SUBJECTS: Bushfire crisis across Australia; recovery process for the bushfires.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thanks for having me on the program, Gary.
GARY ADSHEAD, HOST: I just want to get one thing out of the way with you and see your reaction. Kevin Rudd, during this, has said that Scott Morrison is not fit to be Prime Minister. Is that something that you agree with?
ALBANESE: Look, Kevin has expressed that view. And people are entitled to express their views. My focus during the recent weeks and months has been on putting forward constructive suggestions, many of which have been taken up, trying to stay away from the politics. There will be a time whereby a critique can be given with regard to Scott Morrison’s performance. But certainly, there was a lot of understandable anger at the fact that he chose to produce a Liberal Party ad at the height of the crisis on Saturday, the very day that it was announced that two people died on Kangaroo Island, and when people were being evacuated from the New South Wales south coast and the Victorian coast. I do find it inexplicable that a party-political ad was produced at such a time. And one indeed that had a donate to the Liberal party button attached to it, rather than donating to the bushfires.
ADSHEAD: I might come back to a couple of those issues in a minute. But just first of all, $2 billion, that’s the starting point in relation to what is required in terms of the rebuild over this. Is that a good starting point? Is that not enough?
ALBANESE: Look, it is a starting point. But clearly it won’t be enough. The figure topped more than $5 billion from the time when we were in Government over cyclone Yasi and over the consequential Queensland floods that occurred at that time. The bushfire disasters in Victoria had a substantial economic cost as well. Of course, we must always remember that the most significant costs here are the human cost. We have lost more than 20 lives. We have many more than that seriously injured. And of course, literally tens of thousands of people will be impacted in terms of their health, their physical health and, of course, their mental health as well. The sort of scenes that we’re seeing played out which are unimaginable. I think previously the idea of evacuations from the beach while a fire closes in have caused extraordinary distress for everyone who has seen it, let alone those have been at the centre of this crisis.
ADSHEAD: It was like something in Dunkirk, sort of springs to mind, doesn’t it? It was just, it was war.
ALBANESE: Well, it does. This is something that we didn’t envisage. One of the concerns that people had was that the statements from the Government were for a very long time saying that we’ve had natural disasters before, as if this was business-as-usual. It hasn’t been in business-as-usual for a considerable period of time. This bushfire season started earlier. It’s been more intense. It has produced circumstances that we have not seen before. So many fires at such intensity, across states, at the same time is something that we haven’t experienced before.
ADSHEAD: So, just on that, because let’s get down to some of the nitty gritty in terms of if your philosophy is not one where you accept that there’s some form of climate change reasoning behind this. If your philosophy is not such that you actually believe in that, then can you move forward, really?
ALBANESE: Well, I think the point here is that it’s not a matter of belief. Belief implies a leap of faith. Something that you can’t see and that isn’t empirical. What we’re seeing here is that what the scientists told us would happen, has happened. We can see it. We can smell it. We can touch it. Not just people directly affected, but everyone in Sydney, Canberra can touch it. Because they wipe the black off the cars in the morning when they come out. People in Canberra have experienced the hottest day ever in Canberra. We’ve had temperatures reach almost 50 degrees in parts of Sydney. We have had quite extraordinary circumstances. And it’s beyond my comprehension how the Craig Kellys of this world, who has given yet another embarrassing interview, could still continue to argue, essentially, that there’s nothing to see here. Well, if they can’t see anything, it’s because they can’t see through the smoke.
ADSHEAD: That’s my point. That’s my point. If we still have at the helm, right now people that are climate change deniers, then how do we move forward? How do we look at a rebuild after this if we’re not accepting that some of the causes are, at the moment, out of our control?
ALBANESE: Well, we just have to continue to put that case, to put it in a rational way that just outlines the facts. And the facts are that climate change is having an impact. It’s having an impact in terms of the drought, which means that parts of tropical rainforests that have never burned before are being burned during these fires. It has meant that because the fire season started earlier, many of the people who would have been involved in hazard reduction, for example, on the north coast of New South Wales, that I spoke to months ago in Casino, were actually involved in fighting fires. So, it has that dynamic. And unless we accept that, then what we won’t be able to do is to allocate the resources that are necessary for national park management, is to have the reassessment that will clearly be required about that balance of how we deal with what largely is a response from volunteer firefighters, the magnificent job that they’ve done. But there’s obviously a need for more resources into permanent firefighting activities. We went to the election, for example, with a policy of upgrading our aerial firefighting capacity. Some of that has now been announced, but only last week. We need to have those resources and assets there. It will require a reassessment of how our Defence Forces work at a time like this.
ADSHEAD: Because that was ad hoc, wasn’t it? The way that sort of came together? It was very ad hoc. There we have all these people that are really willing and able to evacuate and so on, and to help where they can. But it didn’t come together as a big plan did it? It sort of came together late in the piece?
ALBANESE: That’s right. And I was arguing in November. I wrote to the Prime Minister arguing for a COAG meeting to be convened in November. Two months ago, now, to coordinate a national response. Now for a long time the debate has been, ‘no well, it’s up to the states and when we receive a request from the states, we will respond’. But essentially, something like this, the bushfires don’t recognise state boundaries, and nor must the response. This has been a national crisis. It was only on Saturday that was recognised, effectively, by the Prime Minister in the announcement. Clearly the scale of what is occurring must be recognised. And the concern is, of course, is that what we are looking at is unprecedented. But it may well be a preview of what is a much more frequent occurrence in the future.
ADSHEAD: Well on that, if we’re talking about rebuilding, we talk about investing billions in doing that, is that not a folly? There are clearly people who have been away from their homes now, they don’t have a house, they don’t have anywhere to live, and so those communities have to be rebuilt. But to put them back into those areas, it just seems like a big mistake?
ALBANESE: Well, we need to look at issues like, for example, what the nature of the build is. So, making sure that homes are built in a way which makes them less susceptible to bushfire events. We need to make sure, I was watching TV the other night of a couple who had essentially survived because they had been in their dugout that had been put in near their home, that has saved their lives. That was something, as someone who lives in Sydney, not in an area surrounded by bush land, that I hadn’t seen before. That’s the sort of thing that needs to be considered. We can’t afford to have less people living in regional Australia. I am a firm advocate for more people living in regional Australia. But we need to take into account these issues in terms of how we deal with the reconstruction. In my view, the reconstruction should also look at ways in which we can have long-term benefits in terms of employment and training. This will occur over a number of years. So, there’s an opportunity for us to support job creation in these areas. And to get that long-term plus, if you like, out of what is an absolute human, economic, and social, as well as an environmental disaster. We’ve lost half a billion animals during this period, many of which of course are native animals that are under threat. The koala population has been devastated. There are so many aspects to this that we have to deal with over the coming weeks, months and years.
ADSHEAD: Just finally, a Royal Commission. Now, isn’t that what we do require over such a disaster to actually ask the hard questions?
ALBANESE: I think at some stage that will have to be considered. My statements have been though that we still haven’t had a proper COAG meeting, let alone a Royal Commission. A COAG that can make meetings between the Commonwealth, and the states and territories, and local government. It still hasn’t met. We spoke to ALGA, the Australian Local Government Association, yesterday. They still haven’t been contacted by the Government. Now, local government will be at the centre of the rebuild. They’ll be at the centre of the local infrastructure, local roads. They will be at the centre of the planning guidelines of what we were talking about, about the nature of the rebuild. So, we need to do much better. And there needs to be a national approach coordinating the activity that occurs here. I think, really, what’s happened is that for a period of time as the build-up was coming, even though all of the experts and the weather pointed towards this being an absolute crisis, there was, I think, some complacency. And the idea that this was business-as-usual has, unfortunately, been proven to be just way off the mark. And that’s why we need to do much better in the future at making sure that every planning decision possible has been made to ameliorate the impact of such an extreme weather event.
ADSHEAD: Anthony Albanese. Thanks very much for joining us.
ALBANESE: Thanks very much, Gary.