COMPTON: Richard Colbeck is a Senator for Tasmania with the Liberals, he’s also the Minister for Tourism and International Education. Richard Colbeck, good morning to you.

COLBECK: Good morning and Happy New Year, Leon.

COMPTON: Happy New Year to you too. Where was the Federal Government when the questions were being asked about protecting our World Heritage Areas Senator?

COLBECK: Well, the Federal Government was exactly where it should have been, working with the State to manage the circumstances and the situation as it arose as my colleague Matthew Groom has just said.

I suppose the question that I ask is where were the Greens at that point in time? I know that at the time I was getting a briefing from fire services officers on the North West Coast about what was going on Nick McKim was up at a forestry coupe campaigning against the forest industry in front of a pine plantation.

So what really irritates me, Leon, is that the Greens will use any circumstance to try and get themselves publicity including exaggerating the –

COMPTON: Ah, with respect Senator, with respect - we put questions in to the Minister for the Environment on the 25th of January who said it was up to the State to ask for help but that hadn’t happened yet. And now it seems that the Federal Government are particularly concerned about this. You weren’t at the time; it had nothing to do with the Greens. Did you drop the ball on the issue?

COLBECK: Absolutely not. As Matthew just said to you, the Tasmanian Government as all states are, are primarily responsible for land management. We work with them closely when that’s required.

There are well established protocols through the Attorney General’s department for management of disaster events and management of fire. Nick McKim in the Senate yesterday even asked the wrong minister the question. So he didn’t direct the questions that he was asking to the portfolio where responsibility lies, he was about making a political point -

COMPTON: Which portfolio is that?

COLBECK: The Attorney General’s portfolio. That’s where these management arrangements are primarily managed.

Of course there is engagement with the environment portfolio through that process because the management plans that are set out for management of World Heritage Areas for example are jointly agreed between the state and the Commonwealth.

But I have to say, like Matthew I have great confidence in the people at the front line who are managing these fires and their understanding of what resources they needed and when they needed them.

In any circumstance whenever those are required, whenever someone says to us we need your assistance, we are there. I know from the briefing that I received that there were a whole series of resources being lined up basically through the auspices of the Fire Management Services in Tasmania which included Forestry Tasmania, Parks, the Tasmanian Fire Service. They were telling me about the equipment and the services that were lined up interstate that would come in and complement the local service as and when it was needed.

So there are plenty of plans being put in place. The Fire Service were very professionally managing all of that process and that’s before Nick McKim started talking about things when he did.

I’m very confident that plans were well and truly in place to manage eventualities as they arose. You can’t predict everything that’s going to occur but I saw first-hand when I went to get a briefing about the same time that Nick McKim was in a forestry coupe at Lapoinya –

COMPTON: Again this isn’t about the Greens. We were asking these questions well before the Greens were involved in the conversation. The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre for example has criticised the lack of early involvement from the Federal Government.

COLBECK: Well Leon, as I’ve just explained to you, I went and saw and talked first-hand about the preparations that were being made. And I, like Minister Groom have real confidence in the people that were managing this at the front line. I think it’s really disappointing that you try and through this process try to diminish that work -

COMPTON: I think throwing in that is a red herring. With respect we’re making no comment about the Tasmanian Fire Service but rather asking when it comes to protecting wild areas which aren’t particularly their concern ahead of saving lives and communities, where the Federal Government is on planning for these things.

COLBECK: Well, I reject that completely, Leon. Their objective, and I saw it and I heard it when I went to the briefing, was about managing the fires in all of the areas that were being looked at. So by saying that there wasn’t appropriate action taken you are actually diminishing it. I reject completely the argument that you’re making.

I saw and I heard preparations being made and they told me about resources and assets that were being lined up in various places in the case of an eventuality. So –

COMPTON: Senator, let’s move on to talk about other matters that are the stories of the day. Where are you on the subject of GST and how they might play into some change to the tax mix in Australia?

COLBECK: Well, I’m quite comfortable that we are actually at last being able to have a conversation about broad scale tax reform in Australia. This debate that we’re having isn’t just about a GST, even though that’s all that the Labor party and Bill Shorten seem to want to talk about. It’s trying to provide a tax mix that promotes growth in our economy and jobs growth and maintaining our high level of standard of living. That’s what it’s about.

The only way that we’re going to improve our national economic situation is to continue to grow the economy. We’re not going to be able to tax our way out of the situation that we’re in where we’re spending something like $40 billion a year more than we’re bringing in. We need to continue to grow the economy and we need a tax system that will promote that.

COMPTON: So where are you on the issue of GST lift being part of that conversation? Eric Hutchinson for example talking to us yesterday said he doesn’t believe it should be part of the conversation – do you believe it should be?

COLBECK: Well, it has to be if we’re going to get the tax mix right – it has to be. Will we go ahead with an increase in the GST? I don’t know – we haven’t got to that point in the discussion yet but we at least need to have the maturity to be able to have the conversation.

COMPTON: Is it difficult given that when John Howard was talking about this - I think from memory he lost 16 seats carrying the argument, and carrying the argument successfully? Is there an aversion to risk now amongst the backbenchers where they feel that if even one seat is lost its too dangerous to prosecute a case for tax reform?

COLBECK: Look it’s a very, very difficult conversation Leon. I remember it very vividly because I was a lower house candidate in 1998 during that election and going into that campaign the margin in the seat was about 1 per cent and after the election it was 9 per cent so I can take credit for turning a marginal Labor seat into a safe Labor one – and that’s the seat of Lyons in 98.

So I saw first-hand, I felt first-hand the impacts of a GST campaign. There are other elements that went into that as well including –

COMPTON: So, what do you say to your backbenchers right now? What do you say to those backbenchers who are nervous about potentially being a casualty of the price or the benefit of reform? What do you say to them?

COLBECK: Well first, Leon, I say that I understand it. But I also say that we have a responsibility to be able to have a conversation about how we best set up the tax system for Australia. A responsible government has to be prepared to do that.

Bill Shorten doesn’t lead a responsible opposition. It is a very difficult conversation to have and I understand perfectly from first-hand experience how they feel.

COMPTON: I just want to cover off on one thing and then we’ll leave you this morning. Tasmania is the epi-centre of climate change research in Australia, particularly for our southern waters. Are you worried by the CSIRO cuts to climate change research that were announced yesterday and the possible impacts they will have on science in the state?

COLBECK: Well Leon, they’re not actually cutting climate change science. They are realigning their priorities within climate change science to adaption. The circumstances which we’ve just been talking about, that of bushfires and things of that nature, changes to climate and how it might affect our agriculture are things that we need to be studying and researching.

So there’s no reallocation or change in the allocation of funding. It’s about allocation of priorities and how we can deal and manage climate change.

So, I think it’s a really important thing that CSIRO are doing because it is researching actually how we manage the effects of climate change. It’s really quite important.

I don’t know completely what the impacts will be and where yet – is suspect that we’ll get the opportunity to hear a bit more about that in estimates next week.

COMPTON: Senator, we’ve got to go. Good to talk to you this morning. Senator Richard Colbeck, Liberal for Tasmania and Minister for Tourism and International Education.

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