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By Joel Fitzgibbon

30 September 2020

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO, HOST: Speaking of Prime Ministers, the man who's going to be the next leader of the Labor Party, Joel Fitzgibbon.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: Thanks for your help, Stephen.
CENATIEMPO: [laughs] that’s all you need, isn’t it? Joel, as the Shadow Minister for Agriculture, you must be concerned about what's happening in Port Botany at the moment with the wharfies getting out of hand again?
FITZGIBBON: Well certainly I'm concerned about what could happen but Stephen rarely will you see such a big gap between the claims and allegations of two competing parties. And when the matter comes before the Fair Work Commission today, we might get to the truth. But what I can see is that the impact of the action has been dramatically embellished by the media and I've done my homework, don't you worry about that, and there haven't been any blockages to medical supplies and the union has made a commitment that there never will be. And while there has been some slowdown for some agricultural product, it’s not just due to union action but the other things happening around the port. It is simply not true to say that there is a crisis for our farmers so we'll see what the Commission says today. But my money is on the MUA here. I think that it's Patricks embellishing the story here, and this is the same company, of course, your listeners will remember back in 1998 brought the balaclavas and dogs onto our wharfs.
CENATIEMPO: Yeah, but I mean you've got to admit that at the time, I mean the Maritime Union of Australia had gotten out of its box well and truly, and if there's any truth to the fact that they're looking for a 6 per cent ambit claim currently - in the current environment – you’ve got to say that's a bit over the top, don’t you?
FITZGIBBON: Well have a look at their statement on their website. You’ve got to take it at face value, and we'll see what the Commission has to say today. But the 6 per cent claim over, I think, four years was lodged pre-COVID. And when we were hit by COVID they dramatically reduced that ask. And one of the reasons the ask was so big is that Patricks was trying to wind back a number of working rights and conditions, so it was a bit of a offset to that. So, that is simply not true to say they were digging in on the 6 per cent. They went back to about 2.5, I think it was, and the Union is saying, extraordinarily, that it's Patricks that have been knocking-off certain shifts and doing construction work around the site, which is further slowing down the process there in the port.
CENATIEMPO: Okay, well I guess we might discuss this next week after today's Commission hearing, so we've got all the facts on the table. Are you aware of this? Brendan Long, the ACT Labor candidate who says that the Party's tried to censor his views on euthanasia?
FITZGIBBON: Well this is an extraordinary story, and I think Brendan Long showed great courage, strength and conviction, by speaking out the way that he did. Now, the Party says it was a mistake and we hope so because, I mean, euthanasia is a matter of conscience and candidates surely should be given the opportunity to express their views on these things to the electorate, without fear of interference. So it's an interesting situation but good on Brendan Long for having the intestinal fortitude to call out the error. And I hope the electorate rewards him for his strength and his conviction and his honesty.
CENATIEMPO: I agree with you because I mean it's fair to say that the Labor Party is probably more heavy-handed when it comes to candidates not toeing the party line, but that's - but that's separate from those things that are a conscience vote. But on issues like this, I mean, you would hope that everybody had the opportunity to stand up and give their opinion, honestly.
FITZGIBBON: Obviously, I'm not going to agree that the Labor Party is worse than anyone else.
CENATIEMPO: I’m not saying worse but you guys have got fairly firm rules, is what I'm saying,
FITZGIBBON: Well, I've been saying in a number of ways, that we have a bit of a problem in our democracy. We need to loosen party discipline across all the political parties. I think the Labor Party has the strongest discipline in the world and the Liberal Party probably has the second-most stringent discipline in the world. And we need to let local candidates be themselves and speak their minds, within reason of course. Once a collective decision is made you expect people to conform with it but not on every occasion and certainly not on matters of conscience where, you know, in the parliament we're not expected to be bound by a party vote, we are allowed to exercise a lone view on these important matters, euthanasia one of them. So I say let candidates be candidates, within reason. Let people say who they are. And by standing up and speaking out, Brendan Long certainly demonstrated to the electorate who he is.
CENATIEMPO: Now just on that I’m very disappointed with you this week, because you haven't upset anybody.
FITZGIBBON: I'll try harder. But I am about to upset the Prime Minister, if he doesn't do the right thing in this Budget, both by those who are really struggling, but also to give some money into local government to do some local infrastructure projects - projects which are shovel-ready. Every council has a list of them as long as our arm, and he should get on with it.
CENATIEMPO: Yeah, I don't disagree with you there at all. I do want to talk to you about labour shortages in agriculture. There have been announcements - or rumblings this morning of announcements - about allowing jobseekers to keep their payment, as well as earn money out on farms; about bringing backpackers in again, extending their visas, et cetera. You talked about the New Zealand model, explain that to us?
FITZGIBBON: Yeah, the Government makes announcements every day, Stephen, rarely follows-through and it's been making the announcements on this issue for seven years, but it still hasn't done anything. But the New Zealand model basically is underpinned by a tripartite committee of government, industry and unions. And it's a consensus model, and where there's a problem they deal with it internally and get things done and their success in attracting foreign labour has been much greater than ours. In fact their ratio of Pacific labour to backpacker labour is dramatically better than ours. So we should look at that. There’s a great paper by Doctor Joanna Howe in South Australia, I'll send it to if you if you like. It covers all of these issues. But we've also got to look at the fundamental problem we have here, Stephen, and that is a structural problem in agriculture which makes us so reliant on foreign labour. You know, up to 50,000, people a year - that is a problem.
CENATIEMPO: You know, I agree with you and I hear a lot of people say, and an excuse that people will use, is that, you know, we can't expect people from the cities to up you know, particularly if they're unemployed, to uproot their lives and go to somewhere where this labour is needed. But unemployment rates in regional areas are higher than they are anywhere else. So, I mean it's not that we're not talking about moving people, we're just, as you say, changing that structural problem that we have about getting Aussies into this work.
FITZGIBBON: Well by structure, I mean our reliance on overseas labour. In the first place we're going to fill that gap, yes. And then we've got to get Aussies into this work, we've got to make it more rewarding, more interesting for young people. I mean farmers don't want people on their farms that don't want to be there. So we have to create a culture and a system in which they want to be there. That means some pretty serious work on some of the pretty complex problems. But, you know, we sent a guy to the moon. We can fix this problem, but there is not one Government program in Canberra running at the moment designed to fix that problem.
CENATIEMPO: Yeah, I think it's probably going to take people like yourself working alongside the National Party on this one. With the current National Party leadership, I won't hold my breath.
FITZGIBBON: Good on you Stephen.
CENATIEMPO: Thanks Joel, talk next week.