SUBJECTS: Veterans’ affairs; homelessness; TAFE; skills and training; biosecurity; NDIS; Newstart; drought; Barnaby Joyce; RBA interest rate cut; Inland Rail; shark drum lines.
SENATOR NITA GREEN: Hi, my name’s Nita Green and I’m a Senator for Queensland, and it is a real privilege to be here today in Townsville with Anthony Albanese the Leader of the Labor Party. We’re here today in Townsville to talk about a range of issues; most recently we’ve been visiting the Oasis Centre here, that brings about wraparound services for veterans in Townsville. We’ve also been able to talk to Anthony while he’s been on the ground today, about some really important issues around skills and apprenticeships in regional Queensland. Now, I am one of the younger members of Anthony’s caucus and definitely one of the younger members of Parliament. And it has been a real concern of mine that this Government dismisses younger workers and the skills that they need for the future. We know that there is a skills crisis in regional Queensland. And it is a skills crisis of this Government ‘s own making. They have gutted TAFE to the tune of about $3 billion. We have lost apprenticeships and trainees, about 2500 in Far North Queensland, and Townsville area. What that has led to is a pipeline of projects that the State Government fundamentally has funded and wants to build, but we don’t have the skills to be able to build them. It is concerning for me that young people in this region wouldn’t know where their future jobs are coming from, or how they’re going to get skilled to do it. There is absolutely a place for overseas workers to come and work in sectors that need those skills. But when it comes to skilled jobs, we want Australians to get the skills that they need to be able to work and live in the communities that they love. I’m going to hand over to Anthony now to talk a little bit more about the services that we’ve been talking about today. Thank you.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Well thanks very much, Nita. It has been great to be back in Townsville again, and today to meet with some extraordinary people who are making a real difference to the lives of veterans in this Townsville and North Queensland community. Oasis is a one stop shop where people can get advice and assistance whether it’s health care; whether it’s housing; whether it be employment; or whether it simply be programs that engage them back in the community. Programs like the assistance that happens visiting farmers out in Western Queensland around winter; a program that’s good for the veterans, but also good for the farmers. They are assisting each other, a really practical program. These people are all volunteers. They’re putting back into their community and it’s good that there’s some capital funding being made available by the State and Federal Government, to build a new headquarters and centre for them here in Townsville. But what they also require is that ongoing support. So, I was very pleased to be given the honour of having a briefing with these fine people here this morning. Can I also say, here in Townsville, that there are a range of challenges that Australia faces; one of which is the lack of a skilled workforce; the fact that we’ve lost across the country 150,000 apprentices, fewer than were present when the Government was elected way back in 2013. At the same time, we’ve seen 500,000 people come into Australia on temporary work visas, and that means that jobs and training that should be going – either to younger Australians or to veterans, people being retrained for that work – isn’t occurring to the extent that it should. This is a real crisis that’s affecting individuals, but it’s also affecting the capacity of our national economy. And we know that this national economy is really struggling. The decision to reduce interest rates to below 1 per cent is a real issue which shows how sluggish the economy is with low consumer demand; wage stagnation and with living standards simply not keeping up with the cost of living. The fact that the banks are not passing on the 0.25 per cent interest rate cut; determined by the Reserve Bank, is also a disgrace. And the Government is complacent about this. The Government needs to pressure the banks and to passing on the full amount. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: With the transitional (inaudible) what are some of the industries (inaudible).
ALBANESE: Some of the industries are in construction – your traditional trades – there aren’t enough electricians; there aren’t enough bricklayers. As well as, of course, newer service industries – industries like the National Disability Insurance Scheme, will require a skilled workforce to deliver those services. We’re simply not keeping up.
JOURNALIST: Australian shares have tumbled in early trade over the rising fears of a global recession, should Australians be concerned?
ALBANESE: The fact is that I wish the Government would show a bit of concern and be shaken out of its complacency. The Reserve Bank decision to reduce interest rates to below 1 per cent stands in stark contrast with the Government ‘s rhetoric. When Labor was in office during the global financial crisis, when interest rates were four times and five times what they are now – what that shows is the Reserve Bank being very concerned, doing all the heavy lifting as they themselves say. Why is it that the Government won’t bring forward infrastructure investment; why is it that the Government is looking forward at practical measures. One of those practical measures they could bring forward is Newstart. The fact is that $40 a day is far less than it costs to actually survive. This Government is complacent about it. And here we have Anne Ruston, the Social Services Minister, saying this week that an increase in Newstart would just lead to extra money going to drug dealers and into pubs. I mean, what an insult to people out there looking for work. This is the Social Services Minister, and it says everything about a Government that’s out of touch. That’s prepared to sledge Australians doing it tough, rather than actually look after them.
JOURNALIST: Do you have faith in Australia’s biosecurity systems to keep African Swine Fever out?
ALBANESE: We have, of course, a strong system in this country. The authorities need to be given every support and every funding that’s required to make sure that threats to our biosecurity – which is so important – are kept at bay. The fact is one of the things that Australia prides ourselves on is our clean, green agriculture. We need to do everything that we can to make sure that that is kept intact.
JOURNALIST: The Government has thanked the Moyne Shire Council for saying no to $1 million in drought funding, but they have defended the program overall. Do you think it’s been undermined by this case?
ALBANESE: It’s been completely undermined. This is a problem of a Government that doesn’t have a national drought strategy. And the fact is that that is having a real impact. The fact that when I was in Warwick and the Southern Downs area, just yesterday, and the night before; those communities are really struggling. And how is it that a council that had an abundance of rain and water actually gets drought funding when other communities are crying out for assistance? How is it that parts of Southern Downs were taken off the list before they were put back on? The fact is that this Government has had a drought coordinator; they’ve had a drought envoy. They won’t release the information. They could start with releasing the report from the drought coordinator; acting on those recommendations, developing a national drought strategy. We need one for this country. This Government has been there for seven years. They talk a lot, but they’re not acting. And they need to start acting like a Government rather than opposition in exile on the Government benches.
JOURNALIST: Veteran homelessness is at a crisis point in Townsville at the moment; 5.3 per cent nationally veterans homeless, compared to 1.9 per cent of the rest of the community. Was that touched on in this roundtable?
ALBANESE: It certainly was, and the need for those services to be provided. One of the benefits of Oasis is that it’s a one-stop-shop. You need to look at the issue of homelessness not in isolation. Homelessness needs to be looked at in terms of do people have the financial support and skills that they need? Do they have employment opportunities? Is their health care OK? The benefit of Oasis and the amazing work that they’re doing is to provide that one-stop-shop so that people, veterans, and get the assistance they need.
JOURNALIST: The only two homeless accommodation programmes we have got in Townsville for veterans is Zac’s Place, they are overcrowded. The other programme is through RSL Queensland through the Salvation Army which doesn’t actually have accommodation here in Townsville. Do we not need to look at that first? How do we do that?
ALBANESE: Absolutely. We need to make sure that the housing options are available for people but also that the whole-of-life service provisions are there, health care, employment services. The assistance to make sure, not just that they’re housed, but so that they can maintain that position.
ALBANESE: Well, the fact is that this Government is conducting hundreds and hundreds of reviews. They don’t have many strategies. They don’t have a strategy to deal with drought. They don’t have a strategy to deal with energy policy. They don’t have an economic plan to deal with the very shaky issues that are there in the global economy, including trade issues between China and the United States that are having an impact on the Australian economy. A strong economy is essential, not as an end in itself, but so that jobs are provided and living can be lifting. This Government doesn’t have a strategy to dealing with wages, but attacking unions that will drive down wages not lift them up. So, the Government needs to actually do more than just occupy the treasury benches, run around and have ministerial titles. They need to actually implement plans. And one of the things that’s very clear about this Government is that it’s characterised by having tactical, political strategies for a 24-hour basis. It doesn’t have long-term national interest strategies. And we see that with Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister, being very lose with the comments that he makes when he dismisses any attempt to hold him to scrutiny. Including the latest issue surrounding the Donald Trump phone call about the Mueller investigation, whereby he still has not provided the full response to that. He still hasn’t provided a full response as to why it is that it’s been reported an invitation was given for Pastor Houston to be invited to the state dinner. He still hasn’t given consistent answers about the whole range of issues going forward.
JOURNALIST: You are urging the Coalition Government to release the expert reports on the Inland Rail Project; why is that?
ALBANESE: Well, the fact is that Inland Rail at the moment is being taken too literally. Inland Rail doesn’t actually go to a port. It stops at 38 kilometres short of the port of Brisbane at Acacia Ridge; it doesn’t go to Melbourne port. There are issues with the route going through farmland. There are issues whereby farmers on the ground are saying that some of the areas where this route has been chosen is through floodplains that will be affected by weather events. So, we need to make sure that this project just got right. There is also the financing of the project whereby in spite of the fact that John Anderson in a report said to Government that it wouldn’t produce a return on capital investment in 50 years, is being funded off budget. Now, if that turns out to not be the case, at some time down the track very soon that will be a major hit on the Budget. So we need to make sure we get this project right. Labor supports the Inland Rail project. We, indeed, put $600 million into the existing parts of the track that will make up the route. And $300 million into new construction and planning work to make sure we get it right. The fact is the Government needs to listen to organisations, like the New South Wales farmers, who have called for a full inquiry into getting this project right.
JOURNALIST: The Federal Environment Minister has criticised state colleagues for putting greenies ahead of tourists as far as shark drum lines in the Great Barrier Reef. The State Government says that it is federal legislation that is preventing them from putting these shark controlling measures in. Will you pressure the Federal Government to change the legislation so that we can have shark protections?
ALBANESE: Well, what we need is a common-sense solution to this. The state government is responding and the Federal Government should respond accordingly as well. The two issues shouldn’t be in conflict. We need to make sure that people are given appropriate protection, based upon the scientific advice, and governments need to act on that scientific advice. Thanks very much.