CHRIS UHLMANN: I’m joined in the studio by Catherine King, who’s the Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Ageing, good afternoon.
CATHERINE KING: Good afternoon.
CHRIS UHLMANN: And Simon Birmingham, who’s the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray-Darling. Good afternoon to you.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Chris, Catherine.
CHRIS UHLMANN: This afternoon the Coalition continued its attack which it’s had going all week that a price on carbon is going to force up the price of electricity. That’s true isn’t it, Catherine?
CATHERINE KING: The Coalition have been the great wreckers on this issue. Now, we know that they absolutely trashed the deal that they did with Labor on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, that they don’t want to do anything at all on climate change and that they are now running a fear campaign around electricity prices. The reality is that electricity prices have been rising for a range of reasons but particularly because there has been underinvestment in infrastructure. We now see that many commentators are saying that there is set to be another squeeze in terms of electricity prices because of the uncertainty a lack of carbon price is creating across the industry, so let’s be realistic about this, the Government wants to do something about climate change, we’re very determined to do that. The Coalition continues to wreck, they continue to try and make sure that nothing gets done about climate change, we know the Leader of the Opposition’s views on this, we’re getting on with the business of it, we’re actually getting on with the business of trying to make sure we do something about climate change and actually look at the issue of how you do the carbon pricing. We also know that direct action does also have a cost on the economy and the Coalition needs to be honest about that as well.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Now that’s true, too, whether you go a carbon price or you go direct action it’s going to have a cost somewhere in the economy?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Chris, if the Coalition’s campaign is nothing more than a fear campaign as Catherine and the Labor Party seems to be suggesting, there’s a very easy way for the Government to tackle it. They can release all of the modelling that the Government has had done on the impacts on electricity prices of an ETS or a carbon price. They can ensure that this Productivity Commission reference that they’ve made this week doesn’t just look at relative carbon prices but actually looks at the impact on electricity prices. They can put those things on the table and they can negate a scare campaign if they want by demonstrating that they’ve got the evidence, if it’s there, I doubt that it is, but if it’s there, to show that there’s not an impact on electricity prices.
CATHERINE KING: But let’s go to the point. Does the Coalition believe there should be a price on carbon? Does the Coalition believe there should be a price on carbon and that, as they did previously, believe that it is the most effective and the most cost-effective way to deal with climate change? And the reality is, you do not. You absolutely do not. Now, I still like to refer to this as the Beaufort blunder but we had Abbott not too far from my own constituency saying that climate change was crap. Now, he’s come out there and he’s said that. Every agenda that you have followed since in terms of climate change is to delay and to wreck action on it.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Catherine, in fairness, at the beginning of this year, in February I think it was, we released a detailed climate change policy. Our climate change policy stood the test from February this year through the election campaign. We didn’t see the type of backflips and changes to policy we’ve seen from the Government, who started the year believing in an emissions trading scheme, Julia Gillard then led the change within the Government to say there’ll be a three-year deferral to any action, and yet here we are now, still in the same year, it’s still 2010 last time I checked, and she’s now saying this is an urgent piece of reform again. She has done 360 degrees during the course of this year to her commitment to action, our commitment to direct action policies on climate change are still standing.
CATHERINE KING: I don’t think that anybody in the Coalition can actually talk about backflips or 360 degrees when you’ve got Tony Abbott being described as a weather vane on climate change. I mean, look, let’s be realistic about it, I mean, seriously, in terms of this, the reality of where the Coalition is on this policy at the moment is you do not want anything to happen. You are going to play politics with this issue as much as you can, you don’t want to engage seriously in the issue, you don’t want to engage in the debate.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Just to interrupt for a moment, though. Shouldn’t both sides of politics be saying that because of Government decisions, and leaving aside the underinvestment, because of Government decisions, the price on electricity is set to rise because the whole idea is to move away from the old ways we generated electricity and have new ways and those new ways are more expensive? Isn’t that the case?
CATHERINE KING: The reality, if we do not take action on climate change, is that it will be an enormous cost to the economy, so we know we have to deal with that issue. We believe the most cost effective way to do that is through a price on carbon. We are in the business of getting down with the work of actually looking at how will that work, what will the impact on the overall economy be in terms of that, what will the impact be on people and actually trying to design a scheme in cooperation, we’ve put the hand out there to the Coalition to participate and be part of that and be part of that development and they’ve refused. They are not serious about this. They will play politics with climate change because they do not believe any action is needed.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Let’s look at their comparative policies. In the end, the Government’s policy, whether it’s an ETS, a carbon tax, whatever version it is that Julia Gillard believes in today, the Government’s policy will level costs on power generation around Australia, and that’s all it does. It levels costs on that power generation which will pass through to consumers, result in higher prices. Our policy, the Emissions Reduction Fund released in the policy at the beginning of this year, will actually support change in the economy at the lowest cost, support if feasible the closing down of the most highly emitting coal-fired power stations…
CHRIS UHLMANN: Using taxpayer dollars.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … but, however, we’ll actually make sure that there is financial support to do it, in the lowest cost way, and to make sure that the costs to consumers are not passed through in the way that the Government’s taxes will pass them through. There’s no guarantee that under the Government’s tax
CATHERINE KING: That is just not being honest with people. That is not being honest with people.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Catherine, allow me to finish. Allow me to finish for a second,
CATHERINE KING: No, no, you’ve had a fair go there.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I don’t think I’ve interrupted you once yet so just… The Government’s policy will place a price on generation but will not guarantee that those coal-fired power stations will close down. There’s no guarantee you’ll get the change you talk about.
CATHERINE KING: Let’s have a look at what you’re proposing. For a start, the direct action measures you undertook when you were back in government, if you look at any of the audit reports on those things, they did nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and they were inefficient, completely inefficient programs, so it is more of the same from the Coalition and I encourage people to look at the audit reports on those.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: You might remember that we were actually the Government that introduced the Renewable Energy Target.
CATHERINE KING: Which you pegged at two per cent forever and which we’ve now…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think you’ll find it was five per cent and we committed to increase it, but…
CATHERINE KING: Which we’ve now… it was two per cent…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It was five per cent…
CATHERINE KING: It was two per cent and we’ve increased it to 20 per cent but let’s get real about it. You’re also not being honest with the Australian people that in fact all of the measures of direct action you’re proposing will be a cost on the budget. How are you going to pay for that? You’ll be paying for it out of taxpayer dollars or out of taxes. I mean that’s the reality, so let’s be real about it.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Just to draw a line on this conversation, people can expect that they will be paying more for electricity in future no matter who is in power and it will partly be caused by decisions of government. Isn’t that true?
CATHERINE KING: The first thing that’s important to remember is if we don’t act on climate change, everybody will be paying for it. Absolutely everybody will be paying for it and our economy will be paying for it and our economy will suffer. Our economy is already suffering because of the lack of certainty around carbon prices and the lack of investment in certain sectors and that includes in the electricity sector.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Okay, Simon.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The Government needs to come clean here and actually release the modelling that it’s already done, include electricity pricing in the type of work the Productivity Commission is undertaking, then we can have a bit of transparency in this debate. We’ve acknowledged that there are other factors to price rises in the electricity sector. We know that, but we also know that a carbon tax will be a huge and direct impost on the sector. We believe that our policies provide the lowest cost impost for consumers in the future.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Alright, so I don’t think we’ll consensus here so let’s move on to the My School 2.0 website and perhaps we can get some here because the Coalition has always wanted transparency in what happens in school education, the Coalition pushed for and tried to get more transparency and some of the policies that the Government’s introduced are along the lines of things that you were pushing for, so you’re pleased at this Government initiative?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Insofar as it matches what we’ve called for, insofar as it provides greater transparency, fantastic. But let’s not confuse it with providing real reform. The Government has rolled out school halls across the country at great expense and pretended that was an education revolution. They’ve established a website and proclaimed that as part of the revolution. These are nice things. The halls you can really question the value of, the website is useful, nice, the information’s helpful, however we think that real reform starts with ensuring that schools have a better capacity to manage themselves, that teachers, parents, have greater control to influence what the impact of these tests are.
CATHERINE KING: That’s not reform, that’s just fobbing it off onto parents and schools to actually deal with really complex issues in terms of what…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That’s putting the people who know the best in charge, not having the bureaucracy in Canberra saying ‘we’ve developed a website and here’s a solution, go your hardest.’
CATHERINE KING: It’s a process. What we’ve actually tried to do is put more power into the hands of parents to make sure that they have information about what’s actually happening in their schools. That information has not been available before but what it also does, what it also does is it allows governments, whether it be federal or state governments, to make very hard decisions and to make decisions that are important about where you put investments in relation to schools. When we came to government and we asked a simple question about where are the most disadvantaged schools in this country, we want data and order to back up the investments, the extra investments that we want to make to make sure that every child has an opportunity and the same opportunities. That information was not available, so information is an incredibly powerful tool to try and actually improve the opportunities that are provided to children and that’s what My School does.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Let’s be very clear here, Catherine. Information is just one part of the equation. Unless you have the power and the capacity to act on that information, it ends up being of relatively little significance and so you’re giving information to parents, they’re having no real power to change what’s happening in their schools…
CATHERINE KING: What the Coalition refuses to do is then acknowledge that on the basis of the information we have, we have put additional money into those disadvantaged schools, absolutely additional money into those disadvantaged schools…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: In a ‘Government knows best’ way, rather than empower the principals, teachers, parents, the people who…
CATHERINE KING: … on the basis of data, we have put more money into the schools where there is the most disadvantage. On the basis of numeracy and literacy and also on a range of other factors that are on the My School website and that is a very power tool for government to use to try and act on disadvantage and that’s what we’ve used it for.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Alright, we’re going to have to wrap it up shortly. Sorry…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Real reform generally implies, Chris, actually empowering people at the coalface, giving principals, teachers, parents the capacity to directly influence what happens in their schools, to make a difference there, to use the information that’s being provided for some actual outcomes, not for government to say ‘here’s some information and we’ll give you some money to tell you what we’re going to do with that money’ and leave parents and teachers out of the equation of actually having a say and a choice.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Alright, well alas this is a conversation that we could have all afternoon, I’m sure you’d like to, but Simon Birmingham and Catherine King, we’ll have to leave it there, thank you.
CATHERINE KING: Delighted to be here, thanks.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: A pleasure, thanks Chris. Thanks, Catherine.
CATHERINE KING: Thanks, Simon.