SUBJECT: Bushfire crisis across Australia.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Good morning. Australians are facing a national emergency. This morning I’ve spoken with David Littleproud, the Emergency Services Minister, and I received a briefing from him. We also know that in Victoria, Daniel Andrews has declared a state of emergency for the first time that special powers have been invoked to make sure this mass evacuation that’s occurring from the Gippsland region and from the south coast of New South Wales can occur. Today also, we have the news this morning that 28 people are missing in Victoria, two confirmed dead. This follows the tragedies in New South Wales where we have seen three firefighters lose their lives among the up to 20 people now confirmed dead. Today our thoughts are with all of those people enduring this crisis. You should follow the advice of the experts. They are saying that unless people have to stay and can’t move, then they should depart these dangerous areas. We know also that our thoughts today are with South Australia. South Australia is facing extreme conditions today before it’s expected that latest of heatwaves goes across into Victoria and New South Wales tomorrow and Sunday.
I’ll be visiting South Australia tomorrow with the South Australian Labor Leader, Peter Malinauskas, and with Penny Wong. And I’ll be in Victoria on Sunday with the Premier, Daniel Andrews. The fact is that, at this time, what we need, quite clearly, is a national response. The Prime Minister said yesterday that the National Security Committee will meet in a number of days’ time, on Monday. I’m not quite sure why it takes that long, as a former member of the National Security Committee, to convene a meeting like that. It can be convened, of course, by its very nature on very short notice. I do think that the failure of COAG to meet until March is not a circumstance which, in my view, is justifiable. What we need to ensure is that there is national coordination here.
But, our thoughts today are primarily on two issues. One, the people who are directly affected and keeping them safe. And secondly, of course, our firefighters who once again are inspiring their fellow Australians with their courage, commitment and dedication to each other and to their fellow Australians. Over many, many months, some of these people have been working hard, putting literally their lives on the line. And yesterday, we saw, of course, at the tragic funeral, the farewell of someone who’d made the ultimate sacrifice. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: How would you characterise the Prime Minister’s response to this crisis?
ALBANESE: Well, I’m not a commentator, it’s up to others to do that. What my job has been is to listen to my fellow Australians. To care about my fellow Australians. To respect my fellow Australians. And I’ve done that to the best of my capacity. Throughout the recent months, and it has been months, I’ve been constructive, and I’ll continue to do so. In November, I called for COAG to meet. I called for the Prime Minister to meet with the former fire chiefs who have hundreds of years of expertise between them. I called for COAG to consider our aerial firefighting capacity, I called for a scheme to support our volunteer firefighters in terms of economic compensation. I called for a national disaster plan to be put in place. I called for climate change and its impact, including adaptation and mitigation, to be on the agenda. So, for some time, I’ve put forward practical suggestions. I’ll continue to do so based upon the feedback that I have got on the ground. When I was in the North coast, in areas like Casino, Ballina and Lismore, I was first made conscious of the fact that many firefighters because of the early fire in Rappville and in the region, were desperate for some form of economic compensation. They were giving up receiving a wage, but they still had to put food on the table for their families. That’s why I raised that issue early on. Eventually, we got there in terms of firstly an agreement for some form of compensation for Commonwealth public servants, which was already there, of course, in the award, but the removal of the option of the heads of department agreeing or not to that. And then a broader compensation scheme. We want to make sure that people don’t miss out on that. There is an example whereby that scheme which was done between the Commonwealth and New South Wales really should have been done as a national scheme, in my view.
JOURNALIST: Mr Albanese, Scott Morrison is due to fly to India in nine days’ time on a state visit, both India and Japan. Do you think it’s appropriate given that we are going to be having funerals and recovery will be ongoing?
ALBANESE: That will be a decision for him. I wasn’t critical of the decision by the Prime Minister to go to Hawaii on the holiday. I stayed away from that. I intend to continue to do that. My job is to perform a constructive task as Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Labor Party. I have done my best to do that. I have sought briefings. And David Littleproud has been very good at providing those briefings to try to help to inform the public about the dangers that are there. To listen to, a shout-out to the ABC for the work they are doing in keeping people safe here as well. But, the Prime Minister will have to weigh up whether it’s appropriate for him to go or not. That’s a decision for him.
JOURNALIST: Is this a turning point in public consciousness about climate change?
ALBANESE: Well, one of the things about this is that unfortunately, the scientists have been proven to be correct. They said that the bushfire season would be longer, and they said it would be more intense. They’ve also said that about more extreme weather events like cyclones. We are not in that season yet. I think people know this is not business-as-usual. One of the reasons why we have seen, I think, some frustration expressed by people on the ground, they don’t want to be told it’s a natural disaster. Yes, Australia’s had natural disasters in the past. We haven’t, in my lifetime, had people on beaches waiting to be evacuated in life jackets, sending boats out to sea like it’s a peacetime version of something that we have seen during wartime. We have not seen that. This is not business-as-usual. And it requires national leadership and response. This is a national emergency and it’s important that the response be appropriate to the scale of this emergency.
JOURNALIST: Has Scott Morrison done a good job in your view?
ALBANESE: Well, I’m not a commentator, that’s up to others to make that assessment. And people will make those assessments. My job is to do my best. To represent the views that I’ve heard to try to convey those and get some policy changes. I must say, some of the initiatives that I’ve advanced have been adopted by the Government over recent times. I say that they should go back and have a look at the correspondence from November and look at the range of suggestions that are in there. They’re practical. I have tried to avoid political critiques because I think people don’t want that at this point in time. They want people to be constructive. And I’ve been determined to do so.
JOURNALIST: Do you believe more can be done? Greg Mullins was on radio this morning saying that there are firefighting aircrafts being mothballed in Canada at the moment and we haven’t put our hands in our pockets to bring them over?
ALBANESE: I met with Greg Mullins and the other former fire chiefs. I said, as part of the correspondence that I’ve been saying for months that the Prime Minister should meet with them. It doesn’t mean that you have to adopt every suggestion that is put forward. But we need to, at a time like this, listen to the experts which are there. I met in Rockhampton with a couple who tried to get meetings with the Government about a particular firefighting aircraft from Russia. We have forwarded that information on to the Government to try to see that every asset that is potentially at our disposal is used. This is not a time to think that it’s OK, near enough is good enough. It’s a time whereby we need to exhaust every asset at our disposal in order to protect lives, to protect properties, and to do what we can to minimise what is a catastrophic event.
JOURNALIST: Is the resources of the Defence Force being used effectively?
ALBANESE: My only concern here is that there seems to be an approach which is that people have to ask for support rather than a proactive sitting-down which would be what would happen with COAG around the table and say what is needed. Certainly, I think, defence assets, every one of them, should be, at this time, available. This is the scale of what is occurring here, of a mass evacuation. Not from a town. From a region that is bigger than most countries in Europe. That is what we are seeing happening today and yesterday. The scale of this requires a national response. It requires national leadership. And it requires all of our national assets to be used. Because the priority is that people are kept safe. We know that there are 28 people missing in Victoria. There is more bad news on the way. We know that is the case. We know people out there are genuinely scared. And there is a reason for that, because this is scary. There is no point downplaying it. We of course need to be considered and measured in the response. And it’s the role of leaders to do that. But, we shouldn’t be downplaying the scale of this crisis as just another event. Because it’s far from it. Thank you very much.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.