Dec 20, 2019


SUBJECT: Bushfire crisis; measures to help volunteer firefighters.

NICK MCCALLUM, HOST: Federal Opposition Leader, Anthony Albanese, has spent the last 24 hours or so in New South Wales fire-affected areas, serving breakfast to the firies and the volunteers who are doing their best to contain the blazes in the Blue Mountains. Now, of course, in contrast to that, Scott Morrison has been in Hawaii and he announced this morning that he was coming back from Hawaii. He’s cutting short his family break and he apologised to anyone in the fire affected areas who were offended by his holiday. We will ask Mr Albanese that question coming up, but there are also plenty of other issues to talk to him about. Mr Albanese, thanks for your time.

ALBANESE: Good afternoon, Nick.

MCCALLUM: So first of all, the Prime Minister’s decision to come back. Do you think that was a wise one?

ALBANESE: Well, it’s a decision for him. I certainly think that it was not wise to essentially make it into a mystery whether he was on leave or not, who was in charge of the country as acting Prime Minister, I can’t comprehend what the thought processes were for going away from the normal protocols. And I think it was his decision, of course, to go on holiday and it is his decision to come back. I’m more concerned with the issue of the firefighters, getting them support, and making sure that they have all the infrastructure, but also anything else that they need in terms of resources. And one of the things that’s happening now, after a long period of time, is many of them are really struggling. They’ve got real jobs, but they’re not earning income from them. And many of them who are self-employed or are in jobs that don’t have leave, they are making an amazing contribution, showing courage and bravery. And we should, as a community, be putting back to them, I think, as a minimum.

MCCALLUM: We’ll get back to the Prime Minister in a second. But you’ve gone down the other path. And that’s an interesting issue, isn’t it? Because I know here in Victoria, so many volunteers say they don’t want to be paid. But you’re saying, particularly given the New South Wales volunteers have been there for so long, it’s been going on for weeks now, they need some sort of benefits to be able to keep on going the way they are going.

ALBANESE: Look, I met one bloke this morning who had started fighting fires in Tenterfield, in northern New South Wales, in September. And he hasn’t had a day off, a proper day off since. Now, that is just becoming quite unsustainable. These people are exhausted. And if you have a business that you’re supposed to be running, it’s one thing to have a few days off. It’s another thing to have months off. You still have to feed your family, you have to pay your mortgage. There’s some good stories coming out. I heard this morning about banks putting freezes on some mortgage payments, and that’s a good thing. Many businesses are kicking in. And, of course, all of these people are just giving up their time but really taking an enormous risk. I met Army Reserve people who were there this morning as well, providing assistance. We see at times of crisis, the best of Australia. But it’s a very tough time indeed.

MCCALLUM: So, you’re thinking of more structured one-off payments, or tax relief, or something to help these people?

ALBANESE: Look, I’m not fixed on what the mechanism is. But people shouldn’t be in circumstances whereby they are destitute because of their commitment to their fellow Australians, and saving lives, and property. And the circumstances whether it be a one-off payment, whether it be looking at the Commonwealth providing some support in terms of leave like we do for people who are participating in some other activities, whether it be use of a natural disaster payment that’s made at various times, whether that can be made, tax relief. Really, the principle should be that people shouldn’t be placed in a position whereby they feel as though they simply can’t continue to assist because of their financial circumstances.

MCCALLUM: And before he went on holidays, the Prime Minister went out of his way to try and avoid talking about climate change in relation to these bushfires. Do you think it is appropriate to be talking about climate change and the effect that it is having or not having, while these bush fires are still burning?

ALBANESE: Let me tell you, they’re talking about it. People on the ground who have that vast experience, including, of course, the former chiefs, saying that the bushfire season is longer, is more intense. That’s what scientists did say would happen. We know that if we have a drier and hotter continent, then that will have an impact. There’s parts of tropical rain forests that have burned that haven’t burned in the past. That doesn’t mean that the first priority should always be the immediate safety of people and safety of properties. But at the same time, we have to acknowledge the circumstances which are there, are not business as usual. Sydney’s being covered in smoke. It is again today difficult to breathe. It is a bit better than it was yesterday. When you come out and your car, wherever you are in Sydney, has ash on it. That’s not business as usual. And certainly, we’ve had the two hottest days on record have been this week, throughout Australia. On record. So, it’s, frankly, it has to be considered, as I said, the first priority isn’t a debate about the long-term. The first priority is doing what we can in the immediate sense. But at the same time, we need to look at planning for the medium and long-term. Looking at things like adaptation, looking at how we manage national parks, looking at all of these issues.

MCCALLUM: And finally, Mr Albanese, just to clarify your stance on the Prime Minister, you’ve said earlier in the week, you had no problem with him going on a family holiday. But today you’re saying the problem was that his office was so evasive about it, and in fact even, allegedly, lied to journalists about it.

ALBANESE: Well, look, it’s a matter for his judgment, really. It’s not up to me to say to the Prime Minister, or anyone else, about what they do with their family circumstances. Now, that’s a principle that I’ve held to. And I don’t know what the circumstances are in terms of the Prime Minister has two young daughters, it is reasonable that from time to time to spend time with them. Family life is difficult for someone in his position. And so, I’m not interested in a personal issue of trying to tell him when he can have holidays. That’s up to him. The problem here is, I think, that it wasn’t upfront. There was the Deputy Prime Minister, who was the acting Prime Minister when his office was rung, was told matters were to be referred and there were different stories about when he’d be back, where he was. And I think that created a lot of unease, and it was unnecessary. And I’m not quite sure how that happened. But it certainly has created unease in the community. And that has been raised with me, including, very much, from the volunteers and others in Bilpin and Kurrajong Heights where I was today. And these are people who feel not just the issue of leave and providing support for them, but they’re not very happy with the Prime Minister’s comments saying that the volunteers wanted to be there. What they said to me was that really annoyed them because they don’t want these fires to be burning. They are there not because they want to be but because they have a commitment to their community and to their fellow Australians.

MCCALLUM: Okay. Anthony Albanese, Leader of the Federal Opposition, I do appreciate you finding time for us. Thank you very much.

ALBANESE: Thanks very much, Nick.

MCCALLUM: And Merry Christmas to you and your family.