Interview on Sky News AM Agenda with Kieran Gilbert
Energy security and affordability; Party preferencing; Making child care more affordable, accessible and flexible

Kieran Gilbert: First though to the Education Minister, I spoke to Simon Birmingham and started asking him about the Liberals calling for state energy targets to be scrapped, including three state Liberal leaders. Here he was. 


Simon Birmingham: Well this is a really critical step taken by a number of the state Liberal parties to make clear that they think energy policy needs to be undertaken in a coherent and comprehensive way. And you hear the same message today coming from business and other leaders, who are of course urging for an end to the ad hoc approach to energy policy. And that ad hoc approach is best demonstrated by these individual state-based targets that throw out of whack how a national grid can operate most effectively. And of course is also highlighted by Bill Shorten’s own 50 per cent Renewable Energy Target; a target that has no modelling, no costings, no detail behind it but would absolutely hurt further the reliability and affordability of energy in Australia.

Kieran Gilbert: But isn’t it then too rigid, because if states have advances in technology for example and storage and so on, if you have a national cap, you might actually prevent innovation from happening in this space.

Simon Birmingham: We’re not talking about having a national cap, this is about having a national target and the two are …

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] Wouldn’t they work the same way in terms of incentives?

Simon Birmingham: Well no, not necessarily, because ultimately there’s no cap in terms of the amount of renewable energy that could come into the grid. There’s a target that’s legislated federally that creates incentives to move up to that target. Beyond that, the market is free to operate as it sees fit as long as of course, it is adding to, particularly reliability in the grid but also importantly affordability. And it defies logic to think that having different ad hoc state-based targets – that aren’t based on any particular assessment of what the energy market needs – they’re simply based on cheap political stunts at election times, to roll out a target that sounds nice because people like the idea of renewable energy. Renewable energy is an important part of the mix, it’s part of the grid now. We have to make it work, which is why Malcolm Turnbull has talked more about storage solutions as one part of that but it is only one part of that reliability …

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] But if you made too much- reliability, sure, but have you made too much of the renewables component of that, given what we see in the Fairfax papers today and other – this was via a Freedom of Information request, which suggests that wind and the failure of the wind supply wasn’t to blame for those blackouts of last year?

Simon Birmingham: Well there was no doubt last year that there was a significant storm event and everybody acknowledged that and the damage it did to some of the infrastructure. But there was also clear evidence in the AEMO findings that the lack of synchronous power at the time – base load power as such – was of course a problem in terms of the reliance that South Australia had on the interconnector to Victoria. That indeed you did have some issues related to wind there. But really of course it’s been more a longer term pattern. It’s not one big blackout event. We’ve seen numerous blackouts, brownouts and phase outs over quite a period of time. Huge spikes in prices that occur quite frequently, all too frequently now. They are the problems in terms of affordability and reliability.

Kieran Gilbert: Sure so what do you say to that Fairfax report this morning then, which seems quite …

Simon Birmingham: That it’s a beat up.

Kieran Gilbert: Well is that what your claim is? Because it seems quite unequivocal, the finding, according to that report.

Simon Birmingham: Well the reports that have been released are quite clear – there was a major storm event. Nobody denies that. But equally there were issues in terms of the generation of synchronous power and the sufficiency of that into the grid at the time. The impact …

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] So it’s a mixture of causes you’re saying?

Simon Birmingham: A number of mix – a number of issues, but over a period of time we can absolutely see issues about the generation that can fluctuate in terms of South Australia’s wind, from providing 80 per cent of energy on any given day to less than 5 per cent on any given day, which puts huge stress on the rest of the infrastructure.

Kieran Gilbert: Now WA Liberal Party preferencing One Nation over their Coalition partners essentially, your Coalition partners, is this something you feel comfortable with and would you feel comfortable with that at the federal level?

Simon Birmingham: Well Kieran, first point I’d make is I think the Liberal and National parties in WA had always had a slightly different relationship from that which we’ve seen here in Canberra. The last time the WA Nats elected a federal representative, they didn’t sit as part of the Coalition, they didn’t sit with the federal National Party in that sense, so we have a very, very strong and tight relationship at a federal level that I’m sure will endure in every possible way well into the future. But ultimately preference decisions are pragmatic decisions made at election time by those running the campaigns…

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] But if you did it federally it would adversely impact your coalition partner wouldn’t it, the Nationals?

Simon Birmingham: Well I don’t think anybody’s suggesting that there would be any type of- gap that could come into the relationship between the Liberal Party and the National Party federally. We have a long, strong bond federally, and we are absolutely confident that will continue.

Kieran Gilbert: Now on to the child care reforms. Labor says that this activity test, that the more you work the more rebate you get, that that’s going to actually adversely affect less well off families and children. Is that true?

Simon Birmingham: Well there is a clear safety net built in there. For children in low incomes families will still be able to access two sessions of care per week. And so quality early learning opportunities…

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] Twelve hours?

Simon Birmingham: That’s right. So two sessions of care per week for those children in those circumstances…

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] Is that enough though?

Simon Birmingham: We’re always continuing to talk with the sector to make sure that two sessions will be available. That’s what the experts advocate. That’s on top of the 15 hours of universal access to preschool that we guarantee to children in conjunction with the states as part of our preschool agreement. So there’s significant support there for children in those early years. But importantly these child care changes will ensure that hard working families, mums and dads going off to work, will get more support to meet their child care bills. A single mum who’s got a child in child care three days a week and only earns $50,000 will be around $2500 better off, net of all of the changes to Family Tax Benefit at the end of our reform. So this will significantly help some [indistinct]…

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] Yeah that’s true, that’s at $50,000, but what about those on much less than that, those try to get some work. Is 12 hours enough? Because that seems like one long day at work really.

Simon Birmingham: Well these are for people who aren’t at work. The safety net is there for people who are not at work if you’re working …

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] Who are trying to get into work.

Simon Birmingham: If you’re working at least four hours a week, or studying, or volunteering, you’ll be passing the activity test. So it is a very light touch activity test in that sense. It’s four hours of activity that can even be volunteering to get you on that first step of significant support for child care.

Kieran Gilbert: And are you confident of getting the Senate support for these measures including many of the saves which emanated from that 2014 budget?

Simon Birmingham: Look we’re having really discussions with the crossbenchers. There’s a Senate inquiry that will now run until 20 March, but between now and then we’ll keep those discussions up and are very hopeful that they will see the benefits that will accrue to hard working Australian families by providing extra child care support.

Kieran Gilbert: And the last element that Labor was critical, before I let you go was the Indigenous child care centres. They say that they can’t survive on rebates alone. That the funding’s been cut for them. Can they survive, the Indigenous centres?

Simon Birmingham: Labor’s engaging in mischief making there because we’ve guaranteed that in addition to the new child care subsidy and the additional child care subsidy that many Indigenous families would be eligible for, there will also be additional sustainability support for those key Indigenous centres to keep them operating in future.

Kieran Gilbert: Okay Minister, thanks for your time. Appreciate it.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you.

[End of excerpt].