SUBJECTS: Bushfire crisis across Australia; criticism of Scott Morrison’s political advertisement.
GRAHAM GOODINGS, HOST: Good morning and Happy New Year to you.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Good morning, Graham.
GOODINGS: I know that it’s a grim time. It’s probably one of the worst times. Why does that seem to happen that we have natural disasters around this time of year?
ALBANESE: It is the nature of summer. Unfortunately, this has been going on for some time now. The fires on the north coast of New South Wales began really in the middle of the year. One of the brave firefighters that I met at Cudlee Creek Country Fire Service on Saturday there in Adelaide Hills, he had gone, and he fought fires in New South Wales for a month, and then of course is back helping out his local community. It is quite a tough period for people.
GOODINGS: And ongoing.
ALBANESE: It is ongoing. Some of the firefighters that I have met, I ask them how long they have been going for and they say, ‘Oh, well, I began in Tenterfield in September and then I went to the Hawkesbury that needed help. And then I went to somewhere else, the south coast and then I am back in Adelaide’ or helping out around wherever they are based around the country. It’s quite a remarkable story in amongst all the tragedy, the bravery of the effort of the firefighters. I am just inspired by it, I have got to say. And I think we owe them our eternal thanks. I was reminded of it driving through the Adelaide Hills. You just can’t not be affected by the impact that these fires have had. It is just devastating. It is there for all to see. One of the places that we went on Saturday was the wine region of Adelaide Hills and was shown around by Mark Vella and Hamish Laurie. And there was one spot where we were where they managed to protect one side of the road, or the path, that was still green and lush. The other side had just completely disappeared, effectively. And the heat that must have been generated, we saw one shed with poor fellow Michael, his two tractors, all of his equipment had just literally melted. It looked like something out of a movie. It’s quite horrific what people had been through. It is extraordinary there hasn’t been more loss of life due to the extent of damage.
GOODINGS: Certainly. Anthony, I’m sure your visit to the area was appreciated. But what role does really the national leaders have in visiting sites of national disaster?
ALBANESE: Well, I think there are a few things we can do. One is to do what I’m doing now which is to then portray to the nation what’s going on with these communities. I think people do want to be informed. Secondly, to take advice from people. One of the first things that kept being raised with me up on the north coast of New South Wales now months ago was the volunteer firefighters who in the past hadn’t argued for any remuneration, any money for themselves. But I met a number of people who said, ‘I haven’t been able to work for three months, I’ve got a problem because I’m not earning income. I have still got to pay the rent, put food on the table for my family’. That led me to call for economic compensation. I did that every day, for week after week. And that directly came from that feedback whereby people who really wanted to continue to make an effort that they were doing. They wanted to continue. They didn’t feel like they could stop fighting fires, and that they were in a situation whereby they shouldn’t be pushed into poverty for doing that. So, that economic compensation directly came out of discussions that I had with people. The greater use of the Defence Forces came out of discussions that I had with people directly when I was on the south coast of New South Wales. I am familiar with those communities which are similar to the communities around East Gippsland, like Mallacoota, where it is one road in, one road out. If that road is cut off, people said to me, ‘What are we going to do? We will have to be evacuated potentially’. And that first-hand briefing of people on the ground as well as of the fire chiefs, just yesterday I travelled from Adelaide to Victoria and got briefed by the head of the Victorian operation. And that can be useful in terms of guiding a policy response. I have tried to be constructive during this period as the Leader of the Labor Party and tried to put forward ideas, some of which have been taken up, like the need for a national response, compensation for volunteers, the need for greater Defence Force involvement, the need for greater aerial firefighting. They have all been proposals that we have been forwarding for some time. And it is good they have been taken up.
GOODINGS: Anthony, I have to ask you, the Prime Minister was getting scathing criticism from the community and from the media regarding his non-appearance, going on holidays, being in Hawaii and then coming back and subsequent events. But you have been quite muted in your criticism of the Prime Minister?
ALBANESE: Well, my focus has been on the victims of this unfolding tragedy and on the communities. And I have been constructive. I haven’t seen it as a time for partisan politics. And I think people draw their own conclusions as well. Everyone can have a look at the footage of the Prime Minister with young Zoey, the 20-year-old pregnant mum in Cobargo. And they will draw their own conclusions.
GOODINGS: I think it has been a lesson in what not to do in handling a national crisis if you are the Prime Minister.
ALBANESE: People will draw their own conclusions. I wrote to the Prime Minister calling for COAG to be convened in mid-November, which is when I think it should have been. I do think from the beginning there should have been a national response that was agreed to by Prime Minister on Saturday. I do think that’s why people have responded very negatively to the Liberal Party ad that was authorised by the Prime Minister on Saturday which even had a button on it for donations, not to the bushfire recovery, but to the Liberal Party.
GOODINGS: Whoever was advising the Prime Minister should be out of a job.
ALBANESE: Well, I was somewhat stunned by that, I have got to say. I asked twice for it to be checked if that was true because I just found that unfathomable on a day in which, of course, we had two deaths on Kangaroo Island. We had probably the worst day of this tragedy in terms of what was happening on KI, what was happening in East Gippsland, what was happening on the south coast, what was happening in the Monaro region around Tumbarumba, and around other areas in Snowy Mountains, and the alpine region of Victoria as well. For an ad to go up so quickly using Defence Force imagery with the music that was attached to it. This isn’t a time for elevator music.
GOODINGS: Not at all. It was terrible taste. Poor taste indeed.
ALBANESE: Anyway, I’m surprised that the ad is still up. I would have thought that it was appropriate it be withdrawn. But that is a decision for the Prime Minister, really. I have remained focussed, in a positive way. And I intend to visit South Australia again.
GOODINGS: We are going to have to leave it there, Anthony. We are out of time. Great to talk to you, Anthony Albanese.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.