SUBJECTS: Bushfire crisis across Australia; announcement from Government about a bushfire recovery agency.
ANNELISE NIELSEN, HOST: Now joining us live on Sky News is Opposition Leader, Anthony Albanese. Mr Albanese, thank you so much for your time.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Good morning.
NIELSEN: Now, we do have an announcement from the Government today about a bushfire recovery agency. They are pledging hundreds of millions of dollars. This is something that the Labor Party supports?
ALBANESE: It’s something that we have called for, Annelise, for a long period of time. It’s good that the Government is now making a number of announcements that we have argued for, including the need for a national response, including the economic compensation for volunteer firefighters, including the upgrade of our aerial firefighting capacity, and the increased use of the Defence Force. We are going to have a very difficult long-term strategy to recover from these bushfires. The recovery will be, of course, economic but importantly also, human. The impact on health, and in particular mental health, needs to be assessed carefully. We need to make sure that the people aren’t forgotten as time goes on. Some of the impact will be delayed. If you think about the images that we’ve all seen and been horrified by, the evacuation on mass from Mallacoota Beach and what’s occurred in Eden over the weekend, what’s occurred right around the country, Kangaroo Island. I was in South Australia on Saturday. The impact on any adult will be enormous. But, the impact on a young kid being put in a situation that, frankly, is reminiscent of something we expect maybe to see in wartime is something that we need to be very conscious of.
NIELSEN: In his press conference, the Prime Minister said he would consider a Royal Commission into these bushfires. Is that something you support?
ALBANESE: Well, look, that is worthy of consideration, no doubt down the track. What I have said and said in November was that what we needed in terms of a meeting, and an assessment, and planning, was something that could have an immediate impact. And that, of course, is COAG. To have that national response. You’ve now had the declaration by the Prime Minister on Saturday that there would indeed be a national response. That we get away from what had been the position of saying that it was up to the states to make requests. So, for example, we had the Defence Force involved in Mallacoota. But, 50 kilometres away they were not involved. And that, I think, was an appropriate response. The Royal Commission will take months, obviously. The very nature of it is normally they take years not months. But at a very minimum it would report sometime late in 2020. What we need to deal with now is the immediate response. Lives are still in danger. Properties are still under threat this season. When I was briefed yesterday by the head of the Victorian Emergency Services with Richard Marles, one of the things that they’re concerned about is that you’ve had the fires in East Gippsland at the moment, east of Melbourne. But, the potential of fires in the Otways, in the Grampians to the north and west of the state, are still very, very acute. This is normally the period, bear in mind, when we’re talking about going into the bushfire season. If you think about when the tragedies historically have happened, like Black Saturday, they’ve been sometime in the future from January. So, we need to be vigilant. We need to make sure that we put in place everything we can to protect human life and to minimise damage.
NIELSEN: So, just to clarify though on the point of a Royal Commission, you would be supportive of the idea but you’re not necessarily calling for one?
ALBANESE: Look, I just don’t think the date for consideration of that is right now. What is appropriate right now is for measures to be put in place that can have an impact during the current season. A Royal Commission won’t have an impact on the response to what we’re seeing played out. It’s been played out now for many months. And one of the reasons why we called for economic compensation for our heroes, our volunteer firefighters, was that so many of them who I met would say to me, ‘I started in September in Tenterfield, and then I was around Casino, and then I was in the Hawkesbury, now I’m in the Blue Mountains region’. I met a fellow, an amazing guy, Mick in Cudlee Creek on Saturday in the Adelaide Hills. He had been fighting fires for weeks in New South Wales. And then had come home, and indeed was off protecting another fire in the Hills, not in his own home, and wasn’t sure about his cattle when he came home to his property, if it would be there when he returned. It’s the selflessness of the commitment that has been shown during this tragic period. And this crisis has been quite inspiring, I think. And we need to do all that we can to continue to minimise the damage. So, there will be a time for consideration of the Royal Commission. I certainly think of whether it’s called a royal commission or what have you, we’re going to have to have a comprehensive inquiry that goes to the full suite of measures. How we manage our national parks, the long-term impact of climate change. This is not business-as-usual. And for a long while, we were told that we have these natural disasters and we get through them well. This is not normal. And we need to acknowledge that. We need to act in the long-term on climate change. But we need to, in the immediate term, continue to do whatever we can to work with the authorities. I think that people like Shane Fitzsimmons, who we just heard from, has just put in a superhuman effort, really. And he and everyone else involved in the front line deserve our eternal thanks.
NIELSEN: Did you understand his frustration with not being briefed about the army being called in?
ALBANESE: I find that incomprehensible that that occurred. And at the same time, of course, I’ve tried to as I’m doing now, I think that at a time like this, people don’t want politics to be played. But I find it beyond belief, frankly, that he didn’t get a phone call and briefed on what was proposed. And indeed, have input into what was proposed, which is what should have happened. He’s the expert in New South Wales. And in terms of the fact that didn’t happen, but at the same time, the Liberal Party ad with a donate button attached to it to the Liberal Party, not to a bushfire recovery, could be produced with a backing soundtrack of music and use of the Defence Force. I just think that was wrong priorities.
NIELSEN: The discussion you mentioned just before about land management, that is happening at the moment. New South Wales and South Australia have both said they’ll be looking at their land management procedures, in particular those hazard reduction burns. Bridget McKenzie was on ABC Radio this morning saying that she thinks that’s a major contributing factor to the intensity of these bushfires this year. Do you think that’s a legitimate argument that we have been locked out of national parks and there haven’t been enough hazard reduction burns happening in the lead-up to this bushfire season and that’s really been one of the key factors?
ALBANESE: Well, let’s be very clear. We’re not locked out of national parks. And I would say to Bridget McKenzie, she should actually be briefed by people on the ground about what’s been happening. So, for example, in the briefing that I had in Katoomba, what the head of the RFS there outlined, very comprehensively, is one of the things that has provided some protection for the lower mountains communities like Winmalee and Springwood is that the big hazard reduction burn that happened around Easter of 2019 has provided a handbrake, to some extent, on the fire that was going from the north. That massive fire that had an impact essentially from Singleton down through the Hawkesbury. And that people recall, back in Sydney around Easter last year, there was some complaint about the smoke that was going across Sydney. Well, that was what that was about. And that’s a good thing. Because it provided a capacity then to go in and to do back-burning. The concern here has been though, that because the fire season has been so long, some of the activity that would normally have occurred hasn’t been able to. When I was in Casino and had the briefing from the head of the RFS there along with the local member, Kevin Hogan, the National Party member and Janelle Saffin, the local state member, one of the things that was said there was that the people who would normally, from national parks, be involved in things like hazard reduction, because they’ve been fighting fires, and remember that the Rappville fire began in the middle of the year was having an impact. So, because they had been involved in the immediate fighting fires, they hadn’t had the capacity to do the normal back-burning or hazard reduction that would have occurred. So, the length of this season has meant that we do have to analyse how we get it right. We need to look at the resources that are available for national parks. They need more staff, not less. And part of that needs to be to keep an eye on these things. It’s been said many times that we could look at the practices of the First Australians who looked after the land pretty well for a very long period of time. And some of those practices have been incorporated over a period of time. But there’s potentially more that we can learn off the way that they managed the land over a period of time. One of the things that’s happening here, and people should be conscious of; take the Blue Mountains, which essentially is the highway up on top of the escarpment is where the communities are, and either side of the Great Western Highway there, with national parks all around. What we’ve had is, there would be more now, as of about a week ago 900,000 hectares of the Blue Mountains National Park has burned. In the past, they’ve had fires coming from the north, or they’ve had them coming from the south. This time, they’ve got them coming from both sides. For the first time ever. Some of these men and women have enormous experience. They’ve been involved in this case for 40 years. They’d never seen anything like that before. And the drying of the continent through climate change, and the drought and the impact, has also meant that we have parts of tropical rainforests that had never burned before that are burning. So, these are new circumstances.
NIELSEN: Anthony Albanese, we are just running out of time. So, I do just want to ask you before we have to wrap up. David Elliott, the New South Wales Emergency Management Minister, decided to book a holiday to Europe during the bushfire season. All warnings were there. This was going to be a historically awful season. Do you think that’s acceptable?
NIELSEN: Do you think he should stand down?
ALBANESE: That’s a matter for the Premier. I think this bloke is incredibly accident-prone. This is a bloke who’s, with regard to the issue, is chasing down young people and saying he represented the police, even though he’s a Minister. I’ve put multiple requests in through his office to visit the Sydney Rural Fire Service headquarters. And it’s always been knocked back up to this point. I just think that the truth is that Gladys Berejiklian, as the Premier, is showing leadership. She is taking action. And I’m not sure it makes a difference whether this bloke is in Australia or somewhere else, frankly.
NIELSEN: Anthony Albanese, thank you so much 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.