STEVE PRICE, HOST: Joel Fitzgibbon is the outgoing Labor MP for the Hunter, joins us on the line. Good to catch up again.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: G'day, Steve.
PRICE: I see the Prime Minister overnight has made a speech to the Sydney Institute. So, I guess he's speaking to a rusted-on audience. But again, to me, and this is a free kick for you, it seems to me that it's all about slogans. The speech was entitled 'what matters most'. I mean, give me a break. And the theme of it is that he wants to keep the nation quote: 'stronger, safer, together'. Now, I can't ever remember an Australia that was less together, and he's been the Prime Minister during the less together period. He's partly to blame for us not being together, isn't he?
FITZGIBBON: That is so spot on, Steve. He loves the slogan. He won the last election promising to leave things just as they are. And that's one promise he kept. He promised to do nothing and outside his responses to COVID, he's done very little. And in terms of safety, we are living in uncertain times in terms of our geostrategic position in the world, and more particularly, in our region, and people are going to find their supermarket shelves empty this Christmas, or some of them, indeed their bottle shop shelves, because of our dependence on others for so many of the things we rely upon and consume. Meantime, Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison are going to war, euphemistically I suppose, but threatening to almost, with a country we rely upon most for our trade. So, these are very uncertain times.
PRICE: You mentioned the supermarket shelves, there's a couple of reasons for that. We talked about the AdBlue issue last week and the trucking industry is really concerned about the fact that urea, which is the main product that makes AdBlue, and it's also in our fertilisers… I was just so staggered that we would be so reliant on such a pivotal product, that we bring it all in from China. And if China stops exporting it, then suddenly, we grind to a halt. How has that been allowed to happen?
FITZGIBBON: Well, the list is very long. I've been talking a lot, Steve, about the crop sprays our farmers rely upon. We are now almost 100 per cent dependent on China for the products we use on our farms, we do have one local producer still, of the active ingredient needed to make what most people would consider or call Roundup, but they are struggling in the face of subsidies in China, and if they close, we will be 100 per cent dependent. Now, think about that. We can't produce our food if China cuts off those supplies, and the latest, of course, is wood pallets. You don't think much about wood pallets, but they are critical to just about everything we consume in our supermarkets or other retail stores and our bottle shops. And the big issue here is that this is not COVID. This is simply a failure of government policy and something we should have seen coming a long time ago. And Australia has an abundance of land, Steve. And of course, we have a rich forestry and timber mill heritage. And yet we can't build our own pallets, or we can't get enough wood in Australia to build sufficient number of pallets.
PRICE: Isn't part of that a problem that these environmental protesters who've stopped that logging in East Gippsland, isn't that part of that problem?
FITZGIBBON: Absolutely. Governments are not standing up to these environmental activists because they fear it might cost them jobs. They are locking up certified native forests, Steve. Certified by more than one international body, that means that they're sustainable, we're planting as quickly as we are extracting. And of course, government policy settings aren't sufficient to allow us to get sufficient trees in the ground in our plantation estates, even though we are better placed than just about anywhere else in the world to do so. And this is just hopeless, basically. We have these opportunities, but instead of taking the opportunities – oh and of course, Steve, more trees in the ground means more carbon out of the atmosphere. Trees store carbon. We talk a lot about output, polluting into the atmosphere, but we don't talk enough about taking carbon back out of the atmosphere in what is, of course, a natural cycle.
PRICE: Yeah, we clearly need leadership? I mean, no one thinks about, as you said, timber pallets. I didn't even think about it, but you can't, you know, carry individual cases of grog onto a truck and put it on and take it off one by one, you do need those pallets to move stuff around...
FITZGIBBON: ... I don't know whether you've talked to any mates recently who are trying to build a house, but can't get what they order. We are now approaching 25 per cent import dependency for the timber we used to build our homes. Now, we were as I said, we had a very rich forestry and forest products industry here in Australia. We've destroyed it and in doing so we are becoming increasingly dependent on other countries, other countries including countries with which we have significant tensions.
PRICE: So, will Labor come out and announce a policy between now and the election that reboots those sorts of industries that we've become too dependent on in other countries where we have the resources to do something about it?
FITZGIBBON: Well, I can say this at this stage, the last election Labor took a forestry policy which the peak bodies for the forest and forest products industry marked as superior on their star rating to that of Scott Morrison's. And I'm pretty confident we'll have a better policy this time around as well. But you know, the Prime Minister has been talking about this manufacturing task force and supply chain task force, etcetera, now for two years, where are the outcomes, Steve?
PRICE: Well, I'm sick of the marketing spin, I have got to say. That's what I'm sick of. Marketing spin doesn't work anymore to me. Can I just ask you, the issue that we've got such great labour shortages, should we be looking at the idea that someone who's on unemployment benefits, be able to take on a casual job as well as retain their benefits?
FITZGIBBON: Well, you know, Steve, I've been in elected politics for 35 years, and in this debate for all of that time. It sounds very attractive on the surface, and we should continue to investigate those possibilities. But the most recent example of this was when Scott Morrison, as Treasurer, put in that crazy backpacker tax, which has now been junked by the High Court. It was very damaging for our farmers and our visitor economy. And in a deal with Nick Xenophon, whose vote they needed for the backpacker tax in the Senate, they put in place this program where you could go picking in the horticulture sector, but still secure, or keep your unemployment benefits. Guess what, Steve. They ran a pilot project, hardly anyone turned up.
PRICE: Really? Well, how do we encourage people to do that? I mean, we're hearing stories, Joel, and I'm sure you're hearing the same stories that people are getting paid $24 an hour to work in a restaurant, people are being paid in excess of that to work in, you know, landscape gardening businesses. The pressure on getting people is driving the salaries up. Surely, if you're on unemployment benefits now and you want to cash in over the next three months, can't we come up with some sort of, I don't like marketing campaigns, but some sort of encouragement to get these people out there working?
FITZGIBBON: Steve, we've had a squillion of them over my years. My favourite was the new enterprise incentive scheme, which allowed people who had a smart business idea to get a bit of training, and to run a business in the early years, but still receive their unemployment benefit. And that scheme ran for a long time, I think it might still be the only long-term survivor in those labour market programs. But this is effectively one of the curious curses of becoming a wealthier and wealthier nation, Steve. We have these problems. There are no easy solutions. But you know, when you think about it, it's cultural. And the only way to stop this intergenerational unemployment is to get these kids who are born into struggling households intervention in the early years. And that's what Gonski was all about – making sure the schools in the early years had the resources necessary to identify these kids and intend to intervene very quickly.
PRICE: Everything old is new again. Thanks for your help this year. One bit of good news before you go, we'll talk to you next year, race one of the supercars series is where next year? Newcastle.
FITZGIBBON: In Newcastle. And you were having a conversation about wine, and you are both absolutely correct, the Hunter Valley has the best wine in the world.
PRICE: Why am I not surprised you say that, Joel? Thank you, Mate. Good on you.