SUBJECTS: Passing of John Cain; bushfire crisis; Government’s lack of energy policy; climate change.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Good morning and thanks for joining me. This morning I want to begin by paying tribute to the late John Cain. John Cain brought Labor back from the wilderness in Victoria after almost three decades in Opposition, when he won a resounding victory in 1982. He governed Victoria well for eight years. John Cain will be remembered for someone who transformed Victoria into the strongest economy in the land. He lowered unemployment. He introduced social reform, such as land rights, which had waited far too long to be introduced in Victoria. I want to express my condolences on behalf of the Australian Labor Party to Nancye and his three children.
On bushfires, I do want to once again pay tribute to the extraordinary sacrifice being made by firefighters around the nation. They are putting their own lives at risk. They’re giving up their time. They are performing an extraordinary job for the nation. They’re showing bravery and courage. And the circumstances are such that many of them have worked every single day since September fighting these fires. We’ve seen lives lost. We’ve seen hundreds of homes lost, record numbers. We’ve seen many people displaced. And yet, we are only at what would normally be the entry into the bushfire season. Clearly, this is not business-as-usual. But Mr Morrison is not listening. He’s not listening to the fire chiefs. He’s not listening to the science when it comes to climate change. He’s not even listening to his own Deputy Prime Minister, when Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack said that there needed to be a shift in Government policy on climate change. Since he returned from Hawaii, Scott Morrison has said that there’s no need to change any measures on climate change at all. He, indeed, has dismissed calls for change as panic.
Well, I say to Mr Morrison, people are scared of what is going on around them. And if Mr Morrison thinks that there’s nothing to see here, it’s because he can’t see through the smoke and haze that’s been created by these bushfires. The fact is that he sent Minister Angus Taylor across to Madrid to argue for an accounting fiddle because Australia, not only is not encouraging the world to do more, they’re encouraging the world to do less. Because we won’t meet our targets without an accounting fiddle. Targets that were established, not by Labor, but by Tony Abbott. Even the Government’s own position is not going to be delivered.
Can I say as well that it is just stubbornness to refuse to change course in the face of evidence. And that’s what we’re seeing from this Prime Minister. We certainly need a plan. And I wrote to the Prime Minister asking for COAG to be convened back in November. He is now saying that COAG won’t meet until March. In that letter, I put forward a number of practical steps, the development of a new national strategy for disaster preparedness. Ensuring that emergency services and national parks have the appropriate funding from both State and Federal Governments. Expanding the capacity of Australia’s national firefighting centre in terms of aerial support. Investing in research on natural disaster mitigation. Compensation for volunteers and for businesses who support their staff who are volunteer firefighters.
I say again to the Prime Minister, this is a situation which has been raised with me countless times by firefighters in Queensland, in northern New South Wales, in western New South Wales, in the Blue Mountains and around the outskirts of Sydney. It’s simply unsustainable. Developing an action plan around climate mitigation and bringing forward disaster mitigation funding.
So, I say to the Prime Minister he can do three things immediately, which is to bring forward the COAG meeting. Meet the former fire chiefs. And do something now to provide support for those volunteer firefighters who have been in the field for such a long time. They are providing support for their fellow Australians. The Australian Government should be providing them with more support in return. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: What is this something that the Federal Government should provide for these volunteer firefighters?
ALBANESE: What they should do is provide them with economic compensation.
JOURNALIST: From the Federal Government?
ALBANESE: From the Federal Government. Now, I have been deliberately non-prescriptive about that, and I note that the Prime Minister made the quite extraordinary comment that fully costed proposals haven’t been submitted from the Opposition. Well, he’s actually on the Treasury benches. The Government is in a position to do that. They need to start acting like the Government. Now, there are a range of measures that could be considered. There are taxation measures, there’s one-off payments, there is leave payments. This could be done as occurs for various members of the Defence Force, for example. The Defence reservists who are providing support at the moment, get some income compensation in order to reward them and compensate them for their time off work.
JOURNALIST: But the Federal Government looks after the Defence Department. The volunteers and the RFS are run under the State Government?
ALBANESE: This is a national crisis, which is why I think COAG should be convened between the Federal and State Governments, to work through these issues. But we know what the issue is. The issue is that there are people out there fighting fires on behalf of their local communities and on behalf of the entire nation, who have been in the field for a considerable period of time. Whether they be small businesses, whether they be people who work as contractors. Whether they be employed by businesses that don’t have leave arrangements, as some do, for example in the public service. Now, it’s simply a matter of the principle should be that people shouldn’t be in a circumstance whereby they can’t pay their mortgage, they can’t pay their rent, they can’t put food on the table of their families. They should not continue to be in that position. This requires national leadership. We have fires across New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, north Western Australia. This is a national issue that requires some form of national coordination and national leadership. And that is the job of the Prime Minister to do that.
JOURNALIST: The Prime Minister says he won’t be intimidated by his political opponents on climate change policy. What do you make of that comment?
ALBANESE: I think that Australians will make their own judgement about a Prime Minister who calls saying that there’s an issue with climate change and the bushfires as political intimidation. I find it quite an extraordinary comment to make. I have throughout this period put forward practical suggestions. I’ve written to the Prime Minister, more than a month ago, I was calling for COAG to be convened. When it comes to support for volunteer firefighters, I’ve been calling for that in the since November when I wrote to the Prime Minister. And indeed, the Rockhampton newspaper, the Bulletin, have been having a major campaign. When I sat down with the editor in Rockhampton just weeks ago, the editor raised it with me and said that it had real resonance with him because the bushfires around Yeppoon and Rockhampton, had created a circumstance whereby they were getting the feedback practically from people who had assisted there that the Government needed to do more.
JOURNALIST: So, do you think that people would accept an increase in taxes to help to pay for this?
ALBANESE: Look, the Government has the finances at their disposal, and they have Treasury finance. I’m not the Government. I went yesterday to a place in my electorate that had in one night last Wednesday, raised $3,000 for the firefighters and have been raising money ever since. The people who worked at that centre in Rozelle gave up a day’s work to work for their firefighters. People around Australia are generous. They know that this is not business-as-usual. And when people think of volunteers, they think of people volunteering for a day a week, at various times, maybe for an intense period, for a week or a fortnight. These circumstances are such that they have been in the field for months. It’s simply not sustainable to be a volunteer on no income for such a prolonged period of time. And the Government needs to respond to that. All governments need to respond to it. I’m not saying it is just a Federal responsibility. It is how we’re going to have a national response. The Federal Government has to be the coordinating body.
JOURNALIST: Just on Michael McCormack’s comments, apparently the further action that he agreed to in that press conference was changes or refinements to the current policy to reach their existing targets. Is that good enough?
ALBANESE: Well, it would be a start, but they need to do more. Quite clearly. And the problem with the Government’s position is, they speak about Australia not being able to solve the issues by itself. They’re right. But when Australia has modest targets that it won’t meet, and goes to an international conference, and argues for accountancy fiddles, rather than actually taking action to really reduce emissions, then it undermines our capacity for global action. Australia was one of the states that were arguing in Madrid for less action, not more. All the science tells us that we need to do more. We don’t have a national energy policy in this country. We don’t have a plan for renewables. We don’t have a plan when it comes to climate change in order to meet the targets that have been set by this Government when Tony Abbott was the Prime Minister.
JOURNALIST: Does the bushfire crisis justify higher emission reduction targets? And is now the time to declare Labor’s 45% target?
ALBANESE: We’ll make our policy announcements at the appropriate time. What we won’t do is say we’ll do nothing at all until after the next election of 2022. This Government needs to act. This Government needs to act now and develop a plan whereby it can, at least, meet its own targets. At the moment, they’re not doing that.
JOURNALIST: I have two questions. The Prime Minister is claiming that he and the Deputy Prime Minister are making the same point when it comes to climate change. What is your reaction to that?
ALBANESE: Well, the fact is that anyone who looks at the Deputy Prime Minister’s comment, who said that there needs to be change and looks at the Prime Minister who says, “nothing to see here”, know that is they are at odds. And that’s the problem with this Government. They are incapable of coming up with a coherent strategy on climate change. That’s why Malcolm Turnbull was torn down, even though the Cabinet had agreed for a National Energy Guarantee, which would have been a mechanism for change that would have had majority support in the Parliament, had majority support in the Coalition Party room. But because of a few people, they’re incapable of acting.
JOURNALIST: Why do you think he has gone to Mudgee to talk about the fires today?
ALBANESE: I don’t know, that’s a matter for the Prime Minister.
JOURNALIST: On your policy, I understand it’s under review and you’ll make an announcement closer to the election. But do you agree that it needs to change? Because you won’t be able to reach your 2030 target between now and if you win Government in 2022?
ALBANESE: Look, we’ll make the assessment. Our target was established in 2015 for 2030.
JOURNALIST: That’s what I mean.
ALBANESE: By definition it’s a 15-year target from 2015. We can’t put ourselves in a time machine and go back to 2015. So, at that time, it was working off what was occurring in 2015. We’ll work closer to 2022 with where we are in terms of the short and medium targets. That’s why it is, frankly, impossible, without just making predictions of where we will be in 2021, to make that statement. What we know is that investment in renewables has fallen by about half over the last year. It’s falling because there’s no investment certainty. What we want is for the Government to put in place an energy policy that provides investment certainty. We didn’t think that the Government’s NEG was perfect, but we think that improvement, improvement practically, is better than no improvement at all. And that at least would have been a positive move forward. As it is, they just have no policy, and it’s quite extraordinary. They’ve announced 17 different policies. The latest one is for nuclear power, but of course, they won’t say where a nuclear power plant might be, who would invest in it and whether it makes any sense to do that in terms of the economics of it. Thank you very much.