• With Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Ted O’Brien MP

Topics: South Australia is ready to have a mature discussion about nuclear power; Time to Talk Nuclear; Australians suffering under the energy crisis; National Cabinet; Gas; Nuclear-powered submarines; Liberal Party diversity;

10:20AM ACDT
6 December 2022



Simon Birmingham: Well, thanks for coming along today. I’m delighted to be here with my colleague, Ted O’Brien, the Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy. We are here particularly to note, the mature comments that have been made by Premier Peter Malinauskas and in relation to the potential for nuclear energy in Australia. Reality is the pathway to net zero is not certain and to make sure that Australia achieves net zero, but does so without compromising energy reliability, with ensuring that we can have strong manufacturing and other industries still operating in Australia. We need to go through it with an open mind in terms of the energy needs of Australia.


We all want to see renewables deliver as much energy as possible in Australia to ensure they play the leading role in getting to net zero. But in terms of firming up those renewables, ensuring reliability, and through that ensuring the lowest prices for Australians, we need to be open minded about ways to deliver that reliability. The Premier has made some welcome comments about the fact that we shouldn’t approach this from an ideological perspective, but we should look at it in terms of how we best achieve net zero and do so whilst acknowledging the economic circumstances as well. Ted together with Peter Dutton has been leading a really valuable process in terms of looking with an open mind at the evidence of changes in nuclear technologies. South Australia rightly is at the forefront of this type of debate. Because in this state, we’ve seen a very mature and considered response from the AUKUS announcement that said nuclear-powered submarines will be built here in South Australia. It’s a demonstration that in our state, we understand that nuclear technologies have come a long way. People are willing to have mature discussions, and Prime Minister Albanese and the Federal Labor Party should be willing to have those mature discussions as well.


My key message to the Labor Party is let a mature discussion happening, don’t run a scare campaign on nuclear energy. In this country if we are to achieve net zero and still be a leading economy in the world an advanced economy with manufacturing industries and other jobs supported needs to make sure we have reliable, affordable and emissions free energy available to the future. Ted who is leading much of this work is going to touch specifically on the work we’re doing but also critically in differences between Premier Malinauskas and Prime Minister Albanese’s messages and then happy to take a few questions.


Ted O’Brien: So thanks very much Birmo. It’s wonderful to be here with Senator Birmingham in beautiful Adelaide. And I want to particularly note not just the weather, but also the Jacaranda trees. As somebody from Queensland, it’s nice to be here very much feel at home. It’s also great to be in South Australia, a state that gets it when it comes to the need for an open mature conversation about advanced nuclear energy to have both the Premier and the Opposition Leader. Welcoming an open conversation is precisely what we need, in order for us to have an evidence based approach to decarbonizing the Australian economy. Right now we are amidst an energy crisis. And as time goes on, with the pathway set by the Federal Labor government, it’ll only get tougher, it’ll only get harder. We know that right across the world, as we join efforts to decarbonize, countries are turning to nuclear energy, because it is a zero emissions, baseload technology that can make a substantial contribution to ensuring that low cost, reliable energy is provided. And I think what’s particularly important to states like South Australia, which has so many renewables coming into its mix, is that the likes of nuclear technology is a partner for renewables elsewhere in the world. Indeed, we need to ensure that all technologies are on the table. It will be enterprise entrepreneurship and engineering that allows us as a country to decarbonize while also remaining prosperous, strong, and fiercely sovereign and independent. And that’s what a pathway to net zero is all about. So today, I welcome the Premier’s comments and the opposition leaders. I also note that while the Labor Premier is open minded for a mature conversation about nuclear, the Prime Minister is not. The he Prime Minister is not open minded, he is closed minded. There are some sensible heads in the Labor Party and I hope those heads can pluck the head of Anthony Albanese out of the sand, and have him join what should be a very normal conversation with the Australian people. As 33 countries in the world right now have nuclear energy, and up to 50 other countries are seriously considering it. It’s time Australia has mature conversation about our own energy mix going forward. What are people’s concerns about nuclear energy? What are the benefits? What are the outstanding questions? These are the questions we all need to be asking ourselves and only last Friday, the coalition launched timetotalknuclear.com.au. Even if the Prime Minister is not prepared to have a mature conversation about this important topic, we’re taking it to the Australian people. It doesn’t matter what form of energy we’re talking about. But any major project that impacts our local community requires consultation with the Australian people. And that’s why in this conversation, we want to put the people at the centre. And that’s what timetotalknuclear.com.au is all about. Delighted to be here today in Adelaide having some of these conversations together with Senator Birmingham. And I welcome both the Premier and the opposition leader for being so open minded about this discussion.


Journalist: Mr O’Brien, it is not the fact that the economics of nuclear in Australia at this point in time don’t stack up?


Ted O’Brien: It is a fact that there has been no economic assessment done on nuclear energy in the Australian context. Other countries that have undertaken a thorough economic assessment, have decided that nuclear actually provides a low-cost solution, one that is part of a broader mix of technologies. As we have seen as more renewables come into our grid, reliability becomes a challenge. Each technology has its strengths and its weaknesses. We want to make sure that renewables are a success in Australia. Which is why we need to have a conversation about other technologies such as nuclear, which is proven to be economically substantial in other countries, nuclear is proven to be a low-cost option. And that is why you see in countries like France, which has the largest fleet of nuclear in Europe, prices are so low. It’s why you see in countries like Canada that is embracing nuclear energy prices are so low, because our energy mix ultimately ends up in your power bill at home or in your business. And when you open up that power bill, all the costs from poles to wires to turn the broader network to wholesale cost hits your power bill. What other countries that do assess Nuclear say is it stacks up economically. But this is part of the challenge moving forward. If people have concerns about including the economics or the safety, whatever it isn’t nuclear, well, tell us about it at Timetotalknuclear.com.au Tell us your view. And this is why we need to have public conversation.


Journalist: Would there not be a different course of action to try and firm up renewable resources.. that South Australia has for the country more broadly has to transition that way, and continue to use gas as the transition to get us to that point in time, where we can rely more on dispatchable renewable energy?


Ted O’Brien: Right now we are midst an energy crisis. And the solution to that, if we want to ensure that we get prices down, we need more supply, more supply for gas supply. But so much as we are now all looking to the government to finally take some action in addressing the problem of energy prices. While we know that more supply is key today, we also have to have a foot in tomorrow. And as we look to the future, we need to think about the energy mix we want for the next generation. As we go towards Net Zero 2050 we need to make sure all technologies are duly assessed and that includes nuclear technology.


Journalist: Given the costs associated with the domestic nuclear industry and nuclear power generation, would you not say the Prime Minister may have a point that it’s too expensive to consider in the near future?


Ted O’Brien: The Prime Minister’s point is that this country should not even be considering a technology that all OECD countries are embracing the Prime Minister is saying he does not want the Australian people to have a conversation about a technology that the IPCC identifies as a mitigating technology for climate change. The Prime Minister is saying that he has a very different view from the President of the United States. When it comes to the importance of nuclear energy. The Prime Minister is disagreeing with John Kerry, who says that you cannot reach Net Zero without nuclear energy, he doesn’t even want to have a conversation about it. I think the Australian people deserve better than a Prime Minister, who is trying to close down debate. Right now there’s an energy crisis, the Prime Minister does not have a solution. And as we look forward to a more unreliable grid under Labor’s pathway, the Prime Minister doesn’t want to talk about the world’s largest industrial scale form of clean energy, in nuclear. I think it’s a question for the Prime Minister now to say why don’t you just come on board have a conversation here in South Australia, the Premier is approved the opposition leaders up for it, the people are up for it. Let’s have a conversation that’s being mature about it. And let’s see where it takes us.


Journalist: On this very conversation, South Australia had a very public conversation about nuclear energy back in 2016. You look at the Royal Commission report, and it says nuclear power doesn’t stack up here. So why now?


Simon Birmingham: Rory, what we’re seeing is a few changes around, firstly, the absolute firm commitment by Australia and many other nations to net zero. And so you’ve got to look at it through the long term horizon, not just a short term cost horizon, but the long term horizon of what do you need to do to achieve net zero. And in achieving net zero, what do you need to do to also have reliability and affordability in terms of energy generation across the supply chain. So that’s one part that’s changed.


Technology of nuclear energy is changing to the growth in terms of countries that are looking at pursuing small modular nuclear reactors is notable and is an important consideration in terms of how the costs and efficiencies of nuclear energy change. So, it’s not to say that we are drawing final conclusions from having this conversation. But Australia should be open to the conversation. The Liberal Party federally is open to the conversation. South Australian Labor Premier is open to it, South Australian Liberal Opposition Leader is open to it. Why isn’t Anthony Albanese?


Journalist: Isn’t this a way for you to wedge Malinauskas and Anthony Albanese?


Simon Birmingham: Peter Malinauskas has made his comments of his own volition and he wasn’t lured into it by the Federal Liberal Party or anybody else. But his comments are an important sign as are David Speirs’ of a mature approach to this conversation, not leaping to conclusions. They’ve raised questions that indeed need to be addressed. But one of the challenges of this space is that the federal Labor Party has dogmatically and ideologically opposed any consideration of nuclear energy. That is a key point in terms of what Pete Malinauskas has said. He said we shouldn’t be wedged in by ideology, neither ideology that says we should have nuclear energy for the sake of it, nor ideology that says we should completely be blinkered and shut off to nuclear energy. We are bringing an open mind to this debate. So too should Anthony Albanese.


Journalist: Speaking of conversations there’ll be a virtual conversation held on Friday with regards to national cabinet. Are you confident that this will lead to a resolution when it comes to energy intervention?


Simon Birmingham: Ted as the Shadow Energy Minister might want to add to this but this is a long overdue conversation by Anthony Albanese. The energy proposals for the gas market and the energy crisis in Australia should have been in the budget handed down two months ago, not delayed due to division within federal Labor Party. We’ve seen very clearly that different ministers have been out there advocating some for higher taxes, some for more spending, some for huge market intervention, all of them seemingly having this debate, which firstly divided Anthony Albanese’s cabinet and now he’s dividing states and territories. So, the fact that it is going ahead is welcome. But the certainty as to what it is, how it will be achieved and whether it can be achieved is far from clear given the silence on details from federal Labor but I’ll let Ted add to that as Shadow Energy Minister.


Ted O’Brien: Well, the Albanese cabinet is deeply divided on what to do about the energy crisis. We have the manufacturing the manufacturing industry being blamed by the resource minister. The Industry Minister is blaming the gas companies the treasurer is blaming Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of course displaying the opposition for everything they are deeply divided. Every second day we’ve had a different thought bubble on what to do. But this is a government that promised the Australian people that power prices would come down. The Albanese government promised households, their power bills would reduce by $275. But since coming to office, under this Labor government prices have increased, the grid is becoming more unreliable, more jobs are under threat regional communities are worried about being steamrolled over, and our energy security is at risk. Now, they’ve had over six months to come to a solution to recommend something to the Australian people. But we have had radio silence from this government for over six months, as the situation has only worsened. Now we’ve had another delay, we’ll wait to see what comes out of Friday’s meeting.


Journalist: Is there any preferred intervention, the opposition will support?


Ted O’Brien: The opposition has said from day one, that what the government should be doing is engaging very closely with industry to pour more supply into the market. If we want to get prices down, we need more supply. This is this is nothing new from a coalition government that in our last term alone, we reduced prices. Household prices came down to 8%. Under the last term, the coalition businesses 10% industry 12% We got prices down in that last term of government under a coalition. Now on my first day, in opposition in this role, I wrote to my counterpart Chris Bowen, and recommended he engages with the gas CEOs. I even offered the assistance of the coalition that’s been refused. They have demonised gas from day one. Despite the fact that every expert in this field says that if you want to get prices down, right now, you need more supply in the market. But instead, Labor has demonised gas, they’ve ripped over $100 million of projects from the budget for gas, they have taken gas out of the capacity mechanism. They’re trying to take the Kurri Kurri plant away from gas as soon as they can, despite the answer being to drive prices down you need more gas in the market. The one solution they have had on hand. They have denied they have not addressed it. Let’s see what they come up with on Friday.


Journalist: Mr. O’Brien would you be willing to compensate states for the energy price cap if they bring one forward?


Ted O’Brien: Well, there’s lots of thought bubbles out there and there are thought bubbles regarding new taxes, new levies, compensation schemes. There’s a big difference between the Liberal National Coalition and the labor green coalition. And that is we don’t go on thought bubbles. And we don’t have running commentary on thought bubbles. That’s not the way you should be running a government certainly not the way that we run an opposition. We’ve been waiting the Australian people have been waiting families are hurting businesses are on their knees. Everybody is waiting for the government to stump up with its approach. They made a promise before the election, they’re breaking it here today. We are waiting for them to respond. Once they respond with substance. Indeed, they will get a substantive answer from the opposition.


Journalist: Senator, is there a reason you’re hesitant to back Andrew Hastie’s call to build a sub or two with nuclear power in the United States?


Simon Birmingham: The question was put to me this morning went to very specific proposition about where and what. But I certainly want to see two things achieved. Firstly, it is that Australia gets the capability of nuclear-powered submarines as quickly as possible. And if that means a partnership arrangement can deliver one or two sooner, then that would be very welcome. But also that Australia gets the capability to build nuclear-powered submarines as quickly as possible. They are the two capability needs that we must meet when it comes to our submarine fleet, getting the nuclear-powered subs as quickly as possible, and getting the capability to build them as quickly as possible. And I hope that through the AUKUS discussions taking place in Washington, we can see some real progress on both these fronts.


Journalist: And briefly, you said there will be a real focus on preselecting candidates that reflect Australian diversity. Does that mean the Liberal Party will be introducing quotas and targets?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we will be working through the rest of the results of the review that was undertaken into the last Federal election.  But there is a clear message from the electorate that our party in terms of the approach we take needs to make sure we reflect the modern diversity of modern Australia. I want to be working as closely as I can in state divisions around the country as I know, Peter and the rest of the team do to get quality candidates in the field, but especially to see more women, more candidates and diversity reflecting modern Australia and standing up for the Liberal Party so that we offer that type of effective choice to Australia to give them the confidence that when we meet as a party room, the full range of perspectives will be included in the views of our party. Thanks guys.