WEDNESDAY, 6 FEBRUARY 2019
SUBJECTS: Townsville floods; medical transfers legislation; Tim Wilson’s conflicts of interest; foreign donations; climate change.
JENNY HILL, MAYOR OF TOWNSVILLE: I want to thank the Leader of the Opposition for being here with us today, and seeing some of these - the issues that we have facing us as a community. Today I did a flyover around the city and through various areas of the community to look at the damage and the extent of damage. Ladies and gentlemen we will need all the support we can get to ensure that we can put this community back on an even keel as quickly as possible. The flyover showed how much damage there really is in and around our local community, and what we're going to need is to ensure that many - much of the bureaucracy as well as corporate Australia, are working together to help us get through these difficult times.
I want to thank Cathy O'Toole and Belinda Hassan, thank you for coming and being up here, I know getting up from Mackay has been really difficult for you, but this is about talking about why we need infrastructure to ensure that we no longer get cut off by these sort of events. This event was one in a lifetime - I hope one in a lifetime. But the reality is it doesn't take much to cut this community off from the rest of Australia. I'd now like to ask the Leader of the Opposition for his comments from what he's seen today.
BILL SHORTEN, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Thanks Jenny Hill. Jenny Hill is the Mayor of Townsville and might I just first start off by saying what a great job she's doing. And I might also just say to the waiting media here - I appreciate the job you've been doing communicating Townsville's battle, and the surrounding regions battle with this once in a lifetime, this once in 100-year set of floods.
I didn't want to start this press conference until I'd heard directly from Jenny out of courtesy for the work she's done. But I appreciate your patience. Can I just say that what I've seen shows the worst that nature can throw at us, and the best of how Townsville and North Queenslanders respond. It has been eye opening. All of Australia has had its eyes on Townsville and the other towns in North Queensland. We've seen the video, the television images, but it is hard to appreciate the extent of the challenge until you're on the ground here. Townsville is a unique town in Australia because of its garrison nature. Many people around Australia have connections to Townsville and I think a lot of us have been hoping that the flood will pass and the people are safe. There has tragically been two deaths reported so far. But the overwhelming impression I get is, but for the timely leadership of the Council, of the work of the QPS, the QFS, the fire service, the SES, of course the ADF - but for far sighted decisions the damage could be far worse.
But let me make it very clear. The burden on this community has been huge. Cathy O'Toole our local Member, Belinda Hassan our candidate in Dawson, have been visiting families; 22,000 households are affected directly by floodwater. Now I think but for the quick thinking and strategic decision making of council and the people up here, it could have been as many as 50,000. But a quarter of Townsville has been hit, and that's directly, that's not talking about the indirect effects. And I must acknowledge of course our farmers. A lot of them will have livestock, crop damage, fence damage, so it's not just in the built up areas that this flood has been an unprecedented, not in memory event. But what we also recognise is that hopefully by the weekend, and I was speaking with Premier Palaszczuk today, by the weekend hopefully most of the rain that's going to fall will have fallen - fingers crossed, and then we'll move into a recovery stage, and that's really where government comes into the picture.
I salute the Townsville community spirit, but I recognise, and the message I carry from here today talking to the people on the ground, is we've got to make sure that Townsville gets support in its reconstruction. That's why people, Australians, pay their taxes to Canberra. I'll be sending a very clear message to the current government; when it comes to disaster relief payments - they're modest payments of a $1000 for goodness sake. Now is not the time to be penny pinching and bean counting and adopting a black letter law approach. If people have had water across their floorboards, if they've got extensive mould in their houses, if they've had their power off for days and all their food is damaged or spoiled, if they've had extensive fence damage and have got a lot of waste to clean up, if they had to just evacuate their premises sensibly and been out of home for a couple of nights - they should get the modest government payment.
Let us take the view in this country that when people are doing it hard, our default position as Australians is that you're telling us the truth. And if there are a few scallywags at the end of the day trying to rort the system, we'll come down on them like a tonne of bricks. But let us take a generous view to disaster relief. And I want to say to the insurance companies, that the eyes of Australia will be on you next. We want to make sure that you process claims. Let's not have lawyers at 30 paces trying to make sure you can get out of paying someone for flood damage. It's terrible, no amount of insurance will capture the scrapbooks and the photos that are lost, the memories, some of the paper records, the smell of the dirty carpet you've got to clean up, that mud everywhere which stinks and has to be cleaned up. No insurance is going to cover all of that, but where there are policies they should be honoured, and honoured in a speedy fashion.
I also say to the insurers, make sure you use local contractors in the clean-up. Don't just do deals with your friends in Melbourne and Sydney and bring up contractors elsewhere, when we need to use local business. I also say apart from the government, be generous and not mean. To insurance companies, be straight up, and I say to my friends in the banks - and I use that term advisedly, now is not the time to be charging interest on the farmers and the small businesses who have gone with massive interruption to their income. This is where we pull together. I don't want to see the profit motive, you know, everyone's pretty good now in the immediate aftermath, but a lot of people are going to hit a wall soon. The adrenaline stops and they just see the long weeks and months and years process rebuilding, sorting things out, starting again. I say to corporate Australia who've been good so far, now's the time for the banks and the insurance companies to keep your end of the bargain. The community support you and pay towards you in the premiums and the accounts, make sure you do the right thing by the people, because I and Labor will be watching you like a hawk.
I should also just say in terms of some of the infrastructure needs, I've certainly come away from here with a view that we need to make sure farmers are getting support with their fodder, because that's when the burden will hit. And I also would just say in southern Townsville, the Murray Sport Complex, you know there's a lot of community infrastructure and I pick that as one example. The hockey, the basketball, the AFL, the artificial turf - that'll have all been affected. So now is the time for us to work together on recovery to make sure that we are generous and not stingy, and I am sure that Townsville will bounce back. It's got great local leadership, it's got a great sense of community. I salute again the ADF and all of the emergency services and all the volunteers.
A final point I'd like to make is to all of the blue collar workers and the people perhaps who don't get all the plaudits when the dust settles, or when the waters recede. But a lot of the people - the volunteers, the council workers, the emergency service people, they live in this town and their own houses may have been damaged, indeed flooded. But in Townsville everyone turned up to work and looked after each other. So there's some really great lessons for the rest of the country from what we've seen in Townsville and I congratulate them.
Happy to take any questions,
JOURNALIST: Are you confident that the insurance companies will step up? Because obviously there are people in the Whitsundays who still haven't received their claims after Cyclone Debbie, and is there anything that the government can do to, I guess speed it up?
SHORTEN: Thank you. Sometimes insurance companies do the right thing and sometimes they don't. I dealt with them in sort of, almost hand to hand combat over the Brisbane floods where they were relying on technical definitions of floods to get out of paying insurance. They've been a lot better since then, and in my experience some of the locally based Queensland insurers certainly have a greater appreciation - and that's my personal view, of the local circumstances. But recently I was down in Proserpine, I've been to Airlie Beach, some of the insurers there are still dragging their feet. What we will do is between Cathy O'Toole and Belinda Hassan and myself, we will monitor the situation. We invite people who are having concerns with their insurance claims to contact us. The Federal Parliament carries a big stick and we won't be afraid to use it, as I have in the past with the insurers and the financial services. You know, you've just had a Banking Royal Commission. People are watching the financial services industry very carefully. I'm not saying the insurers will do the wrong thing, but you really wouldn't want to now.
JOURNALIST: You just said the Federal Government was penny-pinching with the additional $1000 top ups and $400 per child. What do you think would be adequate?
SHORTEN: Well what I mean by that is not the amount, but I mean that we're hearing reports that people are getting you know, legalistic brush-offs. We hear reports, and I've met people, they might have apartments next to each other and a set of townhouses and one person gets the funding and the other doesn't. I mean let's be clear, I think sure it's very clear if you've had water across the floorboards and 25 per cent your house is damaged you get it. But can I also be clear, if you've had the power off for three days and all your food is spoiled, if you've had to evacuate your premises, well it seems like you're in distress and you need some short term help. How can it be that you get flooded out - the Commonwealth Government has a disaster relief payment, you're out of pocket for paying for the rentals. You know, you've got to couch surf for a number of days. This is the Federal Government of Australia, they seem to find money for TV advertising, they could find some money I think, just to make sure that they take a reasonable view. I've seen it all before from bushfires to floods. What I am saying is not radical, it's just sensible. People have already got enough challenges rebuilding, do they really have to be battling the Federal Government as well?
JOURNLAIST: Is the amount enough though, people have been spending more on accommodation out of their home since Thursday last week. They've spent more than $1000 just to put themselves up.
SHORTEN: Well you're right. The amount to some people around Australia may sound generous, but it's not a king's ransom is it? But first of all what I would like to do is get that money out to people, you know if you have got a house which is infested by mold - sure the water might not have come across your floorboards, but if you're going to spend you know, if you've got mould in every room, you've got kids living here, you can't. What if someone's an asthmatic, you don't want the kids getting asthma. So I would just say to the Federal Government, forget the fine print just get this money and that'll be good for Townsville. These people aren't making some sort of arbitrage profit. The money which they give people will be spent in the local community, which is important for local business isn't it?
JOURNALIST: Just on another matter, do you support the Phelps Bill or the Government’s changes to medical transfers, and does Tim Wilson have a conflict of interest?
SHORTEN: Okay two questions on two distinct matters. Listen, the government I think is starting to do a backflip. They may be doing it because they don't want to lose a vote in Parliament, but I'm not going to be a purist, if they get to an acceptable outcome I'm not going to judge their motivation. Labor said that we want to make sure that independent medical advice is taken more seriously. If you or I are sick we go to the doctor, we take their advice, we don't get the advice of a bureaucrat in the Department of Home Affairs on how to treat that illness do we? And I think we've got to maintain some sort of common sense here. So we will have a look at what the Government's proposing. The way they normally communicate with me is either through the media or angry threatening letters. But despite that, I will not be deterred. We will see if it works, we’ll then have a look at it, but this stage we're still supporting the Phelps amendments.
JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten -
SHORTEN: But there was a second question that he asked. If you want to go to this I will come back to Mr Wilson's activities.
JOURNALIST: Just on that, the Prime Minister made some comments saying it would allow paedophiles, rapists, murderers into the country. What's your position on that?
SHORTEN: He should be ashamed of himself. That is just complete rubbish. The fact of the matter is that people who have done those crimes don't get the refugee status, unless the government has missed them when they assess them as refugees. So that's just complete rubbish. The idea that somehow because you're a Liberal you dislike those crimes more than if you're someone else, I just get sick of that moral superiority and finger pointing. The real issue here - no one wants those people in this country, no one. I don't, and I don't think Mr Morrison does, no one does. But you know, going that gutter approach is unbecoming to the office of Prime Minister. What we need to do is get back to the serious issue here, the real issue, which is if we have people in our care albeit on Nauru and Manus, and if you've got treating doctors who say they need to get urgent medical treatment in Australia, and that's what we do, we need to have a process where that advice gets given the priority that it should. We'll work this issue through with the government. The crossbench have got a proposal which at this stage is the one we support. But we'll have a look at what the government is saying.
JOURNALIST: But -
SHORTEN: If I can go back - oh sorry, is this about the medical transfers?
JOURNALIST: Yeah, yeah, the Prime Minister's comments –
what do you make of it. He said that he'd ignore the outcome of the vote if the government loses?
SHORTEN: Well for a man who says he'll ignore the outcome of the vote, he seems to be spending an awful lot of time thinking about the outcome, doesn't he? The reality is this is a government who has long since given up governing. I mean, if you've got a Prime Minister who says that he doesn't care what Parliament says, well then why are we waiting to have an election in another three months. I mean it's a democracy. You're not in government if you can't control the Parliament. People should be aware, you know - we've got a whole lot of Queenslanders cleaning up after the floods, they're going to work. But imagine being led by a government who only wants to sit in Parliament for 10 days in eight months, that is just hopeless. So this bloke can say all he likes that he's, you know, he doesn't care. Well for a bloke who doesn't care, he seems to spend a lot of time talking about it doesn't he? Just going back to your question about a fellow - which Mr Wilson the financial services booster or the MP. I just I didn't quite -
JOURNALIST: I'm sorry (inaudible).
SHORTEN: Okay. No, it's ironic because would you believe the Liberal MP and the guy who is criticising Labor have the same surname and are distantly related. The issue which I understand - you couldn't write it, could you? The issue here is that audio recordings seem to have emerged. It's been reported in the media that one of the key critics of Labor's tax reforms is timing his investor road shows - because he's a man who works in financial services, to conveniently coincide when his government allies are holding hearings to try and argue against these tax reforms. Now I think it smells. I think it doesn't pass the sniff test. We're going to get to the bottom of this. It is remarkable that in the week that the Banking Royal Commission has been handed down, it emerges that members of the LNP Government in Canberra are colluding with financial service interests to try and undermine Labor's proposals for a fairer tax system in this country. It smells, we're not going to leave it lie.
JOURNALIST: Just quickly on another matter, in light of the news about Huang Xiangmo today, will Labor consider paying back donations from him?
SHORTEN: Well, we stopped taking money from him a couple of years ago. In fact, Labor stopped taking donations from that gentleman and another person before the law caught up with our position. So for a number of years we haven't dealt with this man.
JOURNALIST: I believe under the law though he's still able to continue making donations as long as he is a permanent resident?
SHORTEN: Under the Labor Party I lead - I didn't wait for the law. We've said that we won't take donations from him and another person, full stop, and haven't well in advance of the current government.
JOURNALIST: Just back to the floods. Are you confident that B.O.M's forecast were accurate and I guess, up to speed enough?
SHORTEN: Well there's plenty of people in this building more competent to judge that, but one thing which I will say is that having listened to Townsville's remarkable Mayor Jenny Hill, talk about some of the preventative and preemptive steps they took to accurately measure rain, I think Jenny and the council here and the leadership here put Townsville in the best possible position to try and deal with what is a once in 100 year crisis. So in terms of B.O.M, we're going to ask some further questions and not interested in allocating blame, but I want to make sure that communities around Australia have the best, most timely data to make decisions. You know what's amazing about what happened up here and I find it extraordinary, is that in the space of three days, there were 163 communications with the locals. That's awesome. That just gives people a chance to be able to evacuate, to get out ahead. You can't do that without people thinking about it in advance and without the most timely information.
Just for the benefit of other Australians who weren't here, the amount of water at its peak coming out of that dam was 3,600 olympic swimming pools every hour. The equivalent of an olympic swimming pool was busting out of the dam, through the gates, every second. You can't imagine that sort of water. It's something like the whole of Sydney Harbour in three days. So what could have gone wrong - I mean a lot has happened which is bad for people, but I just wonder how bad it would have been. So what I've learned out of this visit is we want to properly fund the Bureau of Meteorology. And this is where I think Labor has a different approach to the role of government to the conservatives. We don't view government as something to be just salami sliced and cut, contracted out, casualised and downsized. Australians need quality services and they need quality services in their local regions. So you know, I think that there's a lesson here; do we want to have the world's best meteorology service or the world's best tax deductions? Do we want to have the best hospitals in Australia or do we want to have the best tax loopholes in Australia? Do we want to have the most deregulated labour market and casualised workforce or do we want to have well-funded regular public servants?
JOURNALIST: And just quickly one last question from a colleague. Will you definitely vote for Ms Phelps' medical transfer bill?
SHORTEN: Gee, I don't think I could have been much clearer. We're going to consider what the Government have said, because despite their insults and their carry on and you know - on one hand, they sort of try and blackmail us and say that if you don't vote for it everything will happen – terrible, and then they also say but they don't really care how we vote. We will consider what they're saying because I do believe that there is now a movement in their position from what they were saying at the end of last year. But at this point, we're committed to the Phelps' amendments. What people want in Australia out of their politicians is when, you know, people are putting up an argument, you consider it. But I have to say in closing, whilst the function here today was about Townsville and understanding it, we did have the Banking Royal Commission earlier this week, and I just want to make clear to the current government - I think there is actually mounting concern in the days since the Banking Royal Commission, from the Australian people, the community that nothing's actually going to change. I think we've noticed that the banking CEOs all seem to be buckling down to keep their jobs. We saw the share prices of banks go up. What this tells me is that the stock market has factored in perhaps business as usual for our banks.
What the Government need to do is to sit for more days of Parliament before the next election and start implementing the Banking Royal Commission, because I think there is the chance of that Australian people will start to get disillusioned yet again that nothing's changing. And I say to the government, either you fix the banking industry now or we will after the next election, if we get elected. But we're not going to allow you to do nothing, the banks to act as business as usual, everyone goes on and says, well there's nothing that can be done, because I think the Australian people have been shocked by the Banking Royal Commission, and we're going to make it a clear issue at the next election. If this government doesn't do anything, we're going to put to the Australian people, who do you trust to keep our banks honest? The government who backed them in 26 times, who voted against a Royal Commission, or the Labor Party who keeps fighting for consumers.
SHORTEN: Thanks -
JOURNALIST: One last question about the floods.
JOURNALIST: When asked about climate change and the floods, Scott Morrison said he didn't want to talk about politics. What's your response to that?
SHORTEN: I think Mr Morrison is a politician. So when a politician says they don't want to talk about politics, you've got to be a bit skeptical, don't you? Listen, this is about dealing with a flood. I understand that people's minds are on the recovery, you know, we're not fully out of the woods. We get that there's plenty to be done. People are dealing with everything from the carpets, to the insurance, to the shock, to the loss. But more and more we're seeing Australia, the community, understands we're being subject to extreme weather events. I'm not saying that you blame climate change for all of this, but how many extreme weather events, how hot does it have to get before the Government will start to at least offer some real policies on climate change?