SUBJECTS: Bushfire crisis across Australia; bushfire recovery process and support; Queensland, coal exports; Government’s sports rorts scandal; Bridget McKenzie.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Good morning. Thanks for joining me. Can I firstly express my condolences to the family of Sam McPaul, whose funeral is this morning being held at Holbrook. I express my condolences to his family, to his friends, and to his local community. We have seen far too much tragedy during this season. I think all Australians’ hearts go out to all the victims of the tragedies that have occurred. And particularly in terms of Sam, whose truck overturned near Albury, his wife is pregnant with their first child. I think it brings home just how tragic this period has been for our country.
I do want to welcome the rains that are impacting on parts of south-eastern Australia. It is a very good thing that is happening. And one can only hope that as many fires are put out as possible by this welcome relief. It’s a time to reiterate our thanks to our firefighters, to our Defence Reserves, other emergency workers, welfare workers. It is also a time, though, to say that Andrew Constance has given, once again, a very sound warning on behalf of his local community that donations and Government payments are not flowing quickly enough to deal with the humanitarian crisis that his community and communities throughout south-eastern Australia are facing, as well as parts of South Australia. We need to make sure that support gets to those people who need it right now. One of the lessons of past tragedies is that any delay will not only impact on the people who need that support right now. It will also have an economic impact on top of the human impact. The costs will be more because of the time delay which is there.
I do believe that we need to make sure that that support is not done in a political way. I have been disturbed that Stuart Robert, the minister who is responsible for rolling out much of that support through Government services, attended the area covered by Mike Kelly in Eden-Monaro and Fiona Phillips in Gilmore who happen to be Labor Members but took a Liberal Party Senator, newly reappointed, Jim Molan, rather than conducted himself in an appropriate way by going with the local MPs. I note that stands in stark contrast with the actions of someone like David Littleproud who has been out there with Susan Templeman. This is not a time for partisan politics. One of the things that has characterised the Coalition Government has been excess of partisanship. Whether it be the sports rorts affair that we are seeing or whether it be some of the response to these bushfire tragedies. I say to the Government and to the Prime Minister that now is not a time to allocate support or information on the basis of partisanship. Now is the time to ensure that communities get the support that they need, regardless of whose electorate they are in right across the board. I have been in contact with people, MPs, both Coalition MPs, as well as Labor MPs, as well as Independents like Rebekha Sharkie to ask what support and advocacy I can do during this crisis. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: On the bushfire, you have called for the Government to implement strong climate action. How do you reconcile that when, in December, you went on a Queensland coal mine visit?
ALBANESE: I didn’t. Which ones did I go to?
JOURNALIST: I might have misspoken there. You supported coal exports in the past.
ALBANESE: Which ones did I go to? You made a statement that has been repeated a number of times. That actually isn’t true.
ALBANESE: It isn’t true. I visited Queensland. And one of the things that annoys Queenslanders is the view that people from the south know more about Queensland than they do. I went to Queensland. I began in Barcaldine, the place where the Labor Party was formed. I went to Emerald and Rockhampton. In Rockhampton I met with people who are advocates for new firefighting equipment, in terms of aircraft, the McDonalds. And I met with the local newspaper up there, the Rockhampton Bulletin about volunteer firefighter support. I then went to Gladstone which is looking at, through the aluminium refinery at Rio Tinto, looking at a shift to renewable energy because what that will do is enable it to operate for longer and cheaper. They are looking at being solar powered. I then went to Maryborough, looking at what is happening there with rail manufacturing. Rail manufacturing that relies upon steel which is produced through metallurgical coal. I then went to Hervey Bay and looked at tourism facilities there. I went to Bundaberg and went to the Bundaberg Rum factory which is an example of manufacturing, production, export but also tourism facilities. I went to Gympie and had a look at a macadamia farm there and the impact that the drought was having on them. On the Sunshine Coast, I looked at communities that have been impacted by the bushfires, as I did in Yeppoon. One of the things about the media and the debate about climate change is that quite often people are looking for slogans and two words, without looking at any detail. The question that you just asked is an example of something that’s been repeated in the media, in some outlets, a number of times. It’s wrong. It’s not what happened. I make no apologies for going to Queensland and talk to Queenslanders about issues that they’re interested in, particularly about jobs. I’ll continue to do that.
JOURNALIST: Peter Dutton says that there is no environmental benefit by stocking exports of Australian coal. Is this a position you agree with? Is this a rare occasion where you agree with Mr Dutton?
ALBANESE: I have seen Peter Dutton’s comments. And what Peter Dutton has said is that if you stopped exporting coal from Australia immediately, I will say what my view is perhaps, at the risk of misquoting him. If you stopped exporting coal immediately, then that would not reduce global emissions because there’s enough displacement from other coal exporting countries to take up that position and that coal will produce higher emissions rather than less emissions.
JOURNALIST: Senator Bridget McKenzie insists she did nothing wrong in regard to the allocation of the government sports grants, saying all clubs were eligible for funding. Is that good enough?
ALBANESE: This is just a disgrace. What we have seen here is a Government that is arrogant. In the lead-up to the Federal Election, used taxpayers’ money as if it was Liberal and National Party funding. You had circumstances whereby Georgina Downer, who was a candidate, not a Member of Parliament, was handing over an oversized cheque as if she was responsible for the grant and as if that was her money. She wasn’t even a Member of Parliament. You had circumstances whereby Graham Perrett who assisted a local soccer club in his electorate get a $135,000 grant. It was announced by the Liberal candidate for Moreton. This is quite extraordinary and unprecedented. This is outrageous behaviour by a Government that really believes that it has a right to do whatever it likes, whenever it likes, wherever it likes. The truth is that her position is untenable as a minister. You have circumstances whereby there is an Australian sports body, made up of experts, due to make recommendations about these grants and they were ignored in favour of political decisions as if they were election commitments, but they weren’t even that. They were funding from decisions by a minister with no basis that ignored the advice that was given to her.
JOURNALIST: Mr Albanese, you say that Senator McKenzie’s position is untenable. In February, after you copped $500,000 for Dawn Fraser Baths you said in a statement, ‘I thank her for campaigning for future investment in this precious asset’ how do you reconcile that?
ALBANESE: I am not sure what the quote is.
JOURNALIST: You got $500,000 from the Dawn Fraser baths through this exact same program. So, it can’t have been all bad?
ALBANESE: The fact is that grants that went through the process were appropriate.
JOURNALIST: Are you sure that yours were appropriate?
ALBANESE: What I did was support grants for my electorate. That is what Members of Parliament will do. What this minister did, and I have been the Minister for Regional and Local Community Infrastructure programs. What we established was a grants program whereby every single local government area in the country receives support. Dawn Fraser Baths is the oldest swimming baths in Australia. It’s heritage-listed. It frankly is falling apart and needs more investment to make sure that it doesn’t simply drift off into the harbour.
JOURNALIST: Through this program, Senator McKenzie gave you that funding?
ALBANESE: I am not saying that every decision that she made was wrong. What I am saying is that the process was totally wrong, whereby she made political decisions, political decisions based upon the marginality of electorates. And quite clearly to have circumstances whereby, I am sure in this case what Bridget McKenzie didn’t do was have the Liberal Party candidate for Grayndler make the announcement. That just reinforces how inappropriate this process is. If Grayndler was a seat where the Liberal Party candidate could have had a chance of winning, perhaps Bridget McKenzie wouldn’t have advised in the normal way what the process was. What she would have done was advise the Liberal candidate and they would have announced it. That is what is inappropriate here. The politicisation whereby local Members have been ignored because they happen to be in marginal electorates.
JOURNALIST: If the Dawn Fraser Baths wasn’t eligible and there were other sporting clubs around Australia that were eligible ahead of the Dawn Fraser baths, would you give the money back?
ALBANESE: It is not my money.
JOURNALIST: Would you ask the Inner West Council to give the money back?
ALBANESE: It is not my money. It is not my money. That is the point here. This is taxpayers’ money that should go through a proper process and that is the basis, in terms of this grant procedure. This audit office report of Bridget McKenzie is scathing about what she did. It’s not surprising that if a minister wants to cover themselves and take out some insurance, they will give a couple of grants in electorates from the other side in safe seats in order to be able to point to it down the track.
JOURNALIST: On the same token, would you describe the Labor sports rorts scandal years ago as a disgrace?
ALBANESE: What years are you talking about?
JOURNALIST: Labor lost a Sports Minister under very similar circumstances.
ALBANESE: The minister resigned. The minister resigned. And I suggest this minister needs to resign as well.
JOURNALIST: Isn’t the point that the public looks at this and says you’re all the same?
ALBANESE: No. The fact is that the minister, decades ago, literally did resign her position. At that point in time, there weren’t candidates who weren’t Members of Parliament handing over oversized cheques as if it was their money. That didn’t occur. What we have here is people who aren’t elected to Parliament handing over cheques with their name on them as if it is their money for grants for proposals that didn’t get the tick from the independent sports agency. That is what has occurred here. That is why this is red hot. That is why this minister’s position is completely untenable. This Government continues to hang onto, be it Angus Taylor, with scandal after scandal after scandal and Bridget McKenzie. It seems that there is nothing that any minister can do in Scott Morrison’s Government that warrant them considering their position. Thanks very much.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.