Topics: Bipartisan delegation to Pacific; Coalition climate policy and emissions targets; Pacific climate challenge;

06:50AM AEDT
19 December 2022


Sarah Dingle:  The Foreign Minister Penny Wong and her Liberal counterpart, Simon Birmingham, led a delegation to Vanuatu, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau, presenting a united front on climate and regional security. Before his return to Australia. Senator Birmingham conceded the Coalition was wrong to resist increasing Australia’s 2030 emissions reduction target in government. He joins us now. Welcome back to breakfast, Senator.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Sarah. Good to be with you.


Sarah Dingle: Senator Birmingham, first of all, has the toxicity of the political debate around climate change and emissions reduction in Australia damaged our standing in the Pacific?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Sarah, I think we have a very good relationship with the vast majority of our Pacific Island nations, and the current government is right to build on that relationship and to use their policy positions to enhance it. But what I heard and saw from this delegation was that area, the areas of Australia’s investment in the Pacific areas of our partnership are very highly valued and that Australia remains very highly respected. But yes, climate change is of course an important indeed at the top of the list for many Pacific Island nations in terms of their areas of concern for the future. And so Australia’s position and engagement with them is a critical one and unsurprisingly higher targets and greater ambition is welcome across those nations.


Sarah Dingle: You of course, said that the Coalition was wrong to resist increasing our 2030 emissions reductions target. What did people in the Pacific say to you about that?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I can’t say that was raised particularly by leaders, but I was asked a question by journalists on the trip, and I answered it directly and forthrightly, and that was that we had put Australia in a position to well and truly exceed the targets that had been set in place. And frankly, it was illogical when you’re clearly on track to exceed those emissions reduction targets, to not then increase the scope of those targets. There was clear headroom to do so. The new government has done that and that’s been welcomed. But from both the domestic political perspective, as well as how it was perceived overseas, Australia would have been and the Coalition government would have been in a stronger position had we used that headroom that was there and increased the targets given we had put the country on track to exceed those targets.


Sarah Dingle: You’ve also said that when you lose an election, it’s important to listen and reflect on the reasons why you lost. Do you think the Coalition has done that on climate change?


Simon Birmingham: I think we have to continuous process. It is one in which clearly we need to look carefully at that issue, at others in terms of how we ensure our candidates represent the diversity of Australia and ensure that indeed we project a message of inclusivity and tolerance as well as clear, strong economic plans. That contrasts with the Labor Party in terms of the types of policies and approaches we take to the next election. And there’s plenty of work still to be done on all of those areas. But I know that there’s a focus on how we make sure we present compelling messages for the next election.


Sarah Dingle: Well, in that vein, were last week’s comments from the Opposition Leader, Peter Dutton, accusing the Government of wanting to close down every source of energy except renewable energy helpful in this debate?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think when you look at the energy challenges Australia faces, we shouldn’t pretend that there are simple or easy pathways on the transition to net zero. The idea that we can miraculously do it simply in easily just with renewable energy is one that is fanciful. There’s plenty of storage requirements back up and firming requirements that are going to be necessary through the transition and beyond. Gas is going to play and continue to play a very big role in that. And the type of war on the gas industry that rhetorically the government has been waging and the uncertainty it’s now created in investment markets for gas is a challenging one and frankly, doesn’t make aspects of that transition in Australia or in our international partners any easier when many will continue to rely upon gas as that firming and stabilising force while they try to grow their renewable energy sector.


Sarah Dingle: The President of Palau, says when it comes to climate change, you might as well bomb us because it’s constant, whether it’s typhoons, drought, the heat or sea level rise. What does the Pacific want from Australia in terms of policy to prevent what they see as akin to war time bombing?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think we shouldn’t underestimate the sophistication of Pacific Island leaders in their understanding of this issue. They don’t want from Australia, they want from the globe. Obviously, to tackle climate change is a global challenge and requires all parties to do their bit in terms of reducing emissions. Indeed, for some large emitters it’s still the challenge of how countries like China and India stop emissions growth and turn around the trajectory of growth. Whilst for countries like Australia, we are now on a well and truly established trajectory of reducing our emissions and how we keep going in that and they want to see all of that. But equally, whilst in Palau with President Whipps, Minister Wong and I visited a solar plant being built there some 33,000 solar panels to provide energy within Palau. That is being funded and supported by the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific, established and approved under the Coalition government, financing for that project agreed under the Coalition government. So we were there prior to the last election, providing practical support for their own transition in terms of having cleaner energy and low emissions future in the region and reducing their reliance on diesel powered generation in the case of Palau.


Sarah Dingle: But this language of you might as well bomb us because it’s climate change is the same thing. It’s very pointed. Isn’t the Coalition’s call to increase domestic gas supply at odds with the message that we’re getting from our allies in the Pacific? Doesn’t it suggest that if you’re talking about expanding fossil fuel industries, you don’t take their concerns as seriously?


Simon Birmingham: Sarah, let’s remember, gas plays both an energy role and indeed a role within manufacturing sectors. So, it’s not just used for electricity generation, but is used in a range of other ways in Australia and elsewhere around the world. And it’s critical for many of the goods that are produced. Now let’s also remember as I stated before that gas is a very important stabilising fuel for the transition, that whilst it is hard for coal fired power to operate as a peaking source, when you don’t have the generation of wind or solar at your fingertips, gas is able to do that. And so, in Australia and elsewhere around the world, it has been used importantly to help achieve the type of grid stability necessary while you increase the penetration of renewables in the market. That’s why gas it’s going to be with us for quite some time. And the challenge in terms of the way electricity prices are set is that if you keep driving up the price of gas then even if it is used for a relatively small period of time as the last energy source into the market, it will keep driving your prices higher because of scarcity factors. And that’s why making sure we have strong supply to meet our domestic needs and our export needs. A point that I’ve made before is very clearly that Australia shouldn’t be in a position given the abundance of supply of choosing between meeting our domestic needs and export needs, we should be able to do both. Of course, if over time those export needs decrease because other countries are reducing their reliance as Australia reduces its reliance, well then at that stage we’ll be facing a different environment. But it’s not the one we face right now.


Sarah Dingle: Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Birmingham. Thank you.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks Sarah. My pleasure.