ABC News Interview: Afternoon Briefing: Bushfires, Climate Change, A Bigger Australia



SUBJECTS: Bushfires, Climate Change, A Bigger Australia

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST:  I’m joined now by Zali Steggall and Peter Khalil. There has been a lot of noise from many people about all of this. I’ll start with you, Peter Khalil. What do you make of the comments, whether they came from Barnaby Joyce or Craig Kelly or even the Greens Senator, are they appropriate during this time? 

PETER KHALIL, LABOR MEMBER FOR WILLS: Well PK I think what Anthony Albanese said today and also Mark Butler and the rest of Labor – 

KARVELAS: The Prime Minister made a comment yesterday too. 

KHALIL: Spot on in the sense that the focus should be on the families, the communities, getting the resources out to them that are necessary, supporting the emergency services personnel and the volunteers who are on the front-line of the bushfires. And Federal Labor has said and through Anthony, whatever bipartisan support is necessary for that support in those resources we’ll do it. We should not make, politicise this tragedy. I think to answer your question directly, the political shouting match between the Greens and the Nats and the political bickering, not only is it insensitive it helps no one on the ground. Number one and number two it doesn’t really move the climate change policy debate forward in any positive way. Frankly, have that debate in the media, the national parliament, in the press. There’s a lot of discussion about what Australia should be doing, what it’s not doing. You’ve heard my views. I think the Government is falling short. The emissions are actually going up. And we will put forward our policies for the Australian people to decide at the next election. I really think that political shouting match is completely unacceptable and not really helping anyone on the ground right now and we should be focusing on those families and communities.  

KARVELAS: What do you make of it, Zali Steggall? 

ZALI STEGGALL, INDEPENDENT MEMBER FOR WARRINGAH: I think we need to show respect for those who are intimately and personally involved. In my electorate, the sister city of Mosman is Glen Innes. The Mayor Carolyn Corrigan has been in touch with Carol Sparks the Mayor of Glen Innes, who has had a very personal experience in these bushfires. It is about showing respect for the experience they are going through. But also being realistic about the circumstances. This is a present threat. We have a state of emergency when it comes to this and there is great fear in the community as to what kind of risk we’re going to face over the rest of the summer, in the coming month. I’ve been in touch with Greg Mullins the retired fire chief who has been calling for meetings with the PM and getting very little recognition. He’s been doing that for some time. Whilst, yes, we need to be very focused on the emergency and assisting those on the ground, we also need to recognise that action is needed.  

KARVELAS: OK. You’re saying it is appropriate to raise issues around climate change. You just aren’t such a fan of some of the more extreme language?  

STEGGALL: No. I’m definitely not fan of the emotive language and I think it’s disrespectful. We need sensible reaction and sensible plan. I thought it was extremely unbecoming of our parliament, for the Deputy Prime Minister, to make the comments he made and I certainly deplore the kind of language that’s been used. But we also do need to reassure people that we are on the right track and we are meeting the situation, that it’s not just, we can’t always just be reactive. We do need to adapt and plan for these situations. When it is clear the information has been around for quite some time, as to the risks and dangers that we are going to be exposed to, we do need to raise attention to that, to make sure that we’re not months behind the 8 ball and we are taking the action needed. 

KARVELAS: Zali Steggall, you mentioned Barnaby Joyce there and he has been criticised heavily. How about the comments by Jordon Steele-John, where he actually raised, where he said the arsonist word was used to criticise the other political parties? What do you make of that?  

STEGGALL: I don’t agree with that language. I think that none of that language is helpful. What we want is a consensus moving forward on how to come up with a plan that adapts Australia to a warming climate. I think that no matter where everyone is on the political spectrum, everyone agrees it is getting warmer. We have situations we need to adapt to. People are calling for a plan to adapt and then what are the measures we can do that minimise the impact? That is addressing climate change in the long term in terms of decarbonisation. None of this is new. It needs sensible language I think that is ironically why I am here. An electorate like Warringah wants a sensible approach to this. It doesn’t want the emotional language. It wants the plan.  

KARVELAS: Peter, Labor has been arguing now is not the time to talk about climate change while the disaster is unfolding, but when you’re talking about the reasons we’re seeing fires, some people have argued hang on a minute we can’t not talk about it because it’s clearly one of the causes. What do you make of that? 

KHALIL: I think what Anthony and Mark and other of our leadership was saying not to politicise what’s happening right now. We talk about climate change –  

KARVELAS: But to mention, is mentioning climate change politicising something? 

KHALIL: I just said it. We talk about climate change policy all the time and I agree with parts of what Zali was saying about the need for a plan. If you look at the Victorian Royal Commission on fire, it talked about the effects of climate change, the rural urban interface with rising population or population growth and the need to manage and have a plan in place for what has always been part of the Australian story. Drought and fire. Obviously the ICCP modelling, there is a scientific consensus that drought has intensified and bushfire seasons have elongated because of the effects of climate change. We need to be better prepared and she’s right about that. I would like to see the Commonwealth take that responsibility, work with the state and territory governments, use COAG if necessary and put in place a much better strategic plan to deal with what we’re facing these longer, higher frequency fire seasons and the intensity of them as well. So that needs to be done. There’s nothing wrong with talking about that, talking about the impacts of climate change. That’s what we do. But I think it is right and Zali said it as well that we need to be sensible in our language. And not be so politicised and the shouting and screaming match which the shouting that goes on to each other from the Greens and the Nats and shouting to their own little tribes is not moving this forward in any way. It is insensitive to the people on the ground. The focus that we need to have on the resources we need for emergency services personnel and volunteers and communities that are facing this on the front-line. We can have a sensible rational debate. People will make a decision about what policies we put forward. If they want to change the Government and have real action on climate change, Labor puts forward policies about investment in renewables and decarbonising the economy and creating jobs in the renewal energy sector. Anthony Albanese just did a big speech about it last week. So I think it’s the way that you have these debates that’s important for the national psyche I guess. I’m very disappointed in that shouting and political bickering that we’ve seen in the last couple of days.  

KARVELAS: Is it just the timing or are you making a broader statement? Will Labor stop shouting too? Labor MPs occasionally shout.  

KHALIL: I have never shouted on this program, PK.  

KARVELAS: I wouldn’t say that Labor never shouts, that wouldn’t be fair, would it? I don’t know if that’s what I’ve witnessed? 

KHALIL: I have gotten a bit shirty sometimes. I don’t know if I’ve ever shouted on your program. We’re passionate about issues. We’ll make our points on policy. But there’s a basic modicum of human decency to sort of understand the appropriateness of how you go about making a political point and a point about policy. It’s been disappointing to see the political bickering that’s gone on in the middle of this catastrophic fire that’s happening in Queensland and New South Wales.  

KARVELAS: Zali Steggall, are we going need to invest more heavily in man pow, human power if this extended fire season is the new normal?  

STEGGALL: I think that is definitely something on the cards that needs to be looked at. I want to be directed and advised by the experts in the field which are the firefighters. They are on the frontlines and know the resources they need. We’ve had a number of the fire chiefs that have been wanting to meet with the PM. They wrote in February, in April, in September. So these issues are on the table. It is all part of the overall challenge we face, with a hotter climate means there’s going to be a number of challenges when it’s across health, it’s going to be across agriculture with drought, it will be across our transport and our infrastructure and it’s going to be across our emergency responses when it comes to our bushfires. So what we do need is that overarching plan of how equipped is Australia to meet the upcoming challenges? Because I think we all do have to be real about acknowledging that we have challenges ahead. And that is the callout that I’m certainly making from the crossbench is that we want leadership, we want this Government to take the lead and actually put in place that plan to make sure we’re prepared for the challenges ahead. And those challenges are 2-fold. It is the adaptation but it is also the decarbonising. I think that’s where it’s not about political point scoring and I think as an independent on the crossbench I can say that very clearly. This isn’t about right or wrong from one side or the other side of politics. This is actually united, standing and recognising a challenge we have and taking action in relation to that challenge. 

KARVELAS: OK. But the other issue of course is mitigation and how to deal in the periods before the bushfires strike. I wonder what your thoughts are on the substantive part of the argument made by Barnaby Joyce, not the bit that was quite insulting but the argument he makes about more of this mitigation being necessary. Peter, is it? Does he make a valid point? 

KHALIL: There’s been a lot of discussion about backburning and the need for more backburning and some of the National Parks not doing enough backburning. You could talk about this being a resource question. I know that resources to park rangers in New South Wales have been cut apparently. So they’ve made it more difficult to have the capacity to do the necessary backburning. All of that has to be part of this discussion about contingency planning for what we’re going to be facing in the future which is more intense bushfires, elongated and high frequency bushfire seasons. And that’s why I said earlier that the Commonwealth needs to step up and take responsibility, work with the state and territories to put in place a strategy. That should be bipartisan. Include the crossbenchers, include all sides of politics to ensure we are best prepared to deal with these natural disasters that we’re going to be facing. So back-burning can be part of that. A lot of the Aboriginal, you’ve heard some of the commentary around Indigenous backburning that managed the land and hadn’t been done for a while. These are all factors that need to be considered in what should be a bipartisan approach amongst Commonwealth and state and territory governments.  

KARVELAS: Zali Steggall, what do you think about that kind of, I don’t think it’s actually called backburning. I’m going to fact check you. I think it’s hazard reduction measures they’re called. Back-burning happens when the bushfire is already on. I’ve had a lot of complaints about this from people who know a lot about fires so I’m just going to be clear about it. Zali Steggall, should that mitigation work be done? 

STEGGALL: Absolutely it has to be done. But we also have to be realistic, when is it possible to do it? I understand from people like Greg Mullins, our challenge is that periods in which it’s possible to do that hazard reduction are diminishing. We are in periods of extended drought, increased temperatures, extremely dry situations where that hazard reduction may not be always possible. So again it’s part of that adaptation plan. We need to listen to the experts to come up with the solutions across all the situations and different environments will require different approaches.  

KARVELAS: Just finally, a question without notice but it’s a comment that Alan Tudge has made about more people in Australia and this migration issue. Do you think – I’ll start with you, Zali, and then I’ll hear from Peter – there should be a bigger Australia? 

STEGGALL: Not necessarily. I think what we need is a better prepared Australia. We need more focus on our infrastructure. We can’t just add people. I would like to see better utilisation of the people and the skills we already have. We have women facing, we’re not on an equal footing. We’ve got pay disparity, superannuation disparity. I would like to see better work opportunities for women in the work force before we start talking about a bigger Australia. At the end of the day we need infrastructure. We need to have all the systems in place for that to cope. You can’t just require the current communities to take on more and more without there being a problem.  

KARVELAS: Peter Khalil? 

KHALIL: I’m somewhat in disagreement with Zali, I don’t think those things are not they’re mutually exclusive. Immigration has been part of the Australian story. It’s a critically important part of the Australian story, as well as our multicultural model that we’ve had here which is so successful. The question as to whether right number of people coming in in net migration each year is one that is determined by government year to year. I think it’s around 160,000 at the moment but what that doesn’t take into account – this is why this question is not quite right – it doesn’t take into account the fact there are over a million people on temporary work visas in this country. In the past decades we’ve had a process where people have moved from migrating to this country, to becoming citizens and becoming part of Australia. That is changing. Not many people talk about that. When we talk congestion in the major cities in Melbourne and Sydney, the vast bulk of those people are on temporary work visas are in those cities and Zali is right about the fact that we need to put more into infrastructure. We’ve argued for that. Albo argues for that all of the time. It’s part of our policy suite. That needs to be done. I’m very, very conscious of the fact that it’s very dangerous to start talking about big Australia and small Australia because that can very easily turn in to anti-migrant, anti-ethnic and that is not what’s happening here. We’re talking about government allowing these temporary work visas to get completely out of control and not have that same traditional pathway to citizenship to becoming Australian that we’ve had in the post-World War II years. It is an important debate that we have to have in this country, though. 

KARVELAS: Thank you so much to both of you for joining me this afternoon.