SUBJECTS: Record tourism numbers; Labor’s 60 billion hit on the economy; Murray-Darling; Government investment in regional health

Johanna Nicholson: We’re joined by Liberal campaign spokesperson and Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham. Senator, thanks very much for your time this morning. We might get to your portfolio of tourism first. And we’ve got some new results about how Australians are holidaying at the moment?

Simon Birmingham: We’re seeing really fantastic growth in terms of Australians holidaying at home. Nine per cent growth in terms of the number of nights that Australians spent away over the last year, out around Australia and in particular in regional Australia, and that’s just fantastic news. Whether it’s for locations such as the Snowy Mountains or outback WA, or areas like the Freycinet in Tasmania, which is just such a magnificent and beautiful spot and is one of the regions where we’ve provided new infrastructure funding to upgrade some of the tourism facilities there, to make sure that the 1 in 13 Australian jobs that depend upon tourism, continue to be supported into the future because that’s such a key part of our economic plan to keep Australians in jobs and to create more job opportunities.

Johanna Nicholson: Alright Senator, let’s get to the election campaign now. This week there have been a lot of discussions about the costing of various climate policies. Both major parties have cited a particular report by Australian National University Warwick McKibbin from 2015 and there seems to be various different ways of interpreting this report. Do you accept that Professor McKibbin believes that the effects of the deeper cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, like the ones that Labor is pushing, ‘the effects to the economy will be small’?

Simon Birmingham: Well I accept what Professor McKibbin is saying and if you look at the direct quotes from him, he has said that the cost by 2030 is estimated to be $60 billion or more from Labor’s targets relative to the Government’s targets, and so the question then becomes where does that $60 billion cost materialise itself, well it materialises in part on higher electricity costs for Australian households and businesses. It materialises in part in higher motor vehicle costs for Australians, and in the end it materialises in large part as well in the purchase of these international permits, which Bill Shorten says will be a key difference between his climate policy and the Government’s. As a Government we are investing more than $3 billion to support Australian businesses to transition to change in terms of their practices around climate change, to be more energy efficient. Bill Shorten’s going to use these international permits with billions of dollars being spent buying permits offshore and that’s billions of dollars less Australian business has to invest in employing more staff, increasing their wages, investing in growing their businesses for the future and that’s we think, is the key difference and Professor McKibbin has put the figure on it at more than $60 billion.

Johanna Nicholson: Well Senator, it seems as though the Professor has actually backed those international permits as has the Business Council of Australia, so if the Business Council is calling for this, and calling for certainty in this space, why won’t the government look at that?

Simon Birmingham: Well the Government is providing certainty, we have a target that we think is responsible, 26 to 28 per cent reduction by 2030. We’ve spelt out how that will be achieved, we’ve made sure that target is ambitious by GDP standards or per capita standard, it’s one of the most ambitious targets in the world. We believe though that the cost of going further, the near doubling of the target that Mr Shorten has proposed and note that he hasn’t actually undertaken any independent modelling himself in terms of the costs, so we’re talking about one commentator’s quick assessment of this work but ultimately it has costs and those costs have been identified as being more than $60 billion and much of that $60 billion will either be money going offshore or not invested and spent in Australia, or it will be costs that are accumulated through an increase in electricity prices and the like.

Johanna Nicholson: Alright, let’s turn to another issue. Can you explain how your Coalition colleague Barnaby Joyce, chose the companies that he did for millions of dollars worth of water buybacks, particularly this $80 million from 2017?

Simon Birmingham: Well all of the water buybacks that have been undertaken, whether they’ve been direct buybacks from irrigators or investment in infrastructure that makes irrigators more efficient and for which water licenses are handed over, have been done to achieve the targets in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Now that’s a critical, critical investment in terms of the environmental sustainability for the future of our river system, as well as ensuring that river communities have certainty and stability in terms of knowing that the Plan is there in place, will be met by a Coalition Government in full but with a real focus from here on in, in investing in efficiency measures so that we run the river system more effectively and efficiently, so that we upgrade infrastructure where we possibly can to minimise water losses. That’s all what’s really critical to make sure that we still have a healthy irrigation sector, many of whom are doing it so tough at present because of the drought, as well as achieving the environmental targets in the plan for which you have to procure more licences such as those buybacks.

Johanna Nicholson: Yes, but how did Barnaby Joyce go about choosing those companies as he did and is the Government sure they got value for taxpayers money, particularly in regards to this $80 million purchase which is reportedly the highest ever paid?

Simon Birmingham: Well as drought has hit and as governments have increasingly purchased volumes of water. Unsurprisingly prices have gone up and so it’s not a surprise that in the last couple of years you would be paying more for water licences, in a condition where the market has tightened and the availability of water is less. In terms of the identification of sites, that’s a matter that’s worked through with the Department against targets in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The Plan spells out that certain volumes of water need to be achieved in terms of purchased or acquired through infrastructure upgrades from different parts of the basin. It’s not just a case of saying that there’s 2700 gigalitres of water overall that needs to be achieved and you can pick it up from anywhere. It’s a case that actually in the different components of the basin you need to be able to achieve those targets.

Johanna Nicholson: Well given there are some pretty serious questions that remain about water management and water policy, would the Government support a Royal Commission into this area?

Simon Birmingham: We don’t believe a royal commission is necessary. There is already statutorily legislated 2020 review in relation to how the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is being implemented and applied and so that review will take place next year as is already required.

Johanna Nicholson: Just finally, we’re back on the campaign trail today after the Good Friday break. It’s believed the Government is focused on health today. What’s in store for health?

Simon Birmingham: Well the Prime Minister is supporting investment in regional clinical trials and this is really coming on top of a series of other areas that are focusing on the fact that regional Australians often have poorer access to health outcomes than other Australians. That’s why there was a $400 million plus boost to mental health support in the Budget this year. Much of it targeted towards supporting regional Australia, a significant lift in support for Indigenous health initiatives, and this measure today about clinical trials to make sure that regional Australians who often historically have missed out on being able to participate in clinical trials, will be a much larger component of those clinical trials in the future.

Johanna Nicholson: Okay, Senator Simon Birmingham, thanks very much for your time this morning.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, my pleasure.