Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide, Breakfast with David Bevan
Topics: Commonwealth scholarships for South Australia; Energy reliability

David Bevan: Nick Champion, Labor Member for Wakefield, is in our studio. Good morning, Nick.

Nick Champion: Good morning.

David Bevan: And on the phone line, Simon Birmingham, federal Minister for Education and Training. Good morning, Simon.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning.

David Bevan: And on the phone line in just a few moments will be Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator. While we wait for Sarah Hanson-Young, can we start with you, Simon Birmingham, because you do bring some good news – that is, scholarships for South Australian students. This is a $24 million program. I think the scholarships are worth more than $17,000 each. Can you explain, how do you get one of these?

Simon Birmingham: That’s right, David. So this is a scholarship program particularly targeted to the areas where the Turnbull Government is trying to charge investment and activity and jobs growth in South Australia, like defence industries, as we can see on the front page of The Advertiser today, as well as the new advanced manufacturing sectors and health industries. And so these scholarships will be available for students who can go to education.gov.au and follow the links as to how they can apply.

They’re for up to $17,500, they’re quite flexible in terms of it could be an advanced vocational education qualification or a tertiary or higher education qualification, and so there’s flexibility there. Inbuilt into the scholarships is at least 20 days of guaranteed work placement, work-integrated learning to ensure that students actually get practical, on-the-job skills as well. But it’s really about trying to back the skills generation and skills growth in SA to match the areas where we can see jobs growth occurring over the next few years.

David Bevan: And when can you apply for these scholarships?

Simon Birmingham: People can get the application details now, and they can apply for funding that could commence as early as next year.

David Bevan: Okay. Now, before- well, just while we’re waiting for Sarah Hanson-Young to make a connection, what do you make of the report on the front page of The Australian today? That is Fred Hilmer, who very much helped create the Australia we’re living in right now, is saying: look, those competition reforms which gave us the National Electricity Market, which led to the sale of ETSA and so many other consequences, they haven’t been followed through. We’ve had a paralysis of policy for the last 10 years and we’ve ended up in a place where we shouldn’t be, so much so that he says we need a blackout in South Australia when the new battery is going on, and that will bring a dose of reality to people, some common sense. How do you respond to that, Simon Birmingham?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I don’t wish a blackout on anybody. In the end, we know that the last blackout that occurred in South Australia cost businesses hundreds of millions of dollars across the state, as well as causing great inconvenience to households and others. So that’s an economic cost that we want to try to avoid.

I think Josh Frydenberg, in his speech to the AFR Summit earlier this week on energy, did really highlight that the National Electricity Market, which started 20 years ago, historically it always had surplus capacity or surplus generation, steadily rising demand, that all came from overwhelmingly synchronous or baseload generation sources with pretty much everybody fully connected and reliant on the grid.

The challenge we deal with today is a very different environment, where huge amounts of volume or generation have been taken out – some 10 per cent of the capacity of the NEM in the closure of 10 different coal-fired power stations that we’ve seen, that replaced in part by much more intermittent sources of generation. And that is why we’re having to, right across the electricity market, actually have a look at how we reconfigure the way it works, whether that’s the way retailers behave with their customers, whether that’s the way networks operate in terms of their poles and wires management and charging patterns and limiting their rights of appeal, which we’re doing, or whether that is in investing in different approaches to generation and distribution.

And so the Turnbull Government’s proposal for Snowy Hydro will bring some 2000 megawatts of extra capacity into the grid. That compares with just 100 megawatts from Jay Weatherill’s battery. The types of proposals from Steven Marshall for interconnection will really make and strengthen the national market, so that when the wind is blowing in SA and there’s more than the state needs in energy, well then that can be exported into other states. When the wind’s not blowing, well, then you can rely on the capacity in the other states to back that up in order to have a more effective grid.

David Bevan: Okay. Nick Champion, you’re listening to this. Fred Hilmer; how do you respond to him saying that South Australia could do with another blackout while this battery is going on? He clearly doesn’t think much of the new battery.

Nick Champion: Well, look I think the intervention is curious, given that we’re dealing with some of, I suppose, the consequences of those reforms in the early ‘90s.

David Bevan: What, you think it’s a bit rich?

Nick Champion: Well, I guess one could say that, because what those reforms did is they disaggregated a system that used to operate as essentially single-state entities. It predominately privatised it and it created a National Energy Market that was incomplete.

David Bevan: Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, and this came from a federal Labor government that was saying: look, those old state utilities, they’re fat, they’re lazy, they’ve over-invested; their gold-edged infrastructure, we don’t need that; they can do with a bit of competition, frankly.

Nick Champion: Well, and this is why we’ve been talking about interconnectors for 20 years. The whole thing I think was, whatever you say about it, I think it’s created some of the issues that we face today. Simon’s quite right when he talks about now we’ve had 10 coal-fired power stations close, a lot of them under the watch of this Government. So for all the rhetoric the Government says about coal- and these coal plants are very, very old; they came around when the HQ Holden was still getting around as new.

So what we face is a different situation, and what we’ve got to do is fix the gas market by pulling the gas export trigger, and we’ve got to end the war on renewables and provide some certainly in the clean energy target. This Government is paralysed by its own divisions on this matter because they know they have to do these things. We’ve got a report that they asked for, and yet they’ve got Tony Abbott in London basically trying to put not just a wrench on, but trying to turn the whole truck around.

David Bevan: Sarah Hanson-Young joins us now on the phone. Good morning, Sarah Hanson-Young.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Good morning.

David Bevan: How do you respond to Fred Hilmer, who says we could do with a good blackout in South Australia?

Sarah Hanson-Young: Well, I just think, really, do you want to be lining up with the likes of Tony Abbott in relation to this debate? I mean, Tony Abbott is dragging this debate backwards, and now you’ve got people like Frank here wishing blackouts on states like South Australia and elsewhere. He also said Melbourne and Sydney could do with one as well, and I don’t think that’s the kind of constructive debate that we need. What we need is a plan so that we can have certainty in the energy market, so that we can see investment injected, because with investment comes reliability and lower prices.

And of course, let’s get real about this. We’re talking about needing, yes, cheaper, more reliable power, but also tackling climate change, dangerous global warming. We’ve signed up to these Paris agreements, as has the rest of the world. We’re meant to be on the team of reducing pollution. Just because Tony Abbott doesn’t think climate change is real, he thinks it’s crap, we now have people from the Keating years saying, oh, well, maybe Tony’s right. I mean, I think the majority of Australians would be shaking their heads today. And South Australians shouldn’t cop having people from the eastern states say they wish us to be plunged into darkness.

David Bevan: Now, I know how you’ll answer this question, so I won’t ask you this question, Sarah Hanson-Young, but Nick Champion, do you think climate change is doing more good than harm, Nick Champion? Because Tony Abbott thinks it might be.

Nick Champion: Clearly Tony Abbott’s speech was not to the right of centre, it’s sort of out there in the lunar orbit. And to be talking about, you know, the positive effects of climate change is kind of strange, given that all of the evidence is mounting: hotter summers, more events that are catastrophic – cyclones, bushfires – and we’ve seen that in our own area. We had a bushfire recently, burned hotter and harder than anybody had remembered in a lifetime.

David Bevan: And you put that down to climate change?

Nick Champion: Well, some of it was about all of the fuel curing earlier. So no one has ever seen …

David Bevan: So that’s a yes, you put that down to climate change?

Nick Champion: Well, some of that variability is showing up in our environment, and so to say that there’s positive effects of it is kind of missing the point, I think.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, do you agree with anything that Tony Abbott has said; in particular, do you think that climate change might be doing more good than harm?

Simon Birmingham: No, I don’t on the particular. I have to say I haven’t taken the time to read Tony’s speech in London, but I’ve seen the odd …

Sarah Hanson-Young: Probably not worth it.

Simon Birmingham: Well, I’ve had many other things to do, Sarah. Yes, indeed. The odd comment that I’ve seen reported like that, no I don’t agree with it. In the end, he’s free to express his views. He’s had a number of positions in relation to climate change and energy policy over the years and this seems to be another one.

David Bevan: Should South Australia, Queensland and Victoria go it alone on a clean energy target? Jay Weatherill seems to think so.

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely not. I mean, as is very clear from what’s happened over recent years, and in continued advice, the worst thing to continue to happen is for states themselves to be setting their own ad hoc targets that undermine the operation of the National Electricity Market, that ultimately undermine the security, reliability and affordability in those jurisdictions.

David Bevan: Nick Champion, should South Australia, Queensland and Victoria go it alone on a clean energy target?

Nick Champion: Well, in the absence of national leadership, that is what’s going to happen. That’s what happened in the Howard years, absence of national leadership

David Bevan: But that’s going to make things more confusing?

Nick Champion: So, states acted on their own and so then you have this incomplete system.

David Bevan: But wouldn’t it be better if the states didn’t?

Nick Champion: And people keep talking about South Australia, but New South Wales came very, very close to having the exact same situation in their jurisdiction. The only reason they didn’t is the Australian Market Energy Operator suddenly woke up to the fact that this could happen and load shedding was not acceptable.

David Bevan: So you don’t think it’s a good idea for them to go on their own, but they’ll do it?

Nick Champion: Well, that’s right. That’s the reality of the situation, is if you have a national government paralysed by its own divisions and you don’t have leadership from a Prime Minister, and frankly if you don’t have leadership by people like Simon, who are sensible, if they can’t prevail over the Government’s party room, over people like Tony Abbott, then you’re going to get states acting on their own. That’s just the reality of it.

David Bevan: But why is a clean energy target so important that three states – SA, Queensland and Victoria – should go ahead on their own?

Nick Champion: Well, the difficulty is we have to do two things: we have to have reliability in our electricity system and we have to combat climate change, and climate change is not something that can be put off.

David Bevan: Yeah, but South Australia’s not going to save the world.

Nick Champion: Well, but you have to make this transition because the coal plants are getting older and older and older and you have to replace them with something, and you have to replace them with clean energy because otherwise you get a system that you’ll have to replace in five years’ time when we decide to fight climate change.

Simon Birmingham: Australia has met and exceeded every single one of its emissions targets to date under the policy settings that have been put in place. People have said that direct action didn’t work, but it has contributed and it will ensure we meet and exceed our 2020 settings. We don’t need to see states go off on some type of tangent that actually hurts their consumers, hurts their households, hurts their businesses and undermines the National Electricity Market in these areas. They decide that they think they must do X or Y, like have a clean energy target, and so they go and do it in this ad hoc manner that is completely counter-productive, rather than actually working constructively towards an enduring approach at a national level that also comes with least cost to households and best improves affordability and reliability.

David Bevan: That’s the voice of Simon Birmingham; he’s the federal Education Minister. Also on the line is Sarah Hanson-Young and Nick Champion, the Labor MP for Wakefield. Let’s go to Remo who’s called from Edinburgh at 12 minutes to nine. Good morning, Remo.

Caller Remo: Good morning. How are you?

David Bevan: Very well. Now, what do you do?

Caller Remo: Now, I want everyone now to listen. We employ about 20 people. We’re a brand new company. We make steel frames [inaudible] …

David Bevan: Remo, not only is it difficult for you to run a steel frame manufacturing business, but it’s also difficult for you to talk to us with your mobile phone. We’re going to call you back and take your call, because I think you want to send a very clear message regarding energy prices and what they’re doing to your business. We’ll come back to you. Sarah Hanson-Young?

Sarah Hanson-Young: Look, I think it’s a bit rich for the Federal Government or anyone in the Federal Government to be sitting there saying that South Australia and other states who want to put in place a plan so that they can have some certainty for the industry shouldn’t go ahead and to lecture people about being constructive. The reason we’re in this mess is because Tony Abbott wrecked the price on carbon and now there’s turf war inside the Liberal Party about whether climate change is real, about whether anything should be done to support renewable energy, and whether we should be spending billions of dollars subsidising the old coal industry.

I mean, it is absolutely ludicrous to sit here and say that South Australia shouldn’t do anything. Of course we should, and thank goodness there is some leadership going on that says, you know, we will be giving certainty to the industry, we’ll be investing in jobs in our state. I must say, Malcolm Turnbull, he’s a smart guy, but he’s obviously in a straightjacket because he can’t stand up to Tony Abbott, and until he does, states who want to move ahead, well, go for it because we can’t be left

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Alright. Well, let’s go back to Remo at Edinburgh North. Good morning, Remo, again.

Caller Remo: Okay, how are you?

David Bevan: That’s much better.

Caller Remo: Okay. Now, we employ 20 people. We’ve only been going two years, okay? Now, energy is starting to hurt us a lot. A lot. Instead of having a two or three-year plan, why haven’t you got a 30 year plan? Why don’t… [Inaudible].

David Bevan: Remo, I’m so sorry, but wherever you’re broadcasting from – and I think it’s not that far from Adelaide – you’ve got a really bad phone connection. So we’re just going to have to maybe get you in the studio one day, because we would like to hear your story about what the cost of energy is doing to your steel frame manufacturing company. We can’t hear the exact words, but I think we get the impression that you’re pretty upset.

Before you all leave us, a certain amount of craziness has descended on national and international and local politics. I’ve got to ask you, have any of you groped a waxed dummy? This seems to be a real problem for the Xenophon Team. Nick Champion?

Nick Champion: No, I don’t think so.

David Bevan: There’s no Facebook photos?

Nick Champion: Well, not in recent time, anyway. I think I visited Madame Tussauds about 20 years ago.

David Bevan: Apparently this is what you do when you go there.

Nick Champion: Yeah, no I can’t recall …

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, no photos are going to turn up on your Facebook page?

Simon Birmingham: I’m pretty sure I’ve never been to Madame Tussauds, so I think I’m definitely in the clear, but I can understand why some may think there are double standards rife in the Xenophon Team.

David Bevan: And Sarah Hanson-Young?

Sarah Hanson-Young: Yeah, no I tend to keep my hands to myself pretty much all the time.

David Bevan: Alright. Now, another thing, international politics. We have the President of the United States challenging his Secretary of State to an IQ test. This is after Mr Tillerson apparently suggested that Donald Trump was a moron. None of you are in a position to challenge your leaders on IQ tests? You’re not interested in doing that, Nick Champion?

Nick Champion: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s wise.

David Bevan: Sarah Hanson-Young?

Sarah Hanson-Young: No, but I do think perhaps we need a few more lie detectors in the Parliament.

David Bevan: And Simon Birmingham?

Simon Birmingham: As Education Minister, I live in absolute fear of such challenges.

David Bevan: Before you leave us, Simon Birmingham, if somebody wants that number again for the scholarships, have you got the website?

Simon Birmingham: Just simply go to education.gov.au and then they can follow the links from there.

David Bevan: Alright, Simon Birmingham, federal Education Minister, thanks for your time. Sarah Hanson-Young, down the line on the Greens, and Nick Champion in our studio, thank you.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Catch you later.