SUBJECTS: Bushfire crisis across Australia; the Government’s inaction on climate change; Angus Taylor investigation referred to AFP.
HOST: Anthony Albanese, you’ve been getting briefings on the situations in Victoria and New South Wales. Is it a time for the country to come together rather than play politics?
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: That is precisely what I have been doing in terms of putting forward constructive proposals. I wrote to the Prime Minister way back in the beginning of November, indeed. And I called for COAG to be brought together to ensure that we had the best possible national coordination. I called for economic compensation for our volunteer firefighters, that now to some level, has been granted. I called for the Government and the Prime Minister to meet with the ex-fire chiefs who have, of course hundreds of years of experience. I called for the proper dispersal of every asset that is available to us. And that is happening in terms of Defence. And I must say, in terms of David Littleproud, has been very good in terms of I have been in regular contact with him. And indeed, had a briefing organised with his office and the Department of Home Affairs again just this morning with myself and Murray Watt, our Shadow Minister. Today I was supposed to be in Albury. And the smoke around Albury meant that the plane was deferred seven times and then they couldn’t give a guarantee of getting in. So, I’ve done my best to try to keep myself informed, to inform the public about the facts and the dangers which are there and continue to emphasise that people should listen to the ABC that has indeed played a really important role in terms of giving people information.
HOST: I take on board and we’ve heard you say that over the last week you’ve been all over the country, particularly in Queensland making that very point that it is a federation. And you just heard the Prime Minister say there that they’re fully supporting the state authorities. So, being a federation, the Prime Minister’s made a call that it’s the states that have the lead role. The Commonwealth comes in and backs them up.
ALBANESE: Well, these bushfires don’t recognise state boundaries. The Albury aerial firefighting, which is based there, is servicing the New South Wales South Coast as well as Victoria, particularly the Gippsland region. We’ve seen these fires across boundaries. Mallacoota, of course, is very close to the New South Wales border. And the crisis that occurred there with literally hundreds of people on the beach in life rafts. This is not business-as-usual. This is a national emergency.
HOST: It is. You’re a student of history, political history and other history too. And in terms of national emergency, when they’re really great, like wartimes, you have national governments or national cabinets. Is that something that you should be pursuing that perhaps an offer that there should be people on both sides of the aisle coming together for the national good and not playing politics?
ALBANESE: Well, I’ve made that proposition to the Prime Minister as well.
HOST: Publicly or privately?
ALBANESE: Both. In the letter that I wrote to him in November, which were released publicly, he responded saying that there was no need.
HOST: That was November. I think things have deteriorated substantially since then.
ALBANESE: But his position doesn’t seem to have changed, which is to speak about the states having responsibility. And of course, the states do have responsibility for our firefighting services. But we’ve seen with the deployment of the military in recent days that this is not business-as-usual. There’s a need for national coordination here. There’s a need for every response possible. And for us to ensure, for example, the issue of the firefighters getting some form of compensation. I was in the north coast of New South Wales in Casino and Ballina, and other parts. At the beginning of November, it was being raised with me that people up there had been fighting fires, at Rappville and around Casino, around Ballina, for many months, even at that point in time, and that they were exhausted. And that for many of them, they had an issue with regard to just providing the essentials of life.
HOST: You would have had conversations, I’m assuming, in these fire grounds with people. And there would have been split opinion, I’m assuming, of people who would say, ‘look, the priority is to get people evacuated and taken care of, and then you can have the debate a little later on’. But as I say, that there’s a split opinion on that. Could you not at this stage say all these things we reserve the right to take up not in months down the track but fairly shortly after once we get these people taken care of?
ALBANESE: But I’ve done that. I have at all times prioritised the immediate. And indeed, have been critical for saying that climate change, for example, is obviously having an impact. The science has been proven.
HOST: Climate change, Anthony Albanese, is a very valid issue. But do you take the point I’m trying to make is that when you inject this into the current situation.
ALBANESE: You are a hard fella to agree with.
HOST: No, no.
ALBANESE: But I’ve been saying that in each and every interview that I’ve done for a long period, throughout this entire period.
HOST: But if you inject climate change into an argument, it’s a valid thing to debate but it gets people’s hackles up at this time, doesn’t it?
HOST: Well, for some people it does.
ALBANESE: Some people can look at what’s happening and not see anything. But my view is, if that’s the case, it is because they can’t see through all the smoke that is choking our cities and regions at the moment. This is not business-as-usual. And to make that point is not to distract from the immediate priority, which is keeping people safe. Evacuations of people are taking place in their hundreds as we speak. The crisis has to be dealt with. The immediate priority is always saving lives, number one. Secondly, it’s about protecting property and not being distracted from that. But it’s not a distraction from that to say that, to acknowledge the obvious, which is that this is not a normal bushfire season.
HOST: Well, the Prime Minister was asked several questions about that. He brought up the issue of drought and hazard reduction, you could equally say that they are issues that are equally as important as climate change?
ALBANESE: Well, the drought, might have something to do with climate change. That’s the point. The scientists told us that.
HOST: What about hazard reduction?
ALBANESE: That’s a valid issue as well. And one of the issues here is that when I was on the north coast, one of the issues with hazard reduction is that because the fires began earlier, because of in part as a direct result, quite clearly, the dryness you’ve had, parts of tropical rainforest haven’t been burnt before, that have burnt because there’s just no moisture in the soil. And that led to people fighting fires who would normally be engaged in hazard reduction. Where hazard reduction has occurred, for example, in the briefing I had in Katoomba from the RFS, the hazard reduction that occurred to the north of Winmalee and the lower Blue Mountains areas has provided an incredible buffer, which enabled then for, in recent times, for the back-burning to provide some protection, which for the first time in the Blue Mountains, you had fire coming from the north and the south to that community that for people who aren’t familiar, is essentially along the Great Western Highway a 50 kilometre stretch on top of the escarpment. In the past there has been fire coming from one direction. This time it’s coming from two. And it’s the hazard reduction that took place around about Easter that has made an enormous difference. Now, the problem is that in some cases in terms of national park management, that didn’t occur because they were busy out there fighting immediate fires in places like Rappville on the north coast. So, that was raised with Me as an issue. So, that’s why it requires us to look at management in national parks. It requires us to look at all of those issues. But of course, the immediate priority is keeping people safe.
HOST: Now, we spend a lot of time with you. And thank you for giving us your time. We’re standing by to go to Victoria, where the authorities and the state controls that are going to update us on the situation, particularly in Gippsland. Just a couple of very quick questions before I let you go, Anthony Albanese. We’re talking about the possibility of a Government of national response, if you like, to the emergency. What about the early resumption of Parliament? Is that getting to the stage where it might be warranted?
ALBANESE: Look, I think what this requires is for the Government to provide leadership. I have argued that COAG should be convened. I have been arguing that since November, so that you have a properly coordinated response. And you can see that with the fact of the volunteer bush firefighters, for example. That compensation was a deal done between the Commonwealth and New South Wales. And then other states brought in after the event. The first that some of the Premiers knew about that was after the arrangement was done with just that one state. Now, that to my mind isn’t best practice. Best practices are obviously setting around all of the states, because this is a national issue. Part of the briefing today that we had indeed, is that there is extremely hot weather coming from South Western Australia at the moment, the eastern part of Western Australia, and it’s that hot weather that will drift across, so it will hit Adelaide and South Australia tomorrow, but potentially back again in catastrophic form on the weekend in the south coast and in Victoria. So, this is clearly a national emergency. The figures that we have of 17 people missing in Victoria just add to the trauma that people are feeling out there. And that’s why I think it requires a nationally coordinated response. I have been perfectly satisfied with the contact I’ve had with David Littleproud, in terms of engaging with myself and with Murray Watt, has been constructive. And I’m sure that will continue to be so.
HOST: And very briefly, there’s another developing story outside the bushfire emergency today. You would have no doubt heard that New South Wales Police have referred the Angus Taylor investigation to the Australian Federal Police. It is something that in the latter stages of Parliament last year you were campaigning very heavily on. What what’s your response to that?
ALBANESE: Well, this is obviously a serious issue. But at a point in time where we have hundreds of people being evacuated on the south coast, I think there will be plenty of time to go into detail about this, and obviously it is very serious. I think that ministers need to be accountable and need to actually not mislead Parliament. My views on this are on the record and are very clear. And the fact that it’s been referred to the Australian Federal Police shows that the New South Wales Police take this seriously as well.
HOST: Anthony Albanese. It’s taken a while to get you onto ABC News Radio, but we’ll leave it there. Thanks for your time.
ALBANESE: Thanks very much.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.