SUBJECT: Bushfire crisis.
CATHY VAN EXTEL, HOST: The Federal Opposition Leader, Anthony Albanese, has been serving breakfast to firies near the Gospers Mountain fire ground in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, this morning. I spoke to him a little earlier.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Good to talk to you.
VAN EXTEL: Now this disaster took a tragic turn late last night with two RFS firefighters killed. There are another six injured. We understand two are in a coma. It’s a terribly sad day as you head towards these fires.
ALBANESE: Look, this is just devastating news. These volunteer firefighters giving up their time, showing incredible courage who have made this quite extraordinary sacrifice. And my heart goes out to their families, their friends, members of their crew who I understand, from the reports, would have been present while this tragedy was unfolding. You also have the injured. And we just hope that they come through as best as possible.
VAN EXTEL: Have you received a briefing from RFS about today’s conditions at this stage, particularly going into tomorrow, which I believe is going to be much worse?
ALBANESE: Well, we received a briefing yesterday afternoon from the department not just about New South Wales, but they’re expecting catastrophic conditions in South Australia today. And it is, of course, in New South Wales declared a state of emergency over the next week. These circumstances are certainly anything but business as usual. And we just hope that the tragic news overnight is the last we hear of a loss of life.
VAN EXTEL: Where are you headed exactly this morning?
ALBANESE: We’re headed up to the Kurrajong Heights, which is essentially the centre from which the firies are being coordinated. I’ll be with Susan Templeman who is our local member there for Macquarie, at the changeover of shifts, just providing some assistance with brekkie.
VAN EXTEL: What has Susan Templeman told you about how the communities are coping? Presumably she’s getting quite a bit of feedback on the ground.
ALBANESE: Oh, absolutely. We also have Murray Watt was here in a similar occasion just on Wednesday as Shadow Minister, Federally. Susan is very much connected with her community indeed. She lost her home in the bushfires of the last time that there was such a major fire which, of course this is even worth in terms of loss of property, the loss of life that we’re seeing. And she’s saying, essentially, that what the firefighters have said to me as well, that the volunteers are exhausted. They’re having to try and fill shifts, but they’re exhausted. It’s been going for such a long period of time for many people who have, of course, travelled up to the north coast, away from their local communities before their own communities were impacted. So, this is a real issue. Of course, there’s been some quite extraordinary assistance, including international assistance, that has been very welcomed. But the communities are doing it really, really tough.
VAN EXTEL: As you say, there is a real issue around fatigue because these fires have been going on, some of these fires have been going for weeks. Are you concerned about RFS resources and whether they have enough resources and people to keep fighting these fires?
ALBANESE: Look, I am concerned. And I’m concerned that as well for the volunteers, one of the things that I wrote to the Prime Minister about when we requested a special COAG a month ago, to deal with what was unfolding, and to make sure that we were doing everything possible to maximise coordination, and to ensure that we could be confident everything was being done. With the volunteer firefighters, many of them said to me when I was in Casino now, a long time ago it seems like, but more than a month ago, they were fatigued. They were saying for some of them, they’ve been fighting fires since the first half of the year. Now, for people who don’t have leave, they’ve still got to put food on the table.
VAN EXTEL: So, is there a role for the Federal Government here to assist some of those volunteers?
ALBANESE: Absolutely. They’ve spoken themselves about things that could be looked at, whether it’s a special payment, whether it’s a tax relief, whether it’s a special leave payment. But people shouldn’t be forced into a circumstance whereby they’ve got to choose, because they can’t do anything else. They’ve still got bills to pay.
VAN EXTEL: Anthony Albanese, you’ve made the decision to go to, essentially, the front line today. There, of course, has been criticism of the Prime Minister for being overseas on leave. Could you be seen as politicising this disaster today?
ALBANESE: No. I’ve been to other areas before I was up in the north coast. Casino, Lismore, Nimbin and Ballina to be around where the fires have been as well in Queensland and spoke to communities there. Susan Templeman has asked me to come out. I think it’s appropriate that I do so, but do so in a way, of course, which is ensuring that there’s a level of practical assistance. I do think that you don’t want to be getting in the way. You want to be making a contribution. And Susan put together a list of things that the people were asking for themselves out here. I know that business in the past has been very good as well, of pitching in. This is something that we are seeing the best of Australia as well.
VAN EXTEL: Absolutely. But we are seeing also a lot of frustration within Australia about whether we have a Prime Minister who’s missing in action at a time when there is a need for national leadership, as people are arguing. Earlier this week, you said that the PM deserved a holiday. Is that still your view?
ALBANESE: Well, my view is that it’s a decision for him, that is what I’ve said. And I have not been critical of him in terms of on a personal level. There’s a range of criticisms that I have made of him. I think that there should have been a COAG meeting convened. I think he should have met with the former fire chiefs at some stage over the last six months that they’ve been requesting meetings. I think that we need to have dealt with the national drought strategy. I think that a range of those criticisms, and I want to keep any criticisms that I have, at the political level rather than the issue about him and his family. I don’t think others are in a position to judge those matters. That’s a decision for him.
VAN EXTEL: Anthony Albanese. Thank you for your time today.
ALBANESE: Thanks very much.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.