Doorstop interview, Adelaide
February 2017 labour force data; The Turnbull Government’s initiatives to grow the economy and boost jobs; Jay Weatherill’s attempts to distract from the detail of his energy plan; Expanding the Snowy Hydro scheme

Simon Birmingham: I’m speaking on the labour force data as the Minister for Employment Michaelia Cash is overseas at present. We welcome today the rise in full-time jobs, in full-time employment across Australia. That is encouraging news. Now of course, employment data bounces around from month to month and can be variable, but importantly, over the last 12 months we’ve seen more than 104,000 jobs created around Australia under the Turnbull Government. 

This is promising and encouraging growth, but we do so in the face of resistance and challenges across the global economic landscape, which is why as a Government we remain resolutely committed to our national economic reform agenda, to ensuring that we create a more competitive environment for investment through our enterprise tax plan, to investing in defence industry capability that can transform manufacturing in our country, to ensuring that we continue to drive trade agreements around the world and opportunities for Australian exporters to be able to do more, export more products and services, to create jobs for more Australians. Our plan is one driven and focused by creating the opportunities for business to grow, to create more jobs, to build on results such as this growth in full-time employment, and to ensure we get more opportunities for more Australians in future.

Reporter: The jobless rate is actually the highest it’s been in 12 months, though, nationally. Why do you think that is?

Simon Birmingham: These figures do vary a little from month to month. What we see over the last 12 months, though, is growth with more than 104,000 additional jobs overall. This month’s data showing growth in full-time jobs, which is a positive, although that’s sadly not the case here in South Australia. These are things, though, that we recognise. It’s not a perfect situation because of the economic challenges right around the world, and that’s why we need strong economic leadership, and the Turnbull Government is delivering that with a range of policy measures and reforms that we will not relent on in terms of our pursuit of those measures that can grow our economy.

Reporter: More than one million people, though, are underemployed, which is the most we’ve ever seen. Bill Shorten’s quite critical of that position that the nation is in. I mean, what is your Government doing to address underemployment in the workforce?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we have a comprehensive set of policies that we have been driving in terms of economic competitiveness for Australia, and we will keep doing that, and that is about addressing all levels of unemployment and underemployment to ensure that there are more opportunities for Australians. 

Now, Mr Shorten is not going to be able to address unemployment or underemployment by simply being beholden to the trade union movement by jumping at their every call. We will focus, as we are and we continue to, on making sure it’s a competitive environment for investment through having lower taxes and lower tax opportunities for Australians and for people to invest in, by ensuring we have trade access for Australian businesses around the world that they can see. Companies, whether it’s like Seppeltsfield Wines in South Australia, or Golden North Ice Creams, or many others right around the country, seizing the opportunity to sell more goods and services into the region and around the world, and these are the ways that we’ll create more jobs. That’s why we’re focused on it.

Reporter: Minister, being a South Australian Senator, would you agree with comments from the Premier today that the Commonwealth Federal Government now is the most anti-South Australia Government that he can remember in living memory?

Simon Birmingham: Is this really what Jay Weatherill has been reduced to? Gate-crashing press conferences as a distraction tactic? Because that’s what we saw today. I mean, let’s be perfectly honest here. This was a premeditated tactic by Jay Weatherill to distract attention from the detail of his energy plan and make it all about having a fight with Canberra. Well, I’m not going to buy into Jay’s desire to have a fight with Canberra. 

The Turnbull Government wants to see energy policy in Australia that actually delivers reliable power, affordable power, and meets our global emissions policy reduction targets. That’s why we’re pursuing investments across the country, whether it’s at Cultana on the west coast of South Australia or the western part of South Australia, or whether it’s in the Snowy Mountains or elsewhere as to how we can achieve those aims of affordability, reliability, and emissions reductions, and they’re critical aspects. 

Unfortunately, Jay Weatherill today didn’t think it was worthwhile going out there and talking about the detail of his policy, because he doesn’t have any detail. He can’t tell you what the emergency situations are in which his new gas-fired power plant would actually be used. He can’t tell you, of course, what the final cost will be in terms of use of that plant, and we know there’s at least $550 million being spent in desperate measures to Band-Aid over policy failures here in South Australia by the Weatherill Government. But today, rather than actually going out and talking about the detail of his policy, he gate-crashed a press conference as a distraction tactic, and that’s just embarrassing for the Premier of this state. It doesn’t do anything to aid getting effective solutions in these issues, and I think all South Australians would hope and wish for more professionalism and dignity from their Premier.

Reporter: You don’t think most South Australians would watch the Premier doing that [indistinct] as, I guess, Josh Frydenberg [indistinct] talk about expanding the Snowy Hydro scheme, something that [indistinct] benefit eastern states. He’s trying to promote a plan that would help people living on this side of the range in South Australia. You don’t think the way that he’s gone after the Federal Government today would play out favourably in South Australia?

Simon Birmingham: Expanding the Snowy Hydro scheme benefits the National Electricity Market, which benefits South Australia. It will increase the capacity to be able to deal with intermittency in terms of wind power or solar power, and will ensure that we actually do have a more functional and effective market in the future. So it is a visionary project. It’s a visionary project that has real benefits for South Australia and every jurisdiction within the National Electricity Market, and Jay Weatherill should be welcoming such actions, because indeed, policies like this actually make things like the renewable investment in South Australia more viable in the future. It’s a type of storage, the type of storage of which Mr Weatherill himself has belatedly come on board to accept is necessary. 

And we welcome, indeed, South Australia’s focus on improving storage capacity. We just shake our head in bewilderment at the fact that South Australian taxpayers are going to be asked to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a new gas-fired power plant from a State Government that has happily watched other plants close down or be mothballed in this state over the last couple of years, and indeed are very concerned as a national government that SA seems to somehow think that it can get special powers to direct the National Energy Market and yet be exempt from the consequences of that should Victoria or New South Wales seek to exercise similar special powers that could leave a state that is heavily reliant on importing energy from the East Coast at risk of serious failure if those other states were to do the same type of thing that Jay Weatherill is proposing to do here.

Reporter: Is it not fair enough, though, that the criticism from the Premier is that … the Government is essentially taking credit for the move towards more renewable energy, your Government, and South Australia helped reach that goal, and now it’s being attacked for having achieved something that the Commonwealth should have taken [inaudible] a few years ago?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the Federal Government has always said sensible renewable energy targets, and indeed, we as a government brought down the level of that target just to 18 months or so ago to make sure that it was not excessive in terms of the impact that it would have on the national arrangements in electricity generation. South Australia unfortunately charged ahead with a target more than double the national target for this state, and as the consequences of them coming close to meeting that target of more than double the renewable energy target nationally, but more than doubling it here in South Australia, that has left us with the challenges of intermittency, the challenges of not having reliability in the grid. 

So the challenge and the question that Jay Weatherill has to answer is why did he go for a renewable energy target more than twice the national renewable energy target? And when he did it and the consequences were that the lights went out in South Australia, why then did he not admit the failure of that, rather than seeking to point the blame elsewhere? And now why is it that we’re being saddled with a $550 million bill to fix problems that not that long ago Jay Weatherill said didn’t exist? 

Just last month, he was saying the renewable energy target of 50 per cent in SA was a great thing, and just six months ago, Tom Koutsantonis was saying that he had built the National Electricity Market, and what a wonderful thing it was and how well it was working for South Australia? Now, of course, they do completely the opposite. Why are they having stunts like today? To distract attention away from their failures and to ensure they don’t have to talk about the detail of their policies. 

Jay Weatherill should come out and talk about the detail of the policies that he announced the other day, because that plan he keeps waving around, it’s pretty light and shallow on detail. It doesn’t actually have much content to it as to how he intends to deliver this, when this new gas-fired plant would actually operate, what prices it would charge into the market, what South Australian electricity consumers will really face in terms of costs [indistinct], what are the details of these new powers he wants Tom Koutsantonis to have to be able to intervene in the National Market? Because when challenged on 891 yesterday morning, he certainly couldn’t say whether they were emergency power or pre-emergency powers, or what an emergency was. He doesn’t want to talk about the detail, because he doesn’t know. He just wants to have a fight with Canberra instead.

Reporter: Do you have any idea what powers he should have? Do you think Tom Koutsantonis should be given certain powers here, or [inaudible]?

Simon Birmingham: Well, let’s actually see the detail, because the detail is missing in action at present from Jay Weatherill on this issue. Now, Tom Koutsantonis already has powers to intervene in relation to emergency situations. If the State Government thinks they’re insufficient, we’ll let them put a detailed proposal forward. That’s not what they’re doing right now. It’s just rhetoric. It’s just distraction tactics.

Reporter: Just quickly, I guess on intervention though, the South Australian Government’s now saying that they’re going to prioritise local gas exploration, [indistinct] favour local industry, local business [indistinct] for export. Is the Commonwealth thinking of doing anything similar, I guess should these gas companies not provide the local gas production we need for this summer and next summer as AEMO has forecast?

Simon Birmingham: Well, just yesterday the Prime Minister got agreement from all of the major gas producers in Australia to guarantee gas supply at times of peak capacity or peak load requirements. So that is a significant change. It’s a significant commitment, and it guarantees the gas will be available when it’s needed in terms of those high use periods of electricity.

Reporter: What’s stopping them from breaking this guarantee? [Indistinct] essentially ask them really nicely to provide it, but …

Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] No, there are agreements and rule changes as part of all of yesterday’s announcements that are being looked at and worked through to make sure these guarantees are followed through.

Reporter: So you can guarantee there will be the gas available to fund domestic consumption and industry this summer and next summer?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the guarantee that’s been given is to make sure it’s there at peak times as required, and that is absolutely critical. Now, again, as Josh Frydenberg has said, we welcome the idea of encouraging increased gas production around Australia, and that is also part of the plan that the Prime Minister announced yesterday, and we want to work cooperatively with states, with gas companies to make sure we get that extra gas. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to go and build a new gas plant, and you certainly wouldn’t need to go and build a new gas plant if you hadn’t effectively seen one mothballed and coal-fired plants closed down just over the last couple of years. Thanks guys.