SUBJECTS: Bushfire crisis across Australia.
SARAH HARRIS, HOST: Turning to the bushfire devastation and Leader of the Opposition Anthony Albanese says it is like a war time crisis. He has been calling on the Government to act on wild fires since November when he wrote to the Prime Minister requesting a national emergency disaster body, more firefighting aircrafts, as well compensation for volunteer firefighters. Mr Albanese joins us on the couch now.
ALBANESE: Good to see you.
HARRIS: What was the Prime Minister’s response to your proposals? And they are good ones.
ALBANESE: He wrote back and said that it wasn’t necessary, that the Government was doing enough. The good thing is that since then, on Saturday, we had the announcement of a national response. Prior to then, it was the Prime Minister for all of the issues who would say, ‘It is up to the states to request’. But now we have the national framework. Compensation has happened for the volunteer firefighters. We have had now increased allocation of resources to increase our aerial firefighting capacity and we have got greater use of the Defence Force. Many of the things that we called for have occurred. I think they were practical. I have tried to be constructive during this and not play politics. This is not a time for partisan politics. It is a time to put forward ideas. And the ideas I was putting forward were ones that came from the ground, from my visits that I had made to the north coast bushfires, to Queensland, and what I was hearing from the volunteers who, for example, were just saying, ‘Look, we have been in the field for three months but I still need to pay my mortgage, I still need to put food on the table for my family and I can’t afford to do it’.
JOE HILDEBRAND, HOST: I have to say, obviously blind Freddy knows that you have been doing a great job on this and I applaud you for not making it personal and not taking cheap political shots like so many others. Good on you for doing that. Your MP, Mike Kelly, a former Colonel in the Australian army, he has suggested national service. He likened it to a war time crisis. Do you think that is something we could seriously look at, a national community service to deal with crises like these?
ALBANESE: One of the things we could do is set up, even if it was on a voluntary basis, there are people out there who would want to contribute, and we can see that. I met a bloke on Saturday at Cudlee Creek in the Adelaide Hills. I said to him, ‘How long have you been fighting fires for here, because it has been going for a few weeks there?’ But he had already spent over a month in NSW. One of the things that has happened and my concern and the reason for a national response is the volunteer firefighters, who I have met on the north coast of NSW, you would say, ‘Where are you from?’ And they would say ‘Bendigo’ or ‘Adelaide; or ‘Perth’ or ‘Auckland’ for that matter. We need to get better at it. We need to use the reconstruction period as well. How do we increase the skills base? How do we bring people in who might be in these regional communities? They are looking for a trade or to do things. We will be reconstructing roads, houses, bridges, whole communities, schools, hospitals. They have all gone. How do we get something positive out of what is a devastating crisis?
KERRI-ANNE KENNERLEY, HOST: Should those kids, at 17, instead of doing a gap year backpacking around, should they be asked to do civil work?
ALBANESE: I think if you give them the opportunity, many of them will take it up. They will take up.
KENNERLEY: It shouldn’t be mandatory?
ALBANESE: I think there would be a problem with it being mandatory. I don’t think you need to. My experience from people, and I have been quite inspired. On Saturday, again at this Country Fire Service, as it is called in SA, I met a bloke who had been in the service for 57 years. He was 82, making a contribution. And then there were three young kids who were 10 and 11 who were in a cadet program. They are learning those skills that will help them to get employment, to make a contribution.
KENNERLEY: Everybody is now on the climate change bandwagon, forgetting that the whole bushfire and the whole climate thing is a lot more complicated than everybody says. So, even Piers Morgan has had a crack at Australia. By the way what do you think about the English commentators dumping on Australia?
ALBANESE: This is a global phenomenon.
KENNERLEY: Is climate change and the bushfires completely related?
ALBANESE: Of course it is related. The science has told us that the bushfire season would be longer and would be more intense. You go back, and you look. Ross Garnaut’s report in the Government in 2008 said all of this will happen. He said by 2020 this is what we are looking at. You look at what he said would happen, based upon advice from the CSIRO. The head of Katoomba Rural Fire Service for the Blue Mountains, who has had 40 years’ experience has never seen before fires coming from the north and the south onto the Blue Mountains. Essentially it is one road. The Great Western Highway has houses either side of it. They have never before had this. This is unprecedented. I think if we don’t acknowledge that, then you get into a circumstance which we did, frankly, in November and December where we are saying, ‘This is almost business-as-usual. We have had natural disasters before, we have got everything in place.’ It is not business-as-usual. We need to analyse it. It is not to get into a big ideological debate about it. But we need to respond, based upon the facts. And the facts are that we have not had before scenes like Dunkirk. This is not business-as-usual.
HILDEBRAND: Labor tried to do something 10 years ago and the Greens blocked it. The other big question that follows is, what is the scope for Australia to do something, without getting places like America, China, Russia on board and, in effect, cutting our nose off to spite our face while these guys take advantage of our noble actions?
ALBANESE: We need a global response, that is the truth. Good action on climate change will actually create jobs, reduce emissions and reduce energy prices because you increase supply into the system. I don’t think it is either or. I have argued for a long time, it is not the economy or jobs. We don’t have to wreck our economy. We can actually strengthen our economy by taking action. If we do that we will have credibility to argue in international forums. Part of my concern is during this crisis, the Government went to the Madrid conference and we were one of the countries arguing for less action, not more.
MERRICK WATTS, HOST: Can I ask you about the flow-on effect, Albo? One of the things, we see the fire front, and a lot of bushfire burning, and animals are dying, and people are losing their homes and lives, and that is tragic. There is a flow-on effect that sometimes we miss. And a great example of that is the people who, in the Adelaide Hills wine region, and that is what made me think of it. Those people have lost homes, but they have lost their crops as well. That means they have lost their income not for one year, because they are growing vines and they are vignerons, it will take them five years before they can crop again. Some of those wine producers, their crops are 30 or 40-year-old vines. So, they can’t replace those. My question is what surprises you? What are the flow-on effects from the bushfires where you think ‘Wow, I didn’t think about that before this happened?’
ALBANESE: The economic impact. I was in the Hills on Saturday and talking to the vignerons who are responsible there. One of the things that you saw there was on one side, we are on this track, one side was pristine, the other side just gone. What you are going need as well is industry assistance. Because we can’t afford for the industries to disappear, they are important for the South Australian economy.
HILDEBRAND: I can’t afford to stop drinking.
ALBANESE: Prices will go up. That will be an impact. We need to make sure those people can get back on their feet. That is one of the long-term consequences, not just for that but other agricultural production as well, we will need industry assistance. The vineyards have not only been devastated now, as you rightly say, they tell me it will take four years before they get a dollar of income.
HARRIS: Anthony Albanese, we have run out of time. We do appreciate your time this morning.
ALBANESE: Always a pleasure.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.