SUBJECTS: Bushfire crisis; bushfires; compensation for volunteer firefighters; deliberate lighting of fires; rail manufacturing in Australia; Federal seat of Gilmore.
FIONA PHILLIPS, MEMBER FOR GILMORE: Well, hello everyone. It is great to be here with Anthony Albanese, the Leader of the Opposition. I have asked Anthony to come to the Shoalhaven to the emergency management centre here to get a briefing from Mark Williams, the incident controller. As we know, this fire has been going for well over a month now. I left Parliament back on the 30th of November to come back. And obviously, with everything else that has been happening, it has been going on for so long. We have got people here that have just been working around the clock to try and stop this fire and to protect property and people. And I just want to send a really big shout-out to all our volunteers, all of our emergency services, workers, and community groups, everyone in the community that has been playing such an important role here. So, I will handover to Anthony.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thanks very much, Fiona. And I do want to once again pay tribute to the quite extraordinary work that our emergency service workers are doing here, as well as the volunteers. These fires have been catastrophic and there is more to come, unfortunately. What we have seen here today, by Mark who gave us the briefing this morning, he not only has been working here, he has worked prior to here for 75 days on the Glen Innes fire. And that is a common theme, whether I have been in the Hawkesbury, the Blue Mountains, the north coast, is that people have travelled in order to help other communities, and then had to travel back and defend their own. What we are seeing here is an extraordinary effort at a time where people would normally be expected to spend quality time with their families. They haven’t done that. There were dozens of people here on Christmas Day, again backing up on Boxing Day, and they are back again today, making an incredible difference to their communities. Protecting lives, but also protecting properties. I do want to say in a community like this as well, the economic impact will be ongoing. This is the high point of the tourism season. People are essentially staying away because of concerns about safety and the conditions which are here. We’ve had the highways cut off. A number of times we’ve had fires that have jumped the Kings Highway. We’ve had circumstances which really have been going on for some time now and will continue to last for many, many weeks to come. So, I pay tribute to them. I once again say to the Government that they really need to give consideration to providing some form of financial compensation to people who have been putting in, defending their local communities and making a difference to our country. This is the best of Australia. People helping out their fellow neighbours, their communities, and their cities and towns and regions. And it is unsustainable, however, to not have an income for a period, not of days, not even of weeks, but of months. And this is an issue that does have to be addressed. Happy to take questions.
ALBANESE: Volunteerism is really important. There’s no doubt that people when they expect to volunteer will do so for a day, a week, and many of these people for months. But ethoses don’t put food on the table. They don’t pay your mortgage or your rent. And the fact is that wherever I have been, wherever I have been, this issue has been raised with me. It’s also the case that the statement that people want to be here, which went with the idea of volunteerism, people don’t want to be here. People don’t want these fires to be happening. They don’t want their communities to be in danger. They are doing it out of commitment. Now, if you are a small business, a contractor, a private sector worker, and you have not been able to earn an income for a period of months, common sense tells you that that is not sustainable. It’s time for a bit of common sense here.
JOURNALIST: How should the Government fund those payments for volunteer firefighters?
ALBANESE: Well, the fact is that in the past the Keating Government gave a one-off payment in 1994 for people who’d worked for more than seven days. There’s a range of measures that could be done. There’s consideration of tax arrangements. There’s consideration of a one-off payment. Leave arrangements could be made. The Commonwealth, one of the things that shows that it’s possible is that the Prime Minister said that it wasn’t possible to make any changes at all just the day before he announced that the provision that’s always been there in the award, for public servants at the federal level to get paid leave, the discretion on that would be removed and it would just be automatically paid under the direction of the Government. So, that change was made. It was made a day after the Prime Minister said it wasn’t possible. So, it shows that, with a bit of common sense, with a bit of goodwill, and I note today that Minister Chester is calling for payments to volunteers as well. He says it’s his own view after talking to people in the community. There’s no doubt that if you talk to people in the community, I think the view is very clear that common sense should apply here.
JOURNALIST: The Prime Minister has called for or is moving to increase the Defence Force involvement. Any thoughts?
ALBANESE: Look, it is a good thing that the Defence Force is involved. They have expertise. Already, of course, we have seen reservists and other people in the Defence Force helping out. I witnessed that firsthand in places like the Hawkesbury and the Blue Mountains. We need to use all assets at our disposal. This is a national emergency. This is a crisis circumstance that’s occurring right throughout the nation, and it’s appropriate that we use our Defence Force. They have skills. We can all benefit from that.
JOURNALIST: What are the fireys here telling you? I heard them saying that they are tired, and they are feeling it. What was the key message that you got out of them?
ALBANESE: Well, they are tired and they’re exhausted. But they’re so committed. They all worked on Christmas Day and on Boxing Day. They are committed to their local communities. But we do need to have an examination of how we sustain this sort of a battle over a long period. Bushfires in Australia are of course, not new. What we have now though, is an extraordinary amount of land being affected. We have seen a length of time whereby this would ordinarily be the bushfire session comes in summer. We’re in the first month of summer, and already people who have fighting fires, many of those people I spoke to have been fighting them since August in the north coast, Glen Innes and other places. So, what we’ve seen is people transfer around, including people from interstate. There are visitors from the United States and Canada, helping out here providing their expertise. We really need to have a much better examination about how we deal with these issues longer term. Climate change means that we can expect the bushfire season to be longer and more intense. The science has told us this would happen. And unfortunately, the science has been proven to be right.
ALBANESE: Well, the deliberate lighting of fires, of course, would completely shock anyone for how someone could do that. But that doesn’t impact on the intensity of the fires. It is the dryness of the land, related to, we’ve had that long drought, so that we have circumstances whereby the fires are burning much hotter, they are more intense than they would be ordinarily. But if anyone sees anyone engaged in that sort of behaviour, it should be reported immediately. These people, anyone who lights a fire is not just hurting potentially property, it’s endangering lives. And it’s a dangerous thing. And I just find it extraordinary and I think the whole community would find it extraordinary that anyone in those circumstances would engage in that behaviour.
JOURNALIST: In terms of paying the firefighters, do you think the Government should consider introducing a levy for that payment to be given with the increasing of natural disasters that we are seeing?
ALBANESE: Well, look, I know that there’s a member of the Government, one of the ministers has potentially suggested that. My view is that a new levy isn’t required. That the Government has, at its disposal, resources. And the fact is that I’m more concerned with making sure that the principle that applies here is pretty simple. No one should have to endure poverty and not be able to buy food and look after their families because they’ve been helping out on the bushfires. And the tragedy is that we’ve got people facing those sorts of choices. We’ve got people who are making contribution, and then things like paying for their own petrol to get around. These are circumstances that really, we need to be much better at as a community. There’s a need for a whole debate about this. But the need for, I believe, an immediate Government response. The Government did respond partially. But essentially, those measures were in place already for public servants. So, there is nothing really dramatically new about that. But the Government did respond in part. They need to do much more. And they need to respond to support all our firefighters, not just some.
ALBANESE: Look, it makes no sense to send rail manufacturing jobs overseas. Because what we’ve seen is that we’ve had trains that aren’t fit for purpose, whether they be trains in Queensland that have been bought, that currently have to be retrofitted at a total cost of some $380 million. It makes no sense to send those jobs overseas. And then to have the trains refitted at Maryborough which is what is having to occur. Just like in New South Wales. Here we’ve had trains bought that don’t fit the size of the station. We have light rail in Sydney, the new light rail line isn’t consistent and uniform with the existing very small number of light rail tracks, which are there right now. So, if we build in Australia, it will create jobs in Australia, we will get better quality, and we will get better value for money as well because they won’t have to be retrofitted. And if we have a national rail manufacturing plan, we can smooth out the cycle so that we move away from boom-and-bust, so that the manufacturers can plan, and so that we can train Australians as apprentices. So, rail manufacturing here is good for jobs, good for skills and apprenticeships, good particularly for regional communities.
ALBANESE: Well, what we can have here is some national leadership. And we’re seeing leadership from the Queensland Government under Annastacia Palaszczuk, from the Victorian Government, from the Western Australian Government, Labor Governments in the states are manufacturing rail carriages right here. And guess what? They’re better in terms of the fit-for-purpose and better value for money than the ones that are built overseas. It is something that requires a bit of common sense. And with national leadership, you can have a national investment plan that will result in even better value for taxpayers and more jobs being created right here in Australia. And more young people and older workers getting the skills that they need, through apprenticeships.
JOURNALIST: This is your first visit since becoming the Opposition Leader.
ALBANESE: Second, this is my second visit to Gilmore. And I’ll be back here many times. I’ve got to say it’s a wonderful part of Australia. And I always enjoy my visits here. It’s a great community as well. And we’ve seen that community spirit here in the Shoalhaven, and in the entire region that Fiona represents. You see a wonderful natural environment, one that we’re trying to protect now, beautiful beaches, beautiful forests, but importantly, as well, there’s always a really good sense of community when you come here. Community, whether it’s the people who live here permanently, or the people who visit here. And that community spirit is on display, for all to see, with the sort of efforts that we are seeing during these fires.
JOURNALIST: Is it going to be a bit of a challenge for Fiona to hold on to this seat in the next election given that (inaudible)?
ALBANESE: I always work hard. But the important thing here is that we have a local member who’s such a hard worker, who’s such a strong representative of her community. And she ran not once, she ran twice. She kept running for four years. But as a local member, she is such a strong advocate that I’m very confident that she’ll be returned. Because people see the difference that you have with a Labor representative like Fiona, who’s working each and every day, including over this festive season on behalf of her community. Thanks.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.