SUBJECTS: Bushfire crisis across Australia.
MARK LEVY, HOST: The Opposition Leader is here in the studio. Mr Albanese, good morning.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Good morning, Mark.
LEVY: Now, we have something in common. We are both South Sydney supporters. We might save that chat for a little bit later on.
ALBANESE: That’s always a very good start, mate. That goes to character.
LEVY: I am just hoping that we get Latrell Mitchell over the line. But we will have a chat about that a little bit later on.
ALBANESE: Mitchell and Roberts in the same team.
LEVY: Well, Wayne Bennett did say, ‘We are not signing James Roberts”. And then we did. He said the same about Latrell Mitchell. We will wait and see what happens. As I mentioned, you have been around various communities that have been affected by these bushfires. One thing we do need to do now is get them back on their feet. So, you have been out there. What are the people telling you?
ALBANESE: Just at the moment, what we see is that people are just traumatised. And the other thing that has happened of course is that those courageous people who have been fighting fires have been in the field for a very, very long time now. On Saturday, I was at a place called Cudlee Creek in South Australia, in the Adelaide Hills. And one of the things that people might not necessarily, everyone listening to program mightn’t realise, is that these volunteer firefighters haven’t been just fighting fires in their own areas. Something that I have found almost universal wherever I’ve been, whether it’s the Hawkesbury, or Blue Mountains, North Coast, South Coast, Victoria, South Australia, is that you say to someone, ‘so, how long have you been in the field for on the front line?’ And for example, on Saturday, there was one bloke who has been fighting fires in New South Wales for six weeks before he went home to defend his own local community. And that’s pretty common. In the Hawkesbury, I met one bloke who had been fighting fires since September. He started in Tenterfield. He then moved a little bit further south, down to around the Casino region where you had that devastation of that whole region around. It began in Rappville many months ago. But was then defending his own local community and didn’t know if his house would still be there because he was off being allocated somewhere apart from where his own home was. So, we just, I think, these men and women just deserve our praise, our thanks, our gratitude. They are inspirational.
LEVY: Some of the mayors and some of the residents I’ve spoken to over the last week and a half of saying, ‘Look, Mark, we’re going to get ourselves back on our feet, we’re going to rebuild.’ And we rely, a lot of these communities, on the tourist dollar. And we’ve got to encourage all of our listeners to, even though they’ve fallen on tough times, they might not be much left of some of these communities, we do need to return and make sure that we invest our money in these local communities.
ALBANESE: Absolutely. Take an area like the Blue Mountains where I visited a couple of times with Susan Templeman. That, of course, it is essentially one road. The Great Western Highway runs across the top of the escarpment and it is homes either side. They don’t have agriculture. They don’t have big manufacturing. All they’ve got is the tourism dollar they rely upon. And at the end of the road almost towards Hartley, we met with local businesses at Mount Victoria. And it was just, I think it might have even been Christmas Eve, they had planned at their beautiful Victoria Albert hotel there, they’d planned a big Christmas lunch. They were fully booked. And, of course, the bookings just disappeared. But they still had their overheads. Because some of the international bookings couldn’t be cancelled. They couldn’t cancel the event. So, the proprietor of the hotel that was going ahead with this lunch is going to lose a lot of money, essentially, on it. The shops essentially weren’t open and hadn’t been open at that time. It’s not a great experience to go shopping when you can’t breathe. And the air up there was just toxic. But, we need for people to plan their little weekends away in the Blue Mountains, or in the Hawkesbury region, down the south coast. We need to put back in whatever we can. Because these communities have lost out at the time that’s really where they make their money for the whole year. And that is going to be a real issue going forward. Because we can’t afford for these regional communities to not survive. I want more people living in regional Australia, not less.
LEVY: Well, the Prime Minister’s announced a $2 billion bushfire recovery fund that will be overseen by Andrew Colvin, the former AFP Commissioner. It is being welcomed by those in the fire affected areas. I’ve had email after email from people saying thank you. Surely the Prime Minister deserves some credit for this.
ALBANESE: Oh, it’s a good start. Absolutely. The cost will be much more than that, of course. When you look at it in context, when cyclone Yasi happened and the Queensland floods when Labor was in Government, that cost was over $5 billion. When we had the Victorian bushfires, when we were in Government as well, I know that the costs were substantial. I was the Infrastructure Minister. So, I was responsible for a lot of the funding, particularly through local government that I was the minister for as well. So, there’s going to be substantial economic costs here to governments of all persuasions. Local government will have a particularly important role to play. But of course, all of us have a role to play in this as well, as you’re pointing out, to try and get those dollars back into the communities. But we must remember as well, the human cost. Not just in terms of we’ve had lost lives, we’ve had people who will be traumatised. And it’s a bit like PTSD or people who’ve been through a war zone. Sometimes the mental health aspect lasts a lot longer than the physical damage.
LEVY: It could be months or years down the track.
ALBANESE: Absolutely. And you think about the images of those kids on Mallacoota beach, or Eden, or wherever during these fires that have devastated so much of the country. Them going through that at such a young age, let alone for adults, it’s tough enough. But we need to really keep our eye on that, make sure that all those resources are available right now. And make sure that the long-term consequences of this are minimised. There will be consequences. But we can do all that we can to minimise it.
LEVY: I keep hearing this line of questioning at the moment and it seems we’re still focusing on the Government and whether they can deliver this surplus. Now, surely that’s the last thing on people’s minds in Canberra when we’re talking about death and destruction from these bushfires. Surely, we shouldn’t be talking about whether the Government can deliver a surplus, given the money should be spent on these people who have been affected.
ALBANESE: Well, we want an economy that works for people, not people that work for an economy.
LEVY: But we’ve survived without a surplus for a long, long time. So, I guess what I’m asking you today is, are we’re going to hear from your side of politics, the Labor Party, a number of your colleagues standing there talking about, constantly, ‘Well, is Scott Morrison going to be able to deliver a surplus?’
ALBANESE: Well, we are not the side of politics, with respect, that has sat in the Parliament, pretended there wasn’t a Global Financial Crisis, pretended they weren’t Victorian bushfires that needed responding to, and pretended that they weren’t floods in Queensland. That’s not us. That’s the other side. Our priority is people. And people have to be prioritised.
LEVY: But if the priority is people, why are we talking about a surplus when the money could be being spent on these people who have been affected?
ALBANESE: I haven’t raised it.
LEVY: A number of your colleagues have, though?
ALBANESE: I haven’t raised it. And I haven’t seen any of my colleagues raise it either. Out priority is looking after people. I wrote to the Prime Minister in November and called for a COAG meeting in November. A national approach to this that was agreed to on Saturday. I called for increased resources for aerial firefighting. I called for increased use of the Defence Forces. I called for support for our volunteer firefighters with economic compensation for them. All of those measures I called for in November, in writing to the Prime Minister. It’s good that there’s a national approach to these issues. I’ve welcomed the $2 billion commitment. I’ve said that will be a start though. There is no doubt that there will be more investment required. And the trick here will be how it’s rolled out. One of the things with bureaucracy sometimes is that announcements can be made, and then nothing happens on the ground. What we want to make sure, and the Government needs to make sure, is that money makes a difference, immediately. It’s no good announcing $2 billion, and then finding out that one and a half billion dollars of that is to be spent in 2021. We need that investment sooner rather than later. And the truth is, the sooner we invest, and the sooner we rebuild that infrastructure, the cheaper it will cost as well. Because if we leave some of these health issues to go, it’ll end up just being more problematic, rather than less. And in terms of infrastructure, we need to make sure as well out of this that’s an opportunity to make sure that when we’re rebuilding the roads, and bridges, and infrastructure that will be needed, we can be training Australians as well, including locals to get apprenticeships, to get some plus out of what is an absolute disaster.
LEVY: What about this debate at the moment regarding land clearing, the fuel on the ground, the reluctance to hazard reduction burn these various areas of Australia? I’ve been listening to the authorities and they’re talking about it being a massive problem as a reason why these fires have burned through millions of hectares. And residents, those in these communities, are saying there is just so much green tape in the way for us to get these done. Is that something you’ll be addressing once the Parliament resumes?
ALBANESE: Well, of course the state government, the state Liberal government, are responsible for our national parks. But can I say this; when I’ve met on the ground in Katoomba, for example, one of the things that people listening to this in Sydney will know is that last Easter there was smoke right over Sydney. And some people were complaining about it. Guess what? That was hazard reduction. That happened in the Blue Mountains to the north of Winmalee in the lower Mountains area, Winmalee, Springwood, around there. And what the experts tell me, the head of the Rural Fire Service for the region says that hazard reduction has made an enormous difference in terms of when the fires were coming from the north and from the south, heading towards those built-up communities. It’s that hazard reduction that made a difference. Because it provided a bit of a handbrake, effectively. And then enabled them to go in and do some limited back-burning that restricted that fire that was coming through. The enormous fire that impacted on the Hawkesbury right up to Singleton. So, these management practices are really important. They do make a difference. In the north coast, months ago, though, the head of Casino Rural Fire Service told me one of the problems they’d had was that because the fire started earlier, they hadn’t been able to go in and do the hazard reduction, because people were busy fighting to save homes in Rappville in some of those communities. So, we need to make sure that all of these services have the resources and the personnel that they need.
LEVY: Like I say, I keep talking to people on the ground. And I have done that. The open line has been running hot with people wanting to talk about this. And a lot of people in these areas are frustrated with all this talk about climate change. They’re saying that climate change has got nothing to do with this, climate change is something that can be addressed by politicians into the future. What needs to be addressed is the land clearing, the fuel on the ground, that’s what’s fuelling these fires. So, if you’re saying that climate change is one of the reasons why these bushfires are here today, and the residents are saying it’s not. Who do we believe? Who’s right?
ALBANESE: How about we listen to scientists and the experts. There’s none of the people I’ve met in the Rural Fire Service, in senior positions, anywhere around New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, who doesn’t say that over a period of time, the less rainfall, the drought, the dryness of the land, has had an impact. They all say it.
LEVY: But fires, hot weather and winds at this time of the year are nothing new for Australia. We’ve had it for thousands and thousands of years.
ALBANESE: This is new. This is new.
LEVY: What? Fires and hot weather during summer is new?
ALBANESE: Mark, the head of Katoomba Rural Fire Service, who has 40 years’ service, has said to me, for example, that there has never been a time whereby those communities along the escarpment there in the Blue Mountains have faced fires from the north and the south at the same time.
LEVY: And the reason for that is some of the fuel that’s on the ground. It has nothing to do with climate change.
ALBANESE: Why is the fuel on the ground? Why is it so dry? Why is it so dry?
LEVY: Because we are not getting rid of it. We keep putting up brick walls for land owners.
ALBANESE: The fact is that this is not business-as-usual. There are parts of tropical rainforests that have never been the subject of fires that have burned during this period. There has never been a time in Australian history that you have had so many fires, which are so intense, burning across so many areas at the same time. This is not business-as-usual. The fact is that Canberra had its hottest day on record over the weekend. Sydney, of course, almost hit 50 degrees. Have a look at what has happened. The facts is, what we need to look at. And the fact is that already the decade that we’ve just had is hotter than the previous decade, which is hotter than the previous decade. That’s just a fact. I’m not ideological about this. And at no stage during this crisis have I said, ‘Let’s just have an academic debate and stop dealing with the immediate concerns’. My concerns have been to act immediately on what we need to do to protect lives and to protect properties. But at the same time, we can’t put our head in the sand and pretend that climate change is not having an impact. Because if we do, we won’t have the right analysis. Including the need to respond by looking at what’s happening on the ground. It is not either or. It’s not either or. We need to have proper hazard reduction based upon the fact that we will have drier periods. All of the scientists, if you have a look at Ross Garnaut’s report in 2008 about what the impact of climate change would be, done with the CSIRO and all of the scientific experts. And they actually talked about, tragically, they said in 2020, it is likely that the sort of scenarios that we’re seeing played out now will happen.
LEVY: Well, I think given the response I’ve had over the last week and a half, people aren’t interested in talking about climate change for your information. What they want to talk about is ensuring that we don’t feature in this position that we featured in over the last week and a half. And by clearing the land, by getting rid of the fuels, it might help into the future, and we won’t have these communities under threat. I’ve run out of time, Mr Albanese. I thank you for popping in.
ALBANESE: Thank you mate.
LEVY: I will see you at the footy this year. And hopefully we’re celebrating a premiership victory in October.
ALBANESE: Go the Rabbitohs.
LEVY: Go the Rabbitohs. Good on you, Anthony. Good to see you as always. Anthony Albanese, the Federal Opposition Leader here in the studio.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.