SUBJECTS: Bushfire crisis across Australia; the Government’s inaction on climate change; Angus Taylor investigation referred to AFP.
JOE O’BRIEN, HOST: So, we’ve got this fire emergency that’s been evolving across the nation over the past couple of months. Federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese joins us now in the studio to discuss this and other matters. Anthony Albanese, welcome.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Hi, good to be here.
O’BRIEN: So, today we’ve got this mass exodus happening from the South Coast of New South Wales. Tens of thousands of people there ordered to leave a 300km coastal strip of Australia. 1,500 homes destroyed, around 20 people dead, and more than 4 million hectares of bush burnt out. Do you think this is a pivotal point, at this point now, where there is a serious realisation about what’s going on with the climate?
ALBANESE: Well, this is a national emergency. And the tragedy of this is it’s precisely the sort of predictions that were made by scientists. And, unfortunately, the science is proving itself to be correct, that Australia, as a dry continent, the nature of our climate, means we’re particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change. We were told that the bushfire season would be longer and more intense, and that is what we’re seeing, and coming immediately after the drought, it just means that parts of tropical rainforest were burning for the first time just a couple of months ago. And it’s continued to take place. This is certainly not business-as-usual. I was due today indeed, I’ve been at the airport for four hours not going anywhere because I was flying to Albury to get a briefing about the aerial firefighting that’s being based there, both for the New South Wales South Coast and also for Victoria, particularly the Gippsland region. And you can’t get in at this point in time. I’m told that Canberra remains dire, but the real concern here, of course, is the loss of life that’s occurred and the fact that thousands of people are being evacuated as we speak.
O’BRIEN: So, what does this mean for the discussion around climate change, as we come into this New Year?
ALBANESE: Well, the Government has to actually not say that nothing needs to change. The truth is that they’re right when they say Australia acting alone is not enough, but the problem is not only are we not acting, we’re actually preventing global action through the argument that we put at Madrid that, rather than reducing emissions, we should have accountancy fiddles. Australia has an interest in being strong advocates for greater global action, not being a handbrake. We need, of course, to act domestically as well, but we can’t be big players on the international stage. And here’s the contradiction in the Government’s position, they say, ‘Oh, well, we’re just 1.3 per cent of emissions, therefore we don’t have a responsibility to act. It won’t really make a difference’ is what they’re saying. But the truth is that if everyone says that, of course, no one will act, that’s the first point. But the second point is we don’t have credibility in those international forums.
O’BRIEN: So, what needs to be done?
ALBANESE: Well, we need to have, and it would be nice to have, a policy on energy.
O’BRIEN: Should that policy include a price on carbon?
ALBANESE: Well, it needs a mechanism of some form. Now, the Government came up with, under Malcolm Turnbull, it went through the party room, the NEG, the National Energy Guarantee. That was worked through with Kerry Schott. What you need is a signal that creates an investment certainty. Now the NEG was one mechanism. There’s a range of mechanisms that you can have. But you need something that is a signal to the market so that you get your lowest-cost emissions reductions. And good climate policy is actually good for jobs. It’s good for lowering prices as well as lowering emissions.
O’BRIEN: So, what other elements should there be to a credible climate policy?
ALBANESE: Well, we also need a Renewable Energy Target. And so, the mechanism that drives change through our domestic economy as well as a Renewable Energy Target, the sort of mechanisms that some of them are in place. The Government tried to get rid of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. That’s playing a really important role in providing that financing options and it’s making money, by the way, for the taxpayer at the same time, because it makes sense. And Government needs to abandon the ridiculous talk of a taxpayer-subsidised coal-fired power station. The market is speaking. The cheapest way of us increasing supply and certainty in the market is through renewables and through storage, which provides that base load capacity.
O’BRIEN: But the Government maintains, again and again and again, that it will meet those Paris targets in a canter.
ALBANESE: Except, of course, that they gave up the ghost when they went to Madrid. They gave up the falsity for all to see. Because they argued there that we needed to take into account the Kyoto period emissions, which were when Labor was in Government, because of Renewable Energy Target. And also, by the way, because of the Queensland, the former Queensland Labor Government’s policies on land clearing that made a big difference there as well. Both policies that the Coalition opposed. So, they can’t oppose the policies and then try and take the credit. They need to, going forward, have a serious policy of meeting their own targets. These are their targets, signed up to by Tony Abbott. They need to do that without accounting tricks.
O’BRIEN: So, you would introduce some form of price on carbon? You would have a strong renewable action target?
ALBANESE: We’d have a mechanism of some form that would provide that investment service.
O’BRIEN: A strong Renewable Energy Target. Leader after leader in Australia has fallen on this issue over the past decade. Are you no longer concerned now with the events that we’re going through right now, that that will be a fatal position for leaders into the future?
ALBANESE: Look, it is a difficult political issue, because of some people refusing to acknowledge the science, which is there. But not only is the science there, people can now smell it, see it, feel it. And surely what we need is, political leadership is about providing that leadership. We did in Government and we, of course, did suffer from what now, if people look back, Peta Credlin gave up the ghost re the Emissions Trading Scheme that we adopted, whereby she said that their campaign was based upon a false statement, that there wasn’t a tax in place. The Government itself went very close under Malcolm Turnbull. I’m not sure what his view is now, re the NEG policy. But that went through the Party room a couple of times. That would have passed the House of Representatives with support of the 140 of the 150 members.
O’BRIEN: But he’s no longer Prime Minister. And Scott Morrison went to an election and won an election on it.
ALBANESE: What we’re seeing, though, I think, is the need for leadership on these issues. And, you know, I mean it’s quite right that there have been bushfires in Australia before. But what we are seeing is greater intensity, the season being longer, and, unfortunately, this could be the new norm and the devastation, and when we talk about economic cost, the economic cost of this crisis, this national emergency, is enormous. Not just in terms of, of course, the most important cost is the cost of lives. But the disruption as well, the social impact of people losing their homes, the economic impact long-term of having to not just rebuild, but the impact on the South Coast economy. I was up in the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury, this is their high-end season. You had the Victoria and Albert Hotel at Mount Victoria that normally would have a big Christmas lunch. They had bookings. I spoke to the proprietor there with Susan Templeman. Everyone had cancelled. They had to go ahead. There are businesses shut. The long-term impact of the fact that we’ve lost 900,000 hectares of Blue Mountains National Park. That will have an impact on bush walkers and people staying in the mountains. The economic cost as well as the social costs, the health cost to our health system of people being admitted to hospital because of the nature of the air that we’re breathing, is just extraordinary. And I think it’s about time that those people who say, ‘Oh, climate change is nonsense. Acting on climate change will cost us,’ actually had an assessment of what the cost of inaction is, because it’s astronomical. And we’re seeing it played out right now.
O’BRIEN: You were initially reticent to criticise Scott Morrison’s decision to go on holiday in Hawaii. What do you make of his overall handling of this bushfire crisis?
ALBANESE: Well, I think that at a time like this, people don’t want to see politicians personally bickering. He made the decision to go on holiday in Hawaii and that was a decision for him and others will pass their judgement. I think that there’s nothing to be gained from that. I’m more concerned, and I said at the time, I’m more concerned about the need for action. I wrote to Scott Morrison in November, now almost two months ago, saying that COAG should be convened to have the national approach. Saying that we needed to do something about the volunteer firefighters and their economic compensation, because people were saying that to me on the north coast months ago. Finally, some action has been taken. But it’s been done in a way which is not really coordinated. There’s no national scheme. Speaking about national aerial fight fighting capacities and whether we had enough, the use of the Defence Force which has now been rolled out.
O’BRIEN: So, you put those suggestions forward. Have you got any comment on the way he has handled this overall?
ALBANESE: I think other people will make their own judgements. But I do think that there’s been a view put by him that this is almost a business-as-usual approach. He has said that there is no need to change policy on climate. He’s said with regard to the idea of compensating the volunteer bushfire fighters, he was saying at the time he said that was a distraction. Then he said it was a state issue. And he dismissed the support for it. He then acted, but acted, in my view, I think it’s pretty obvious that he acted well after, day after day, there were calls for this action. The role that I’ve tried to play here is to be constructive, is to put forward constructive suggestions. And I’ll continue to do that.
O’BRIEN: I will interrupt you there, we are just being joined by viewers in Queensland. I am interviewing the Labor Leader Anthony Albanese. We are expecting the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, to step up for a media conference at any moment. We will cross there to hear from the Prime Minister when he steps up. I have been talking to Anthony Albanese about the ongoing fire emergency here in Australia with this mass exodus from the south coast of New South Wales at the moment. We have been talking about that at length. I would like to get onto something different, another subject that has just come up this morning. We have had news that New South Wales police have referred the Energy Minister Angus Taylor, the matter over this dodgy document that referred to the travel expenses for Sydney council, they have referred that matter to Federal Police. What does this signify in this whole saga and is Angus Taylor a fit and proper person to hold a portfolio, considering this development this morning?
ALBANESE: We have put our views very firmly on the record about Mr Taylor and about whether he has misled Parliament and about a range of circumstances of which this is just one, but it is obviously a serious issue. The New South Wales police regard it as being pretty serious as well, having now referred it to the Australian Federal Police. We will have more to say on this at a time when thousands of people aren’t being evacuated from their homes. I don’t think it is a time to get into a heavy political critique. Suffice to say, I think you look at what was said and compare it with what clearly the facts are around this document and its creation and it being given to the media, the two things don’t add up. And I think, I hope, that the Prime Minister answers the question as to when he knew that it had been referred to the Australian Federal Police. Because one of the issues I think here has been a lack of transparency and a Government that hides from scrutiny. We will certainly scrutinise these issues in great detail but today is not the day for that.
O’BRIEN: When you break it down, it appears to be a case possibly of someone trying a hand-fisted effort at fiddling with a document. Does it really need to get to this level? Why is it such a significant issue?
ALBANESE: It is an issue of the misleading of Parliament and whether ministers are accountable or not. And under the Westminster system, if you mislead parliament you lose your position.
O’BRIEN: In your first answer you mentioned the Prime Minister and his knowledge of things. In what way are you questioning Scott Morrison now over this?
ALBANESE: One of the reports indicates that the AFP have been investigating for some time that it hasn’t been announced today. We need to know exactly what the circumstances are. And we’ll continue to scrutinise that. And scrutinise as well the level of cooperation that is there with any inquiry to make sure that happens. This is pretty clear. There’s a document, it came from somewhere. The evidence will be there, in terms of computer trails of where it came from.
O’BRIEN: Anthony Albanese, thanks for joining us.
ALBANESE: Thanks very much.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.