ABC News Interview: Afternoon Briefing: Bushfires, Climate Change, Bougainville Independence, Religious Discrimination Bill, Multicultural Engagement Taskforce



SUBJECTS:  Bushfires, Climate Change, Bougainville Independence, Religious Discrimination Bill, Multicultural Engagement Taskforce

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Welcome to both of you. 


DAVE SHARMA MP: Thanks Patricia. 

KARVELAS: Dave Sharma, the NSW Environment Minister has argued that climate change is behind the bushfire crisis and wants greater emissions reduction. Do you agree with the case he makes?  

SHARMA: Yeah look I saw what Matt Cain said, and I heard him at an interview this morning and I agree by and large with what he says. There’s no doubt that the climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events like bushfires. It’s increasing the frequency and severity of events like droughts and, you know, the fires we’re experiencing right now in NSW are multifactorial, there’s a number of things behind them. But climate change is certainly playing a part. And you know its incumbent upon all of us and the world to do more to address it.  

KARVELAS: Okay, so all of us and you said that before. But of course, we can only do what we do because we can’t necessarily dictate to the world. So, should the federal government be doing more in your view to ease this issue? To actually deal with our emissions and accelerate the reduction? 

SHARMA: The thing you would have seen in the report just over the weekend that we’re further ahead of meeting our Paris emissions reductions targets than we looked to be one year ago and that’s a positive thing, we’re well on track to make them in fact to exceed them. And the Minister is in Madrid this week for the UN Triple C talks, the cop talks. And look, I’d like to see, you know, I like to see us hit our targets and raise our level of ambition, over time. And I’d like to see the world do that as well, because at the moment, you know we’re not on the trajectory we need to be on to limit the extent of global warming.  

KARVELAS: Now we’re not on the trajectory, and how much does this alarm you?  
SHARMA: Look it concerns me. I mean I think things are moving in the right direction. You know I think in Australia in particular, we’re seeing renewable energy installed at record rate. We’re seeing, you know, huge investment in stored renewable energy facilities like pumped hydro. We are seeing expansion of a national hydrogen strategy, these are all good things. And I think, you know, there’s a point that we should only be moving as fast as the technology and the commercial viability and you know societal norms allow us to. And I’m optimistic that you know the slope of this curve if you like, will change over time will be able to accelerate the rate at which we reduce our emissions as more technology comes online, as we can better integrate it into our lives and into the electricity grid. But, you know, we need to be always looking at the horizon and setting our sights a little higher. 

KARVELAS: Peter Khalil, two former fire chiefs, Greg Mullens and Lee Johnson say national summit is necessary to discuss not only the increasing strain on volunteers battling more of these extreme and frequent bushfires but also how Australia deals with fire in a changed climate. Do you think that should happen? Is that something you think needs to happen? 

KHALIL: Yes, and we’ve actually backed their call for a national emergency summit to deal with this. And they’ve talked about the need to include government, you know, the military, emergency services, civic society and so on. To deal with the impacts of climate change on the bushfire season. And I agree with Dave. The severity and the intensity and the length of the fire season is being impacted by climate change, I think we can agree on that. But where we don’t agree is this, you know, fact that he talks about meeting Kyoto Protocols. Well, hold on, also the Paris accords they using the Kyoto credits, which is a lot less than the actual 26% or 28%, that they trying to get to, and the only other country in the world is doing that is Ukraine. So there’s a bit of trickery in the accounting there, and it is well short of even the targets that we put to the last election and we are having a debate about what that’s going to be in a couple of years as well. But the fact is, they’re not investing in renewable energy I mean if you want to reduce global emissions, you’ve got to invest in renewable energy you’re going to transition out of fossil fuels, you’ve got to actually get a just transition for workers as well. We, we committed $15 billion to renewable energy projects this government I think just recently announced an additional billion. So it’s well short of the mark and you can talk all you want Dave about what you say you’re doing with your talking points but the fact is, you’re not actually taking this seriously. On the bushfires was very disappointing is the Prime Minister has ignored the fire chiefs. Albo, our leader,  said that we should have had a COAG meeting to deal with a national response, quite a while ago, he ignored that. And even with the volunteer firefighters who have shown concern about fatigue and so on. He’s just dismissed that and said all you know they want to be there. There’s no leadership on this. They’re just burying the head in the sand, about the impacts of climate change, and what we need is national leadership, and united leadership to deal with these issues. 

KARVELAS:  So Dave Sharma, do you think there should be a national summit as these two former chiefs has suggested? Would that be a sensible way to have this conversation? 

SHARMA: I think there’s always scope for more coordination between state and federal governments that happens, to a large extent already, you know, through COAG and through other processes. I think the immediate concern right now though is to combat these bushfires and make sure that our rural fire services, and our emergency services, are getting all the resources and the support they need on the front lines to deal with this right now. 

KARVELAS: Okay but you said there’s always room for more. Would you like to see, you’re a backbencher you can say what you really think, a national summit where these people are included to think differently, and more seriously about this issue? 

SHARMA: I’m open to the idea. I’m not aware of the detail they’ve proposed. If there’s valuable views to be exchanged, perspectives to be offered and coordination mechanisms to be built, we should always be open to it. 

KARVELAS: And in your view, should the fires be treated as a national security issue as the member for Wentworth, the guy before you, Malcolm Turnbull, suggested on Q&A this week? 

SHARMA: I think there are national emergencies and we’re certainly treating it as a national emergency. I think of national security issues in terms of threats to our sovereignty and wouldn’t say the bushfires qualify as that. But they’re certainly is a national emergency. Just as the Victorian bushfires in 2011 were and the Queensland floods, the bushfires in 1994. We have do have a history of Australia having to deal with these national emergencies and this is one of the sternest challenges we’ve had to face yet.  

KARVELAS: Dave Sharma, you’re a Sydney MP. Have your constituents raised concerns about the city’s hazardous air quality with you? 

SHARMA: Absolutely. You can’t miss it. I’ve been in the electorate all week and came into the city yesterday and it was just awful. At lunchtime, I had been at school presentation ceremonies and awards, events today and it’s certainly on the minds of parents and children. I have got young children at school locally as well and I’m concerned for their health. It has been, air quality is not something we’re accustomed to having to worry about in Sydney or any part of Australia but suddenly we’ve had to become familiar with particular matter densities and how does the air quality compare to cities like New Delhi and Beijing, which we never thought we would have to compare ourselves to. People are concerned and people are frightened. I can understand that. 

KARVELAS: I wonder if you think this is changing the political debate or it’s putting more pressure on politicians like you. Do you think it is? Is it having that kind of an effect in your view? 

SHARMA: I’ll leave political commentary to political commentators. I’m an elected representative.  

KARVELAS: You represent people, do you feel like there is increased alarm, that people feel like they want action on this because they feel it so immediately and in such a tangible way? 

SHARMA: Look, there’s no doubt that climate change is and continues to be an important issue for voters in my electorate and in large parts of Australia. Seeing first hand increased frequency and severity of weather events like this and seeing the direct impact on quality of life and things, obviously only elevates that issue as one of importance to them. 

KARVELAS: Just a final one on this issue to you Peter Khalil, because Labor during the last – we’re going to have many of them – but the last catastrophic day which caused so much havoc and we had such a discussion on, also wanted to pause a discussion on the role of climate change in all of this. Do you think that was a mistake because Labor is now happy to have that discussion when we’re talking about air quality or current fires? Why not that one and why now?  

KHALIL: I think it’s, as Dave said earlier and which I agree with, the scientific evidence… 

SHARMA: You’re agreeing with me? 

KHALIL: I know. The scientific evidence is quite clear that climate change impacts are impacting the severity and intensity of the bushfire season. It’s part of the conversation we have to have. The fire chiefs have raised it, particularly in the context of needing to have a national conversation about how we shift the paradigm on this and how we actually deal with it as a nation in a united way. So I think that’s reasonable enough for us to be discussing this. We all obviously agree that we give every support that we can and the Federal Labor Party has said we will do everything on a bipartisan level to support the firefighters and the emergency services, whatever is needed. I don’t think that’s in any doubt. As a nation we need to discuss these issues and this is a big part of the question that we need to find answers to. 

KARVELAS: I want to move on to an international story which has broken on our watch here at Afternoon Briefing, because the people of Bougainville have voted overwhelmingly to seek independence from PNG. I want to get your view on this Dave Sharma. Is there now pressure on the PNG government to honour that vote? 

SHARMA: I used to live on Bougainville in fact, in the early 2000s and worked on the peace process and I was there when the peace agreement was signed which put back the referendum to this day. And I think my expectation was then and indeed all of Papua New Guinea that the Bougainvillians were more likely than not to vote for independence and they voted overwhelmingly for independence in this referendum that’s just been held. The way it’s been designed and structured, this was present when it was first written, was that this wouldn’t be a self-executing referendum. That is the Papua New Guinean legislature, the parliament there would ultimately need to approve any arrangement. So I think the Bougainville residents have made their wish for independence. This now needs to be a negotiation with the central government. I’m pleased that the Bougainvillians have expressed their view in such a clear way but I would sound a note of caution that Bougainville is an island of about 200,000 people and countries of that sort of population often struggle to take on all the full attributes of a sovereign state. If they are to proceed down the path of independence they should proceed cautiously and in consultation with Papua New Guinea. The only way they’ll not only survive, but prosper is if they’re closely integrated with their neighbours including PNG. 

KARVELAS: Are you worried about instability in the region? 

SHARMA: I think how this plays out will be a concern. The civil war that started all this in 1988 was because of initially over a big resource project – the Pangu Copper Mine, but really because of Bougainville separatists or independence aspirations at the time. But obviously these issues have sparked serious civil conflict before and unrest and so I think it is a time we need to tread cautiously and watch closely and do what we can to make sure the situation remains as calm as possible.  

KARVELAS: Peter Khalil, on another issue which was announced yesterday by the Morrison Government, are you satisfied with the second draft of the Religious Discrimination Bill that’s been proposed? 

KHALIL: I’m not satisfied with the fact they’ve dropped this on us again and Labor, as we did with the first draft, Patricia as you know, we went out and consulted widely with all different groups within society, whether they be equality groups, LBGTIQ groups, religious groups, organisations, and we’ll go through and do that process again. Now they’ve dropped the second draft. I haven’t even had a chance to look at it yet, but obviously we need to go out there and talk to the community groups that have views around it. We need to go through it. The first one was friendless as we know. Not any group, not business group, not equality group, not a religious group were happy with the first draft. I don’t know what the reactions are going to be. There’s been some initial reactions on the second draft. St Vinnies were annoyed by the fact they were said to be by the Government and have some advantage around this and said they don’t agree with that assessment. So we’re going to go through it and through our consultation process. I’ll say a very general point about religious discrimination bill and so on. Labor has been at the forefront in this nation when in Government, around the frameworks around rights and legislation. Whether it’s the racial discrimination acts, the sex discrimination act, the disability discrimination act. We have been at the forefront, the thought leaders and implementers of that framework. We’ll do the right thing and do the job right, at least from Opposition. Do our best to try and get the best possible outcomes here. I’m driven, I know by a principle around the need for, I believe in freedom of religion and freedom from religion. No existing people or groups should be discriminated out of this outcome.  

KARVELAS: And Dave Sharma, what do you make of all elements? Are you fully satisfied now? I know the business communities has been concerned for instance on the fact that workers essentially are going to have more rights now to express whatever views they want, as long as it’s not in a workplace setting on things like social media. Are you comfortable with that shift?  

SHARMA: This is the second exposure draft, that’s going to be further round of consultations. It’s more important to get it done right than get it done in a hurry. That’s the government’s view on this. I’m keen to see what the reaction is to this from some of those groups and some of them have been touch with me today. This is a hard piece of policy; it’s a hard piece of legislation.  

KARVELAS: What feedback are you getting? You said they are in touch with you. I’d love to hear what they’re telling you. Are they telling you they’re satisfied or do they want other changes made?  

SHARMA: I’ve had differing views. I’ve had groups who have raised with me in the past if they say it’s a faith-based hospital or a nursing home or something, their desire to be able to continue to recruit positively for people of their own faith and values and I can respect and understand those rights. I’ve had other groups in touch with me today who are concerned about the conscientious objection provisions and as they might relate to pharmacists, we have narrowed the scope of those and things like that.  I don’t profess to have a settled view on this. I’m open to what everyone has got to say on this. 

KARVELAS: Well let me get you on the pharmacists. If you’re a pharmacist in a rural community, perhaps you’re the only country pharmacist around, and you don’t want to give out the morning after pill, does that concern you that perhaps women who can only access that pharmacy would be limited in obtaining that?  

SHARMA: Yeah, it would concern me. I think the objections now are a refusal of service, rather than the refusal to serve a class of person and I think that’s a wise amendment. You wouldn’t want a situation where there is only a sole provider of service, this as being a GP, doctor or hospital that refuses to perform a category of service that we think should be available to the public at large. There are always difficult examples that you can conceive of and that’s one that you have which tests the limits of the law and you need to try and write it in a way that accommodates all those interests but not have that driving the entire body of the legislation. It’s the tough cases that make bad law. You need to be looking at what are the mainstream interactions occurring and how we best design the legislation to accommodate competing interests in that framework.  

KARVELAS: Peter, just quickly. Labor has today launched its new Multicultural Engagement Taskforce which you’ll be chairing. That’s a coincidence. Let’s talk about it. What do you want to do with a multicultural taskforce like this? It sounds serious. What are you trying to do?  

KHALIL: It is serious. Its purpose is to listen to multicultural and culturally diverse communities around the country. We’ve got a terms of reference out there. A couple of things we’re trying to achieve out of this is to hear from those communities so we can better develop our policy, our policy framework for multicultural communities going into the next election. We are going to spend seven months in consultations around the country. We’ll be looking at key issues. How do we better address access and equity to services, particularly for aged care for the older generation migrant groups? How do we provide better services for new and emerging community groups to help them settle into Australia and how do we better support policy frameworks around small business and entrepreneurship for diaspora communities and migrant communities to help their success? And of course a big question around, we’re a multicultural nation. That’s a fact. You can’t change that. Although some on the right might want to have that argument. We are a multicultural migrant nation. That’s our reality. I’m interested in the evolution of our multiculturalism, where we’re heading and how we see ourselves in our Australian identity and how that plays into the importance of social cohesion going forward. We’ll have these discussions with community leaders around the country and in the regional areas as well. That will hopefully help us inform our policy offering to the public for the next election.  

KARVELAS: Thank you to both of you. Always a great conversation.