SUBJECTS: Bushfire crisis across Australia; Newspoll January results; recovery process for the bushfires; mateship during the bushfire crisis; Calls for a Royal Commission into bushfires; US-Iran tensions; Australians in the Strait of Hormuz.
BRIAN CARLTON, HOST: The Newspoll that was released late last night and published in today’s Australian has some pretty good news for the bloke sitting opposite me at the moment. Anthony Albanese, the Federal Opposition Leader. Because Mr Albanese, as of today, according to this Newspoll, you are the preferred Prime Minister in Australia. Good morning. Welcome to Triple M Hobart.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Good morning. Great to be on the program, in the studio.
CARLTON: And you got a great view here, straight up the mountain.
ALBANESE: It is a beautiful Hobart day. This is a great city. And I’ve got to say particularly having been around Sydney and Melbourne in recent times, it’s amazing to see that blue stuff because we haven’t seen it in Sydney for a very long time.
CARLTON: In fact, both those cities today are under smoke alerts. Sydney and Melbourne just for those traveling north.
ALBANESE: Canberra was for a few days there the world’s smoggiest or dirty city in terms of the air quality was the worst in the entire world. Just extraordinary.
CARLTON: You are not only the preferred Prime Minister today, but you have a two-party preferred lead, according to the Newspoll. Is this one of the polls we take seriously or not?
ALBANESE: It is two years to the next election. So, I’m certainly not focused on the polls. All politicians look at them, of course. That’s the truth. But I have been focused on the bushfire crisis and the need for a comprehensive national approach to it. I think we’ve been constructive over recent months. We have put forward ideas that have then gone on to be adopted, like looking after our volunteer firefighters, increasing our aerial fighting fleet, the need to have a national response, the involvement of the Australian Defence Force. They’ve all been propositions that we have put forward and that have after a period of time now been adopted. That’s a good thing.
CARLTON: Where did Scott Morrison get it wrong?
ALBANESE: I think there was a bit of complacency there. If you look at the comments that were being made in October, November, and even December, there was a thing of natural disasters, we’ve had them before. I don’t think there was a recognition of the need for a national response. Yesterday Scott Morrison said that it was unique that the Australian Defence Force be involved in natural disaster recovery. That, of course, is complete nonsense.
CARLTON: Yeah, I’m not sure that’s true. In fact, I know that’s not true.
ALBANESE: Well, it’s absolutely not true. The Australian Defence Force were involved literally the day after the bushfire crisis in Victoria occurred. They were involved in the response to Cyclone Yasi around Townsville and far north Queensland. They were involved in the floods in Brisbane and south east Queensland. They have been involved before. This is a national crisis. The bushfires don’t recognise state boundaries. And there should have been much more preparation. There was a report.
CARLTON: Can I interject here? There was a question, the question is not necessarily to, I think, in most Australians’ minds whether the ADF should be a part of this. It’s who should be asking the question. Is it a state government going, ‘Hey, we need a bit of help here? Can we top up ask the Federal Government for the ADF support?’ Is it a decision that the Federal Government should be making or an agency of the Federal Government? I noticed the Chief of Defence has been left as the person who will make the determination as to whether the ADF is needed or not?
ALBANESE: Well, the Federal Government clearly should have been showing more national leadership.
CARLTON: But who actually pushes the button to activate the ADF involvement? I know who does now, but who should?
ALBANESE: Well, the Federal Government should.
CARLTON: The states won’t like that, though. Because it’s politicised. You know that if a state government needs to call in the Federal Government, they’re kind of not doing their job properly, and they’ll be shellacked by the Opposition.
ALBANESE: Well, part of the problem here was that COAG still has not met. It was due to meet in the second half of last year. I wrote to the Prime Minister and said that in November and said there should be a November COAG, it should be on the bushfire crisis. It should have coordinated the response. And that didn’t happen. And so, what you then had was the circumstance whereby the PM would say, ‘we will respond to any requests’. New South Wales, Shane Fitzsimmons, the RFS Commissioner says they didn’t knock back any support that was offered. So, you’ve had this argy-bargy.
CARLTON: But this is where the lines get very blurred, as to who’s meant to ask whom, and who makes the call, and who makes the decision, who picks up the telephone, and who answers the door?
ALBANESE: Which is why if you sit down with COAG, you’ve got the Commonwealth, you’ve got the states and territories, you just get it done.
CARLTON: So, we need a process, though. There needs to be a clearly defined process for how this works.
ALBANESE: And then you don’t have the rather odd circumstance of essentially the Liberal Government in New South Wales fighting with the Liberal Government in Canberra over who said what to whom and what the time frame was. It seems that Victoria sorted it out. We had those scenes that I’ll never forget, like a mini Dunkirk, of people being evacuated off Mallacoota Beach. But just up the road, and it is not very far, Eden and the far south coast of New South Wales, you didn’t have involvement. That to me just seemed a bit incongruous. What we need at times like this, forget about bureaucracy, what do we need to do to prepare in advance to do much better? And then how do we respond to the immediate needs? And the immediate needs have been really assisted by the ADF coming in as they have been assisted by help from overseas as well. Because our firefighters, there are two things that have come out of this. One is, of course, the tragedy, the loss of life over the weekend. Bill Slade in Victoria, just terrible for him and his family, his friends, for everyone who would have worked with him. These tragedies that we’ve seen played out around the country. But then at the same time, we’ve seen this incredible bravery that is quite inspiring, frankly. The people who I’ve met, I met one bloke who had done 24 hours, he did a 12-hour shift came off, they said, ‘We need you to get back on and drive the truck’. He did just that.
CARLTON: They’re amazing, aren’t they? Tell me, I was just sort of thinking, do we have, and if this is a really stupid question, and there is one somewhere that I’m not aware of please let me know everyone listening around and Anthony, do we have a memorial, the national memorial for volunteers?
ALBANESE: Not that I know of.
CARLTON: I’m thinking for firefighters, for surf lifesavers who die in the event that they are rescuing somebody, those sorts of things.
ALBANESE: Look, not that I know of, to be frank.
CARLTON: Because our whole nation relies on volunteers for so many things. We are the nation of volunteers. I just wonder why we don’t?
ALBANESE: I certainly do. And there would be individual memorials around for specific events.
CARLTON: Given how this is an underpinning of our sense of nationhood, and so many Australians, as you know, we have the highest volunteer rates in the world, basically.
ALBANESE: One of the things that struck me about this is, and the reason why I was saying you needed a national response to giving economic compensation to some of the volunteer firefighters, was that you meet people going around the country and you’d say if you’re north coast of New South Wales, ‘Where are you from?’ And they weren’t from Lismore, they were from Melbourne, or Tasmania, or South Australia.
CARLTON: We have welcomed 30 back who have been fighting just yesterday.
ALBANESE: It’s been incredible. And many of those people have then gone back to their home communities as the fires have spread. I met someone at Cudlee Creek in South Australia, where the fires began just before Christmas, in the Adelaide Hills, and I said, ‘It must have been tough. How long have you been fighting the fires for?’ He said, ‘Well here for a few weeks, but before that for two months in New South Wales’.
CARLTON: It’s a hell of a long time isn’t it? Now tell me, will you support a Royal Commission? If it’s called?
ALBANESE: Of course, if it’s called we will support it. We’re concerned, though, that there are a couple of caveats to it. One, we want to see its terms of reference, and it needs to be comprehensive. Secondly, as well, we can’t have another report that just sits there. There was a report to the Government in July of 2018, the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework. It recommended an implementation plan by 2019 and identified the risk of climate change, the impact it was having on the drying of the continent, the potential for increased intensity of our bushfires. And there hasn’t been a Government response to it. So, it’s one thing to have reports. But what we really need is action. And the Government needs to recognise that up to this point, we just have to do better.
CARLTON: Nothing would have stopped these fires, though? There’s no Government policy that would have prevented what we’ve seen over the past four months.
ALBANESE: Well, what you could have done was to be more prepared, clearly. And things like, why is it that it took months into these fires before the Government said, ‘Yes, we do need an increase in our aerial firefighting capacity’. It took a long time before we did a range of measures that have now been implemented. The ADF could have been used much earlier as well as the national response. These are things that if you are looking forward and ensuring that you’re ready in terms of your capacity, then you’ll get better outcomes.
CARLTON: It would be fair to say that the rocks set in for the PM when he took his holiday to Hawaii? That sort of set the tone for analysis of what played out?
ALBANESE: I wasn’t critical of the Prime Minister going on holiday to Hawaii.
CARLTON: I know you weren’t. But it wasn’t a good idea though, was it?
ALBANESE: Well, it was his idea, not mine. I noticed that he says he sent me a text message, which is true. I kept that confidential, by the way.
CARLTON: What was the nature of the text message?
ALBANESE: He was just saying that he was going on leave for a week. Michael McCormack would be acting. I just took it as a courtesy. But it was his decision.
CARLTON: Did he say where he was going?
CARLTON: Because if he were holidaying on Kangaroo Island, it would have been significantly different from Hawaii, I would have thought in terms of perception.
ALBANESE: People make their own judgments about the various explanations that have been given as well.
CARLTON: And clearly many Australians have, hence you being the preferred Prime Minister by a reasonable margin as of today and having a two-party preferred lead in the polls. Just very quickly. we’ve got about literally 30 seconds, if that. The Iran situation that sort of deteriorated over the past two weeks. Do you have concerns about the crew of HMAS Toowoomba, who were heading off to the Straits of Hormuz this morning?
ALBANESE: Well, this, of course, isn’t something new. This was a scheduled visit as part of our contribution there. I support our deployment to assist passage economics in the Straits of Hormuz. But I don’t support any further escalation of our engagement. And I have been really concerned about what has been happening there. And I’ve called upon all countries, the United States and Iran, to be restrained in their response. Fortunately, the temperature has come down. But Australia does not have an interest in being involved in a military conflict there. And I have said that. And I hope for the world’s sake that there is no further escalation. That people will just cool down and recognise that there is a common interest behind peaceful resolution of any conflict that’s potentially there.
CARLTON: From overseas to up on the mountain there. Have you got a view on a cable car? Of Mount Wellington?
ALBANESE: No. I haven’t been asked about it. I’m not across all the detail.
CARLTON: If you were to see a cable car whizzing up the mountain there, would you have an issue with it?
ALBANESE: Well, it hasn’t been raised with me. That is one of the dangers of being a national leader sometimes.
CARLTON: I’m surprised you haven’t been asked the question because apparently this is the most talked about topic in Hobart. You’ve been here a couple of days now. It hasn’t come up?
ALBANESE: I have only been here for a day. But no one has raised it with me.
CARLTON: Anthony Albanese, we appreciate your time today. We’ll talk again.
ALBANESE: Thanks very much.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.