Subjects: Adani coal mine, Batman by-election, the Greens Political Party, Labor Party, Mark Butler, health insurance, citizenship, Labor Party leadership.
DAVID SPEERS: Anthony Albanese, welcome. Thank you for joining us this morning.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Good to be with you David.
SPEERS: Let’s start with the Batman by-election. What is Labor’s position on the proposed Adani coal mine?
ALBANESE: Well, of course Adani is a proposition that was approved by the former Government – by the Coalition – and approved by the former Coalition Government in Queensland. It went through its EPBC Act approvals under Federal legislation. Indeed, then, by consent, it was agreed by all the parties that that be set aside so there could be another examination through the EPBC Act, the Federal environmental legislation, giving consideration to the impact on the Great Barrier Reef and it again was given approval.
The fact is though that there are ongoing concerns about this mine and I’ve never thought that it was automatically going to go ahead because it hasn’t been able to get its finances in order. This is a project that has set deadlines for itself and been unable to achieve them and they still don’t have finances and that is because the economics of it don’t stack up.
If you look at what is happening to the global thermal coal market, what is happening is that it is in decline and India itself, for example, is saying that they want to stop imports of thermal coal. So it is hard to see how the economics of this project stack up, let alone ongoing concerns over water and over other issues.
SPEERS: All right. But the financials, whether it stacks up, is really a matter for the private company Adani, not a matter for the Government. As you have listed there, all the approvals have been given, haven’t they? There’s not much a government, be it Labor or Coalition, can do at this point.
ALBANESE: Well the approvals have been given and that happened some time ago and of course those approvals have also been subject to legal argument. The question is whether there is new information that allows for another consideration of these matters and that is something that no doubt the conservation groups are continuing to look at. It is something that we have looked at as well and will continue to examine. But the finances of this project are pretty fundamental David because it hasn’t ….
SPEERS: They are, they are. I’m just talking about what government can do. There is a report as you’ve seen no doubt the other day from The Guardian that Adani may have falsified something that it put to a judgement. It denies that, but barring that any new information as you say that comes along that could unwind the environmental approvals, what is Bill Shorten talking about when he says Labor is becoming increasingly skeptical? Is there a prospect Labor actually might reverse any of these approvals?
ALBANESE: Well we are skeptical about the project. We have been skeptical from the beginning. I for a long time have had this as an issue, you won’t be surprised David, that’s been raised with me in my electorate. I have said very clearly, you won’t find statements from me supporting the project, saying it is going to go ahead because I have never seen the economics of this as going ahead.
We’ve got to put this in context David. Last year the Government was arguing that it was going to use public finances to build a new coal-fired power station in Queensland. That seems to have dropped off the agenda, that rather odd proposal. What is happening throughout the world …
SPEERS: We’ll it is still under consideration apparently. But is Labor talking here about actually reversing an approval that has been given even without seeing some damning new evidence come to light? Would Labor do that, or does that create a sovereign risk issue?
ALBANESE: Well you’ve got to look at the law as it is. You’ve got to look at whether there is any new information comes to light. We will continue to do that David, but we will do it in a considered way, bearing in mind we need always to have a look at what the consequences are for any intervention. It’s got to be consistent. We do have environmental law in this county. That is pretty important that it be maintained in a consistent way. The issue of the impact on the Artesian Basin, on water, is something that is causing a great deal of concern to the agricultural sector. Those environmental issues we need to continue to keep our eye on.
But it is the economics of this project that is the big problem for this company, because it simply has been unable to finance the project. That’s why it went to the Government and said that we want you – the taxpayer – to help finance the rail line and the infrastructure and Labor’s position on that has been very clear, which is no, we would not do that. The company itself said that the project would fall over unless that occurred. We’ll that isn’t occurring because the Queensland Government have said they won’t co-operate and their co-operation is necessary for that Federal loan to occur to a private company.
At a time where we have a lack of investment in public infrastructure, it is beyond belief that the current Government wants to give a loan to a private company for a for-profit operation.
SPEERS: I think it would be accessible by others as well, but predominantly Adani, I take your point. This will be a key issue in the Batman by-election. Labor has held that seat for nearly 50 years. In the previous 50 it lost the seat only twice. But the demographics are changing. It is becoming increasingly Green. What’s your view? Should Labor be able to hold this seat? Or is it becoming harder now?
ALBANESE: Well we should win the seat David. It is only Labor that can make a difference in government. The Greens of course are able to protest once decisions are made.
Labor must always put the case that we aspire to make decisions in government to improve peoples’ lives – to protect the environment, to lift living standards, to look after health and education, to fix the National Broadband Network, to make a difference.
SPEERS: OK. You’ve said Labor should hold the seat. Would you expect a swing against Labor?
ALBANESE: Well we will wait and see what occurs. At the moment, the margin of course is pretty tight. But I think David Feeney himself would recognise that he didn’t have the best campaign of any candidate I have seen in the last Federal election. It was a very controversial campaign. David also, I think in terms of his politics and where he comes from and his priorities; I think Ged Kearney is a very good fit for that seat.
SPEERS: So in that case Anthony Albanese, without David Feeney and without the problems he had in the last election campaign, Labor should, on that logic, increase its margin.
ALBANESE: Well I think Labor can do well in this by-election. We need to put our case to the people of Batman that the election of a Labor candidate will be an important step in Labor forming government either later this year or early next year. In Ged Kearney we are putting forward a candidate who is progressive on economic, social and environmental issues, who has an outstanding record of standing up for people, who came through the Nurses’ Federation and understands health issues. No-one understands Australians better than our nurses. That’s her background, of where she is coming from. She is an outstanding candidate.
SPEERS: I note, I’m not criticising here Ged Kearney herself, but she was actually held up by Bill Shorten on Friday as the candidate before nominations for preselection had closed as I understand it. I don’t think anyone else was going to take her on. But this actually gets to something you are pretty passionate about. How should Labor pre-select its candidates?
ALBANESE: Well Labor should, these are circumstances of a by-election where you don’t have a choice of a long lead-in. But I am firmly of the view that we need to have democracy in our party strengthened and extended. That it is one of the strengths of the movement, is the fact that we will hold our national conference in July; there will be delegates for the first time elected directly from the rank-and-file membership across the country representing different electorates.
We will have it played out, for better or worse, in front of the entire Australian public. I’m sure it will be live on Sky News, that policy process, putting in place what the platform that Labor seeks to take into government will be.
Now that contrasts with the Greens who don’t allow media anywhere near their conference, who had a leadership ballot a couple of years ago that people found out about almost a year after it had occurred. It’s a secret society. So I think the more open we are …
SPEERS: But how should you pre-select your candidates though? I take by-elections have to be done in a hurry, but how should it happen?
ALBANESE: I’m a strong supporter of rank and file pre-selections. It is how I’ve always been pre-selected. I was pre-selected again for Grayndler last December and that’s something I’m very proud of. I think we need to have a direct say in who our senators are, that people in the rank and file of the party should get input to that, rather than it being a delegated structure of being elected by state conferences.
SPEERS: And you mentioned the conference coming up, the national conference. Will you back Mark Butler for a second term as Party President?
ALBANESE: He hasn’t determined finally whether he will put himself forward yet, but I think he’s an outstanding person. He’s the elected National President of the Party. He stands up for the interests of party members. He has stood on a platform and will continue to argue for reform of the party and I think he’s done an outstanding job. And certainly, if he seeks to have a second term, he will have my support.
SPEERS: Can I turn to some policy matters? Private health insurance; the Sunday Telegraph reporting today that Shadow Cabinet has decided to cap premium rises at two percent to save families around $340 on average over a couple of years. Is that the party’s position? Is that Labor’s position? Doesn’t this amount to price fixing?
ALBANESE: What we’re having is a Productivity Commission review. There hasn’t been a review of private health insurance for a considerable period of time and the fact is that what we’ve seen is an increasing concern out there from families that private health insurance is serving the interests of profits rather than patients. And that’s why we’ll have this review. We’ll consult with the sector. We think that they will have ideas as well about how to drive down costs of healthcare …
SPEERS: So not necessarily cap prices as reported? Cap increases?
ALBANESE: Well while that review is occurring, for the first two years of the first term of the Labor Government, you’d expect that there would be three of those annual price reviews. For the first two there would be a two percent cap put on. We think that is a reasonable position whilst the review is taking place. But what we’re seeing is a return on equity …
SPEERS: Just on that, if a Government can do that on private health insurance, why can’t it do that on private school fees, why can’t it do that on electricity prices, other cost of living problems we’re facing?
ALBANESE: Well what we know is that private health insurance is very dependent upon Federal Government subsidies essentially, above $6 billion this year is the cost to the bottom line of the mechanisms that are in place to encourage private health insurance. We support private health insurance. Some 54 percent of Australians have it and it’s an important component of the health care system. But the fact is that at the moment we have the major companies having returns on equity of above 25 percent. Now the average Australian company, owned company here, operates at around about eight percent.
So there’s significant profits being made. There’s significant returns being banked by those big funds at the same time many of the smaller funds are actually having to delve into those ongoing savings in order to provide those services. So it is important to have that examination. It is important to consult with the sector as well and, as I said, we’ll be doing that consultation to set the terms of reference for that Productivity Commission inquiry, which we’ll do before the next Federal election. So everyone will know exactly what the plan is, what we’re looking at with that Productivity Commission inquiry.
SPEERS: A couple of others to finish on citizenship. Parliament is back tomorrow. This debate will resume. Is Susan Lamb a dual citizen?
ALBANESE: Well the fact is that Susan Lamb’s circumstances are very different from others. Susan Lamb, there’s no question and no one argues that she didn’t apply for the renunciation of her citizenship and what she got back from the UK …
SPEERS: But the question is; is she a dual citizen?
ALBANESE: Well what she got back from the UK was a statement saying that they couldn’t determine whether she was a citizen or not. That’s from the UK. So it’s one thing for you and I to discuss in somewhat academic circumstances …
SPEERS: They needed more documents, which she couldn’t produce.
ALBANESE: Well that’s what they said themselves. The fact is, last year we attempted to put anyone who there was any doubt over including Jason Falinski who I notice there is more concern about his circumstances in the papers today, to say …
SPEERS: Labor thinks he is in more trouble, is that right?
ALBANESE: Well that’s absolutely correct. But what we say is that the Australian public are pretty sick of this, David. They want this resolved, that’s why we tried to refer everyone for whom there was any doubt to the High Court last year so that this would be resolved. It was the Coalition Government that chose not to support that resolution. It was supported by all the crossbenchers and by Labor.
SPEERS: So you’ll stick to that demand for a joint referral. Can I just finish, Anthony Albanese, the next few months are going to be challenging for Labor and for Bill Shorten. We’ve got the Batman by-election and who knows whether there will be more. Can I ask you directly, what would it take for you to challenge Bill Shorten this year?
ALBANESE: Look, my challenge is doing the right thing by the Australian people as part of Bill Shorten’s team. The challenges that I’m interested in are the challenges that working Australians are facing on the cost of living; the challenge of fixing up the National Broadband Network; the challenge of dealing with infrastructure, which is set to decline from 0.4 percent of GDP to 0.2 percent over the next decade – halved under this Government.
SPEERS: But Anthony Albanese, is your duty and loyalty to Bill Shorten or to the best interests of the Labor Party?
ALBANESE: My loyalty is always to the cause of Labor and the people we represent. And that’s what I’m interested in and I think that’s what Australians are interested in as well. They want a Government, and indeed an Opposition, that’s concerned about them, rather than about ourselves. That is what I will be doing this year as I have done, loyally, under a whole range of leaders over a long period of time. I’ll be doing my best in the job that I’ve got, which is substantial as Labor’s spokesperson for infrastructure, transport, cities, regional development and tourism. I reckon that will keep me busy David.
SPEERS: Anthony Albanese, appreciate your time this morning, thank you.
ALBANESE: Good to be with you.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.