ANTHONY ALBANESE MP
LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY
MEMBER FOR GRAYNDLER
JIM CHALMERS MP
MEMBER FOR RANKIN
SENATOR MURRAY WATT
SHADOW MINISTER FOR DISASTER AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT
LABOR SENATOR FOR QUEENSLAND
LABOR CANDIDATE FOR WIDE BAY
FRIDAY, 14 JANUARY 2022
SUBJECTS: Labor’s emergency funding announcement; floods in Maryborough; pandemic heroes; failures of the Morrison Government during natural disasters and COVID-19; Labor’s policy agenda; Federal election; Better Future for Queensland visit; Novak Djokovic; rapid antigen tests.
GEOFF WILLIAMS, LABOR CANDIDATE FOR WIDE BAY: Morning, everyone. How are you this morning? My name is Geoff Williams. And I'm the Wide Bay candidate for Labor. I'd like to welcome Anthony Albanese, Murray Watt, and Jim Chalmers here this morning. They're doing an inspection of the flooded areas and what the Federal Government, when Labor gets in, what they can do for the locals. Thank you.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRLIAN LABOR PARTY: Well, thanks very much, Geoff. And it's a great honour to be here with these local heroes. People have come from throughout the region to provide assistance. This was not an expected flood event. We saw a very fast rise of the waters with an impact, in part because people weren't prepared for it in advance. What we've seen since then is a remarkable effort. These heroes, volunteers, helping out the fire and emergency services, helping out the professional personnel, but with their commitment, putting in hour after hour, day after day, to help their fellow Australians. That's the sort of spirit that we see in all of our natural disasters. And I've got to say, it's one that should be backed up with Federal Government support. That's why just a couple of days ago, we announced our plan and support for $200 million to be available each and every year to prepare for natural disasters. We need to have better preparation and to put in that investment where we can, whether it's roads, whether it be bridges, whether it be providing cyclone shelters, it might be floor levees. In different communities, different solutions will be applicable. But what we've seen since that announcement, as well, is support from Suncorp, support from the national insurers and the national insurance peak body, because they understand that everyone will benefit in communities in regional Australia, from lower premiums, if we have such a fund put in place, taking advice of the people who are the experts on the ground in local communities.
It is a major, major issue going forward that so many people and I've read stories about people in this flood event, who say they simply couldn't afford insurance, so they didn't have any. We need to address these issues of emergency response. And our announcement that we made just a couple of days ago, is in response to the Federal Government establishing a $4 billion fund three years ago, an Emergency Response Fund, only spending $17 million, while at the same time that $4 billion dollars has seen $750 million of interest payments to it. In a country like ours, the idea that we don't need to do that investment upfront, in order to mitigate risk. We're always going to have natural disasters in this country. We are a land in which we have cyclones, floods, we have bushfires, and in particular Queensland is often really hard hit. So, this announcement that we made, the policy changes have been received well by those people who are the experts in the field, but we want to work with local communities wherever possible. And every time there's an event to sit back and have a look at what is it that could be done to ameliorate risk and to mitigate the impact of such an event. I'll ask Murray to make some comments as well.
SENATOR MURRAY WATT, SHADOW MINISTER FOR DISASTER AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Thanks very much Albo. It's a great pleasure to be here in Maryborough and the Wide Bay today at the conclusion of Albo's Better Future for Queensland trip. And we again really want to place on record our thanks to the emergency responders who've done a fabulous job coming from all corners of our state to look after each other. We know that Australians do disaster response at the local level probably better than almost anywhere in the world. And we've seen that again here on display today in Maryborough. But what we do need to see is these local people backed by a Federal Government that takes these issues seriously, is prepared to invest before we see natural disasters, and will really get into action to make sure that we help with recovery as well. We are also joined today, obviously by Geoff, our local candidate here, but also Bruce Saunders, the State Member and George Seymour, the local Mayor. And having spoken to both Bruce and Geoff over the last couple of days, it is clear that in the Wide Bay region, there are a number of things that our Federal Government could be investing in to limit the sort of damage that we see from these kinds of floods in the future. And as Albo said, it's things like making roads and bridges more flood proof. In other parts of the country, it's got to be cyclone shelters, evacuation centres, and fire breaks as well. But disturbingly, the other thing I've learned from talking to Bruce and George, is that even now that we've been through this disaster, locals here in the Wide Bay are struggling through the same bureaucratic processes that they've always had to struggle through under this Government to get the support they need to recover. Bruce was telling me about people who are going through eligibility processes as to whether they qualify for disaster payments, they've got to produce all sorts of paperwork, all sorts of evidence, these are people whose homes have been flooded. They don't have the paperwork. They don't have their phones anymore. And yet, we've got a Federal Government that is so determined to impose that kind of bureaucracy on people, that it's holding up the recovery process here as well. And that's why the other part of our announcement the other day, in addition to the disaster prevention aspect that Anthony just went through, is that we've also said that we would cut red tape and make the process of disaster recovery far more efficient than it is at the moment. And the best way we can do that is by having a Federal Government that's actually prepared to work cooperatively with state governments and local governments, rather than what we've got at the moment, which is a Prime Minister and a Federal Government who's more focused on blame shifting to states and territories and local governments, rather than working with them.
Just in closing, I do want to acknowledge that today is the last day of Anthony's regional tour, the Better Future for Queensland tour in regional Queensland. And I know he'll be doing things in Brisbane tomorrow as well. And what I want to say is that it's very clear to me from having been with Anthony over the last few days, that Anthony gets Queensland. He's got a record of delivering to Queensland as an Infrastructure Minister in the Rudd-Gillard Government all the way down this coast. He's been pointing to projects that he built as the Infrastructure Minister. And it's also very clear that he gets what makes Queenslanders tick. He's been very well received on this trip. Lots of good suggestions coming from people up and down the coast. So Albo, we really thank you for taking the time out of your busy diary to spend so much time with us here in Queensland. I'll hand it over to Jim Chalmers.
JIM CHALMERS, SHADOW TREASURER: Thanks very much, Murray. Thanks, Geoff, for having us. Thanks to the Mayor, George Seymour, and Bruce Saunders for their leadership, but especially to Gary and your team and the SES, for the quite remarkable response that we've seen here in Maryborough and in the surrounding areas over the past week or so. This is a great Australian town. This is a tough and resilient region. And we've seen in the last week or so the very best of Australians. Australians have been there for each other in difficult times. And we need the Federal Government to be there for them. It's that simple. And as Murray said, we want to make sure that the support for the people of this region flows as quickly as possible. We know from natural disasters that when the adrenaline starts to die down, and the floodwaters recede, often this is the most difficult time for people because they're dealing with loss. They are dealing with all of the damage that they confront. And so, the very least that a Federal Government can do is to work with the states, work with local government, to make sure that local people are getting the help that they need and deserve. We have seen the very best of Australia here in the last week. Having spent some time here in Maryborough last night and this morning, there's a real sense of pride of what people have been able to achieve for each other. Their response here has been absolutely first class and we know why that's the case. Good people backed up by absolutely first class emergency services, first responders, SES, community groups, local families, all doing the right thing by each other. We want to make sure that the Federal Government does the right thing by them as well, and that applies more broadly to. This has been a really difficult couple of years for Australia, as we all know, and we're not out of the woods yet. And what we need is we need a Prime Minister prepared to take responsibility and to do his job to make sure that we can get through this difficult period together.
And as Murray said, as Anthony has made his way over more than a week now, throughout regional Queensland, there is a very clear contrast at this next election. Australians and Queenslanders will have a very clear choice to make between a leader in Anthony who is prepared to show up and take responsibility and show leadership and listen to people on the ground, versus a Prime Minister who goes missing when Australians need him most. Now this morning, we heard the Morrison Government say that the worst thing that a government could do is to provide free rapid antigen tests to its people. The worst thing, in his words, Simon Birmingham, is to see Labor's policy, a free test by Medicare, implemented. Well, I've got a message for the Morrison Government. The worst thing to do when it comes to rapid antigen tests is to ignore warnings for months so that our grocery shelves are empty, our pharmacists, chemists are empty of rapid antigen tests. The worst thing you can do is leave Australians in the lurch when they need a Prime Minister and a Federal Government on their side the most. But that's what we're seeing right now. The worst thing you can do is to say to people that we need you to return to work once you've had a test that people can't find and can't afford. So, we need the Prime Minister to do his job. He's been using this Novak Djokovic saga as a distraction from the shortages in our supermarkets, the shortages in our chemists, the shortages of workers, the uncertainty that people have had over kids’ boosters and the return to school and all the rest of it. Australia is crying out for leadership. This community has got remarkable leadership from emergency services and the mayor and the state government. And what we desperately need is a federal government who's prepared to act in the interests of local people as well. Happy to take your questions.
ALBANESE: Thanks very much, Jim. Happy to take questions to any of us.
JOURNALIST: What’s your thoughts on the Novak Djokovic saga?
ALBANESE: Well, it should never have come to this. There are so many areas whereby the Morrison Government's character shows out, that it always responds too little and too late, that it never actually envisages a problem that's coming down the track, doesn't act until a problem becomes a crisis. Novak Djokovic and his participation in the Australian Open has been the number one sports story in the world for months. Everyone knows he's the number one player in the world. He's won the Australian Open nine times, shooting for 10, shooting for his 21st Grand Slam to be the greatest champion of all time. But what we have from a Government is day after day after day not making a decision where it is now almost 60 days since his visa was granted. They have never answered the question of how is it that that visa was granted in the first place if he wasn't eligible because he wasn't fully vaccinated.
JOURNALIST: We're going to have natural disasters in this country forever. But they’re expected to get more intense with the climate emergency. Why not spend more on mitigation? Why just $200 million a year?
ALBANESE: Well, $200 million a year we think is the right amount. But if there are other projects that come forward from time to time from separate funding, then that should be considered at the time. But by having a $200 million program for mitigation each and every year, you can get certainty, you can get planning, you can get things going. At the moment, there isn't a single project being completed in the three years in which the Emergency Response Fund has been up and running, even though there’s the allocation of funding. The big announcement, but no delivery. It hasn't led to any activity at all on the ground. And that's just not good enough. It's not good enough when we have the heroes here of our emergency services personnel, backed up by volunteers, who have done a remarkable job here, who, as Jim said, are quite rightly, very proud of the effort that they've made over the last week here in Maryborough.
JOURNALIST: What else do you think the Federal Government could have done better during these floods?
ALBANESE: Well, the Federal Government could, throughout the entire country, have expended, there's now an allocation of $200 million a year for three years. They could have spent money providing support each and every year. Instead, they've just spent some $17 million. What we'll do is look at projects throughout the country. Listen to the experts from the ground up. We won't have a colour-coded map based upon marginal seats. Maryborough is a great to the city that I've now visited four times as Labor Leader. I come back here because it's such an extraordinary place full of courageous people who've shown their resilience and their commitment to each other in the last week.
JOURNALIST: Has any analysis been done on what would happen if you spent a little bit more on mitigation in terms of the payoff when it comes to how much we could perhaps shave off the recovery bill?
WATT: Just to add to Albo’s answers, really there's two reasons for settling on this figure of up to $200 million a year. For starters, that is the amount that is in the current Emergency Response Fund that is not being used by this Government. But importantly, that is the figure that the Government's own Productivity Commission settled on when it reported on these issues in 2015. This Government commissioned the Productivity Commission to do a review of Australia's disaster funding arrangements and the Productivity Commission recommended that the Federal Government should be spending $200 million dollars a year on disaster mitigation and that that should be matched by the states and territories and local governments. That's exactly what our announcement has been this week. So, we're listening to the experts, we’re listening to the people who make these recommendations. I spend a lot of time talking to insurers and other people in the disaster community. And that is the kind of dollar figure that they say is necessary. Because the problem that we've got at the moment is that it's about 97 per cent of government funding that goes into disasters is spent after the event on recovery. It's only three per cent spent on mitigation. So, if we can increase our spending on mitigation, with funds that are already there and not being used, then that will save us a huge amount down the track.
JOURNALIST: What might some of these projects look like?
ALBANESE: Well, I'll give you I'll give you one example. It’s an example from when I was a minister. The Einasleigh River Bridge for decades would get washed away. And then the next flood event would come, and it would wash away again. And the towns of Karumba and Normanton would be isolated. You'd have to have food flown in. You'd have people, if they needed health or hospital care flown out by chopper at enormous cost. We allocated funding to make sure that was fixed there, up in the Gulf country in Bob Katter’s electorate. A great project was ignored by the Howard Government for 12 years. Fixing it has meant that the bridge hasn't got washed away again. Not only that, but the money that was allocated for local government was used for another couple of bridges as well. It's an example whereby, when it comes to infrastructure and planning, it doesn't really matter whether you're talking about transport infrastructure, whether you're talking about other infrastructure, modifying local conditions, whether it's about social infrastructure. There’s a similar theme. If you spend money early, you end up saving money. We've seen that as well, during the pandemic, that principle. And too often, Coalition governments think that they'll make short cuts, ends up costing much more. Murray has some points to add.
WATT: Yes, I mean, just at the local level, we'll obviously work cooperatively with state and local governments to find out what are the measures that are needed. But we've said that this kind of fund could be used to invest in everything from flood levees to evacuation centres to telecommunications networks. Many of the areas that we see being hit by natural disasters are regional and very often they suffer from black spots and other problems in terms of their telecoms, which means that emergency services can't communicate with each other, people aren't getting the information they need. There is no shortage of projects that need investment. What we're seeing is a shortage of federal investment.
JOURNALIST: Do you have a ballpark figure as to how much of this funding is going to be spent in Maryborough specifically?
WATT: I don’t want to overstep my role here. I’m conscious the Shadow Treasurer’s listening very closely to what we’re saying here. Now that we’ve made this announcement, we're in the process of working with states local governments to find out what projects are needed. I can say, and I'm not just saying this as a proud Queenslander, but Queensland does experience natural disasters on a much bigger scale than other parts of our country. It's a tropical region, it's a decentralised community, so I would expect to see a strong level of funding from this fund to Queensland, including areas like Wide Bay. But the fact is that we see natural disasters hit every part of our country. And there is a great need for investment in this field pretty much any way you look outside your capital cities. And that's what this fund will provide.
JOURNALIST: You guys spoke about making the disaster recovery funding applications more efficient. Wouldn't that make more open to rorting? How do you plan to mitigate that? Is it a massive restructure of the arrangement altogether?
WATT: You're talking here about payments after the event?
WATT: So, no, I don't think that making processes more efficient has to result in rorting. That's just what we've seen happen under this Government. That's what they've become very good at. As I say, just talking to Bruce and George, there are people here at the local community who are theoretically eligible for government support, but they can't actually get it because they can't produce the paperwork that's being insisted on to get, in some cases, $1,000 payment so that they can reconnect their electricity and other things like that. It reminded me of things that I heard straight after Black Summer, when I was in disaster regions as well, where people were being asked to provide evidence of their home being burned, or floods hitting them shortly afterwards. They couldn't access their homes. In some cases, their homes had burned down. These are these ridiculous bureaucracies that are being put in place by this Government. They've had years to fix them, and they just haven't done it. And now people in Wide Bay are paying the price as well.
JOURNALIST: On the interest as well that has been approved by the Federal Government, how much do you think should have been spent out of that funding?
WATT: Well, the way this fund was established, and I might say, with Labor's support, was that it was a principle of close to $4 billion that would be invested every year. And the idea was that it would generate around $200 million a year to be invested in a mixture of recovery and mitigation or prevention. Because the stock market has been doing so well, it's actually earned even more than that. So, we're now at a point where this fund has earned the Morrison Government over $750 million in interest over the last three years. So, what it's actually doing is propping up the Morrison Government's bottom line. It's not delivering disaster prevention projects like was promised. It's not delivering disaster recovery that was promised. All it is doing is trying to make Scott Morrison's budget look that little bit better. It's a really shameful way to treat Australians.
ALBANESE: I'll make this point too, that this wasn't new money. This was money that was associated during the Global Financial Crisis when we created the Building Australia Fund and the Education Investment Fund. This was money that was there in the budget for good infrastructure projects. But the Building Australia Fund was for projects that had to be approved by Infrastructure Australia, that is they had to stack up. This Government that's addicted to colour-coded sheets, that doesn't worry about whether a project is good or will produce value, but it's just based upon the electoral impact is its priority. And a great example of what Labor did in Government, last time when I was the Infrastructure Minister, is the Cooroy to Curra, the first two stages of Cooroy to Curra work commenced under the Federal Labor Government. There was obviously no political bonus for that. It wasn't aimed at that. It was, 'What are the right projects, where should the funding go for the right purposes?' And that is something that has been forgotten by this Government. For this government, Scott Morrison says that if you can't do anything for him, he won't do anything for you. And that brings down to individuals, but it also goes down to whole communities.
JOURNALIST: (Inaudible). The Tasmanian Premier has put in place a small business support package and a medium-sized business package. Is it time for the Federal Government a support package?
CHALMERS: The scale of this rapid antigen test stuff-up is so big. And the consequences for businesses and workers and working families is so bad that all of those options should be up for discussion. But what we know throughout much of the last two years is that when small businesses and working families need Scott Morrison the most, he goes missing and he doesn't take responsibility. This country is in the position it's in right now, with shortages in our supermarkets and chemists, worker uncertainty, uncertainty about going back to school, for one reason. And that's because Scott Morrison didn't do his job. The least that he could do is to engage with business, engage with unions, and work out what is the most appropriate way to support people through a difficult time of his making.
JOURNALIST: When you say most appropriate way, therefore financial manner, you said it is open to discussion. So, should there definitely be a financial package, but the size of that and how it works is to be established?
CHALMERS: I mean, clearly, small businesses and working families need assistance. And what we've said all along is that assistance should match the conditions that people confront. So, the point that we're making is, when this situation has been created by Scott Morrison's failure to heed the warnings of the last four or five months about rapid antigen tests, then the least he could do is to sit down with workers and sit down with small businesses and work out what the best form the Federal government assistance could take.
ALBANESE: I'll just make this point as well, that there's an obvious way in which Scott Morrison can help businesses and help working families doing it tough at the moment. That's to give them rapid antigen tests. What's extraordinary is that the Prime Minister knew months ago, was warned many months ago, that rapid antigen tests would be needed. He was complacent. He has responded too late and too little. He's finally ordered some rapid antigen tests this week. But at the same time as he ordered the tenders for the rapid antigen tests, he had TV ads ready to go on TV. On the same day in which workers were struggling to get access to a rapid antigen test, going from chemists to chemist, trying to get a test so that they could be assured that they are healthy enough to go to work, Scott Morrison was using taxpayers' funds fund TV advertising about what a great job the Government was doing on rapid antigen tests, using taxpayers' funds, but he couldn't use taxpayer funds to give those workers a test. This has been just an extraordinary act of arrogance from a Government. And it reminded me of what happened during the bushfire crisis, where Scott Morrison finally turned up, only to make an announcement and have TV ads ready to go using the Australian Defence Force imagery to again promote the Government, to promote his own interests. And in those ads, you might recall, they had a little 'Donate to the Liberal Party' button. Well, the only thing that's missing from these ads on rapid antigen tests is a 'Donate to the Liberal Party' button. He's got everything else there. And the arrogance. Can you imagine sitting around in the Prime Minister's office talking through this? Well, Prime Minister, there's no food on the shelves of our supermarkets, there are hundreds of childcare centres closed, there are aged care facilities that are shut off and shut down because they can't get their booster shots. We have businesses closing, small businesses throughout the country. We can't get rapid antigen test, but we've finally ordered some. How about we get the ads ready? How about we get the ads ready for TV? It's just extraordinary, the level of arrogance shown by this Prime Minister showing just how out of touch he is when Australians are doing it so tough. And the sort of comments we saw that Jim spoke about of Simon Birmingham this morning just shows everything that's wrong about this Government. Enough is enough. It is time that we had a Government in this country that was prepared to govern and accept responsibility.
JOURNALIST: With everything going on at the moment, how do you feel you will go at the election?
ALBANESE: Well, that will be a matter for the Australian people. My job is to hold the Government to account on a day to day basis. And with my team, including the leader of my Queensland team, Jim Chalmers is here, and our great Senator Murray Watt, I've been with Senator Chisholm and Senator Green this week and the great candidates we have right around the country, including Geoff Williams here in Wide Bay. And what we're doing is holding the Government to account. We are also putting forward positive alternatives. Just this week, we have announced our Great Barrier Reef package of support for the Reef, we visited cane farms, banana growers, cattle farmers and producers. We have announced funding for Beef Australia 2024. We've announced the changes that we would make to emergency management funding to make sure that it actually gets ahead of problems rather than just sit back and wait. We've announced funding for research on the southern part of the Great Barrier Reef. We've announced support for a flood levee in Mackay. We visited our Defence Force to thank them for the work they do in keeping the country safe in Townsville. I've engaged with Queenslanders from Cairns all the way through to Maryborough.
And today, I think the greatest honour that I've had this week is meeting these heroes. These are people who just go beyond what is reasonable, to just help their fellow human beings. And what I do when I see and get to talk to the heroes that we've met today, it gives me inspiration in the future of this country. We're a great country. We're a country whereby Australians just will do anything to help each other out. It's that spirit that I want to take into Government. I want a Government that looks after each other, that takes responsibility. These people here who are helping, they're not responsible for what's happened. They turn up to make a difference each and every day. The Prime Minister has a job. But he never takes responsibility and just looks towards someone else. And that's why I think at the next election, Australians will have a choice. They have a choice to say, 'Is this Government that has been in office for almost a decade and shooting for a second decade in office, is this as good as it gets?' Imagine how arrogant they'll be if they get a fourth term. And that's why I don't think that they deserve another term in office. My team are ready to govern. Not in isolation, but to govern in partnership with business, with unions, with the sort of community spirit that we see here today. Govern in the interests of all Australians. Stop the division, stop the blame-shifting, accept responsibility, and make Australia, which is a great country, an even better country in the future.