Topic: Australia-France, EU free trade deal; net zero emissions; China coal-fired power stations;
Laura Jayes: Joining us live now is the finance minister, Simon Birmingham, good to see you. Now the French are not happy with us at all. Did we do all we could to soften the blow?
Simon Birmingham: Well, good morning, Laura. Look, we did in all practical ways given the circumstances. This was always going to be a difficult decision to have to make if we were looking to make short term decisions based on the easiest political pathway or the easiest diplomatic pathway, then we wouldn’t have made this decision. But as a government, we were intent on doing what was in the best interests of Australia for the long term. And that was for us to acknowledge the change in technology that was available to us. The change in recognition as to how conventional submarines could be detected across our region. The change, strategic circumstances that were there and in doing so make the shift to a nuclear powered submarine. And to do that, we need the tightest of technological links. We need a nuclear powered submarine that has a lifetime long reactor installed in it so that we have the easiest pathway towards sustaining and managing it. That’s what we’ve got through the new AUKUS arrangement. Unfortunately, for the many people who’ve been working hard on the Naval Group attack class vessel, that does mean a change. But importantly, we’ve provided job security and opportunities for all of those skilled workers and others, and we’ll work through the diplomatic issues with France, who remains an incredibly important player in our region whose importance we do recognise and want to continue to encourage their engagement across this region.
Laura Jayes: Well, in doing so, have we sacrificed a European free trade agreement? You accept now it might be delayed.
Simon Birmingham: I certainly don’t accept the characterisation of it being sacrificed. This has always been a hard fought agreement in terms of the fact that it was never going to be achieved quickly. I would have at various times when I was trade minister, liked to have seen the deal sealed. But it is one that has a number of different complications to it. We’ve been working through those and I expect we’ll continue to work through those. There are 27 member states across the European Union and we’ll work closely with each and every one of them that should try to achieve that agreement. And that includes working with France, who we trust over time, will hopefully appreciate the strategic reasons for the decision we’ve made in relation to the submarines and making that shift from the commercial contract we had with the naval group to the broader partnership that enables us to achieve the most significant technology to power submarines that’s available to us.
Laura Jayes: Josh Frydenberg has made the point about climate change today when it comes to targets set internationally that Australia cannot risk being left behind. Does this mean that we are all but signed up to net zero by 2050?
Simon Birmingham: Well, the pathway towards net zero and working towards net zero is crucial for achieving not only environmental outcomes, but for Australia’s future economic strength and indeed for our partnership with so many key international allies and friends. And so it is important that we take every possible step to deliver on the Prime Minister’s commitment and statement around wanting to see us reach net zero as soon as possible and preferably by 2050. Obviously, working through precisely the details the government can take to the conference of parties, to the climate change agreements in Glasgow in a month or so’s time. It’s important that in that context, we have really worked through and updated the many different policies that are achieving strong outcomes for Australia already and present the strongest possible information and story to the rest of the world.
Laura Jayes: That’s the point, isn’t it? Minister, you know that we are working towards reaching that net zero by 2050 anyway, but Josh Frydenberg is making the point that by not signing up to it, we look like a pariah and that could hurt us. So perhaps is it now getting to the point where if we don’t sign up to a target that we’ll reach anyway, it’s going to hurt us in the eyes of the world and perhaps financially too?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Laura, as I said, I think this is an important issue for us to work through, for environmental reasons, for economic reasons and for reasons of our international partnerships and across all of those different pillars. There are good reasons for us to continue to advance the steps the prime minister has taken to build upon the 20 per cent reduction in emissions that Australia has achieved since 2005 to build upon our record levels of investment in new technologies in areas like hydrogen, our record levels of investment in firming up our electricity grids through the investments in Snowy 2.0 or the battery of the nation project with the Marinus Link to Tasmania, crucial projects that that enable us to continue Australia’s stance as a global leader in relation to renewables. Now, they’re all things that we need to make sure appreciated across the rest of the world and that those trends continue in Australia. And that’s what will enable us to reach net zero by 2050 as I hope that we do.
Laura Jayes: What are you going to give Barnaby Joyce?
Simon Birmingham: Well, we work in a coalition government. We always work through these issues carefully, and it’s important that Barnaby, I have every confidence he’s not, you know, seeking handouts in other ways. He is, as he said publicly, seeking us to implement, seeking to implement policies-
Laura Jayes: You don’t think he’s looking for a price here?
Simon Birmingham: As he said this morning. He’s seeking us to do this in ways that protect jobs across Australia, especially in regional areas. That’s precisely what we want to do,
Laura Jayes: Well, that does seem like his price though. So he will demand some kind of protection for his constituents.
Simon Birmingham: And we all want to protect jobs across Australia. It’s why, as a government, we’re pursuing a technology, not taxes approach that we’re not going to tax the jobs of Australians out of existence. We’re going to invest in the technologies that enable us to transition to net zero as a nation, but importantly, give the technology to the rest of the world so that we can all achieve those global targets because there’s no point Australia or only Western nations achieving those outcomes. We need everybody to be able to make a contribution to achieve the targets that can keep global warming to below two degrees that can achieve net zero. And that means that large developing economies, like our partner in the Quad, India, need access to those sorts of technologies and having those sorts of collaborative discussions, which the PM will be in Washington about this, are an important part of that. Just as smaller nations, importantly, a smaller, less developed countries, well and truly need access to technologies so that they can still grow, have access to energy, enjoy the types of standard of living eventually that we hope they can that are closer to ours. But in doing so, not contribute to an emissions problem which we don’t want to see worsened by their emissions growth as we seek to decline ours. So that’s where technology is so much an important part of the answer.
Laura Jayes: Indeed. So on that point in the statement that Xi Jinping made at the UN General Assembly, saying that China is not going to finance any coal fired power station outside of China, do you see that? Do you welcome that move or do you see that as a move that could in fact hurt poorer nations?
Simon Birmingham: Well, look, I think I mean, China’s development policies are a matter for them as long as they meet the principles that we’ve always said, which is that that any nation in providing development assistance to others should respect the sovereignty and the independence of those nations and not create debt traps or other such things. I think it’s important, though, that all of us, be it Australia, China, the US or others who should be working as leading players in this field of working towards net zero make sure that we are pursuing investments that help other countries to access lower emissions technologies that facilitate their growth, their development. But in that perspective of lower emissions technologies. Now, we’ve got to get those technologies to cost competitive levels for them. There’s no point burdening nations with high cost solutions to their problems, which is we’re driving down the cost of hydrogen, for example. In the future is such a key outcome to be achieved the stretch goals that Angus Taylor and the government have announced in relation to agricultural emissions, industrial emissions in terms of cleaner steel, cleaner aluminium that enable us to produce that at with less emissions at still cost competitive rates. They’re the key things that will enable us to get the breakthroughs. We’ve seen that happen in the energy space and continuing to happen already, and that’s what’s continuing to drive the uptake of renewables here. But it’s got to happen across transport emissions. It’s got to happen across industrial emissions. You know, there the other areas, including agriculture as well, where we need to invest in the tech changes that get the same sort of transformation without threatening jobs in Australia or development potential in other nations.
Laura Jayes: Ok, Minister Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time, as always.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Laura. My pleasure.