• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Climate change; EU-Australia trade deal; repeal of medevac legislation; Religious Discrimination Bill
02 December 2019

Hamish Macdonald: The Morrison Government will be pulling out all the stops this week to try and pass the Medevac Repeal Bill and end the parliamentary year on a high. Scrapping the legislation would mark a reversal of fortune for the Coalition after its Ensuring Integrity Bill was defeated in the Senate last week and the Prime Minister’s judgment was questioned to some degree over the doctored documents scandal relating to Angus Taylor. But in another distraction for the Government, former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has used a private Liberal event to urge party moderates to stop- to start speaking out on climate change which he calls a fundamental existential issue for the world.

The Trade Minister is Simon Birmingham. He’s in our Parliament House studio this morning. Good morning to you.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Hamish.

Hamish Macdonald: You were at that gathering where Malcolm Turnbull spoke. He urged Liberal moderates not to be quiet Australians but to become loud Australians and speak out on climate change. Are you a quiet Australian or a loud Australian?

Simon Birmingham: Hamish, I’ll let others make those judgments. I did call into the gathering. I didn’t actually hear the speeches because I was attending other events in Sydney that night. But I’ve seen the media coverage. Look, I think it is critically important that as part of our Government’s commitment to ensuring the ongoing security and wellbeing of Australians we deliver upon our climate change commitments. So that’s why we’ve worked to make sure that in relation to the 2020 targets, they’re met and exceeded. And it’s clear that they will be. In relation to the 2030 targets, it’s critical that we strive for the same ambition to meet and to exceed those 2030 targets and certainly that’s why we took to the last election detailed plans that outlined right down on a per tonne basis in terms of emissions abatement how that will be achieved as part of our commitment and investment in the Emissions Reduction Fund and the other measures.

Hamish Macdonald: He did say though that the Liberal Party is not able to present a coherent view on this. Billions of dollars’ investment are being held back, he argues. Given the wide range of views within your party and within the Government on climate change, you’ve got to acknowledge that he’s right, don’t you?

Simon Birmingham: Hamish, what we have to do as a government is absolutely to make sure people better understand the policies that we are pursuing and whether that’s our climate solutions package and the different investments being made as part of that; whether that’s the investment into Snowy 2.0 which stands as one of Malcolm’s great legacies into the future and is a key piece of the energy transition for our nation; and whether that’s the recently released hydrogen strategy that we released following extensive work by the chief scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, which again demonstrates Australia playing a key role in transitioning …

Hamish Macdonald: Okay, but we just …

Simon Birmingham: … not just our fuel supply but potentially global fuel supply in terms of the energy mix there by using hydrogen and, yes, we have to do more …

Hamish Macdonald: With respect though, Minister, that’s not quite the question. It’s whether the Government and your party in particular has a coherent view, given what we all know about the huge disputes there’s been in it over the last decade on this very issue.

Simon Birmingham: We have strong policies. I am trying, speaking to you right now, to make sure that we sell in a coherent way those strong policies and it’s up to all members of the Government to do that. Our commitment to achieving our Paris targets is absolute and resolute. It should not be wavered at all and it will not be wavered at all.

Hamish Macdonald: So it’s just about a better sales pitch is it?

Simon Birmingham: No, it’s- well, it’s not Hamish although that is the way you framed the question to me in many ways.

Hamish Macdonald: Well, you said we’ve got to sell it better. I’m just wondering whether you actually need more consistency and coherency within the party on this- on this question.

Simon Birmingham: Well the mere fact you’re asking these questions means that we do need to make sure that in explaining these policies we are consistent in our advocacy, our advocacy of our commitment to actually achieve the targets around the Paris reduction which must be firm and resolute and our commitment in terms of the policies we’re applying to do that. The investment in the climate solutions package; the investment in terms of measures around energy efficiency; talking more about the extra $1 billion we just put in to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, only in the last couple of months, to help begin with the energy transition that’s underway in Australia; our commitment to Snowy 2.0; to the Battery of the Nation project in Tasmania; and, yes, to being a global leader in areas like hydrogen technology and the ability to be able to use that as a transition fuel and a long term fuel source from green power, generating hydrogen not just for Australia into the future but hopefully for many of our big trading partners too.

Hamish Macdonald: Today happens to be, I think, the tenth anniversary of the defeat in Parliament of Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme. You’ll remember it, no doubt, and it was called the CPRS. The former head of the prime minister’s department, Martin Parkinson, says that consumers would have cheaper power prices today if that scheme had proceeded. If you look back over the last decade, where- would you say that that’s the moment that this deadlock that Australia’s been in actually began? That this problem, this sort of polarisation on energy and climate, this ideological positioning on these matters really took root?

Simon Birmingham: It was perhaps the moment when we cemented what has been an ongoing debate about whether or not the nation needs a singular big bang piece of policy architecture to deal with this or whether it can be dealt with by other means. I think the lived experience in the period since then is that in- the reality that we are going to meet and exceed our 2020 targets, which when the CPRS was failed to be delivered, many people said we wouldn’t be able to do. We’re going to meet and exceed them now and we’ve done it through a range of other policy measures and so what we can see from that lived experience now is that through a lot of different targeted investments in areas to help our energy mix transition, to achieve greater energy efficiency, to try to reduce emissions in other sectors of the economy, including through greater capturing of carbon in soils and better farming practices and techniques, you can achieve real transition in terms of our climate emissions and carbon abatement in Australia. And that’s what we’ve been able to do in that period since then.

Hamish Macdonald: You’re the Trade Minister. France apparently does not want the European Union to sign a free trade agreement with Australia unless the Government adopts tougher climate change targets. How much of a problem is this for us?

Simon Birmingham: I don’t think it’s a problem, Hamish. I’m not sure that your characterisation of the question is accurate. Certainly, we’ve had discussions with the EU about our commitment to the Paris Agreement. And as I’ve said to you, which is exactly the same thing that I say to our European counterparts, our commitment to Paris is resolute and absolute, and we are going to get on and make sure that we as a country meet those targets and we are quite relaxed about restating that commitment where and when it’s required.

Hamish Macdonald: So what’s wrong with the characterisation? I mean my understanding is that France has expressed quite significant concern about Australia’s position on climate change and the targets.

Simon Birmingham: I’m not sure that is correct, Hamish. As I said, in terms of the trade negotiations we’ve had, that’s centred around our commitment to delivering upon our Paris targets and it’s the only nature or approach that I’m aware of and our commitment is firm, absolute and resolute.

Hamish Macdonald: And do you think there’s any risk to a possible deal then as a result of this? I mean it sounds like you’re dismissing this entirely.

Simon Birmingham: I’m not dismissing it, Hamish. If there are further issues to be discussed in negotiations, they, like the many complex issues that come up in trade negotiations will of course be discussed. But I am confident that our position in relation to Paris is a strong one. That again, in talking to the EU, I’ll be making sure they understand our success in meeting and exceeding our first Kyoto commitment period targets, our success in what will be meeting and exceeding our second Kyoto commitment targets, and our commitment and determination to repeat that pattern when it comes to our Paris targets.

Hamish Macdonald: You are the Deputy Government leader in the Senate. The key Medevac Bill, or the key repeal of the Medevac Bill is before the Senate this week. It’ll come down to Jacqui Lambie as we understand it, who’s made reportedly one just undisclosed ultimatum in return for her vote – it’s believed to relate to the possible resettlement of individuals in New Zealand. Is that something the Government can entertain in terms of a demand?

Simon Birmingham: We don’t play our negotiations with individual Senate crossbenchers out publicly, Hamish. We saw last week in the Senate how difficult Senate negotiations can be at the best of times. We’re certainly not going to jeopardise them this week in terms of planning out different aspects of negotiations publicly, we sit down with individual senators; if their requests align in different ways with the government’s values, our policy commitments and seem to be ideas that would be good ideas, well then of course we’ll work through them sensibly, yeah.

Hamish Macdonald: But I mean she says this is to do with national security and that would seem to align with some of your objectives.

Simon Birmingham: Well we’re always interested in the national security of the nation. It’s why today the Government is announcing the establishment of a task force in terms of being able to counter foreign interference and that’s an important measure, building upon a range of other investments we’re making there. But in terms of Jacqui’s particular discussions, they’re matters that are happening between Jacqui, the relevant portfolio Minister. They’ll continue and I hope and trust we can see success in that regard because again, it’s important to step back from a lot of the binary coverage that occurs around a debate like the Medevac laws and appreciate firstly that the laws already had…

Hamish Macdonald: Well it’s a bit hard to be on binary if you won’t answer simple questions about the terms of an arrangement that might see its passage. I mean I’m just asking you simple questions about whether the New Zealand option might be something you’d entertain and you just won’t answer it.

Simon Birmingham: I’m not going to talk about our negotiations with crossbenchers, no. I’ve been clear on that and that’s the Government’s consistent approach, our job as the government is to be able to legislate…

Hamish Macdonald: Well then how do we get beyond the binary as you describe it, in terms of trying to enlighten the audience about where this policy might go.

Simon Birmingham: We could talk about the Medevac laws themselves and this idea that is often put that without the Medevac laws there’s no ability for people to be repatriated to Australia for medical treatment, which is just not true. The laws as they existed prior to this had clear ability for the government, informed by medical advice, to be able to transfer individuals to Australia if required. That’s the situation that we want to return to that ensures the government of the day has ability to control this circumstance, but it is firmly guided and empowered under law by medical advice as well and that is the way in which we think these laws work most effectively, rather than something where the government’s ability to control it is weakened. And the circumstance we’ve seen is that of the 160 plus now transferees that have occurred, only around five of them are actually in hospital. So you have to question the way in which these laws are being used under the settings that the Labor Party and some crossbenchers and the Greens established.

Hamish Macdonald: But it wouldn’t be true to say that the government has no control over it at this point. I mean the Minister still has some authority over that process.

Simon Birmingham: I didn’t say no control but certainly a weakened control.

Hamish Macdonald: Okay. I also need to ask you about the Religious Discrimination Bill. It appears to have been postponed until next year. Are you surprised that there are so few people willing to support the draft bill?

Simon Birmingham: Well Hamish, I think everybody is engaging with the process that the government has put in place here. The Religious Discrimination Bill is going through an extensive and consultative process. That’s why a second exposure draft was released on the weekend because we really do want to get this right to ensure that this bill protects the religious freedoms of Australians and ensures they’re not discriminated against in terms of their religious beliefs, but does not create a circumstance where other Australians due to their gender, their relationship status, their sexuality or other factors have their right to protections in terms of discrimination undermined. And that is a difficult balance to achieve in terms of legal crafting and that’s why the Government is going carefully and methodically through this process and not rushing it at all, but putting out the second exposure draft and so that everybody can see the way we responded to comments from the first exposure draft.

Hamish Macdonald: Simon Birmingham, thank you very much.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you Hamish.

Hamish Macdonald: Simon Birmingham is the Trade Minister and Deputy Government leader in the Senate.