in the short-term. My job now as Anthony’s Government Services spokesperson, my gaze is not focussed on what could have happened in the election, it is focused on the long journey of recovery. What we’ve got to recognise, if the flames are getting less, that’s a great thing. But for some people and some communities, it’s going to take not months, but years to recover. That’s what they need from their political representatives. Fair dinkum representation. Not politics.
JOURNALIST: More broadly, have the fires changed public opinion on climate change? A question for both of you, do you think public opinion is more receptive to taking action on climate change?
ALBANESE: Look, I wrote Labor’s policy in 2006. Labor has had a strong policy on climate change we’ve taken to every election. We do that not out of some assessment of the polls. We do that because it’s the right thing to do and because it’s the responsible thing to do. And we’ve argued that, consistently. At times we, some might argue, that we’ve suffered because of it. But, it’s the right thing to do. We will continue to do that, to put forward the case. I think one of the differences, to go to your last question, is we had a difficult result last May. We’ve moved on. We’re looking forward. We’ve been constructive in our suggestions to the Government and have been so throughout this crisis. The Government has been on a victory lap since May. Complacent. Go and have a look at the quotes which are there, because you’ll hear them in coming weeks in Parliament from the Government. ‘We’ve had natural disasters before. We’ve been through this before. We’ll go through it again.’ The sort of statements that were made reflected an absolute complacency, in spite of the very clear warnings that were given by the fire chiefs, whom the Prime Minister still hasn’t met with, by scientists. The predictions were all there. Just as now the predictions are still saying, and we hope there is a turn in the weather in coming days. But they’re still saying that it is likely that this season has got a considerable period to go.
And we need to continue to be vigilant on that.
SHORTEN: You asked me what my view was. I completely agree with Anthony. One thing I have noticed travelling around Victoria, people don’t stop me and ask what is the cost of acting on climate change, people now right across Australia ask what is the cost of not acting on climate change.
ALBANESE: The Government’s complacent. Most things that they have are behind schedule. This is a Government that received a Senate report at the beginning of last year about support for volunteers and how that would impact. Hasn’t bothered to respond. This is a Government that received a report in July of 2018 about the impact of bushfires and what might happen, and which was due to have an implementation report in 2019. And it still hasn’t happened. That’s my concern about the Government having a Royal Commission, which I’ve said, my concern is that they’ll use that as an excuse to say, [That’s being dealt with in the Royal Commission’. We know there are a whole range of things that are required right now. We have reports. This Government commissions report after report after report. What they don’t do is act on them. Thanks very much.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.