Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide, Breakfast with Ali Clarke and David Bevan
Topics: Nick Xenophon campaign video; SA Labor energy announcement; National Energy Guarantee

David Bevan: In our Adelaide studio, Cory Bernardi, leader of the Australian Conservatives. Good morning to you.

Cory Bernardi: Good morning, David. Good morning, Ali.

David Bevan: On the phone line – and we gave the opportunity for everybody to be in the studio – but on the phone line is Penny Wong, Labor senator and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. Good morning, Senator Wong. Good morning, Senator Wong.

Penny Wong: G’day. Morning.

David Bevan: And good morning to Simon Birmingham, Liberal senator from South Australia and federal Education Minister. Good morning to you.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David, Ali and everybody.

Ali Clarke: Well, let’s not pretend we haven’t seen it. Let’s just have a quick chat about Nick Xenophon’s ad. It’s a bit of a throwback to Labor’s It’s Time. So, Penny Wong, I guess if you were asked by the Labor Party to rap for votes now, would you?

Penny Wong: You know what I reckon about this ad? I reckon it’s vintage Nick. It’s good at stunts but not much substance. And I was in the Senate with Nick, and I was there when he voted with the Liberals 57 times against Labor and other parties to make sure South Australia got the funding which was agreed for our schools, and he voted with them 57 times to cut $210 million from our schools. So he can, frankly, dance all he likes about how much he’s standing up for SA. I look at the substance and I look at his voting record in the Senate.

David Bevan: What was his voting record when Labor was in control?

Penny Wong: I think if you look at what he’s done since the 2014 budget, on the key issues that really mattered, most of the time he’s gone with the Libs.

David Bevan: Yeah, but what was his record when Labor was in power? Because what I’m thinking, Penny Wong, is that, okay, he’s a crossbench senator, so they have to cut deals. So, in the last few years, he’s been cutting deals with the Government. When Labor was in power, he would cut deals with them. So his voting record back then was probably similar, but that was with Labor.

Penny Wong: How is cutting a deal that delivers a Liberal cut a deal that’s good for the state?

David Bevan: Well, you’re saying, though, he keeps voting with the Liberals. I’m saying when Labor was in government, did he cut a deal with you?

Penny Wong: Look, he’s a former Lib. We know that. He’s upfront about that, but I …

David Bevan: So you won’t answer that. You don’t know what his voting record was.

Penny Wong: I’m asking you how does cutting a deal, voting, backing in a Liberal cut, standing up for SA?

David Bevan: What I’m asking you is …

Penny Wong: Don’t you think that matters, David?

David Bevan: Hang on, Penny Wong. Penny Wong, I get to ask the questions. You say he’s a Lib in sheep’s clothing because he’s voted with the Libs over the last few years. But I’m putting to you, well, when you were in power, he probably cut a deal with you.

Penny Wong: Well, my memory is a lot of the time he didn’t have the balance of power in the same way for some of the period we were in government, but I do find it interesting, David, that you don’t think it’s relevant that he’s actually voted with Simon to reduce funding. Now, Simon has an argument that it’s not a reduction, even though it is, and he’s entitled to run that, but I find it interesting that you, as a local South Australian, don’t regard that as problematic.

David Bevan: What I’m asking you is your point regarding his voting record, how does it stand up when you were in power, and you don’t know the answer to that question. Cory Bernardi, what …

Penny Wong: No, but I know what $210 million looks like.

David Bevan: Cory Bernardi, what do you think? Do you think it’s a good ad, or is it a mistake?

Cory Bernardi: Firstly, let me say, I’ve done the research. Nick Xenophon voted with the Greens more than any other person in this entire Federal Parliament right now.

David Bevan: Okay, well, there you are, Penny Wong. He’s more green than he is blue.

Penny Wong: $210 million in our schools, 57 times. Can’t run away from that, mate.

Cory Bernardi: What I found about the ad, I mean, it’s compelling viewing, like a car crash in many respects, and it’s terrible, but what I found galling was the fact that he was saying: we’re going to make government live within its means and make sure government doesn’t spend too much money, we’re going to lower the cost of electricity, when his policy agenda and his voting record is quite the opposite. He’s been prepared to tack on his demands, which have cost taxpayers billions of dollars in borrowed money, to almost every deal that he’s done in Canberra. Plus, he supported the 50 per cent renewable energy target, until it became like an albatross around his neck and he quietly deleted it from his website and pretended it had never happened. This is the P.T. Barnum of politics. He’ll get away with this. It’s catchy jingle. I found myself humming it yesterday, which is just appalling, so I’m going to come up with my own jingle. But only he can get away with this sort of stunt without the scrutiny that I think it deserves.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, what do you think?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think firstly, David, with all respect, we’re playing into his hands and these questions are playing into his hands. He wants people talking about this ad. He’s done a silly ad so people will talk about his silly ad, because Nick likes people talking about Nick. However, the substance of it, it’s two minutes in which he says there are problems with high electricity prices, problems in SA with job creation, problems with our hospitals, but the problem is he has absolutely no policies or solutions in any of those areas. Not in his ad and not anywhere else, and when you look at the health issue, his solution is to outsource it to somebody else for a royal commission, rather than actually develop any policy. This is just another stunt, a stunt from the stuntman to get people talking about him, rather than any substance or policy whatsoever.

David Bevan: Okay. You say it’s a silly ad, of course it’s a silly ad, but isn’t that actually part of the message that resonates with people? Because people listening, many of them – say about 30, 40 per cent of them – are tired of the brand that you, Simon Birmingham, and you, Penny Wong, are presenting. A portion of the electorate are saying: you know what? We like a guy who can take the piss out of himself and the rest of you.

Penny Wong: Well, he’s certainly got you talking about it, which means he’s got you doing his PR job for him, David, but what I’d say is this, and Simon can speak for the Liberal Party. I got involved in politics because I wanted to deliver change and to deliver good policy for the people of South Australia and the people of Australia, and I’ve yet to see the policy offering that is actually going to improve people’s lives from Nick Xenophon. Now, others may take a different view about that, but I actually think politics, whatever people think about major parties or individuals, politics is more than personality and politics is more than stunt. We make decisions that impact on people’s lives: whether or not kids go to better schools, whether or not you can get a hospital bed, whether or not there’s jobs and whether there’s infrastructure supporting economic activity. This goes to the reality of everyday lives and opportunities for South Australians, and I actually think substance does matter.

Simon Birmingham: Look, on that point, David, I agree. I would say to people who are dissatisfied with politics in this election: don’t look at these ads or stunts or taking the piss out of yourself, go and look at the policy agenda. Steven Marshall’s released policies to eliminate payroll taxes for small business, to reduce the Emergency Services Levy for households, to restore health services to Modbury Hospital to the Repat site. And there’s actually a long list of detailed policies in the energy space: to build the interconnector to New South Wales, so when we’ve got surplus renewable in this state we can export it, but when wind’s not blowing, we don’t. We’re able to effectively import cheaper into the state. Now, they’re solutions for the problems SA face. Nick has none.

Ali Clark: We’re talking and focusing in the stunts here of Nick Xenophon and fair enough. But DJ Albo – Shadow Transport Minister Anthony Albanese – was reportedly spinning the decks at the Kings Head hotel in the city on the weekend. We’ve got a caller asking: well, where is the substance in that?

Penny Wong: That’s a fundraiser. We didn’t bill it as an ad. It was a Labor Party fundraiser. We took our kids, a lot of people turned up and we tried to raise some money to contribute to Labor Party campaigns. I don’t know that it’s anything like the same.

David Bevan: Okay, well let’s look at policy then. Simon Birmingham, and I’m sorry to our listeners, you’re on the world’s worst phone line. But Simon Birmingham, Jay Weatherill wants 75 per cent of South Australia’s power to come from green sources within eight years. Is he on the right side of history?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Jay Weatherill is really rolling out the definition of madness which is to repeat the same mistakes again and again. Back in 2014, he committed to a 50 per cent renewable energy target with no consideration for how that worked in the national electricity grid or the reliability or the prices and what we’ve got some four years later is South Australian bills $500 a year higher – higher than they are in Victoria or New South Wales – the most expensive, least reliable energy in the country. And I find it astounding that he wants to double down on policies that have got us into this predicament.

David Bevan: Penny Wong.

Penny Wong: Well, let’s start by remembering over this last summer, the most reliable grid has actually been the South Australian grid and what we’ve seen is the aging coal fired power plants in the eastern states – as would be anticipated because they’re either reaching or beyond their design life – falling over. We’ve got a broken National Electricity Market. Because of the ideological battle nationally over the last decade, we haven’t seen new investment. We’ve got highly concentrated electricity markets, and what Jay is doing is opening up competition. And this will lead to more reliability and stability, and it will lead to prices lower than what they would otherwise have been. I mean the reality is, the reality is, the cheapest new installed power now is renewables.

David Bevan: Cory Bernardi.

Cory Bernardi: Well, the reality is that both Steven Marshall, Jay Weatherill and Nick Xenophon all supported the renewable energy target to get to 50 per cent that has delivered the most unreliable and expensive power in the country, if not the world, in South Australia. We’re the only party that is committed to completing the investigation into the nuclear fuel cycle, to opening up the possibility of having our abundant uranium resources used for the benefit of generating low emissions power in this state. We are committed to investigating the nuclear waste repository which would generate billions of dollars every year, which would allow us to abolish land tax, to abolish stamp duty, to remove the Emergency Services Levy, put $500 million more into healthcare and hospitals and more into our emergency services and give South Australia the competitive edge it needs both for families and for business to make it the best place in the world to live and to work.

David Bevan: Penny Wong, you say that there’s been an ideological debate and that’s made it difficult to get good policy, but hasn’t Jay Weatherill contributed to that? Because he’s the one that says: you either support coal or you support renewable. It’s black and white. In fact, it’s not black and white and his actions speak louder than his words. In the last 18 months- last 12 months since the big black out, he’s gone out of his way to introduce stability into our local network, which suggest that that stability was not there earlier, which suggests that Labor was focused on the renewable energy, but not making the network stable. His actions show that it needs a much more subtle approach.

Penny Wong: Well, David, shall I take that as a comment, rather than a question?

David Bevan: I’m asking you to respond to that, Penny Wong. You know what I’m asking you to do; if you could respond to that.

Penny Wong: Well, I’m happy to respond to a question, not editorialising, but I’ll say this: the ideological debate to which I was referring, dates back from the time Malcolm Turnbull was toppled by Barnaby Joyce and others in the Coalition in 2009 when they walked away from the bipartisan commitment to an emissions trading scheme, which would have given the system, the market, the clear market incentives for new investment. Since that time, we’ve had a carbon scheme come and go and be abolished because of the fight federally, where we’ve seen Scott Morrison handing around lumps of coal in the Federal Parliament. The market has not had the signals to invest, which is why two thirds of our current base load generating capacity is beyond its design life and people are not investing.

So the question is; how do you get the market to invest in new capacity? Because new capacity is what will ensure prices stay lower. There is no policy that I can see federally. There is certainly no policy from Steven Marshall, who says: well, I’m going to give you a $300 saving. Oops, actually it’s a $60 saving, in five years. What we have is a Labor Government that says: this is what we will do to ensure there is more capacity and this is what we will do to ensure greater reliability and storage and it is working as is demonstrated by the fact that we had the most reliable grid over summer as compared to the eastern states.

Cory Bernardi: Thanks to a whole lot of diesel generators that are burning thousands of gallons or litres of diesel fuel every hour to keep the lights on.

Ali Clark: Simon Birmingham, you were laughing.

Simon Birmingham: Well look, the idea that this is a policy by Jay Weatherill today. He has announced a higher target, with no modelling, no detail. No story as to how on earth he expects to get there. But of course we know from history that he may well get to the 75 per cent, but because he won’t have done the modelling and he won’t have done the research, we end up with the high prices that we have – the highest across the various states. And what the Federal Government’s tried to do at present is put in place a National Energy Guarantee, which the state Labor governments of Victoria and Queensland are working with us through.

South Australia’s the one who continues to play politics, to posture, to grandstand, rather than to look for solutions. And Steven Marshall has clearly identified policies to put an interconnector through with New South Wales that means all of the wind energy and renewable energy we’ve got here can actually be used for the advantage of exporting it, and we’ve got surplus amounts. But when the wind isn’t blowing, you then actually have a solution. Jay Weatherill’s not offering any solutions for those issues of reliability.

Penny Wong: Well, I’d invite all of you to consider the announcement I think the Premier will be making shortly and perhaps might need to revise your comments.

David Bevan: What’s that?

Penny Wong: Well, just wait for the Premier to stand up. I understand further announcements will be made shortly to add to the announcement which was put in the paper today.

David Bevan: So will that announcement address issues of stability and interconnect it?

Penny Wong: I think you should wait for the Premier and I’m sure you can consider your questions after.

David Bevan: What’s the gap that needs to be filled, Penny Wong, by his announcement, what’s he going to address? I’m not going asking you for his press release.

Penny Wong: No, no, I mean he’s the Premier and state governor. But what I would make the point is this; who else is actually addressing the issue of a lack of investment and more capacity which is fundamental, it is the principle problem in terms of reliability and price. Which other party is actually addressing it?

Cory Bernardi: We’ve got Australian Conservatives certainly [indistinct] …

Penny Wong: Well, if you want to vote nuclear power and all of the public subsidy, all of the public

Ali Clarke: Everybody’s talking at once, yeah, so nobody can hear anything…

Penny Wong: I was going to respond to Cory but I’m happy to be arbitrated here.

Cory Bernardi: Yeah, but I merely make the point that we are committed to opening up electricity, you know, the electricity market to new entrants irrespective of how they want to generate it as long as it’s going to be in our state’s interest.

Penny Wong: If I can respond to that. I mean the problem there – and I did look at this when I was climate minister – because you obviously consider what’s put before you – and the reality is the amount of public subsidy that would be required – leaving aside all the environmental and public support issues – the amount of public subsidy for so many years that would be required for nuclear power renders it unviable.

Cory Bernardi: But you see this is- yeah, unfortunately …

Penny Wong: The cheapest new capacity is renewables.

Cory Bernardi: No, the answer to reality is that you’re spending tens of billions of dollars in public subsidies for renewables which are intermittent and unreliable. We’re not suggesting there should be public subsidies but if something stacks up to the private sector and they want to build a coal-fired power station or a nuclear power station or a gas power station and they want to comply with the environmental standards that are set they should be allowed to do so. You have- the Labor Party, the Liberal Party, others have a pathological objection to this. I think it is nonsensical and the only reason we’ve got electricity during this summer market is because of the diesel generators so how does that fit in with your climate [indistinct]?

David Bevan: Well now hang we’ve got to interrupt there because Tom Koutsantonis has sent us a text, he’s the State Energy Minister and he says; those state generators have not been used once.

Cory Bernardi: What a waste of $50 million then isn’t it? What a waste of $50 million.

Penny Wong: Because you don’t want backup. You don’t want backup.

David Bevan: Cory Bernardi, you’re saying we’re using tens of thousands of litres- gallons of diesel to run these things. No we haven’t. We have not used them.

Cory Bernardi: There’s $50 million budgeted for this summer and $50 million for next summer to keep the lights on in this state, to keep Jay Weatherill in power. Our electricity market in South Australia is a laughing stock. The fact that we had a four or five-day blackout a couple of years ago bells the cat on the loose and everyone’s rushing around blaming everyone else, but the fact is when the wind is not blowing or it’s dark you don’t have power and no matter how many Elon Musks they want to fly out here and build batteries for it’s still not going to stack up.

Penny Wong: So when Liddell in New South Wales or Loy Yang, both coal-fired power generators failed this summer, was that a joke too, Cory?

Cory Bernardi: No, Penny, it’s not about being a joke, but the fact is there’s this ideological obsession that they’re closing down coal-fired power stations and stopping fossil fuels which is our competitive advantage in this country and it’s been done by both the Labor Party, the Liberal Party and the Xenophon Party to the detriment of South Australia.

Penny Wong: No one is building them.

Simon Birmingham: If Penny wants to talk about long term investment certainty, well that’s what the ambition and aim and intention behind the National Energy Guarantee is that the Turnbull Government’s proposed and the only people playing politics with that are the Labor Party here in South Australia and to a certain extent federally. Federally they’re at least hedging their bets but we’re getting cooperation from the Labor Party in Victoria, the Labor Party in Queensland, the Coalition Government in New South Wales, to work on a policy that can be implemented that can give long term investment certainty. Without playing favourites whether it’s coal-fired generation, gas-fired generation, the variety of different renewables, it puts storage clearly on the table by for the first time ever putting a policy structure in place that provides an incentive around reliability and the stability of the grid and the despatchability of energy. So, frankly, Jay Weatherill is a big part of the national energy problem at present because he’s failing to engage in solutions. Because all he wants to do is play politics and posture ahead of the state election.

Penny Wong: So when Scott Morrison this nation’s Treasurer brings a lump of coal into Question Time in the House of Representatives, what’s that? That’s not politics or a little bit of ideological kind of [indistinct]?

Simon Birmingham: You’re not responding to the policy there are you?

Penny Wong: Oh c’mon. I mean I’ve been on the other side of this debate for 10 years and to be frank Simon had a better position than most of his party room for most of the last 10 years, but the reality is if you want to listen to people go on about how [indistinct] have an ideological position against renewables, have a chat to the Nationals Party room in the right wing.

Ali Clarke: Well, at the risk of us going on we will have to actually leave it there. Thank you to Labor Senator Penny Wong, Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator, and also Cory Bernardi in the studio here Leader of the Australian Conservatives.