THURSDAY, 9 AUGUST 2018
SUBJECTS: Labor’s plan for drought relief; Emma Husar; Foreign Aid; Immigration; Great Barrier Reef Foundation; Tourism in Queensland.
BILL SHORTEN, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Good afternoon everybody. It's great to be at LaTrobe Station, getting to see firsthand, the impact of the dreadful drought which is affecting so much of Queensland and NSW. I'm accompanied by our agricultural spokesperson, Joel Fitzgibbon and as a rare treat, I've got my favourite Queenslander, my wife Chloe here who in fact spent some of her teenage years growing up in this area.
We're here to listen to farmers and the community, talk about how they're coping with drought and what they'd like to see done in the long term. People are pleased that Labor has suggested that we provide the $12,000 family-household relief, that people don't have to wait until next year to get some of the money. We're saying let's give farmers and their families the options of how they best get their drought relief.
Going to the bigger picture, we had a great chat with the grazier who runs this property and she made it very clear that plenty of farmers are concerned that the drought cycles are getting longer and longer and the periods of relief and rain shorter and shorter. And she asked a very good question which I think everyone in the Federal Parliament needs to consider: when will Australia have a national plan for agriculture and climate change? She said, why can't the politicians work together? So today, I say that the challenge of drought, the challenge of agriculture dealing with climate change, needs to be beyond politics and certainly Joel and I are finding it very informative to be out on the ground in western Queensland, hearing what the real issues are and what the real solutions can be.
I might just invite Joel Fitzgibbon to talk a little further about Labor's policies in this area.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY: Thanks Bill.
Every day we can learn more about drought and how it's impacting on both farming families and regional communities. What we already know is that we can do.
Everyday we can learn more about the terrible drought we're facing, how it affects farming families, how it impacts upon regional communities. And that's why Bill and Chloe and I are here today, learning more about how it's affecting people on the ground. What we do know already is that there are three important things governments can do for drought affected farming families.
The first of course is to provide an income support payment and sadly, the Turnbull Government hasn't done that well. The second is to provide incentives for people to invest in drought proofing infrastructure; like irrigation, storage and irrigation projects for example. The Government has done that moderately well. The third is to help guide farmers towards better farming practices and methods; building carbon in soil for example, so that they can retain more moisture. The sort of practices that will put farmers on a path to sustainable profitability. This is an area the Turnbull Government hasn't touched at all. In fact for five years, it has done nothing in this space and indeed, this is the area which is most important - a medium to long term strategy to respond to what is a changing climate and a climate which is going to be, sadly, more challenging in the future.
But there's something more governments can do - it's not just the farming families being hurt by drought, it's local regional communities and townships. Consumption, spending in those towns of course, has fallen away as the drought grows worse. So what we're announcing today is a $20 million fund over two years so that we can provide funds to local councils to build job creating infrastructure projects which help to stimulate local economies. Now, the Government, the Turnbull Government had such a program but it has decided, bizarrely in the middle of a terrible drought to stop funding that program. So what we're saying today is that this is the worst time to stop providing infrastructure funding for regional townships it's exactly the right time and a Shorten Labor Government will provide that additional funding to keep that very important program running.
SHORTEN: Thanks Joel. Are there any questions on this or any other matters?
FITZGIBBON: I should say Bill, sorry, something else we're asking of the Turnbull Government today on farm household allowance it's been a debacle, we've been telling the Government for four years now that this payment system is not working, that farmers aren't able to access it, we've seen no change to those rules we have seen a change to the asset test but not the application process and how they are being managed.
We think farmers should have choice in terms of the $12,000 supplementary payment. I don't understand why the Government decided to do it in two tranches, $6,000 in September this year, another $6000 in March of next year. We think every farming family is different, every situation is different and we support the $12,000 in cash - it can only be a good thing - but farmers should be able to secure that $12,000 upfront.
They can do it in two tranches too if that suits their situation best or indeed, they could take $2000 every month for six months - a six month period. Let's give farming families facing drought the flexibility they need and they deserve.
SHORTEN: Well said, any questions?
JOURNALIST: Have you spoken to Victoria and Queensland about the NEG?
SHORTEN: I'm sure my staff and Shadow Ministers have been in discussions with the state Labor governments, but let's go to the heart of the matter with the National Energy Guarantee. Australians are paying too much for their electricity and energy prices and the Turnbull Government doesn't have a plan. The single biggest driver of price rises in Australia on energy has been in fact a lack of national policy certainty.
When you hear about price increases for families of up to $650 a year you know that something's got to give. Specifically, we now think that the Turnbull Government needs to get over its bias against renewable energy. There is no doubt in my mind that the evidence is in, the renewable energy increasing that of proportionate of our energy mix in Australia will help deliver cheaper prices, more jobs and take real action on climate change.
So I call upon the Prime Minister to sit down with the states tomorrow, don't lecture them, listen to them. The state governments are at the frontline of delivering services, they've been working on energy policy for a very long time. People are sick and tired of politics and the blame game, so I say to Mr Turnbull enter tomorrow's discussions in the spirit of good faith, be fair dinkum. Show your bonafides as a listener, not a lecturer and let's stop being dictated to and held hostage of the right wing of the LNP and the Coalition in Canberra, we need to have more renewable energy and only Labor, so far, has got a plan for more renewable energy as part of our energy mix which means lower prices for families and businesses.
JOURNALIST: If there is no agreement tomorrow will Labor have torpedoed the policy certainty you were talking about?
SHORTEN: No, I think that if there's no agreement tomorrow it shows that Mr Turnbull is not a very good negotiator. But the real meeting isn't tomorrow I'm afraid to say. The real meeting is Mr Turnbull's party room on Tuesday. We've seen so many different messages coming out of the Liberals and Nationals it's shocking. It's shocking because household energy bills go up and up and up and all the Turnbull Government can do is fight amongst itself.
The time for the Liberal Party and National Party fighting each other and fighting between themselves is over, real people are paying real increases in electricity bills. Real small businesses, real contractors, real farmers, real consumers are paying more and more for energy and frankly I think the people of Australia are sick of the parliament and the government and the political debate. They just want someone to do something about lower energy prices and there's no way we can actually have long term lower energy prices unless we have more renewable energy.
My concern is that Mr Turnbull is held hostage to the attitudes of some in his own party and as a result Australians are paying a much higher price.
JOURNALIST: So is there still room for compromise?
SHORTEN: There's always room for compromise, I've spent my life negotiating and bringing people together. My fear is that Mr Turnbull tends to think that he's the smartest man in the room and therefore everyone just has to agree with him. This is not the time for individuals to think that they're bigger than the nation, it's time for all of the state and federal governments to put the national interest first. There's no way you can put the national interest first and deliver lower energy prices if we have low expectations on renewable energy, renewable energy is working, it is delivering lower prices over a million Australians households have solar on their rooftops. They know it's delivering them better energy prices, plenty of businesses are interested to see how they can become less reliant on the big power companies who are making exorbitant profits. Renewable energy is the path forward to lower prices, the science is in, the future is clear, we just need to have a government in Canberra who is brave enough to actually back the science, back the future, back the people, not the politics.
JOURNALIST: Will you be making sure the results of Emma Husar's investigation are made public?
SHORTEN: That will be a matter for the NSW Labor Party
But I've previously said that as I understand the protocols and precedents of the New South Wales Labor complaints procedure is some people give their evidence, or talk to the complaints process, on the basis that their material won't be made public.
I think the real issue here is that Emma Husar has announced in the last 24 hours that she is going to not re-contest, that she has had a gutfull, I don't think she used that word, but she's been under extreme pressure and clearly there's other people who are very unhappy.
I think it's a sad state of events all around but I think Ms Husar has put her party first and a community first. She said enough, she's going to rule a line under this page, and she's paying a pretty severe price by the fact that she has said that her parliamentary career is not going beyond the next election, whenever that is.
JOURNALIST: Some former staff have suggested that you or your office knew about the allegations before the media reports?
SHORTEN: I've seen some of the media and the Liberals try and cook that one up. It's rubbish. I had no knowledge of these complaints. I've gone back and asked my staff, they had no knowledge of the complaints or the process until we heard it leaked to the media.
JOURNALIST: So are you happy with the process so far?
SHORTEN: Whether or not I'm happy or sad doesn't really matter. What really matters is that people have had complaints. New South Wales Labor, as far as I can tell, has investigated these matters. And just have to say that, Emma Husar has been under extreme pressure, and I don't know all the facts at the end of the day.
There's plenty clearly plenty of unhappy people here, but she's made a very principled decision to say that politics isn't for her. She's put her party and the people first. I actually now think that it's time for some of the personal attacks to stop. It's what turns people off politics.
What really matters to people in my opinion, is when are we going have lower energy prices? When are we going to get fair dinkum about helping farmers in the drought and rural communities? This is what matters. That's what I'm focused on here at Longreach and Ilfracombe and Western Queensland today and tomorrow.
JOURNALIST: Could you have done more about the allegations?
SHORTEN: Well that would assume that we know all about them, which we didn't. The New South Wales branch has investigated the matter and the conclusion of that will be up to them.
JOURNALIST: Five Australians have been stripped of their citizenship due to terror links. Are you comfortable with that process?
SHORTEN: Well we haven't been briefed directly by the security agencies or Home Affairs but what I've seen reported so far, yes I am. I guess this is one point which I should reassure Australians who are frustrated at the energy prices debate or making sure our farmers get sufficient aid - when it comes to national security, there's been a high level of bipartisanship. That's a fancy word, what it really means is that when it comes to our nation's security, Labor and Liberal, we're in this together and we work together.
JOURNALIST: Also aid, a new report found Australia is still the largest donor in the Pacific. Are fears of China's rise in the region being overplayed?
SHORTEN: Well, before we start talking about China or America or all the big powers - in the Pacific, Australia is a significant player.
I think for the last five years there's been a lot of drift, a lot of negligence, in the lack of Australian interest in the Pacific. They've got plenty of challenges there from health, to training, to education, to workforce, to security, to environmental protection. So I do think that Australia shouldn't be big brother in the Pacific, but we should be good neighbour.
I think that a lot of other places in the world expect Australia to use our size and our scale in the best interests of the Pacific - it's our backyard. I do think that what happens in the Pacific is important to what happens in Australia, therefore I think that the Australian Government has been negligent and a Labor Government will make sure that we don't neglect our backyard.
JOURNALIST: Is there a concern about unsustainable debt levels, a lot of concessional loans for Pacific countries and so on?
SHORTEN: Well I think the sweet spot for our relations in the Pacific is, one, to take interest but not to lecture. Two, I think we're very good at TAFE training in Australia; we should be providing more technical training. Three, we need to be providing more infrastructure support so that perhaps our near neighbours don't get caught up in unsustainable concessional deals with great powers. Four, I think we need to be doing more to help families in their health care in the Pacific.
There is a debate periodically in Australia from the fringes which says that somehow anything we do helping our near neighbours means that people at home don't get looked after. Labor doesn't share that view. We actually think that a good part of our national security is having stable and secure neighbors. It is in Australia's national interests to have our neighborhood to be a peaceful jurisdiction.
The other thing is if we want to find enough money for aid and look after our farmers maybe we shouldn't be giving $450 million away to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. There's been some discussion about parliamentary inquiries. I think that a very good topic for a parliamentary inquiry is how on earth can the Government whistle up $450 million of taxpayer money, in what could be at best described as suspicious circumstances?
If the Government has such little respect for taxpayer money, that they can love bomb a charity who didn't even know it was coming with a $450 million donation, then you've got to wonder who's running the books of this nation.
Sorry, did you have a -
JOURNALIST: Just one. Obviously, towns like Longreach are now heavily invested in tourism. Do you have any plans of trying to attract more people -
SHORTEN: We certainly do.
JOURNALIST: Permanent residents to assist in -
SHORTEN: I'll get Joel to supplement here. I'll get Joel to supplement. There's two or three issues which we've spoken about. First of all for people to come here permanently there have to be jobs. Tourism is one of the sweet spots of the Australian economy. We've said that we'll create a $1 billion tourism infrastructure fund. We know some of this money which has been promised for Northern Australia, but it is very slow and materialising, we're going to specifically allocate it for tourism and we're going to let councils bid for it too. So it doesn't have to be you know mega multi-million dollar mining deals but we think that councils and regional communities have got their finger on the pulse about what works in tourism so we want to provide cheap finance to help invest in the long term tourism infrastructure.
The second issue which we are very keen to do, to attract people to western and regional Queensland has to be making sure that we're building proper roads out here.
The third issue has to be making sure that we've got proper TAFE training. I strongly believe that we should be a nation of tradies. We once were, we're seeing the apprenticeship networks in Australia being wound back. In the last five years under the LNP, we used to have 420,000 apprentices and trainees. Now we're down to 280,000 and shrinking. This is a disaster. So we're going to put more money into TAFE, more money into roads, more money into tourism infrastructure.
And the other thing which I want to make very clear is I put the big airlines on notice: Virgin, Qantas, Rex - stop charging exorbitant rates for people to fly into regional Queensland. It is too expensive. Can't get the doctors and the specialists out here. It just makes it very hard for people to come and visit. And so I think that the airlines have got a social obligation to do a lot better job at reducing the cost of airfares. And what I might hand over to Joel I know this is an area of his interests.
FITZGIBBON: Thanks Bill. There's no doubt that disruption as we call it is having greater impacts on regional communities than on capital cities and it's just not good enough for a Commonwealth Government to sit back and either pretend it's not happening or just simply decide to do nothing about it. Now Bill and I are meeting with the regional council later today but we've had some preliminary discussions already. I know the council has an economic diversification strategy and that's our main message. We don't want Canberra telling local communities what to do. We want local communities pushing upwards, we want them to tell us what will be the main economic drivers in local communities into the future and in turn we want to support them in their ambition.
JOURNALIST: Just a follow up on that one, you talk about TAFE, we have an agricultural community who is obviously struggling at the moment, again something that you would like to address?
SHORTEN: Yeah I'll get Joel to supplement agricultural workforce issues because we have been thinking about that, but I'll let him talk about that. But let's just go to TAFE and technical training. This nation is built by our tradespeople. We need to encourage our young ones in schools to consider vocational education and technical education and apprenticeships as part of their future career paths. In order to do that we've said that we'll provide, right across Australia but some of this will go to regional Queensland, we're going to pay the upfront fees for 100,000 people going to TAFE in the first three years of a Labor Government. And this is a good idea which is about politics. I don't mind if the LNP take the idea tomorrow, but we’ve got to help put some sugar on the table to incentivise young people to actively contemplate TAFE and apprenticeship future.
The other thing we've done is we've set up a $100 million TAFE rebuilding fund. It is important that when you're training kids and you're training people in vocational education that they're learning on the latest equipment. If we send a message to our young people, the investment we make in their education sends young people a message we think their education is important. If we don't invest in their education and we're giving them equipment from the 1970s and 1980s we're sending them the message that we don't think this is important. So when it comes to apprenticeships and investing in infrastructure and the other thing of course is we're going to invest in schools. We think that regional schools in Queensland and everywhere else need more support. But just because you go to a school which has a relatively small student population doesn't mean that your postcode should give you an inferior education. That's why we're putting schools before banks. That's why we're going to put TAFE before banks. And that's why we're going to put regional and western Queensland before banks. That's how we can pay for our promises.
FITZGIBBON: As I do the rounds around the country, workforce is the number one issue facing the agriculture sector. Of course, we can't attract people to the jobs if the jobs don't exist so we've got a long term government plan to grow Australian agriculture. We have to get people interested in working in agriculture, that means demonstrating to them that there are more technical, lifelong jobs in agriculture. We have to strengthen our tax system and of course we have to get young people engaged as Bill said. There is a great organization known as the Primary Industries Education Foundation, another great creation of a Labor Government, it costs the Commonwealth Government $70,000 for them to ensure that our tool kits, our education programs are getting into our schools. The Turnbull Government is cutting that funding to the foundation: $70,000 a year. I would have thought it would be the best $70,000 we might ever spend.
SHORTEN: Thanks everybody.