Jun 21, 2011

Transcript of press conference – Blue Room

Subjects: Volcanic Ash Cloud; Abbott’s plebiscite stunt; carbon pricing

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Thanks everyone. I’ve will make some comments about the aviation situation first. I will take questions on that and then put my Leader of the House hat on to comment on Tony Abbott’s failed stunt.

The situation is that a number of airlines have cancelled flights into and out of Adelaide, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne due to volcanic ash from Chile.

This is an extremely rare occurrence, and certainly I recognise that it is extremely disruptive for passengers, for the community and of course there is an economic impact as well.

Safety must be the first priority when it comes to aviation. The Government supports the decisions of airlines in putting safety first.

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority and Air Services Australia are working with the airlines to make sure that safe procedures are being followed.

As people would be aware the weather is not something that can be predicted with surety, and circumstances are changing all the time. My office has continued to receive regular updates and briefings over recent days.

The current situation is that Virgin has announced cancellations of all flights to and from Melbourne from 4 o’clock today. Qantas and Virgin have cancelled flights into and out of Sydney, Adelaide and Canberra from this afternoon. Tiger has cancelled all of its flights and operations to Port Macquarie. Newcastle and Coffs Harbour are also affected.

This is changing at regular intervals and my advice for potential passengers is to make sure they check with the airlines. The airlines are indicating that they’re having difficulty keeping up with the number of calls that are being made to the respective phone lines, but information is regularly updated on airlines’ websites.

QUESTION: [Indistinct] Is there any sense of how long this is likely to last?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: The advice from the Bureau of Meteorology – and once again they would put a caveat on it that it does change – but as of 12 o’clock today the rough estimates from the Bureau of Meteorology were that Adelaide was likely to be affected for around 24 hours, Canberra and Sydney for around 36 to 48 hours from this afternoon, and Melbourne for around 36 to 48 hours from tomorrow morning. They are the Bureau of Meteorology’s estimates but as people would be aware there’s been a significant change from this time yesterday.

The only thing I am certain of is that safety will be put first, and that that’s a good thing.

QUESTION: Dick Smith says that Australia doesn’t have the technology to measure the density of this dust. Is the Federal Government considering investing in that kind of technology?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: I have every confidence in our existing systems.

QUESTION: Does this highlight perhaps the need for light rail, high speed light rail between – not light rail, [laughs] high speed rail between Sydney and Canberra and Melbourne?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: I think regardless of other transport modes there’ll always be a place for aviation.

Yesterday morning people would have woken up to front page newspaper headlines around the country that Tony Abbott would be introducing a Bill into the House of Representatives at 10 o’clock and be debated for there to be a plebiscite on any proposed carbon tax.

We know that 10 o’clock came and went and nothing happened. That’s because Parliament wasn’t even sitting.

That is indicative of the lack of attention to detail and lack of respect for proper Parliamentary processes which Tony Abbott shows.

Last Friday the Daily Program was issued for the House of Representatives. It indicated, and indeed I moved a motion to that effect, that the House would meet at 2.30pm with an address by the New Zealand Prime Minister John Key.

So 10 o’clock came and went – nothing happened.

Tony Abbott couldn’t even speak to his proposed Bill yesterday because he hadn’t put it on the Notice Paper. This is evidence that this was a last minute, cooked up stunt. It has been recognised by Independent Members as being just that.

Tony Windsor said yesterday:

“So I think Tony Abbott’s call for a plebiscite is just another political stunt.”

Senator Fielding said this morning:

“Look I met with Tony yesterday, I had a look at it, look I must admit I thought it was a political stunt to start with, and then after hearing that no one’s going to be bound by it, it is a political stunt. Seriously why should we waste $80 million on a glorified opinion poll just because Tony has got a problem?”

The fact is Tony Abbott made a mistake when he said he’d introduce it at 10 o’clock. He also made a gross political mistake when he said yesterday morning in advocating that we should spend taxpayers’ money on this, that his views wouldn’t be changed by the outcome. That has led to its rejection. It has led to the farcical situation whereby he’s saying taxpayers’ money should be spent on a plebiscite which won’t change his opinion.

We know that he’s opposed to action on climate change. We know that in spite of the fact that he said yesterday morning this wasn’t about climate change, it is precisely what it’s about. But more importantly it’s about Tony Abbott’s political opportunism.

The fact is Parliament is working and functioning well, with 137 pieces of legislation being passed by the Government with not a single piece of legislation being amended without the support of the Government. Yet Tony Abbott day after day suspends Question Time – now almost half the Question Times this year have been suspended. When he can’t do that, like yesterday, he supported a suspension, this time by Bob Katter and Andrew Wilkie who have very different views about live cattle exports.

Last Thursday Tony Abbott supported the Greens motion on asylum seekers who have very different views to those Tony Abbott has held in recent years.

Parliament will resume at 2 o’clock today with Question Time. We have Government Business being conducted at the moment. There was a resolution carried for no divisions and no quorums between 12 and two today.

We expect yet again Tony Abbott will probably move for the suspension of Standing Orders. If he does it indicates that he’s simply given up on the opportunity to hold the Government to account.

Any questions?

QUESTION: Minister Albanese, there are rumours being held by some people unhappy with the plebiscite decision that Steve Fielding as been offered a job by the Government after he leaves the Senate. Can you confirm, deny or otherwise that?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, that’s just absurd. The idea that Steve Fielding is pro-government Senator is absurd. However Senator Xenophon has always been prepared to sit down and discuss issues.

Clearly yesterday he sat down with Tony Abbott and discussed these issues. When Tony Abbott said I want this taxpayers’ money to be spent on a plebiscite but the outcome doesn’t matter; I’ll hold the same position, it reduced the proposition to a stunt and a farce.

QUESTION: Would it be appropriate now for voters to regard the next election as a referendum on a carbon tax?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Every election is a vote on all the issues before the Parliament. We’ll have legislation on taking action on climate change, including pricing carbon, before the Parliament at the end of the year. The next election will be about Labor with a positive vision for Australia, with a Government that’s taken action to protect Australia from the Global Financial Crisis; to protect Queensland and other areas that are affected by the natural disasters earlier this year; that has a plan for taking action on climate change; that has a plan for giving opportunities to young people with education; that has a plan to assist people with cost of living, through the paid parental leave scheme that’s in place, through the increases to the childcare tax rebate, through the increases for the education tax refund, through the nation-building infrastructure where we’ve doubled the roads budget and increased the rail budget by more than 10 times.

All of those issues will be in voters’ minds when they go to the ballot box.

In contrast we’ll have Tony Abbott, if he lasts the distance between now and 2013. I think that it will be about his negativity and his failure to put forward anything positive whatsoever except for stunts day in and day out.

QUESTION: You just said you’d have legislation on pricing carbon before the Parliament by the end of the year. Is that statement based on the assumption that you will definitely get a deal with the Greens and the crossbenchers or…

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, that’s the proposal. Of course…

QUESTION: …or that you’ll do it – or that you’ll put up some form of legislation even if you don’t get a deal?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: No, it’s based upon we’re working through the Multi-Party Committee on Climate Change. It is our intention to come to an agreement and to therefore put legislation before the Parliament. Our intention, as you’d be aware, is that we will price carbon from 1 July next year. One of the things that business is asking for – business wants – is certainty in terms of moving forward, in terms of pricing carbon.

QUESTION: Just as a follow-up, if you don’t get an agreement in this next two weeks out of the Multi-Party…

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, frankly, that’s a question for Greg Combet, with due respect, and the Government.

QUESTION: But you’re in cabinet.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Yes, I’m the Leader of the House and I’m happy to answer any detailed question on infrastructure and transport that you like.

QUESTION: Is it your understanding that you would go ahead with carbon pricing anyway?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Look, that’s a question for the people who are responsible for it, frankly, and you know, we’re working towards getting an agreement. We’re working very hard and people in the Government have been a party to those talks. Of course, I’m working on the side, if you like. I’m having discussions with Minister Combet when it comes to issues which impact my portfolio. That’s the role I’m playing. I’m not a member of the Multi-Party Committee so I can’t comment on its deliberations.

QUESTION: Have you heard from Andrew Wilkie about which way he’s sort of swinging on the plebiscite?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: I have had a discussion with Andrew Wilkie, but I keep my discussions with the Independents private, as you’d expect.

QUESTION: Has he told you which way he’s going though?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: I keep my private discussions private.

QUESTION: If it goes down in the Senate, do you think – would you urge the Opposition to perhaps not waste the time of the House of Representatives?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: This is just a stunt. We’ve had now more than 120 questions that could have been asked in the House of Representatives this year alone. Six full Question Times have been thrown away with these wastes of time. Every day at 10 to 3, Playschool comes on just after three, so Tony Abbott moves his suspension so he can talk for 10 minutes, and rant and rave.

Really, I think that it’s tiring for those of us who have to put up with that, and I say ‘us’ in the broader sense, for all those watching. It has undermined, I think, an important part of parliamentary process.

The normal process for moving a censure resolution is you seek leave. There’s been no attempt to censure the Government. What there have been are attempts to suspend Standing Orders each and every day, and that shows he’s simply not fair dinkum and I think he’s undermined the value of moving suspensions.

Normally for oppositions since time immemorial there’s been a build-up. What we have is a premeditated decision day after day to move a suspension of Standing Orders or to support anything that anyone else does that’s disruptive. And it stands in stark contrast to the statements that were made by Tony Abbott when he was in government.

And I might conclude by quoting someone who I don’t normally quote, and that’s John Howard, who said this on 17 September 1998:

“In any one year you could have 40 or 50 contentious issues and the only way that democracy can work in an orderly fashion is to have the sort of electoral process we have unless you resort to a method of having plebiscites or referendums on each individual issue, and I think the Australian public would get very angry and tired about that. They would say, what’s wrong with you, fellas, we elected you in three years, you go away and take all the decisions you want to on individual issues and then when these decisions have been taken at the end of your three-year period, if we don’t like you we’ll vote you out.

“I don’t think you can run it any other way.”

The fact is Tony Abbott isn’t a conservative; he’s a reactionary and he’s a destructive reactionary who’s prepared to trash the parliamentary system that we hold dear.

Thank you.