ABC Weekend Breakfast – Constitutional recognition, drought

Saturday, 19 October 2019

FAUZIAH IBRAHIM: It is time now for our pollie panel. This week we are discussing the new push for a constitutional referendum before the next Federal Election and where the Government is at with the drought.

JOSH SZEPS:  Joining us on the panel today Labor MP Amanda Rishworth and Liberal MP Jason Falinski. Thanks to both of you for being here. Jason the Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt basically saying if we’re going to have a referendum then it has to take place before the next election, and he basically thinks it should simply be about recognising First Nations people and not necessarily enshrining a voice to Parliament in the referendum.

JASON FALINSKI, LIBERAL MEMBER FOR MACKELLAR: That’s been Ken’s views for a while, there are a lot of discussions going on, people are talking to a lot of different stakeholders including the Labor Party. Linda Burney and Ken Wyatt get on very well, obviously all the stakeholders involved. The Government is very determined and I think the Parliament is determined to recognise Indigenous Australians in our constitution. But we want to make sure that we get this right, because if we don’t it will set that cause back a generation.

SZEPS: But some people hear “we want to get this right” as a way of stonewalling and procrastinating and postponing.

FALINSKI: And I understand their cynicism and I can understand that completely. But the Liberal Party has a proud history in this area, the first Indigenous Senator was a member of the Liberal Party,  the first Indigenous Australian who was Minister for Indigenous Affairs is Ken Wyatt, the first Indigenous Cabinet Minister was a Liberal and of course we were the party that recognised and took the referendum in 1967 with the support of the Labor Party. These things get done with bipartisanship and that’s what we need to strive for in this particular situation.

IBRAHIM: Amanda Rishworth Ken Wyatt has been accused of the Indigenous communities of not consulting them when it comes to this particular issue. I think I read somewhere that they haven’t been consulted in the last two months or so. Do you think Ken Wyatt is speaking to wider Australia rather than just one community?

AMANDA RISHWORTH, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION AND DEVELOPMENT: At the moment if we want to achieve constitutional recognition we’re going to have to start working very quickly, especially if we want this referendum before the Australian people before the next election. Because you have to ensure First Nations people have a voice and they are properly consulted, and Linda Burney our Shadow Minister has been very clear that Labor will be guided by the voices of First Nations people. Of course you’ve also got to bring the wider Australian community along with you when it comes to constitutional change, so you actually have to do both things. Ensuring First Nations people’s voices are at the centre, and also make sure you’re communicating with the wider Australian population, and that is a difficult job. It does need bipartisanship so we need to be working towards that. But of course it’s also respecting the Uluru Statement from the Heart, that is really important and we need to make sure we are respecting that as well.

SZEPS: Do you basically agree the referendum should take place before the next election and it shouldn’t be concurrent with the next election, because the Minister was saying if you put it on the same ballot as the rest of the election it becomes despoiled by all the other things that are going on in a Federal Election campaign.

RISHWORTH: I want to be guided as Linda Burney has said by the voices of First Nations people. But if we are going to achieve that, the Government is going to have to really get on with the job. There are a lot of steps that need to be taken before we can put a referendum to the people. Consulting with First Nations people, the education campaign, the question to the Parliament, there’s a lot of work to be done. So to have that achieved and not have that half done or not done properly requires the Government to get on and do the job. As Linda Burney has said, we’re already out there consulting on what might be the design of a Voice to Parliament, what might be in a constitutional question. But we need to get on with the job now, because it’s not something you can just put quickly to the Australian people.

IBRAHIM: Jason I mean that’s the issue isn’t it, there’s a lot of work to be done as Amanda said. It’s a very tight deadline can it be achieved?

FALINSKI: Well we’re going to try, that’s the key to this. Australia is an ambitious nation, we’ve done a lot of ambitious things, and this is one of those ambitious projects. This is another step on the journey towards reconciliation, it’s important we give it a go. As Amanda said and I wish I’d said it that well myself,  it requires bipartisanship and everyone involved to come to discussion with good will. Particularly I think not to make perfect the enemy of the good, there will need to be steps along the way that we take where not everyone is going to be happy but it is a step forward and we need to take those steps.

SZEPS: Jason and Amanda let’s pivot now and talk about the drought because the National Farmers’ Federation has released a statement about the Government’s policy this week and also this week the Prime Minister announced a new cash payment to drought stricken farmers, that was just after a fairly explosive sequence of interviews with Alan Jones. Jason it’s good to know Alan Jones can get the Prime Minister to do what his own Ministers and voters can’t.

FALINSKI: Well can I just say sometimes Alan Jones watches this program and he sends me text messages on my performance so I’ll be very careful. He was at the gym last time he told me he was watching so.

SZEPS: I thought you were going to say he sends you notes about my performance, I used to work for the guy.

FALINSKI: I’ll ask him.

SZEPS: No but seriously what do you make of that? This was something that hadn’t previously been announced, it’s giving $13,000 to couples and $7,500 to individuals. It’s going to cost about $13 million a year. There’s been no flagging of it, the National Farmers’ Federation said they weren’t given any notice, so this does seem to be the consequences of the influence of a media personality.

FALINSKI: Look I don’t think that’s illegitimate though to be honest. I think Alan Jones speaks to a large number of people in rural and regional areas, particularly in New South Wales and Queensland where this drought is at its most acute. He was feeding back a lot of the information he’s getting from people who listen to him, so it’s not a bad thing for a government to respond to the feedback they’re getting from on the ground about what’s going on, whether it’s from Alan Jones or whether it’s from financial counsellors or Barnaby Joyce, they’re all legitimate things that any democratic government should do. But I’ve got to say the only way to solve this drought is through rain as David Littleproud says, knee-deep rain. No government can make it rain.

SZEPS: Let me just push back on that, sorry I just want to finish this point first because the criticism that comes from the Government’s drought policy is not just that it’s too little too late but that it’s somewhat ad hoc, that it’s somewhat reactive, that there isn’t an overall plan. The National Farmers’ Federation this week they’ve said we need to have some sort of plan for drought even we’re not in drought, and that Government is sort of asleep at the wheel, we need a drought forum, we need a drought committee, some sort of holistic thing. There’s this sense that everyone’s hair is on fire and the Government is throwing cash at the problem. So when you go on a radio show and someone berates you, I mean the Prime Minister went on John Laws’ show two days later and John Laws said why do you allow yourself to get harangued in the way that Alan Jones harangues you, a lot of people felt it was a sign of weakness that you let Alan get away with what he did.

FALINSKI: And how did the Prime Minister answer that question?

SZEPS: Well I’m sure in an exemplary fashion, but how can the party bring together some sort of coherent strategy that doesn’t seem like it’s just putting out fires.

FALINSKI: So there’s two problems and they are specific problems in a drought. The first is that this is an acute drought and we are getting to the very pointy end of it. So any government needs to be responsive and agile in that way that it deals with an emergency of this nature. The second is that we have a long-term strategy around water security, water infrastructure, and I can bore you with quoting $1.28 billion for 21 co-funded local water infrastructure projects, $1 billion with the New South Wales Government to build more infrastructure around water. That’s the long term plan, the short term plan is how do we make sure that good farmers don’t leave the farms before it starts raining, because that’s when you get a destructive nature and it takes you a generation to recover. So what the Government is trying to do at this point is be as responsive and agile as we can to the crisis as it emerges, and also to cut and to tailor our responses in a manner and form. I mean one thing I was going to mention today but I might do it at the end, is the people who won the Nobel Prize this year for economics, and what they found was if you really want to alleviate poverty  the best way to do that is have a thousand experiments and test which one works, and to a certain extent that’s what we’re trying to do at the moment.

IBRAHIM: Is there time for an experiment though, Amanda I want to bring you in is it time for an experiment now or should we already have a drought policy? This drought isn’t a surprise, it’s been going on for quite some time now, is it time for an experiment or should we have a firm drought policy already in place?

RISHWORTH: Well you’re absolutely right that this payment that was announced by the Prime Minister after pressure from a radio host is a modest one and goes to people to extend their payment from four to four and a half years. It’s not a panacea, now there is no panacea to drought Jason’s right with that, but  we do need a long term drought strategy. Of course we need immediate relief now, and we need medium and long-term strategies as well. The Government has spent money on a Coordinator General who’s been out in communities and has delivered a report to Government in April. It hasn’t been made public and I would really call on the Government if they want to have an honest conversation about solutions and priorities, to release that and work together with the Opposition. Anthony Albanese sent a letter to the Prime Minister just this week saying this is becoming a national emergency and to put a Drought Cabinet together, with both sides of government as well as the crossbench and actually look at what we can do and to work together. Because one thing, whether it’s the National Farmers’ Federation or farmers or rural communities, are saying, is they don’t want it to chop and change, they don’t want it to be ad hoc, they need to know it’s not going to change with different Prime Ministers or different governments. It needs to be everyone having a buy in. At the moment the Government still seems to be making this a political issue and that’s very frustrating for everyone. So we actually need to have everyone buy in and the Government should start by releasing the Coordinator General’s report, I think that would help us with a plan going forward and I’m not sure why they won’t do that. Instead we’re seeing these ad hoc, modest commitments rather than a proper strategy.

SZEPS: Amanda one controversial statement recently that went public was  saying look if you haven’t made money on a farm in more than five years maybe you should think about getting out of the business, you shouldn’t be farming. Do we need to re-evaluate how much we’re farming if the climate keeps changing and the drought gets worse?

RISHWORTH: I think our farmers do an amazing job and our agricultural sector is really critical to our economy. There does need to be adaptation when it comes to climate change, that is something we can work with farmers and rural communities on. But the money needs to be there, the science needs to be there, the support needs to be there and the strategy needs to be there. There are things we can put in place for the long term about how we adapt to a changing climate and how our farmers do that, but we need a strategy in place, we need to give them hope and we need to give them concrete things we can work towards as a whole community and as a country. I think that’s really important, and that’s why I think a Drought Cabinet would be a really good thing to assemble, have everyone in the room, have this conversation to make sure we have short term, medium term and long term in place to make sure our rural communities can survive.

SZEPS: Amanda, Jason we’ll have to leave it there thanks so much for coming in.


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