SUBJECTS: US-Iran tensions; impact of military conflict on the economy; Bushfire crisis across Australia; recovery process for the bushfires; recovery for flora and fauna impacted by the bushfire crisis; Labor’s climate change policies going forward.
MATTHEW PANTELIS, HOST: We are happy to welcome to the studio this afternoon the Federal Leader of the Opposition, Anthony Albanese. Good afternoon.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thanks for having me on, Matthew.
PANTELIS: Thanks for popping in. Now, of course, you are no stranger to FiveAA. You are on breakfast regularly.
ALBANESE: I have got my Wednesday spot now. It used to be ‘Two Tribes’ with Christopher Pyne. But now, it is ‘One Tribe’. Just me. They have to come up with a different song with a ‘one’ theme every week. They do quite well.
PANTELIS: Well maybe we will put that out for listeners this afternoon. What is the song for you?
ALBANESE: I spoke to Will’s dad last week. It seems like they all meld into each other. He is filling in there.
PANTELIS: Well, we have to have a Goodings on air somewhere. Now, look let’s start off with some serious news. I know you have been visiting the fire front and we will put that to one side for right now. But, obviously the situation in Iran that has occurred in the last few hours, earlier this morning, Iran and the Revolutionary Guard taking credit for bombing a couple of US bases in Iraq. What should happen here? Should Australian troops be withdrawn from the region?
ALBANESE: What should happen firstly is that I hope that all parties exercise restraint. This could be a very dangerous escalation that we are seeing since, of course, the killing of the Iranian general, Soleimani. And then this response. These things can get out of control very quickly. I spoke to Scott Morrison this morning, and certainly his priority, and it would be mine too, is to ensure that Australians are kept safe. One of the bases that was attacked in Iraq of the Americans, has Australians very close to that base. And certainly, in terms of General Campbell, is looking at making sure that those assessments are all made. I am waiting on a full briefing and so it is difficult to comment any further. Scott Morrison also wasn’t aware of all the details this morning when we talked. But certainly, the first priority is to ensure that Australians are kept safe. But also, I think, to hope that all parties exercise restraint. The idea of an all-out conflict would potentially be very dangerous indeed.
PANTELIS: Consular staff in the region as well, what about them? Should they stay? Should they be pulled back?
ALBANESE: Well, we will wait on the assessments there. There are, of course, Australian consulate staff are present in various countries in the region. Of course, Iran has influence outside of Iran’s borders. And therefore, that’s one of the reasons why this could escalate very quickly into a circumstance which is very dangerous indeed.
PANTELIS: Any response to Trump’s handling of this situation? Did he overreach here do you think?
ALBANESE: Look, I think certainly when people act unilaterally, there’s usually a response. I think that the Iranians have responded, as well, in a dangerous way. I think that all parties need to exercise restraint. I have no truck with the Iranian regime. America is an important ally of Australia. But I do note that Scott Morrison has said that Australia wasn’t consulted on this. And this is an action that potentially has ramifications for the entire world.
PANTELIS: All right, we’ll see where it goes. I notice interstate now, the ACCC will probably have a look at this, but I see there’s a petrol station in Melbourne that has jacked-up its prices as a result of this conflict, you would think, to almost $2 a litre. I don’t know if you’re across that, but a station in Carlton has done that apparently today.
ALBANESE: That sounds like the need for the ACCC to intervene. That’s price-gouging, if that has occurred. But one of the consequences of conflict, military conflict, is that has an impact on the economy as well. And that’s one of the ways in which the global economy could be impacted by any escalation of the conflict as well.
PANTELIS: Talking of the economy, we’ll get on to that in regard to fires. You’ve been up in the Adelaide Hills today and had a look around there. How are people fairing up there when you saw them?
ALBANESE: We were up there on Saturday. We were at Woodside and then at Cudlee Creek at the Country Fire Service meeting some amazing men and women. We met two people who’d been there, one for 57 years’ service, and the other for 56 years’ service. Men in their 80s still making a contribution. Quite inspirational, our firefighters. And I know driving through the Adelaide Hills, there’s signs everywhere to the CFS and to the firefighters. Today we were at Paradise Public School, appropriately named, where they’ve opened up the gymnasium there for the Adelaide Koala Rescue. And there is a wonderful woman named Jane who started the service. There are over 100 koalas being looked after there. Koalas that have been affected, in terms of singed or burned, some, many of them have had their little paws burned because they’ve had to come down off the gum trees and onto very hot ground beneath them. And also, little orphan koalas that are being looked after. They’re doing an amazing job there, I’ve got to say. And a whole lot of volunteers, vets, nurses. There’s one woman who had just arrived while we were there. I was there with Terri Butler, my Shadow Environment Minister and Peter Malinauskas, and one woman just arrived. She was a vet nurse, came over from Perth, to help out. It’s the sort of thing that we are seeing at these times of crisis. Australians helping each other. But Australians are also concerned about our native wildlife that’s had a devastating impact on it as well.
PANTELIS: Indeed. The recovery effort, the Federal Government as you would know, today has put up money for farmers, for business, tax-free. I think it’s $10,000 for farmers, $15,000 for business, tax-free. There’s a package put up for SA. I think $11 million Federal and then state as well chipping in a similar amount. But the Federal Government are forecasting a budget of $5 billion. Should they dip into that to help the recovery effort across Australia?
ALBANESE: The priority has to be helping people who are suffering, helping communities get back up on their feet. And this should be regarded as an investment as well. The consequences for the economy are catastrophic if these communities don’t get back on their feet. So, there will need to be economic reconstruction in terms of roads and rail lines, bridges, but also schools and hospitals. There will need to be health expenditure, particularly not just physical health, but mental health in the long-term. There will need to be, as well, an assessment about the impact on our ecology. One of the things that I’ve called for today is three steps to do. We’ll need a national ecological audit about what the impact has been on our native species and animals, but also plants and vegetation. I’ve said that the COAG Environmental Ministerial Council should meet so that we get that coordination from the Commonwealth, and the states and territories, and local government. And I’ve also said that the Cooperative Research Centre on bushfires, whose funding runs out in July next year, it had eight years funding, so it’s been able to provide research, surely now’s the time when we should be stepping that up and giving it the certainty of that ongoing funding.
PANTELIS: So, to be clear, Labor as the Federal Opposition, you wouldn’t seek to politicise the Government saying, ‘no surplus now, we’re going to use that money’, if that’s what they chose to do for bushfire recovery around the country?
ALBANESE: Look, one of the things that we did, Matthew, when we were in Government, of course, the current Government seems to have forgotten the Global Financial Crisis, but it’s forgotten some other things as well. We had to put money into Victoria, particularly, but also some in South Australia and other places in terms of bushfire recovery when we were in office. Then there was Cyclone Yasi and the Queensland floods. You need to do that. Your first priority is to look after people. And the economy works for people, not the other way around. And that’s why any investment, we will support in terms of providing that assistance to people. I’ve been constructive the whole way through here, including arguing that COAG should have met in November. But putting forward practical suggestions, many of which have been taken up. I had the suggestion of a national approach and that got adopted on Saturday. The support for economic compensation for our volunteer firefighters. The increased use of the Australian Defence Force. And the increased aerial firefighting capacity. All of those are in the letter I wrote to the Prime Minister about two months ago. And now that those things have been adopted, that’s a good thing. And we will continue to put forward constructive ideas.
PANTELIS: Climate change and these fires. Do acknowledge arson plays a role here? The lack of clearing of undergrowth which is something that we used to seem to do years ago, decades ago, we stopped doing that in the last few years.
ALBANESE: We didn’t stop doing it. People should actually tell the truth. I’ve spoken to the Country Fire Service, Rural Fire Service people around the country. And they’re all doing that.
PANTELIS: We get farmers ringing here all the time saying the natural resource management board stops me clearing my land.
ALBANESE: That’s very different from hazard reduction.
PANTELIS: But it’s the same thing, ultimately. It stops fires from spreading.
ALBANESE: No. What you don’t allow to happen is just for land to be cleared willy-nilly regardless of anything else. And that has an impact on the climate as well. If you knock out all the trees and all the vegetation, guess what? There are consequences for that in terms of the climate. But the truth is that in places like the Blue Mountains in Sydney, one of the reasons why they lower Blue Mountains around Winmalee and Springwood were protected was because of the hazard reduction that occurred in April last year. It in fact blanketed Sydney with smoke and there were complaints at that time. One of the things that has been said to me is that on the north coast of New South Wales, in Casino, when I got the briefing there many months ago now, three months ago, what they said was that normally some of the hazard reduction wasn’t able to be done because people were busy working on the fires. We shouldn’t allow this idea, though, to take hold. That somehow there hasn’t been any hazard reduction. We should have a debate about whether there needs to be more, what the nature of it is. But the idea that there hasn’t been any, there’s been more, not less. And if you listen to the people who are running the centres, people like Shane Fitzsimmons, he will say that the figures are there for all to see. And yes, Arsonists lighting fires, it is beyond my comprehension why any idiot goes out and does that, it is a crime and they should be locked-up. But one of the things that has occurred though, is that these fires are burning more intense and for longer because of the drought. The land is so dry. And while someone can start a fire, what they can’t do is escalate it into the catastrophic circumstances that we’ve seen. This is not business-as-usual. 2019 was the hottest year on record. It was the driest year on record in terms of rainfall.
PANTELIS: What you’ve seen in the last few weeks, it doesn’t make you change your mind about what you said in Queensland to coal-mining communities a few weeks ago about the need to continue to mine coal and to export coal?
ALBANESE: Look, if we stopped exporting coal tomorrow, what would happen would be that global emissions would go up because it would be replaced somewhere else. I’ve just been straight with people about that. And people know that. And here in Australia, we went to the last election, people think it was a radical proposition that we had a 50 per cent target in terms of renewable energy by 2030. But of course, that means 50 per cent would have come from fossil fuels, as well. So, you need to transition to a clean energy economy, we need to lower our emissions. But you can’t do that with the flick of a switch. And that’s just the truth. And we need to be honest with people about that. South Australia has done better than any other state when it comes to promotion of renewable energy. And I note that last time when I was in South Australia last year, the state government announced, the very day I was here, support for an expansion of the big battery. That was controversial when it came in. But it’s not controversial now in terms of, it would seem, has bipartisan support. That’s a good thing.
PANTELIS: Totally. Do we need an inquiry into the bushfires? Royal Commission, parliamentary? Which would you prefer?
ALBANESE: Look, eventually we will of course. But one of the things that I’ve said is that we need to deal with the immediate issues that we confront. We’re not over this season yet. This is normally when the bushfire season would be starting to step up and it wouldn’t have peaked yet. So, we have a long time to go. The body that can make decisions is COAG, is the Prime Minister and Premiers and Chief Ministers sitting around a table agreeing on a national approach to these issues and a coordinated response. It hasn’t met yet. A Royal Commission is, I think, a reasonable idea. I’m not opposed to it. But I say that a Royal Commission won’t report, if it does its job properly, they normally last at least a year. So, there’s plenty of time to give consideration to that, terms of reference, who an appropriate person might be to be the Royal Commissioner sometime in the not-too-distant future, it should be considered. But it does not have to be considered now. And it certainly shouldn’t be announced when COAG has not even met. And I argued that it should have met in November.
PANTELIS: All right, Anthony Albanese. We appreciate your time this afternoon. Thanks for coming by.
ALBANESE: Thanks for having me on the program. Always good to be on FiveAA.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.