Interview on 891 ABC Adelaide Breakfast with Matthew Abraham and David Bevan
Topics: BP’s activity in the Great Australian Bight; Same-sex marriage plebiscite; SA’s energy security
Matthew Abraham: We welcome to Super Wednesday Mark Butler, Labor MP for Port Adelaide, Federal President of the ALP, he’s the Shadow Minister for Climate Change in the Shorten Opposition. Mark Butler, welcome.
Mark Butler: Good morning.
Matthew Abraham: Liberal Senator for South Australia, Education Minister Simon Birmingham. Welcome Senator.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning everybody.
Matthew Abraham: And Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator for South Australia and speaks for the Greens on finance and trade and education. Welcome.
Sarah Hanson-Young: Thanks for having me.
Matthew Abraham: Let us go to the question of BP, and their decision not to drill in the Bight.
David Bevan: Now Tom Koutsantonis, the South Australian Energy Minister says he’s truly sorry that BP won’t be exploring for oil, they won’t be drilling. Mark Butler, are you sorry?
Mark Butler: Well, you know, I’m unemotional about it. It was a commercial decision taken by BP. Obviously, you know, it was a very big project, if it was ever going to go ahead. I mean, there were lots of hurdles for it to jump; approval to explore was the first one, but [indistinct] exploration…
Matthew Abraham: Yeah…
David Bevan: [Talks over] Are you glad? Are you glad, are you sorry, or you don’t care?
Mark Butler: No, look, I’ve just – this is commercial decision BP would take. I met with BP …
David Bevan: [Talks over] Yeah, we know that, look …
Mark Butler: … on a number of occasions, I met with …
David Bevan: … the question wasn’t … oh come on Mark, we’re not going to get very far …
Mark Butler: … a number- why don’t you let me finish that?
David Bevan: Yeah but you’re not going to get very far if you don’t answer …
Mark Butler: [Talks over] I’m not going to get very far if you keep interrupting me …
David Bevan: [Talks over] Well we won’t get very far if you answer questions that weren’t being asked …
Mark Butler: … three words into an answer.
David Bevan: … I didn’t ask you was this a commercial decision, it just- I’m asking you for your personal reaction. Now are you glad, are you sorry, or you indifferent?
Mark Butler: Well I’m indifferent. I’m indifferent. I think the project was still so far away from really yielding anything for South Australia in the nature of jobs or royalties that you know, these things come and they go. Just – companies like this make their decisions, and I …
Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] Yeah, no, you’re having a bob each way, because Tom Koutsantonis …
Mark Butler: [Talks over] Well I am having a bob each- I am having a bob each way, because there were still questions about this project. I mean, there was a senate inquiry that had been underway during the last parliament that we supported, and that was revived under the new parliament to look at plans in the event of an accident or a disaster, and so I think there were still a lot of questions about this project, but those questions are now sort of otiose now, given that BP’s taken the commercial decision they’ve taken.
David Bevan: They’re now what?
Mark Butler: Irrelevant.
David Bevan: What is- what- is that otiose?
Mark Butler: Yeah.
Matthew Abraham: Oh, I like that.
David Bevan: Is that Latin?
Mark Butler: You can use it if you want. I don’t think it’s Latin, I’m pretty sure it’s English.
David Bevan: O-T-I-O …
Mark Butler: I don’t think I just made it up.
Matthew Abraham: Oh, we don’t mind.
David Bevan: Otiose.
Matthew Abraham: You see I was going to explain that a bob …
Mark Butler: [Laughs].
Matthew Abraham: … is a shilling, which is ten cents. [Laughs] But that’s okay. Alright.
David Bevan: It’s otiose.
Matthew Abraham: Anyway.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia and Education Minister.
Matthew Abraham: Federal Education Min …
Simon Birmingham: The Education Minister who just learned something this morning as well.
Matthew Abraham: Wow.
David Bevan: That’s right, that’s right. Now look, I won’t interrupt if you actually answer the question, alright? Now, do- are you sorry, are you glad, are you indifferent?
Simon Birmingham: I am emphatically sorry that an opportunity for more investment and more jobs in South Australia has been lost. We see that jobs have been lost, and will be lost I suspect at Ceduna as a result of this, potentially in Port Lincoln. Ultimately the opportunity for more jobs would have existed in Port Adelaide and elsewhere across South Australia, and I am concerned that some, particularly unsurprisingly the Greens, perhaps, but even the Nick Xenophon Party is declaring this a victory and a win when in fact it is another blow to South Australia.
David Bevan: Well were you sorry … or indifferent to the possible risk that would have happened if there’d been an accident?
Simon Birmingham: Well were absolutely cognisant of the risks, and that’s why some of the world’s toughest environmental approvals apply to these processes. And BP of course had not actually achieved those environmental approvals yet. NOPSEMA, who’s the federal regulator had in 2015 and 2016 not accepted BP’s plans, and had asked for more information last month in relation to a new environmental plan. So there were still hoops to clear in relation to this, but the fact that they’ve now walked away from it altogether is of course a very disappointing situation, and I’m surprised that anybody, let alone champions of South Australia like the Xenophon team are meant to be, would cheer the loss of jobs that comes with this.
Matthew Abraham: Or be otiose about it.
Simon Birmingham: Or be otiose about it.
Matthew Abraham: Which is O-T-I-O-S-E, and yes it is a word, and not that I doubted it.
Mark Butler: No, but you used it incorrectly then though Matthew.
David Bevan: It results in no effect, isn’t it, resulting in no effect, nothing happens – is that right?
Mark Butler: That’s right.
Matthew Abraham: Reluctant to work or to exert oneself. Having no reason for being, having no point, reason or purpose.
Mark Butler: Have you checked the derivation of it yet, Matt?
Matthew Abraham: Yes, yes, yes, I have, from the Latin otiosus, idle, and from otium, ease. Well there we are.
Mark Butler: I’m really sorry I said this now.
Simon Birmingham: You know, Mark, it’s almost reminiscent of when Christopher Pyne used to be on this program.
Matthew Abraham: Yes.
David Bevan: Your remorse is otiose, Mark Butler.
Matthew Abraham: [Laughs] Mark, some would say it’s pearls before swine in terms of David and me, but that’s alright.
David Bevan: There we are. Okay, well Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, are you glad, upset or indifferent?
Matthew Abraham: Or otiose?
Sarah Hanson-Young: I’m extremely happy that BP have decided to pull out of the Bight, and I know many other South Australians are as well. The risk of an oil spill like BP was responsible for in the Gulf of Mexico weighed very heavily on a lot of people’s minds, on the fisheries’ minds, on the tourisms operators, and of course this was all meant to be happening right smack bang in the middle of a Commonwealth marine park, a place that was meant to be protected. It’s a good decision of BP’s and you know, regardless of the kind of chest thumping from some back home, I mean honestly, the jobs were negligible, BP admitted that themselves. Most …
Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] Well there’ll be zero now.
Sarah Hanson-Young: Well, it was something like four, actually [laughs]. Most of the jobs were going to be imported from foreign workers, and they weren’t [indistinct] …
Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Well the Mayor of Ceduna has a different view, doesn’t he?
Sarah Hanson-Young: Well it’s funny actually, I’ve met with the Mayor of Ceduna, I’ve spoken to him about this. When I put to him, you know, what did BP promise you in terms of jobs, he admitted that the jobs wouldn’t be very many and he was simply hoping that as time went on, they would increase. Except that BP’s own figures didn’t show that at all.
Simon Birmingham: Well what the Mayor of Ceduna is actually quoted as saying today, to be specific, is that it would be fair to say every business would be affected to some extent. [Indistinct] very negative impact on [indistinct] …
Sarah Hanson-Young: [Talks over] Well I tell you what, if there was an oil spill, every business would be affected. Every business would be affected in Ceduna if there’d been an oil spill, and I think that’s the point here. People were not prepared to take that risk. You know only two weeks ago BP had an oil spill in the North Sea, just off the UK, and this is a company that cannot be trusted to manage this process properly.
Simon Birmingham: Well the vast majority of drilling around the world is undertaken of course without oil spills occurring, and to suggest …
Sarah Hanson-Young: [Talks over] Except when it happens.
Simon Birmingham: … that this is an automatic flow-on of what occurs, and Australia has some of the best environmental laws in the country, which were being applied to this, and of course they would have had to clear that before they could undertake this step.
Matthew Abraham: Is there a suggestion …
Sarah Hanson-Young: [Talks over] Well they obviously felt like they couldn’t do it, because they pulled out.
Simon Birmingham: I mean I appreciate there is the Greens’ position is this should never, ever happen anywhere. Like you would end oil drilling all over the world if you got your way.
Sarah Hanson-Young: [Talks over] Not in the middle of a whale sanctuary, no, we don’t think it should happen in the middle of a whale sanctuary.
Matthew Abraham: But Simon Birmingham, the company’s not blaming the Greens. They’re not blaming environmental opposition. They’re just saying it didn’t make business sense for them. They’ve obviously had a good look at it.
Simon Birmingham: And we’re just doing …
Matthew Abraham: And matter of fact, if anything, the regulatory approvals imposed by the Federal Government were, to quote Graham Lloyd in The Australian today, that the offshore approval process was more rigorous, the independent offshore regulator proved to be more thorough than many had expected.
Simon Birmingham: And that is a point that I made before, absolutely Matthew, and we make no apologies for a thorough process, and yes BP says this is an economic decision that they have made. The oil price has more than halved since BP originally made these plans, but that doesn’t stop the fact that if they had managed to get those environmental processes, demonstrated that they then could do this safely, that it is a big blow to South Australia that comes on top of many other disappointments in terms of the economic environment in South Australia, and that is jobs foregone, far more jobs when you think about the actual expenditure that would have occurred in local businesses in Ceduna, in Port Lincoln, in Port Adelaide and elsewhere across the state over a period of time if these exploration plans had been successful in their undertaking.
Matthew Abraham: Let’s go now to …
Sarah Hanson-Young: Why do you hate the marine park so much, Birmo? Let’s protect the whales, come on.
Simon Birmingham: What a pathetic question, Sarah.
Sarah Hanson-Young: I mean, it’s just – but- you don’t even …
Matthew Abraham: Well where are the jobs in the marine park, Sarah Hanson-Young? We were promised…
Sarah Hanson-Young: Well, tourism is booming in that area right now …
Matthew Abraham: Where?
Sarah Hanson-Young: … and they desperately [indistinct] more support …
Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] As a result of the marine parks?
Sarah Hanson-Young: As a result of the fact that the whales have started calving, and that – I was there only three or four weeks ago; the stream of tourists that – and it could be more, and it could be supported [indistinct] is huge …
Simon Birmingham: [Talks over] And the reality is that these things can coexist.
Matthew Abraham: Okay.
Sarah Hanson-Young: The fishing industry in South Australia is one of our best exports; we should be protecting that.
Matthew Abraham: Alright. Let’s go to the same-sex marriage debate. And this is- to Mark Butler and Simon Birmingham, do we- is this a reflection on the poisonous nature of federal politics now, that we can have a Prime Minister and an Opposition Leader both agreeing on a contentious topic – in this case same-sex marriage- and yet unable to deliver it?
Simon Birmingham: Well I think it’s a reflection that the Labor Party has shown the complete unwillingness to compromise, to recognise that the Coalition under Malcolm Turnbull went to an election with a clear policy, and have presented that policy in good faith to the parliament to try to resolve this issue. And then that could have been the simplest and most straightforward way to get it resolved, consistent with the policy the Government took to the election,
Matthew Abraham: Mark Butler.
Mark Butler: Well we also went to the election with a very clear view about how this should proceed, which is a vote in the parliament in the same way that all of these issues have been dealt with throughout the life of the Commonwealth. But we took our time to deal with the plebiscite proposal, we didn’t announce a position immediately although there were pretty strong views within the Labor caucus. We took out time to talk to gay and lesbian groups, and I’m sure Simon would agree there is not one gay and lesbian group that has taken a position other than to oppose the plebiscite. Not one. Can you imagine a proposition where there was a proposal for a plebiscite for any other group in the community, that those groups virulently opposed the plebiscite and yet still the Government proposed to proceed with it. It’s just unthinkable. The other thing we did though was to talk to mental health experts. We talked to the Mental Health Council. We talked to Professor Patrick McGorry, Australian of the Year. They also advised us very deeply that there would be very real mental health consequences from this plebiscite process. Something that the Prime Minister has not been able to show any different advice for.
Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Did you go looking for the answer you wanted there?
Mark Butler: No we talked to-
Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] Because they wouldn’t say there’s not, because that’d be quite a risky thing to say.
Mark Butler: We talked meaningfully- well I’m not quite sure what you’re insinuating there Matthew about Professor McGorry or about the Mental Health Council. We went and had a meaningful discussion with them about what the real consequences of this process would be. They advised us that they will be damaging and divisive. Now, we took a thorough process here. I think the community has also taken this journey. Support for the plebiscite has almost halved in the community according to a number of public polls, and, you know, in good conscience I don’t think Bill Shorten could have recommended anything else to the Labor caucus. Really what- so going back to your question though about the state of politics. Really what this talks to though is the state of politics within the Coalition party room. Because it’s quite clear that there is now very strong majority support in the community for same-sex marriage, or marriage equality. There is a majority in both houses of parliament to legislate it in the same way…
Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] And both leaders support it.
Mark Butler: Both leaders support it. All we need is a vote…
Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] So why can’t you make it happen?
Mark Butler: All we need is a vote in the parliament and the only person blocking a vote in the parliament…
Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] Or a plebiscite.
Mark Butler: [Interrupts] I’ve just outlined the reasons for opposing a plebiscite. Not one gay and lesbian group in Australia supports a plebiscite. Can you imagine another scenario where there was a plebiscite proposal opposed by every representative group of the community that was subject to the plebiscite, and the parliament proceeded with it? It’s just unthinkable.
David Bevan: Well I suppose the people who are proposing a plebiscite would say that this isn’t just about gay and lesbian people. It’s a question for the entire community. Now, that would be their argument. It’s not just about giving gay and lesbian people what they want, it’s about letting the entire community vote on this. Now, you can argue about that but that would be their point. Mark Butler, isn’t the case that politics is messy? This is a messy debate, and while I understand your argument, damage has already been done in this debate. And the best way now to resolve it perhaps would be to have a plebiscite because, if you’re right, and that the overwhelming majority of people will vote for same-sex marriage, that would be an endorsement of these people who fear they will be persecuted?
Mark Butler: Look I follow that argument, David, and I know that, you know, people like Simon Birmingham are well intentioned here and are pulling that argument with the best of intentions. We just don’t agree with it. And we went through a thorough process of talking to every representative organisation in the country of gay and lesbian Australians and of their families. We went through a very thorough process of talking to relevant mental health experts, and we came to a view that in good conscience we could just not support this process.
Simon Birmingham: I think David’s point is correct. The Labor Party went through a very thorough process of talking to only one side of the debate.
David Bevan: But did you talk to…
Mark Butler: [Interrupts] Well that’s not right. We’ll talk to the Archbishop of- Bill talked to the Archbishop – Anglican and Catholic in Sydney. Mark Dreyfus talked to the Australian Christian Lobby, I think they’re called, the ACL. There has been very broad discussion about this over a period of several weeks now. We took this very seriously. We didn’t- unlike the Greens, the Greens came to a position very quickly about this and I know that that made Sarah Hanson-Young for a period feel uncomfortable. We didn’t take that decision to take a knee-jerk response. We talked to the community.
David Bevan: Well let’s let Sarah Hanson-Young speaker for herself. Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, are you now totally comfortable with your party’s position on the plebiscite and with the ALP’s decision not to support it?
Sarah Hanson-Young: Look, I think the last time we spoke about this the plebiscite legislation had just been released so I got to see what it had been- what it was going to look like, and at the at point I decided there was no way I could support it because I believe it was rigged to fail, and I think the Prime Minister knows that. I think even George Brandis knows that. So the way it is being presented and what will be voted on in the parliament this week would be a plebiscite that would not, I don’t believe, succeed actually, and not do what it- we want it to be, which is a pathway to equality.
David Bevan: [Interrupts] But does your nagging doubt- okay, so your…
Sarah Hanson-Young: [Talks over] The problem I have here is that the only winners out of all of its this politics actually. I saw- I sat in the chamber yesterday, we were in the senate. Simon Birmingham and I were both there while George Brandis and Penny Wong screamed at each other and shouted at each other over this issue during question time. I mean, come on. When are we actually going to get on with legislating for the laws that need to change in order to deliver true equality. You’re right, there are leaders of all parties right now who believe in marriage equality. And because of the politics, they can’t get it done. And most people…
David Bevan: [Interrupts] Penny Wong wasn’t screaming at Julia Gillard when she opposed same-sex marriage.
Sarah Hanson-Young: Well that’s something that, you know, a question she needs to answer. I mean, I tell you what: I was pretty disappointed with Julia Gillard’s position on this as well. People have waited, lesbian and gay Australians have waited – and their families have waited – far too long. And now what I fear is this gets put in the too hard basket. The people who never want to see this reform happen have won, and rather than actually working together we’re now seeing squabbling erupt on the parliament floor. I don’t think it’s the way forward, I don’t think it’s particularly…
David Bevan: [Interrupts] Well the Greens may not- I don’t know if you squabble, but you certainly play a key role in blocking and frustrating Government agendas and mandates.
Sarah Hanson-Young: You know, as members of parliament…
David Bevan: [Interrupts] Do you not? You just- maybe you do it politely, I don’t know.
Sarah Hanson-Young: Well, look. I think there is obviously argy-bargy in the parliament. What I’m demonstrating here though is that this is an issue that has descended into a farce on the floor of the chamber, with people shouting at each other about whether they are more pro-gay marriage than other people, whether they like the gays or not. I mean, get over it. We all know that these laws need to happen. Introduce the legislation, give members the opportunity to have a vote, and get it done.
Matthew Abraham: Sarah Hanson-Young. Now, you are listening to Super Wednesday with Mark Butler, Simon Birmingham and Sarah Hanson-Young on 891 ABC Adelaide Breakfast, just gone eight minutes to nine. Simon Birmingham, as a South Australian senator, as an Education Minister, did you cringe when your Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull questioned why anyone, why any business would want to do business in South Australia because of our energy situation, which he did in parliament a couple of days ago?
Simon Birmingham: No, far from it Matthew. I think the first thing to fixing a problem is you have to acknowledge that there is a problem. And in South Australia [indistinct] energy market…
David Bevan: [Interrupts] Or you make the problem worse. By the language you use, make the problem worse.
Simon Birmingham: In South Australia the energy market that we have and the circumstances of the generation mix that are there, have created an environment where we have the highest price, least reliable energy in the country. We as a Government have been seeking across the nation to make Australia a more competitive place in which to invest by getting rid of the carbon tax, by trying to drive down company tax, we created 180,000 jobs across Australia in the last 12 months.
David Bevan: Okay.
Simon Birmingham: But in 14 years of state Labor government, we’re at the point where South Australia is in a sad battle with Tasmania for the highest levels of unemployment in the nation, and [indistinct].
Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Is this a tactic by the federal Liberal Party, that they really decided not to trust Steven Marshall to win the next election. You’ve decided to go in and help him out?
Simon Birmingham: Steven Marshall’s doing a brilliant job [indistinct].
Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Yeah but you’re giving him a bit of help.
Simon Birmingham: …with his policies that he’s releasing already in terms of deregulating shop trading hours, in terms of trying to bring South Australia, you know, actually up to speed with the rest of the nation in a range of different areas, and I have absolute confidence in him. But, we were…
David Bevan: [Interrupts] You’re just helping out.
Simon Birmingham: Well, I’ll do everything I possibly can to help Steven Marshall, because you know, sadly South Australia is battling it out with Tasmania for the highest unemployment in the nation and this comes after 14 years of consecutive Labor governments in SA.
David Bevan: Mark Butler, you’re the Shadow Energy Minister. Do you agree with Josh Frydenberg that whatever solutions are found to make the South Australian system more reliable, it’s going to cost South Australian consumers?
Mark Butler: Well I mean, Simon’s statement about the reliability of the South Australian power system is just an utter farce. We have a blackout ten days ago, which pretty much every expert has agreed was the product of an unprecedented storm event that tore down three transmission lines. Now, there will further investigations about this but essentially no-one has contested – other than Barnaby Joyce – no-one has contested…
Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] Hang on, and the energy market operator.
Mark Butler: No. Well you read the energy market operator’s report…
Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] I have. I have.
Mark Butler: …and it’s quite clear that what happened over a period of seconds is that three transmission lines went down and they tripped out some generation.
David Bevan: [Interrupts] Some, they tipped out all the generation.
Mark Butler: Yeah exactly.
Matthew Abraham: But there is enormous and unsettled debate over whether the mix, the energy mix in South Australia made it more difficult to get the lights back on, and made the system more vulnerable to tripping. Now that is not a settled question Mark Butler.
Mark Butler: Well but no-one seriously has put a suggestion that the restart of the system was the product of the energy mix. There was a problem with the restart that the AEMO report identified, but that was about storm damage not to wind generation but to fossil fuel generation.
David Bevan: Okay. Mark Butler, thank you for joining us. Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy, President of the ALP. Simon Birmingham’s a Liberal Senator and Education Minister. Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator for South Australia. And we all now have a new word to impress people with as the day wears on.