SUBJECT: Prime Minister’s announcement of compensation for volunteer firefighters in NSW.
HOST: Those who are self-employed or work for small or medium businesses will
be eligible for payments up to $6,000. We did ask the Prime Minister to come onto the program, but his office has declined. But, we are now joined by the Opposition Leader, Anthony Albanese. Anthony, good morning. Thanks for your time. First of all, you must be pleased that the Prime Minister has finally acted on this?
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Well, I am pleased that this is a step forward. I wrote to the Prime Minister in mid-November and I called essentially for three things. A long list. But three key measures. For COAG to be convened so that the Commonwealth and state actions could be coordinated, making sure that everything is done in the best possible way. Secondly, that we deal with the issue of volunteer firefighters. It was very clear when I visited the north coast two months ago that there were people there who had volunteered for a period not of days or weeks but of months. People were already struggling financially in the field and having to choose essentially between continuing to work to protect local communities or be able to pay their mortgage and put food on the table for their families. So that was the second measure. I also called for him to meet with the ex-fire chiefs and we need to deal with longer term issues as well like adaptation, like how we manage our national parks, the impact of climate change, all require, I think, a response from the Government. The Government has been, up to this point, he called it a distraction. He then said it was simply a matter for the states, and then really annoyed the volunteer firefighters by saying that they wanted to be there. They don’t want to be there. No one wants these fires to be happening. But it is incredible the dedication and commitment of these brave firefighters that I’ve met right around the country, which is why we need a national approach.
HOST: Nine News has been reporting for a couple of days now that the Prime Minister could have done this the same way that Paul Keating and John Howard did it, through Federal legislation. Instead he has done this deal with NSW where he will pay the State Government and will then disperse and then the other states have to work it out themselves. Do you think that’s the right approach?
ALBANESE: Well, it’s a bit strange, I’ve got to say, for the Commonwealth to be doing it this way when they could have done it very directly, under existing legislation. It didn’t require anything else. Paul Keating did it. John Howard did it. The important thing is that bushfire fighters will now receive some compensation and that is a very good thing. The problem here of course is that, because it’s just NSW, one of the things that I know from being on the ground on the north coast, in Queensland, on the South Coast is that many of the firefighters I’ve met have travelling from interstate. These fires don’t recognise state boundaries and nor do firefighters, I’ve got to say, I’ve met Victorians and Queenslanders and those globally of course who have come to help on the north coast, the south coast, the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury. That’s why it needs a national approach. I am not sure how this scheme would fit, for example, a Victorian bush firefighter who has been on the north coast around Glen Innes or around Casino then gone to help in the Hawkesbury or the Blue Mountains or the south coast and now Victoria itself is facing some real issues, the Gippsland we’ve already seen 100 hectares burnt, of course earlier on we’ve seen fires in Queensland around the Rockhampton region. And there’s been a big campaign indeed around Rocky about paying some compensation for volunteer firefighters. This doesn’t undermine volunteerism. This is simply a recognition that people have got to provide the essentials of life for their families. And I can’t understand why the Government has been so reluctant to agree to this. It’s a good thing that there’s some movement.
HOST: I just want to ask you very quickly, apart from the national approach, what would you have done definitely in this situation?
ALBANESE: I would have convened COAG in November when it was supposed to be scheduled in the second half of last year. They cancelled it. I would have had it
just on this issue. You could see what was coming. The tragedy of this is that the scientists have been telling us for some time that we could expect longer bushfire seasons and more intense. And that’s exactly what we are seeing played out. And we need to do much better in advance at responding to this. I also would be meeting with the ex-bushfire chiefs and getting their expertise. There’s hundreds of years of experience there. I’d be dealing with the issue of climate change, rather than just dismissing it in the long-term. There’s a need for Australia to be much more positive about that. I note that the NSW Environment Minister is being very positive today, and that’s a good thing.
HOST: Anthony Albanese, Leader of the Opposition, thank you so much for your time this morning.