MICHAEL SMITH: In the scheme of the Rudd and Gillard Governments, not huge money but it’s $8 million to develop the sort of panels, the solar panels, that go on your roof and generate electricity. That $8 million, or a large part of it – $5 million – came from your taxes through AusIndustry with a renewable energy development initiative and it bought gear, its actual physical actual gear, and that gear is going to be dismantled and transported to Idaho. 62 full time employees will transfer to Idaho. This business will no longer be in Australia. It’s been heavily subsidised by taxpayers in the past so it drives me mad that something like this can happen. Simon Birmingham is a Senator, the Parliamentary Secretary to Greg Hunt, who’s the climate change fellow, you know, the environment bloke, on the Opposition. He’s not the Government, he’s not responsible for this, but I’d like to get a comment. Senator, G’day.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: G’day, Michael, and good afternoon to your listeners.
MICHAEL SMITH: How can it happen?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, those questions need to be asked and we need to get some answers from the Government. You’re dead right that there’s $8 million reported of taxpayer funds that have gone to Origin for this project. I see that the South Australian State Government claim that their couple hundred thousand dollars of grants will be repaid by the company. Well, the Australian taxpayer deserves an answer as to where their money has gone, and whether we can recover any of it, given the development of this technology, in terms of if the manufacturing is going offshore.
MICHAEL SMITH: So at the moment we’ve got subsidies – federal subsidies and various state subsidies. The state subsidies tend to be, you know, you feed the power back into the grid and we’ll pay you 40 cents or 60 cents or whatever it is. Chinese solar panels – and Indian to a lesser extent, but certainly Chinese – seem to have flooded the market here in Australia.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, look, this is a very disappointing blow to the Australian industry in terms of losing the manufacturing of these new technology solar panels because you’re right, most of the solar panels used overwhelmingly are imported into Australia – Chinese and Indian cheaper imports, still a good number from Japan and Korea as well, as I understand it. This was a good opportunity to try to build an industry in Australia to give us a head start. These are… this is new technology that was developed by the Australian National University in Canberra. It was looking promising and it really is a great disappointment that its manufacturing now won’t be taking place in Australia.
MICHAEL SMITH: So what I can’t understand is, how can it be that Government – AusIndustry, the Federal Government – would hand out money – it’s millions of dollars – to an organisation to buy gear… they buy the gear, they get the money, and then they just dismantle it, put it into packing boxes and send it off to the benefit of another country overseas? Are we a bloody easy touch or what?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, that’s exactly what’s happened. We are quite clearly a soft touch and that’s why I would expect and want the Government to come out with some clear answers. We’ll certainly be using the Senate Estimates process to put some questions on notice to the Government but I’d hope they actually get in front of that process and give some answers publicly as to what’s happened to this money – is any recoverable or have taxpayers done their dough on equipment and business and jobs that were all meant to be developed in Australia?
MICHAEL SMITH: 62 jobs, by the way, Senator.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: 62 jobs, indeed, in my home state, in South Australia, so… very keen to have seen those jobs grow and, of course, it was all meant to be part of… part of the funding was meant to be part of an industry adjustment fund to make up for the loss of Mitsubishi’s manufacturing jobs in Australia by supporting jobs in this new technology. Well, now it looks like we’re not going to have either of them.
MICHAEL SMITH: Senator, so, can you tell me categorically you will raise this matter in Senate Estimates and take evidence under oath from the departmental officials; get us answers as to how this has happened and how this money has gone overseas?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I will. Well, unfortunately the industry officials have already come and gone from this two weeks of Budget Estimates but I can still put written questions to them and we’ll certainly be developing a range of written questions to put to them on this issue and if [the answers to] those questions are unsatisfactory then at the next round of Estimates hearings they’ll be fronting up and asking [answering] them directly to explain what went wrong here and why they haven’t done more to protect taxpayers’ money which seems to be wasted so easily by this Government.
MICHAEL SMITH: God, it’s disappointing to talk to you. It’s just common sense to me, Simon, that if we’re going to do something like provide massive taxpayer subsidies to an industry like solar, why the fricking hell would we do it in fashion that encourages Chinese imports and then we do put money into our own they can turn around and say actually we don’t want to be here anymore – we’re going to do this same thing there in America with all this Australian dough? Fair dinkum! Grrr! It makes me angry!
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It makes a lot of people and I understand why. It makes me angry to see hard earned taxpayer dollars seemingly wasted. It’s great for the Government to say they’re going to build up new industries in this country but you’ve got to be sensible about it. You’ve got to be sensible whether these types of taxpayer subsidies, payments, are wise investments in the first place and if they are you’ve got to be very careful about how you put those conditions on them.
MICHAEL SMITH: Simon, would you give me a ring, mate, when you get answers to the questions you submit to the departmental officials?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Michael, I’d be very happy to do so.
MICHAEL SMITH:  Good on you. All the best!
MICHAEL SMITH:   Senator Simon Birmingham.