STEPHEN CENATIEMPO, HOST : Labor’s Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Resources, Joel Fitzgibbon, joins us every Wednesday on the program. Good morning Joel,
JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE AND RESOURCES: And always happy to do so, Stephen.
CENATIEMPO: As I mentioned, two Australian journalists have now returned home from China amid concerns for their safety. After attention - well, they say, attention from Chinese authorities, is a nice way to put it - over supposed national security matters. Surely, we've got to say, okay, maybe – and I know that you blame Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull for upsetting China. But isn't it a bit like you know you sticking your fingers up at somebody and then them chasing you down bashing you and then driving a tank through your front door, and you having to apologise for it?
FITZGIBBON: Well Stephen, this is the lowest point in our relationship since Tiananmen Square. They are still our largest trading partner with about $200 billion a year, to us. I've never said we should do anything but defend our national interests but we can also be smart and juggle these strategic tensions, without trading needs and opportunities. That's what I've always said and as serious as that is, I don't think this changes anything. We have to be smart about the way we deal with China because like it or not China is so critically important to our economy and so many jobs here in Australia.
CENATIEMPO: Joel, what does that mean though, be smart? Because as I said, effectively we thumbed our nose at China, and that's, you know, if I take your rhetoric. But their response to that has been to beat the crap out of us.
FITZGIBBON: And one would expect that might be the case although no one could have predicted how serious this might become so quickly, when the security of Australians living in China comes under a cloud. Then we know we've got a very serious problem on our hands, and again I think that if the complexities of the relationship had been handled better by Canberra then we might not have seen this week this very, very serious development.
CENATIEMPO: We're looking at this trade… well, in the process of negotiating a trilateral free trade agreement with India and Japan, which will go some way to reducing our reliance on China. Is that the answer now, to pursue more of these sorts of sorts of trade agreements, so that China doesn't become the big gorilla anymore?
FITZGIBBON: Well further diversity in our markets is always part of the answer but it suggests that the Government is going to do something it wasn't already doing, that is trying to diversify our markets. Now if it wasn't putting all of its efforts and resources into diversifying our markets already, regardless of what was happening in China, then it should be answering the question, why not? So, of course it's part of the solution but trying to get the relationship with China back to something closer to normal will also be critical for the Australian economy, particularly coming out of the COVID situation, and will be important for jobs going forward in the future. You cannot replace your largest trading partner with other markets, overnight.
CENATIEMPO: Okay but how do we do that, though, given that China seems to have this… it's a bit like when we talk about bipartisanship in Australian politics. It’s, you know, we'll support you if you do it our way. I mean, that seems to be China's answer to everything. As long as you give us 100 per cent of what we want we'll think about giving you something in return.
FITZGIBBON: Look I don't think that's completely right, Stephen. I've been in the Parliament for 24 years, but I've been watching politics in Australia and globally for a lot longer than that. And I’ve seen the way in which our diplomacy has deteriorated in recent years. For example, you know, I did the 2009 Defence White Paper, which was of course, as you'd expect, somewhat focused on China. But we didn't actually make reference to China. We did things more diplomatically in those days, than we do now. These days it's not unusual for to see the Prime Minister out there in front of the cameras, basically attacking China on a regular basis and, you know, people should expect that that's not going to be very, very helpful.
CENATIEMPO: No, well I'm going to move on now, Joel, because I've asked you three times, how do we fix it, and it doesn't seem to be too much, too much of a suggestion.
FITZGIBBON: Well you're asking me to fix a very complex problem, which has developed over the last five years or so, first under Malcolm Turnbull and now under Scott Morrison. And sadly, given the way this situation has escalated it's not going to be easy to fix. But it's going to be incumbent upon the Government to ensure that this - literally hundreds of thousands of jobs now are not at risk in Australia, and indeed the security of Australians living in China, working in China, are not at risk because of the behaviour of this Government.
CENATIEMPO: Anthony Albanese is today going to release his regional policy statement, focusing on rail, road, communication, spending to help regional areas recover from the recession; boost the infrastructure, education and manufacturing in regional Australia. What sort of – I mean are there specific projects that have been earmarked here, or I mean I know we'll, we'll get the announcement of it, but is it going to be… how specific is he going to be?
FITZGIBBON: He'll be talking about the importance of regional Australia, and any speech from my perspective which focuses on that is an important one. It will talk about the existing strengths of our regions and the contribution they make to our economy, and therefore our jobs. Areas like the resources sector, agriculture, manufacturing in particular, and also the opportunities for the future, including renewable energy and he’ll include in that of course the hydrogen sector, which is a big opportunity for Australia. He'll talk about that, adding more value to some of our resource projects; you know, we've seen what can be done with lithium and the development of batteries. So he’ll talk about all those sorts of things. And he'll talk about the importance of government funding the enablers. I mean, regional communities, grow off the back of the innovation of the, of their people, their ideas. But they need the infrastructure, you know the roads, the bridges, the communications et cetera. And it’s for government to give them the enablers and he will talk about the importance of that.
CENATIEMPO: I go one step further than that to say, and I guess the biggest culprit here is the New South Wales Government. With regards to things like, you know, building trains and ferries, and the like and, I'm not - so I know that our manufacturing base is not what it used to be. But we have governments actually buying stuff from overseas that we still produce here in Australia. Somebody’s got to come out with a policy and say enough is enough of that.
FITZGIBBON: Yeah, and I think COVID-19 is going to going to be a bit of a wake-up call to, not only on the jobs front but of course on the self-sufficiency front. And I've made the point many times, in defence we pay a premium for local content here in Australia, because we think there is good reasons to do so. And I think there'll be some rethinking, or at least I hope there will be, in a number of other areas. Our problem of course is that, you know, when we build a frigate, we might build four of them. In the United States, they build a frigate, and they'll build 100 more, and another 100 more to export, so they've got those economies of scale that we lack here in Australia. But it can't be just about the economic textbook, it's got to be about the Australian interest and self-sufficiency. And again, I do believe there'll be a bit of a rethink and that will be a welcome thing,
CENATIEMPO: Yeah, I those economies of scale have been built up over many, many years so you say you got to start somewhere. Now here's a question that sits right in your - right in the block-hole for you as Shadow Agriculture Minister. Would you eat meat grown in a lab?
FITZGIBBON: Yeah, I would. And I was a bit surprised by a survey suggesting young people aren't all that keen because I've always worked with the theory that while it seems like an abnormal thing for old blokes like me and you - sorry Stephen - to do, my grandkids or great grandkids will not know any different, and therefore won’t challenge or question the idea. They will have grown up with it so I think it will come and it will be a very, very important development, globally, not just here in Australia because I'm no Greenie as you know, Stephen, but we probably can't grow the global animal herd for slaughter, much bigger - or maybe even sustain the current levels - in an environmentally sustainable way. So, this will be an important means of making the way we live more sustainable environmentally.
CENATIEMPO: I’ll take an Alexander Downs’^ steak, any day Joel. Good to talk to you mate.
FITZGIBBON: Me too, actually.