Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide, Breakfast with Ali Clarke and David Bevan
Topics: Schoolies t-shirt image; National Energy Guarantee

David Bevan: Every Wednesday we gather three federal South Australian MPs to discuss the big national issues. Well, there isn’t a bigger one going on at the moment than power. The Prime Minister has announced and launched his power plan; you would have heard some of that this morning on AM.

But right now let’s welcome Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia and Education Minister. Good morning, Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning.

David Bevan: Mark Butler, Labor MP for Port Adelaide, Shadow Minister for Climate and Energy and national president of the Labor Party. Good morning, Mark Butler.

Mark Butler: Good morning.

David Bevan: And Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator from South Australia, Spokesperson on Finance and Trade.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Good morning.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, before we get to the issue of power though, Simon Birmingham as Federal Education Minister, story in the ‘Tiser this morning that pictures of a bong and a goon bag and the words: the drunkest and highest, are how dozens of year 12 students from Unley High plan to present themselves at school. Do you have a message for these young people?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s really irresponsible and inappropriate and, yes, look my message for all young people really is think about the years to come, the images, the pictures, the way in which graphics like this can be represented on social media and jobs and different roles you might want to take in years to come. Actually, it might seem like a bit of fun at present to represent yourself like this. Of course, I’d urge people to be safe and behave responsibly when they go to events like schoolies, but also think about the longer term, because some of these sorts of things you can carry with you for a long time as a bit of baggage.

Ali Clarke: What was the most fun you had at school, Simon Birmingham?

Simon Birmingham: What was the most fun I had at school?

Ali Clarke: I mean, did you do anything silly like this? Because we can all sit here and say that.

Simon Birmingham: I went to school at Gawler High and plenty of sort of small farming properties up around that region. So we had a good few parties that tended to involve bonfires and a bit of fun, I guess, out in the paddock.

Ali Clarke: Underage drinking?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I think I might have had a drink, but I think I was hopefully always responsible enough.

David Bevan: Alright, Mark Butler. When you see this stuff what do you think? I mean, Simon Birmingham makes a very good point, doesn’t he? These people may, in a future life, may want to be the Labor, Liberal, Greens, or Xenophon candidates for Federal Parliament.

Mark Butler: That’s right. It’s 31 years ago that I did my schoolies at Unley High. Look, I think all generations have struggled with unsafe behaviour, doing silly things, but Simon makes the really important point that this generation is going to have those things recorded forever. And our advice to our children does have to take into account not just the immediate challenges of having fun but doing so in a safe way, but also not having images recorded that are going to come back and haunt you in the future.

Now, we had the luxury of doing silly things in our youth without any sense of them being recorded, and this generation has challenges that we couldn’t imagine. I mean, there are great opportunities that come from the IT revolution and social media and suchlike, but I think young people do need to be reminded by parents that some of these things will come back to bite you in the future. As for the questions you asked Simon, my lawyer’s advised me not to answer …

Mark Butler: …any of them.

David Bevan: Mark Butler, what is a goon bag?

Mark Butler: I have no idea. I haven’t seen that story. Look, obviously the language for these things changes all the time and I struggle to keep up with them, so I can’t help you with that, David.

David Bevan: Sarah Hanson-Young, do you know what a goon bag is?

Mark Butler: She’ll know.

Sarah Hanson-Young: I do know what a goon bag is.

David Bevan: What’s a goon bag?

Sarah Hanson-Young: As a girl who grew up in the country, it was one of those things where if you wanted cheap booze, you’d go and get the wine in the box, and the goon bag is the bag inside the wine in the box. It doesn’t taste very good, it makes you feel crap the next day, and I’d advise most young people to stay well away from it.

But can I just say, I think that the takeout rule of all of this is don’t drink and Facebook, leave Snapchat alone, and try and be safe and look after each other. One of the things that, of course, kids that graduate from year 12 and they want to cut loose a little bit – and that’s what schoolies is all about; I don’t think we should pretend otherwise – but there are of course the dangers of things being kept on record.

But there’s also a huge spike, as we know, of sexual assault and harassment at these types of gatherings, and I think this is a moment for young people, and particularly young girls and women, to look out for each other and stand up when they see things that are inappropriate. And we know that these schoolies events they’re attracted to by toolies – older blokes who like to prey on young girls – and I’d say that’s when you can use the Snapchat: get a picture of them and show that to people, not your friends being silly.

Ali Clarke: Well, let’s also say that boys should also be sticking up for each other as well when they see [indistinct] …

Sarah Hanson-Young: Absolutely, absolutely, and boys should be sticking up for girls as well.

Ali Clarke: It’s 08.41, we’re in the middle of Super Wednesday with Simon Birmingham, Mark Butler and Sarah Hanson-Young.

David Bevan: Let’s move onto the issue of power. Mark Butler, this is your bag. You’re the Shadow Minister for Energy. You’d like to be running the system. Now, the Labor states, including your good mate Jay Weatherill here in South Australia, have threatened to block the measures. Apparently it’s got to be passed by COAG and they’re talking about going their own way. For the good of South Australia, should your mate Jay Weatherill fall into line?

Mark Butler: Well, I think one of the extraordinary things about yesterday’s announcement was that obviously a policy has been worked up the Energy Security Board and the Federal Government that’s completely locked out the states and territories, in spite of the fact that the states and territories are going to be expected actually to do the hard work to implement it. So, I think states and territories across the Commonwealth, well particularly in the national market, were pretty grumpy about the fact that there’s this policy that’s been cooked up because the Prime Minister’s had to back down on his support for a clean energy target.

The Prime Minister’s going to expect states and territories to implement it, but they haven’t even been involved in the process. And actually, when we ask even further what that process is, it’s become clear that no modelling has been done, cabinet processes have been cut short, and the sort of undertakings that the Prime Minister is trying to make about power price reductions are frankly just semi-educated guesses.

David Bevan: But why does the Federal Government need the states to implement this plan? What is it about the way we’ve structured our economy and our politics that you need the state governments to do this?

Mark Butler: Well, because historically states have always had responsibility for electricity, and that goes back to particularly when states owned all of the electricity companies and the poles and wires, which in many states were privatised by state Liberal governments in the 1990s. So when we created a…

David Bevan: But couldn’t the Federal Government just legislate: these are the targets and if you are operating this kind of business in this country you have to meet these targets and that’s it?

Mark Butler: Well, it could, but the policy that was announced yesterday tries to essentially leverage off the National Electricity Market architecture, which is actually a South Australian law that is mirrored by all of the other states and territory parliaments. So essentially that’s what Malcolm Turnbull has said. And it was pretty rich, I think, for him to just drop this as a bombshell on the states and territories and say, well, I’ve made a decision that this is what you’re going to do. That’s essentially what he did.

David Bevan: Well, if I’ve understood you correctly and the running of the system has basically fallen to the states over the last 10 to 15 years…

Mark Butler: No, it’s the last 100 years.

David Bevan: Well, yeah, but all the trouble’s been in the last 15 years. It would be a bit rich for Jay Weatherill to say, well, I’m going to show you how to run an electricity system, wouldn’t it? Given that we have some of the highest power prices in the world and some of the most unreliable power.

Mark Butler: Well, what we’ve had over the past 15 years really is a market that’s run at a state- well, run by national agencies through state laws. So, you’ve National Electricity Market agencies essentially located in Sydney and Melbourne that run the market that operates on the basis of state law. You’ve also had a national renewable energy target going back to John Howard which has dragged through renewable energy investment across the country, which has been particularly dominated in South Australia. So the big investments in renewable energy aren’t a product of South Australian law, they’re a product of Commonwealth law.

So it has all been frankly a bit of a mix of different state laws, federal agencies mainly located in Sydney and Melbourne that are making very important decisions – for example, about what generators are switched on and what aren’t switched on – and then this overarching renewable energy target that is a law of the Commonwealth Parliament. And there is some sense to try to bring that all together as a more coherent program, but you’ve got to involve the states and territories in this. You can’t just have the Energy Security Board come to Canberra and make an announcement where the Prime Minister tells the states and territories what they’re going to do.

Ali Clarke: Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator for SA, when you open your bill, are you happy?

Sarah Hanson-Young: I don’t think anyone in South Australia is particularly happy with their electricity bill, unless of course you’ve got solar panels and batteries on your roof and in your backyard, because that is the best way of reducing electricity bills. The fact that Tony Abbott is out crowing about this announcement yesterday tells you everything you need to know about whether this is good for the renewable energy industry, or good for climate change, or indeed good for consumers. Tony Abbott doesn’t care about any of this. This is a turf war between him and the Prime Minister, and unfortunately households and businesses are being squeezed in the middle because of it.

There’s no guarantee that prices are going to drop. Even if the $25 – if that – relief does come, it’s not going to come until 2020. The best way of reducing electricity prices is to help people put solar panels on their rooves and batteries in their backyard, and yet what we’ve got is an attack now, led again from the Federal Government, on the renewable energy industry. That’s going to hit our state really hard.

Ali Clarke: Some would say, Sarah, that renewable energy has already hit our state very hard, which is why our bills are some of the most expensive in the country. That’s why I get to are you happy that?

Sarah Hanson-Young: Well, except that all of the reports and all of the analysis shows that it is not because of renewable energy, Ali. It’s price gauging of big companies and the privatisation of electricity that’s pushed prices up. And if we really wanted to reduce prices, we’d re-regulate and make sure these big power companies can’t keep screwing over consumers, and we would make sure that people are helped to reduce their drain on the electricity system by putting solar panels and batteries in their homes and on their businesses. That would make a difference straight away.

David Bevan: Liberal Senator, Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, is this something that the Federal Government can just go ahead and do, or do they need the states on side?

Simon Birmingham: We could look at using Commonwealth powers, but we would much rather do this with the states and do so through the mechanisms of the National Electricity Market. Look, I want to give Mark Butler credit for the fact that his response has been far more mature than that of Jay Weatherill, who went straight to slogans and name-calling, whereas Mark Butler at least has shown a willingness to sit down and talk to the experts last night.

David Bevan: Well, Jay Weatherill does have an election to win; Mark Butler, he doesn’t have to face the polls for another two years. You can cut Jay some political slack, can’t you?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I don’t think the South Australian voters, and importantly the South Australian electricity consumers, want to cut Jay Weatherill some slack for playing politics, rather than for getting on with constructive solutions.

Sarah Hanson-Young: That’s a bit of a cop out, Birmo. Politics is being played by Tony Abbott left, right and centre. That’s what this is all about – a guy who doesn’t even believe in climate change.

Simon Birmingham: I couldn’t care less what Tony Abbott says, Sarah.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Well, you do, because your whole policy is dominated by him.

Simon Birmingham: The point here, and the sensible thing that Mark said before, is that there is some sense to bring it all together as a more coherent program. Now, that’s dead right, which is why what we are seeking to do through the National Electricity Guarantee is to have a reliability guarantee and an emissions guarantee, so that you don’t have a separate emissions program that operates off to one side and generates more investment in renewables, but doesn’t take account of the fact of what happens when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining; that you actually have built into it exactly the same requirements and market mechanisms, a requirement to be mindful of having enough energy to go into the market place when people turn the lights on, when people need to start their businesses.

This is of course why we’re taking a fully integrated approach, and it’s why it’s been so welcomed by business commentators, energy market commentators, energy market participants, because they can see that at long last there is a coherent policy to bring renewables together with reliability, and that when you do it in the approach we’re putting forward, it gives you the least cost outcome.

Ali Clarke: You used the words at long last, Simon Birmingham. Why did it take so long? Because we’ve had a lot of bills.

Simon Birmingham: Look, I think consumers will ask that, but we’ve been doing the work across all aspects of the energy market to try to bring prices down. So that’s why we’re changing the rules in terms of retailers, so they have to give better, clearer information to consumers so people can get on the cheapest plan possible. It’s why we’re stopping the gaming of the system and passed legislation this week around network rules.

Ali Clarke: But none of that’s really new, though. This isn’t new. This has been going on for a long time, same as the wind stops blowing and the- this has been happening for a long time. There is a level of frustration from texters and others that we speak to that we’re still talking about this and we still won’t see any of this for a number of years.

Simon Birmingham: I get the frustration, but I think obviously the blackout situation in South Australia last year, pressure points elsewhere around the National Electricity Market, have brought these issues very clearly to a head, and have brought obviously now the clear political resolve that I hope the Labor Party gets on board with. And importantly, I hope the states stop playing the politics. Jay Weatherill would get far more credit for putting the politics of the election campaign aside and actually saying, yes, we can work towards a bipartisan, lasting resolution that can give reliability, stability to the grid, meet Australia’s emissions reduction target, and do it in the least cost way possible.

Mark Butler: I’m not sure we’re going to take lectures from the Liberal Party about name-calling and playing politics given what the Prime Minister has done over the last 12 months – a man who said he was going to lift the tone of politics. But can I also make the point that part of the reason why we haven’t made any progress is that every time Malcolm Turnbull has come up with an electricity policy, particularly over the last 12 months, he’s had to junk it because Tony Abbott’s opposed to it. We had one policy last year called an emissions intensity scheme, which had the support of all the states, including the New South Wales Liberal Government, all of the energy companies …

David Bevan: So you think it’s just a matter of time before Tony Abbott ups the ante once again and this policy has to be junked?

Mark Butler: Well, we’ll wait and see. We had that policy last year; Malcolm Turnbull had to junk it within 36 hours. Then we had the clean energy target recommended by Alan Finkel, the Chief Scientist, in a report commissioned by Malcolm Turnbull …

David Bevan: Well, 49 out of 50 got approved.

Mark Butler: Everyone supported that, again, but it got junked on Monday night by Malcolm Turnbull because Tony Abbott opposed it. This is why we’ve had …

David Bevan: Mark Butler, we have to move on, but Mark Butler thank you very much, Labor MP for Port Adelaide, national president of the ALP, Shadow Minister for Climate; and before that, Simon Birmingham, federal Education Minister, Liberal Senator for SA; and Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young.