Topics: Plan for net zero emissions by 2050; Methane emissions; Vaccination boosters; International travellers; Voter ID; Michael Sukkar




Patricia Karvelas: Finance Minister and Leader of the government in the Senate, Simon Birmingham is my guest this afternoon. Minister, welcome.


Simon Birmingham: Hi, Patricia. Good to be with you again.


Patricia Karvelas: The Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, this morning claimed Australia’s decision not to sign an international pledge to slash methane emissions as a win for the Nationals and part of what secured their support for this net zero emissions by 2050. But the Prime Minister says it was never the plan. So who’s right?


Simon Birmingham: Well, indeed, it it’s not part of the Paris Agreement in terms of the commitments that are being made to 2030, of which Australia is well on track to actually achieve reductions well above the 26 to 28 per cent reduction commitment. We are going to reduce emissions by between 30 and 35 per cent. It’s not part of the Paris Agreement long-term commitment process around achieving net zero by 2050, but tackling methane itself is over that journey to 2050. To 2050, you have to account for all of the different gases that are part of the climate change challenge and we certainly do that very transparently as a nation. And the plan released this week does outline some of the issues that we need to tackle as a country in terms of dairy cattle, beef cattle and particularly the measures, the technologies that might get us there.


Patricia Karvelas: So is Barnaby Joyce wrong that he kind of, you know, he in the Nationals pushed for this and that’s what was with the change?


Simon Birmingham: Well, look, what is, it’s certainly not the Government’s intention to make that pledge, which in the short term could be quite detrimental.


Patricia Karvelas: Was it meant to be their pledge. And then he stopped it with the Nationals.


Simon Birmingham: Look, we listen to the National Party, to the Liberal Party’s rural and regional MPs, and this is just a normal part of government engagement in that sense, listening to its backbench. We would have always recognised the fact that this particular pledge presents difficulties for a country like Australia, given the nature of our farming sector and what we need to do is precisely what we’ve outlined this week. Work to achieve net zero and as part of that address the methane challenges by investing in technology, particularly around types of new feedstock opportunities that are available, and that’s their detailed as one of the things in the plan released this week.


Patricia Karvelas: Minister, can voters have confidence in the strength of the coalition if there’s confusion over this policy? I mean, that’s two different things we’ve heard from the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister.


Simon Birmingham: Well people should have absolute confidence because there a few things, firstly, that Australia’s emissions continue to go down.


Patricia Karvelas: But the question I asked I was talking about the change in the different positions.


Simon Birmingham: I’m coming to the policy in the plan. So they should have confidence. Australia’s emissions are going down, having gone down by more than 20 per cent since 2005, which is in excess of many countries, and are actually on track to meet and beat our 2030 targets, as I said, and that there’s a detailed plan dealing with all of the different climate change gases in terms of what we need to tackle to achieve net zero as a country by 2050. And that’s what we negotiated through, analysed and have committed to.


Patricia Karvelas: Are you comfortable that Australia is going to Glasgow without more ambitious 2030 targets?


Simon Birmingham: I think what you do, what you achieve is what matters most. And so we’re going to Glasgow able to demonstrate that Australia made commitments at the time that those commitments were initially due and that we are on track not just to beat those commitments, but to comfortably beat them. And so I think that is a very strong demonstration to the world of how seriously Australia is investing in tackling climate change, are making changes across our nation and we’ll continue to do so.


Patricia Karvelas: Can you explain to me what’s the difference between an update and a pledge on this 35 per cent?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the commitment under the Paris Agreement, there’s a detailed, nationally determined commitment process that you go to in Australia will be updating its NDC as part of that. There are also some longer term commitments that are that are outlined as part of the structure that the Paris Agreement has countries engage in and in Australia will be making one of those longer term commitments in in terms of the net zero commitment by 2050.


Patricia Karvelas: Okay, but why not make this thirty five per cent sort of a nationally determined pledge?


Simon Birmingham: So we are as part of our updated NDC outlining indeed that we made a commitment and how we are tracking against that commitment, which is that we’re tracking extraordinarily well to meet and beat that commitment.


Patricia Karvelas: So is that thirty five per cent then a pledge?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s showing what Australia is doing and it’s showing reality Patricia


Patricia Karvelas: That’s the reality. And we want that to be the reality.


Simon Birmingham: Reality is better than a pledge.


Patricia Karvelas: So it’s not a pledge.


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think reality, if it’s a game of poker, Patricia, reality trumps a pledge.


Patricia Karvelas: Ok? Why not make it a pledge then because I pledge lots of things and then I make them a reality too, because it’s part of the pledge.


Simon Birmingham: Well, I’m not quite sure why you want to take us into a word game here.


Patricia Karvelas: No, no, no, no, no. I’m not being silly. I want to explain. I think it’s important for my viewers that they understand, because if you pledge, you’re saying I am going to make that happen, I think it’s really important that we get to this thirty five per cent reduction. I don’t just say it will happen and I hope it happens. I commit to making it happen.


Simon Birmingham: So the pledge we’re making, which is driving this reality and it’s the really important part of the pledge, it’s the pledge that we’re investing some $20 billion of public money and driving some further $60 billion plus of private money across the years to 2030 into the technologies that are enabling us to achieve lower emissions and will enable the rest of the world to achieve lower emissions. Ultra low cost solar, affordable hydrogen energy for the world, the pursuit of green, lower cost aluminium and steel. The pursuit of affordable energy storage for the future, achieving carbon capture or re-use opportunities at affordable levels. These are the transformations that we’re pledging to invest billions of dollars as a country in pursuing that will make lower emissions technologies possible not just for us, but for other countries around the world to do so. So that we’re not one of only a small number of countries who are meeting and exceeding our climate change reduction commitments, but hopefully others can with affordable technologies at their disposal.


Patricia Karvelas: Ok, Why didn’t Treasury model your plan?


Simon Birmingham: The Department responsible for emissions reduction modelled the plan.


Patricia Karvelas: Doesn’t it make sense, though, the Treasury would do that kind of work?


Simon Birmingham: Well, when we want health modelling, we asked the health department to do it when we want modelling in relation to emissions reduction, it’s done by the Department of Industry who are responsible for the emissions reduction policy. They’re the ones that produce the very transparent updates in relation to Australia’s emissions reduction activities. They’re the ones who produce quite detailed data reports on our emissions profile as a nation, and they’re the ones who have done the modelling.


Patricia Karvelas: When are we going to get the modelling that’s being done?


Simon Birmingham: We’ll get the modelling released over the next couple of weeks as the PM said.


Patricia Karvelas: Ok, I’m going to move to another topic. Coronavirus vaccination booster doses will be rolled out to the general population from next month. I think I’m due on December the 23rd. Should Australia have waited until all Australians had two doses before shifting to boosters?


Simon Birmingham: No, because we’ve got ample doses available in the country right now. In fact, if the doses that are distributed across the nation right now, we could accommodate all of the unvaccinated population coming forward if they chose to and be able to meet and supply that sort of demand. So we can definitely continue to vaccinate and meet the gradual roll up of the booster programme as required.


Patricia Karvelas: What about ensuring other nations, including some of our neighbours, have the opportunity to have their initial doses?


Simon Birmingham: And again, we have been doing that and we continue to do that and we’ve made a profound difference, I think, across Pacific Island nations in terms of supplying vaccines to support those Pacific island nations, which we’ve done at the same time as rolling out the vaccine programme in Australia. We’d love to see higher uptake in in Papua New Guinea, for example, where the vaccine numbers are far too low. That, unfortunately, is not a case of lack of supply. Its challenges in terms of demand and of distribution. And we have invested further resources just over the last couple of weeks in terms of additional teams to try to support PNG in terms of their vaccine rollout. We’ve donated to Indonesia and if my memory of commitments made at the ASEAN summit overnight, are correct, where the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister secured Australia as the first ever comprehensive strategic partnership relation with those 10 nations of South East Asia. We’ve also committed a further 60 million doses of vaccine into our fellow South-East Asian nations.


Patricia Karvelas: Minister, international travel will restart from next month for Australians. When will international tourists return?


Simon Birmingham: We can’t put a precise date on that yet because we’ve said quite clearly we’re going to go through a few stages under the national plan. So that first stage is for fully vaccinated Australians, Australian citizens, permanent residents and immediate family members. And that’s going to be stage one now when we’ve got all the systems working and working to everybody’s satisfaction in terms of those vaccination checks for Australian citizens that we’re getting the customs processes and systems at the airports all proving up, and we’re not seeing any other challenges in relation to that. Then we’ll be able to put a date to move to stage two and stage two will involve international students, will involve essential workers in in other industry sectors. And then we’ll be able to move further beyond that into the tourism market.


Patricia Karvelas: Minister, I want to talk about voter ID. It’s a very contentious issue. Why is the government seeking to require voters to show ID when the electoral commission has not asked for that power?


Simon Birmingham: It’s about confidence in our electoral systems. We’ve had recommendations from the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Matters from the three last elections in a row proposing that the Parliament should do this and that we should have these sorts of measures that are quite commonplace across Europe, across Canada, across many parts of the world that have voter ID provisions in place, you know, and many viewers would know that sadly, in this day and age, conspiracy theories run ever more rampant on the internet about electoral systems. And this is a measure that can increase people’s confidence in the integrity of the electoral system. But I do want to reassure everyone that, you know, this is a very light touch measure made as simple as possible that ensures that it’s both physical or electronic ID. It’s a whole variety of different forms of ID and that there are safeguards there to ensure that declaration votes can still be provided by somebody who may not have the ID in place, or indeed that another individual with ID can vouch for somebody who may not have it.


Patricia Karvelas: But Minister, do you concede that this will make it more difficult for people in some risky groups? You know, people fleeing domestic violence, the homeless, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, people who are quite disenfranchised from voting, you just creating a roadblock to people being able to exercise their democratic right?


Simon Birmingham: No, I don’t think that’s the case, Patricia, and it’s why those safeguards are referenced there are in place in terms of the legislation and indeed, if we look at one of the lived examples of this in Queensland, where I think it was the 2015 Queensland election, they had voter ID laws in place and the turnout, the participation in that 2015 Queensland election was actually at a greater level than the subsequent election, where those laws had been abolished by a change of government. So you can actually see that when they’re applied in the right way, they in no way dampen participation. In fact, for some people who have English language barriers or the like, being able to present their ID at the counter, to show their name, to show their address, to do all of those different things is perhaps more easy way of communicating than answering the questions that we currently require electoral officials to ask people.


Patricia Karvelas: Pauline Hanson says the voter ID legislation was a condition of her support for another vote. Is that true?


Simon Birmingham: I’m not aware of that being the case, but I am certainly aware, as I said, that that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended this action be taken after the 2013, the 2016 and the 2019 Elections.


Patricia Karvelas: She says it was a condition, like she said that, is she not saying the truth?


Simon Birmingham: Look as I’m saying, I’m not aware of.


Patricia Karvelas: You would be aware because you’re the leader of the government in the Senate, you would have to know, wouldn’t you?


Simon Birmingham: Not necessarily. Pauline has discussions with most ministers about different bills and issues. It may be that she proposed this as a potential amendment to other pieces of electoral legislation. And as I say, it’s certainly something the government was already looking at responding to in relation to those parliamentary committee reports that we’d received.


Patricia Karvelas: Okay, I know it was Ben Morton. I think that she was just looking at the story that’s been published that he did that negotiation with her. So you’re saying it would have happened regardless because you believe in it anyway? Is that what you’re saying?


Simon Birmingham: It’s an issue that has been working through government processes for some time, particularly as a response to that parliamentary committee report.


Patricia Karvelas: Just finally, in Senate estimates, we learnt that Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar is using taxpayer funds to defend defamation action against him. Who’s suing him and what’s it about and why taxpayers paying for it?


Simon Birmingham: Look, I heard about that just on my way up to the studio. Patricia, I don’t know that it’s public as to who is who is suing him. So I’m not sure in terms of that. There’s a very well defined process where the Attorney-General’s Department makes a decision or a recommendation about whether a minister should receive legal assistance in terms of the defence of a case brought against them in part of their duties as a minister. And I understand the Attorney-General’s Department did so recommend in this case.


Patricia Karvelas: Okay, thank you so much for your time Simon.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks Patricia, my pleasure.