Sally Sara: National cabinet will meet later today for the first time in more than a month. New South Wales and Victoria are expected to present a united front calling for more vaccine to speed up the rollout of booster shots and vaccinations for children. Queensland, WA and the Northern Territory will likely raise the issue of low vaccination rates, particularly in remote indigenous communities. For more on this, we’re joined by the Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, Senator Birmingham, welcome back to RN Breakfast.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Sally. Great to be with you again.
Sally Sara: We’ll get to national cabinet shortly. But dozens of countries have signed a pledge overnight to phase out coal fired power and stop building coal fired plants. Some countries that are, that includes some countries that are hugely dependent on coal, such as Poland. If Poland can make that commitment, why not Australia?
Simon Birmingham: Well Sally, Australia’s strategy is to make sure we invest in all of the substitute technologies that are necessary and complementary technologies to get to net zero by 2050, whether that relates to coal or methane emissions, whether it relates to any other types of emissions that constitute greenhouse gases. Our aim is to get overall to that net zero goal by 2050. And what we’re doing there is clearly investing significantly some $20 billion plus between now and 2030. And in doing that, we’re investing across the things that will provide alternative technology sources or ways in which to be able to actually sequester the carbon that is generated as we develop those alternative technology sources and as those types of technologies that are going to enable countries who also haven’t signed this pledge, like India or China, who also aren’t committed to net zero by 2050 to hopefully change their approach and also commit to net zero at an earlier date, if we can get those technologies at an affordable rate in place sooner.
Sally Sara: But for Australia, why not go harder?
Simon Birmingham: We are seeking to go hard, we’re going hard with our investment in new technologies to create the pathway for us to reach net zero and to create that pathway by ensuring whether it is ultra-low cost solar or whether it is the development of new hydrogen technologies or the opportunities in terms of soil carbon that in all of these areas, we do them at an affordable level. We drive the price and cost of these technologies down so that you can actually get the transition to occur not just in our country, but for other countries to see not just the climate change benefits, but the financial benefits in changing. Because that’s the only thing that is going to get countries like China or India to look at 2050 as a net zero target if they can actually see that there are financially viable alternative technologies in place. And that’s where we’re pursuing our investment and focus.
Sally Sara: Minister Pacific leaders have been open in their disappointment with Australia’s refusal to set an ambitious 2030 emission reduction target. We heard from former president of Kiribati Anote Tong earlier in the show.
Anote Tong: I think Australia has not delivered as part of the family. I mean, we’ve always looked to Australia as a country with whom we relate. And, you know, in our tradition, in our culture, we have all the brothers who we look up to them and we expect them to do things for us. And that’s been our attitude to Australia, but it’s that expectation has not always been fulfilled.
Sally Sara: What do you think about that disappointment?
Simon Birmingham: Sally, Look, we obviously engage very closely with our Pacific family and friends, and Australia has certainly met and indeed exceeded all of the commitments we’ve made to date. We’ve done that in the Kyoto Protocol, we’re doing it in the Paris Agreement, where we’re on track to achieve 30 to 35 per cent of emissions reduction by 2030, well ahead of the 26 to 28 per cent target that we’ve set and commitment we’ve made. So we’re overachieving…
Sally Sara: But other countries are doing much more. Minister, the message from the Pacific is they want more. Why not do more?
Simon Birmingham: Well, well, actually, Sally, the 20 per cent plus that we’ve reduced emissions by already as a country, is more than Canada, it’s more than New Zealand it’s more than many other countries of the world who sometimes don’t face this type of scrutiny. And so Australia is doing a lot, we’re also making sure we step up even more in terms of support for the Pacific and for countries across our region in terms of the financial assistance for them to be able to adapt and invest. We’ve doubled the commitment over the last couple of years, from $1 billion to $1.5 billion to now $2 billion of climate financial assistance. That includes a step up from $500 million dedicated to Pacific Island nations and our $700 million dedicated to those Pacific Island nations. And we welcome the fact that that a number of countries, Fiji and Papua New Guinea have in recent days signed agreements with us as part of the $104 million that we’re committing to the Indo-Pacific Carbon Offset Scheme and to make sure that we develop really highly credible, viable opportunities for Pacific Island nations to play their role in providing offset opportunities to businesses, be they in Australia or elsewhere around the world, and to earn a genuine income stream as part of that as part of the global solution.
Sally Sara: Minister The Prime Minister’s visit to Glasgow had been overshadowed by the disagreements with France and the leaking of private text messages. You’re in the trade and diplomatic space. Do you think it was wise to leak those texts?
Simon Birmingham: Sally, look, I think what we have to focus on with France is how we move things forward. Their disappointment and the words that were spoken by the President are disappointing, but making sure we move past that as the Foreign Minister has been engaging with, of course, French ambassador in Australia that we seek to pursue the opportunities there. But we also have to keep a focus on the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is what the AUKUS decision was about, it was about ensuring we meet Australia’s.
Sally Sara: But back to the question, minister, what was it wise in retrospect to leak these texts?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Sally, people could ask the questions as to whether it was wise for journalists to pressure the French President, to pressure in regards to the comments that he made. I don’t want to get into any of those sorts of things.
Sally Sara: Hang on that wasn’t pressure. The French President was asked some questions after he finished giving a speech. He wasn’t placed under pressure. He was asked questions, which he freely answered.
Simon Birmingham: Well, Sally, I don’t think any of these things help us to be able to move forward, which is what I want to make sure we do in the relationship. And we have to make sure that that we simply get on, make AUKUS a success, as I’m confident it will be, through the delivery of the nuclear powered submarines, but also the opportunities for cooperation in quantum technologies, in artificial intelligence. It would have been frankly negligent for Australia with the changed advice we had about the capability requirements of our defence forces to just move on ahead without pursuing the alternative option of the nuclear powered Submarines.
Sally Sara: This isn’t as much about what we’ve done, it’s about how, how we’ve done it. What do you think Australia can learn from what’s happened with the leaked text messages and the back and forth with France?
Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s also. I mean, we have to live in the real world of making these sorts of decisions and in cancelling a commercial contract for the diesel powered submarines, there was always going to be some disappointment. We needed to make sure that we had the alternative arrangements for the nuclear powered submarines in place, or it would have been reckless to leave a gap in relation to that. And so, so whilst you always look for lessons that can be learnt, I think it’s also important to understand and appreciate that the need to make that change was an important one from diesel powered to nuclear powered submarines. That it would have been negligent not to do that in terms of the long term interests of Australia. These are decisions about decades into the future, not the word squabbles that might be happening today. And that’s where our government’s focus lay at the time, was making sure we made the decisions in Australia’s long term national interest decades into the future, just like the type of 2050 commitment made in relation to net zero.
Sally Sara: Minister National Cabinet is on today. We’re also expecting some more details from WA Premier Mark McGowan in terms of his state’s roadmap for reopening. Would you hope that WA would open sooner rather than later?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I think the other COVID free states Tasmania, Queensland and South Australia have all shown credible roadmaps in terms of reopening to other parts of Australia and internationally, and that they’ve used the national plan in terms of taking real, meaningful steps, particularly opening up very significantly when they hit the 80 per cent double vaccination rates. And so I hope that Western Australia can follow suit in terms of what those other states have done, but it’s a momentous day to see New South Wales and Victoria reunited today. It will be a day of relief for $166 billion visitor economy, particularly the many tourism operators who have seen such tough times. While those border closures have been in place and a day of relief for so many families who get to reunite with loved ones.
Sally Sara: Minister, we need to leave it there. Thank you for joining us again on breakfast.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Sally. My pleasure.