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Transcript of interview with Laurie Atlas: 4RO Central Queensland: 26 November 2019: Angus Taylor investigation; Matt Canavan's NAIF failures; bushfires; dairy farmers bill; National Party

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SUBJECT/S: Angus Taylor investigation; Matt Canavan’s NAIF failures, bushfires; dairy farmers bill; National Party.

LAURIE ATLAS: Here he is - Senator Murray Watt, Labor Senator for Queensland, fresh out of the Senate, actually. Good afternoon to you.

MURRAY WATT: How’re you going Laurie?

ATLAS: I'm very well indeed. Looks like you have the Energy Minister, Angus Taylor, on the ropes. What's going on there?

WATT: Well this is some news that just broke before Question Time today where, your listeners might be aware, for some time now we have been pursuing the Energy Minister, Angus Taylor over, basically conflict of interest issues. What now has emerged is that the New South Wales police seem to be investigating him or his office to determine whether he has basically forged documents or falsified documents that he used to defend himself. So I'm still getting across this myself, given I've been in the Senate rather than the House of Reps, but it's pretty hard to see how a minister who is under police investigation can stay in the job. So I would have thought that his days, that his hours, are numbered.

ATLAS: Well, your leader has just called a press conference, Anthony Albanese, and said he probably should resign for misleading parliament. Does anybody ever really resign for that anymore though?

WATT: Well, it's supposed to be how it works and that probably goes even further in this case. I just don't see how a minister who is under police investigation can remain in the job. It's a pretty basic rule that's applied over a long period of time. But you've got to set high standard and in this case, Angus Taylor hasn't. So I don't think he's got any choice but to go and he really should go by the end of the day.

ATLAS: Now, you've released some figures today that the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund is spending 40 cents in the dollar on administration.

WATT: Yeah, some pretty shocking figures. I mean, you and I have spoken about the NAIF on a number of occasions now, the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, or as we call it, the No Actual Infrastructure Fund. It just hasn't worked - Matt Canavan’s pet project that's supposed to be funding projects right across North Queensland and Northern Australia. And what's now emerged is that four years after this organisation was established, 40 per cent of the money that's gone out the door from the NAIF has actually been spent on its running costs - things like executive salaries, staff salaries, travel, office space, consultants. They’ve spent 40 per cent of the overall amount of money that's gone out the door from the NAIF - it has actually gone on these kind of costs rather than actually paying for projects.

I just think that's a scandalous waste of money. And it again underlines what a failure this organisation has been. And I'm sorry to say, I know he's a Rocky boy, but it's has been a failure from Matt Canavan.

ATLAS: They’re certainly very slow. How much money was in there originally? It was in the billions, wasn't it?

WATT: It's a $5 billion fund that is designed to lend money to build projects across the north and create jobs. But it's been going four years and of that $5 billion dollars, it's actually only released about 40 odd million dollars, not a single cent in Queensland. But in the meantime, they've racked up about $26 million in running costs. So I’m really starting to think this thing is a bit of a white elephant, and I don't know what it's going to take for Matt Canavan to take control of it and get it actually spending money on the projects that it's supposed to be spending on, so we can see some jobs created across Central Queensland and Northern Australia.

ATLAS: I mean, obviously they want to spend the money wisely. Jeez, a couple of dams would have been good.

WATT: Well, there's all sorts of projects that are worth proceeding with in Northern Australia, but there's some roadblock in this organisation that sees it just not get money out the door.

ATLAS: Consultants.

WATT: We saw recently that two of their loans - one of their loans that they have approved has now fallen over in Western Australia - and the biggest loan that the NAIF has approved is now under a cloud as well, the Genex project in North Queensland. So, the Northern Australia portfolio, it doesn't have a huge amount to it. The main job Matt Canavan’s got is to get this NAIF working.

Time after time, we see new things emerge - their CEO announced her resignation about five months ago, they still haven't announced a replacement. It's just riddled with problems. And meanwhile, unfortunately, people in Central Queensland and Northern Australia aren't getting the jobs that this NAIF was set up to actually provide.

ATLAS: It's disturbing, isn't it? Now you know I keep an eye on your Twitter account, tell me you haven't drunk some of that climate change Kool-Aid with regards to the fires. Now, you know, you know that it’s not climate change. I was sent a 1946 Daily Telegraph, right. You know what the front page was - drought disaster, staggering stock loss, bushfires sweeping South Queensland. I mean, this has happened before. It is not climate change.

That was the 15th of August, 1946.

WATT: I absolutely wouldn't suggest and I never have suggested, that any individual bushfire is due to climate change. I was in Yeppoon last week visiting some of the areas that were burnt out by the bushfires - Cobraball, Maryvale.

ATLAS: And they would have screamed in your ear “Can we just get the fuel load down?”

WATT: Look that certainly has come up as I've been getting around talking to people. I know there is an investigation underway into alleged arson in that incident. So if that’s borne out, then obviously that's what's caused that bushfire, rather than climate change. But the point around climate change is that, we've got pretty much every reputable scientific expert - CSIRO are saying this, ex fire chiefs are saying this - is that whatever you think about climate change, the reality is we are going to be facing more of these kind of events in the future, because of climate change.

So it's not about saying that any individual bushfire, or flood, or cyclone is due to climate change, but when you've got groups like the CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, ex fire chiefs saying ‘people, this is going to be happening more regularly’, then I reckon governments have got a responsibility to listen to that and start doing something to make sure we're properly prepared for it.

ATLAS: But we have less cyclones.

WATT: Say again?

ATLAS: We have less cyclones.

WATT: No, no, the number of cyclones across Australia is increasing and it's predicted to increase further in coming years - extreme weather events, whether it be cyclones, floods, droughts and bushfires. Again, CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, these are reputable organisations that don't have a political agenda, warning us that these kinds of things are going to be happening more regularly in the future.

So this isn't about what we should do about emissions. I know that there's still a bit of a debate in the community about that. But when you've got organisations like that, reputable, independent, science based, organisations telling us that these kind of things are going to be happening more in the future, then I think the least we can expect of our government is that they have a plan to deal with that.

That could involve more water bombing aircraft. That could involve measures to make sure we've got more volunteers. That could involve building more flood levies, or cyclone shelters, or firebreaks, or maybe reviewing what we do about the fuel load. There's a whole range of things that we can do to make sure that we're better prepared for the future, without having to get bogged down in that debate that goes over and over again about climate change.

I just think it's really irresponsible for governments, whoever they are, whatever their political colours, to ignore this advice if this kind of thing is going to be happening in the future.

ATLAS: Just quickly, I'm led to believe that Anthony Albanese, your leader, has allowed

Pauline Hanson some time to talk about what she wants to do with the dairy industry. Is that right? Because it’s good news if you have, it’s a good bill.

WATT: Certainly in the last Senate sitting week, a couple of weeks ago, Pauline Hanson sought to move some legislation basically to bring in a code of conduct to assist dairy farmers and we agreed to provide her with time for that to be debated.

ATLAS: You agreed with the bill, didn’t you? You voted for the bill, which is more than fair and funnily enough, the National Party of all people voted against it and her argument for that was that the Senator, Bridget McKenzie, the Deputy Leader of the National Party, was basically trying to protect the Victorian dairy industry at the expense of the rest of Australia.

WATT: Yeah, that was certainly the allegation. Look, I don't know whether that's right or not and that's really for Bridget McKenzie to answer. But we have seen this extraordinary situation where the National Party, who pride themselves on being the friend of farmers, have turned their back on dairy farmers and voted against this legislation. Whereas you had Pauline Hanson and Labor voting for it. And again, you and I have both spoken about Pauline Hanson - there's been lots of times that she and I've been at loggerheads -

ATLAS: Sure but this is a good bill.

WATT: - but on this one, yeah, we think it's the right way to go. I was pretty astonished to see National Party senators voting against it. It's a bit like the drought. There's been a number of issues now where you’d think it's the National Party's bread and butter, and they just aren't turning up and aren't doing the work that's required. So I think that Pauline Hanson is giving them a run for their money in a lot of rural areas and frankly, I think Labor is as well. We’re the ones who are actually voting for the dairy industry, not the National Party.

ATLAS: It's a very odd one. All right mate, take care, I'll let you go. Always a pleasure.

WATT: Good to talk to you Laurie.

ATLAS: Senator Murray Watt, Labor Senator for Queensland.