SUBJECTS: Proposal of a national Drought Cabinet; press freedoms; free trade agreements; Australia’s relationship with Indonesia; Lavarch’s review into the NSW Labor Party; drought.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thanks for joining me. I have written to the Prime Minister about having a national Drought Cabinet. What we need to do is to make sure that we work together as a nation to deal with these very difficult issues. I have proposed a 15-person cabinet with the majority of 8 from the Coalition, reflecting the balance in the Parliament, but also representatives from senior Government and Opposition spokespeople on relevant areas of water and agriculture and regional development, but also relevant local members from drought-affected areas. I think this would be a constructive move forward. And it has been put forward in a constructive suggestion in order to deal with an issue which is a concern for all Australians. Farmers are doing it tough. And the truth is, up to this point, in terms of the drought, the Government isn’t getting it right. The Government needs to adopt measures that have a practical difference on the ground for farmers who are struggling. Secondly, my understanding is there’s about to be the launch of the ‘Right to Know’ campaign about media freedom. There is still a question mark over whether the two ABC journalists and Annika Smethurst could be charged. The Government should shut that down. People should not be charged for doing their job. Journalism isn’t a crime. It’s an essential part of our democracy. We need to cherish it. We need to make sure that whatever legislative changes are required to ensure media freedom are adopted, it should happen in a bipartisan way and it should happen quickly. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: Of all of the major media companies’ concerns; greater protection for whistle blowers, better freedom of information laws and fewer prosecutions of journos, which do you think is the most urgent of those?
ALBANESE: Well, the truth is that all of these issues should be dealt with. Journalists shouldn’t be under threat of prosecution and jail for doing their job. Whistle-blowers need adequate protection. And in terms of freedom of information, the ongoing strategy that the Government seems to have, whereby, for example, in the issue I’ve just dealt with in terms of drought; you have a Drought Coordinator who has a report, and no one can see the report. You have a Drought Envoy, appointed Barnaby Joyce, for which he says he sent a few text messages to the Prime Minister. That’s Government funds that go into those jobs. We need accountability to make sure it happens.
JOURNALIST: But all these laws that journalists are complaining about, they’ve been around for decades and administered by governments including yours.
ALBANESE: Some of them have been around since the First World War. You’re right.
JOURNALIST: So, the motivator for change now, why not under a Labor Government? What’s the urgency?
ALBANESE: Well, the urgency is that what we didn’t see under Labor Governments was consecutive raids on journalists. What we didn’t see was the sort of attacks on media freedom and what we also wouldn’t have seen, to be frank, is a Prime Minister, who when first asked about this in London, basically said, ‘nothing to see here’. It is a dismissal as a Government that wasn’t prepared to protect media freedom. The Government needs to step up to the plate here. Labor’s prepared to. The Government should as well.
JOURNALIST: On the subject of free trade, are you prepared to pitch your caucus into a battle with the union movement over Free Trade Agreements that you are supporting?
ALBANESE: What we’re doing is fighting for Australian jobs. And we’ve written to the Government making a number of demands consistent with what the unions want, consistent with protecting Australian jobs, consistent with ensuring that privatisation is ruled out, consistent with making sure that there can be no replacement of Australian workers with foreign workers. They’re our demands. I expect they’ll be met. And when they are met, these agreements, when improved, will be good for Australian jobs. That’s my priority.
JOURNALIST: Do you think that some unions, like the Victorian ETU, are fighting over the FTAs as a proxy for the John Setka issue?
ALBANESE: It’s not up to me to speak on behalf of respective unions. They’re entitled to put their view. What my job is, and the job of the Labor Caucus is, and can I say the Labor Shadow Cabinet, when we considered these matters, had a unanimous position going forward. Because when you examine the detail with the changes that we’re proposing, this is good. I noticed Prime Minister Morrison is in Indonesia today for Joko Widodo’s inauguration. That’s a good thing. It is important that we have a good relationship with our neighbour to the north in Indonesia. There are enormous economic advantages we will have as Indonesia grows into the future. Indonesia will be the fourth largest economy in the world by 2050. They’re building a new capital city. All of that means jobs for Australian infrastructure companies, for Australian steel, Australian engineers, Australian architects, Australian planners, Australian legal officers and service deliverers. There’s enormous opportunity as a result of this agreement, which will see, on the one hand, 2 per cent of Indonesian goods into Australia, goods and services become tariff free. And in return, 25 per cent of Australian goods and services into Indonesia, a growing market, be tariff free.
JOURNALIST: Just a question on the review into the New South Wales Labor Party. Your New South Wales Labor Left faction met yesterday to discuss the review.
ALBANESE: Sorry, I’m not a member of a faction.
JOURNALIST: Okay. Well, the Left faction in New South Wales met yesterday to discuss the review. Have you been briefed on what they decided?
ALBANESE: No, I haven’t. Because I don’t participate in factional activity. I’m the Leader of the Australian Labor Party. Every member, every union affiliate, all of them. And I’m sure that Michael Lavarch will do his job. He is a significant figure. He’s a man of integrity. He has a great knowledge of the law. He has a great knowledge of legal systems. He has a great knowledge of organisational systems to make sure that what’s occurred in New South Wales can never occur again.
JOURNALIST: And have you been briefed on any of the preliminary findings from Professor Lavarch?
ALBANESE: No. Because I’m sure he hasn’t got any yet. He’s still talking to people. This is a serious review by a serious person, which will, I’m sure, come up with serious outcomes. Whatever Professor Lavarch comes up with, I will support.
JOURNALIST: On the proposed Drought Cabinet, do you see this as an opportunity to push the Government more action on climate change?
ALBANESE: Well, climate change has to be a part of the long-term issue of adaptation. It has to be a part of the response. But what we need at the moment is the immediate concerns addressed. Well, we have farmers literally walking off their properties. Where we have real issues confronting farmers in terms of mental health. When I visited Warwick in the Southern Downs, one of the things that community members, as well as the council raised with me was the legitimate health concerns about the impact that this is having on families right now. So, we need immediate action. We do need to deal with climate change. But what we need to do is deal with the immediate crisis, which is there in our farming communities.
JOURNALIST: When at any time though did a Labor Government create a Cabinet to deal with such a matter?
ALBANESE: Well, these are extraordinary matters. Extraordinary matters in which the Government clearly needs assistance. This is put forward in the spirit of bipartisanship. You know, to be fair, when Tony Abbott was the Opposition Leader, he just said no to everything. There was no constructive suggestions put forward by the Coalition. I intend to be constructive. I think that’s what people want. That’s the feedback that I get in those communities. And when I have visited communities in New South Wales, Dubbo, and in the west of New South Wales as well as in Queensland, the feedback I’ve got is that they want less politics and more outcomes. Thanks very much.