Topics: Power generation; bullying

David Bevan: Let’s welcome Simon Birmingham, Federal Education Minister, talking to us from Canberra. Good morning, Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David, Ali and listeners.

David Bevan: Leader of the Australian Conservatives – also from Canberra – Cory Bernardi, good morning.

Cory Bernardi: Good morning, everyone.

David Bevan: And Amanda Rishworth, Labor MP for the southern suburb seat of Kingston, Shadow Minister for Defence Personnel and Veteran Affairs. Good morning, Amanda Rishworth.

Amanda Rishworth: Good morning. Great to be with you.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, let’s start with you. Let’s talk power. AEMO – the Market Operator – says the South Australian Government’s energy plan will help alleviate the risk of blackouts this summer. Should we all thank God for Jay Weatherill and his diesel generators?

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] Well, it’s pretty embarrassing that we’re in that position, David. I mean, let’s just think about how ridiculous it is that state government policies enthusiastically drove us to a position where the Northern coal-fired power plant was shut down, where the energy market became so unreliable that we’re now going to rely upon diesel generators and even dirtier fuel in terms of energy generation than the coal-fired power plant that was there to start with, to keep the lights on and the power going. I mean, we should be, yes, grateful for anything perhaps that keeps the energy going, but it is embarrassing, humiliating, does nothing to help affordability and of course is not a long-term solution to the nation’s, and particularly to South Australia’s, power challenges. So what we’re working on as a government is what are better long-term solutions? How do we deal with the fact that in some cases coal-fired power plants, major base load generators have already shut, and in other cases there is a threat of them shutting? Where there’s that threat, we are trying to work on ways to extend the life and to ensure that provides ongoing stability.
David Bevan: But it is a National Electricity Market and you are a national government. Isn’t it as equally embarrassing for you that your state, under the National Electricity Market, is having to pull in diesel generators to keep the lights on?

Simon Birmingham: Well, David, it’s a National Electricity Market but there are local factors to the market as well, which is why AEMO’s report very clearly states that the problems are more acute in South Australia and Victoria, which is where you’ve seen the major base load generators close down – Hazelwood in Victoria, Northern in relation to South Australia. So there are local factors. We’ve seen state governments in SA and Victoria pursue their own state renewable energy targets, their own policies of trying to drive out base load generation in favour of a race around renewables. And while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with renewables, what we have had to do as a government is step in and say well, there needs to be stability to the market; if you’re going to have high levels of renewables, you need to have other ways of ensuring that energy is generated in an effective manner. That’s projects like the Cultana or the Snowy Hydro pump storage facilities are about. How do we put major new storage that is far more reliable, far larger in scale than the battery plant Jay Weatherill’s talking about into the system? Now, they will take some years to come on stream but we’re committed to working through that, getting those types of things off the ground to give longer term stability in the future whilst also working to keep the coal assets we have that give that base load security still going elsewhere in the market.

Ali Clarke: So, Simon Birmingham, you’re urging people to shop around for a better deal. Have you?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we only moved house about a year ago, so we certainly shopped around at the time in terms of who would be the energy provider at that stage.

Ali Clarke: So what do you say when your energy bill comes in? Because I can tell you what most of the people who talk to us on the text line say. They think wow, how are we going to get through and pay this and what has been happening? What do you say when you open your energy bill?

Simon Birmingham: Yeah look, I’ve seen our electricity bill go up both in the place I share with some colleagues in Canberra as well as at home in Adelaide, and so I fully appreciate plenty of people are feeling the pinch there. That’s why we’re not just looking at, I guess, the longer term solutions like the generation aspect of the energy market, but also the retailers. And the commitments we’ve got now is that two million Australian households who are on essentially the worst electricity deals will receive clear, plain English, transparent information about how they could transfer onto a better deal.

David Bevan: Well, we’re going to talk to Judith Sloan after nine o’clock, she’s the contributing economics editor to The Australian. And she looked around the find a better deal and the best she could do was save 30 bucks. So if an economics professor, the best she can do is 30 bucks, I don’t know.

Simon Birmingham: Well, maybe Judith was already on a very good deal. Look, some households could be saving up to $1500 dollars.

David Bevan: Well, she might have been. But she is warning your government that if that’s your best that you can do, be careful because this is going to seriously backfire to you. Cory Bernardi …

Simon Birmingham: But David, it’s not the only thing we’re doing. There’s action in relation to generation. We are changing the market rules around the appeal mechanisms and other things that have driven billions of dollars of extra costs into the system. We’ve got extra ACCC action –

David Bevan: [Talks over] I think we’ve run through those. I think we’ve run through those measures. Let’s go the Cory Bernardi and give he and Amanda Rishworth a chance to respond. Cory Bernardi, do you thank God for Jay Weatherill and his diesel generators?

Cory Bernardi: I’m pleased you acknowledged God but let me tell you, every problem relating to cost and reliability of electricity has been caused by successive state and federal government decision-making. Every single problem, every distortion in the market, every subsidy has made our electricity the most unreliable and expensive anywhere in the world. And so I’m saying, if you want to shop around for a better deal, you actually need to shop around for a better policy deal from both sides of the political equation, because they are entirely responsible for the crisis that we’re having now. It is manufactured by government.

David Bevan: So, what would you do?

Cory Bernardi: Well firstly, I’d become technology agnostic; which means we would open it up so that anyone who wants to build a power station, we would support them in doing it from a contractual certainty point of view. That means that if you want to build a coal-fired power station that’s got a 40-year lifespan, we will give you the approvals that are necessary to make that function and to be able to do it without the impediments of government –

David Bevan: [Talks over] Regardless of emissions?

Cory Bernardi: Well, regardless of emissions because what we need to ensure prosperity, to re-establish manufacturing bases, to make it affordable for people to have the heat on, and pensioners to cool their homes in the summer, is reliable base load power. And that means stop subsidising renewable energies to the tune of $60 billion over the next 30 years or so, stop tearing down or preventing efficient coal-fired power stations from being built or gas-fired power stations. Let’s open up the debate and discussion about nuclear energy generation in this country. Because what’s happened is over the last decade, the electricity market has been destroyed by government and there is racketeering, there is profiteering going on, there are people that are struggling to pay their bills, businesses can’t afford to operate and it’s all entirely due to government decision-making.

Ali Clarke: Amanda Rishworth, Labor MP for Kingston, you live in this state. Where to?

Amanda Rishworth: Well of course, what we’ve seen that is very, very embarrassing, is the fact that there has been no Federal Government policy on energy. Simon Birmingham can talk about Malcolm Turnbull’s wagging of the finger to the energy companies all he likes, but there has been a complete absence. And that is why you’ve had to see state governments go it alone. We have a report in front of us now from the Chief Scientist that says a clean energy target is important. And despite what Cory’s saying, there is no private company lining up to invest in new coal-fired power stations – they’re just not there. AGL’s CEO made that very, very clear over the last couple of days, that they have no intention to extend the life of their coal-fired power station, and they have no intention of building new ones. And…

David Bevan: [Interrupts] But I think what Bernardi is saying is that’s because of the artificial things that you’ve put in there. If you swept all that aside and had just a clean slate, then the coal-fired power stations would be able to make a living.

Cory Bernardi: And contractual certainty.

Amanda Rishworth: But that isn’t – we have to meet our obligations under the Paris Agreement, but in addition, Alan Finkel clearly said that the cost of renewables is coming down, and that investing in renewables will lead – and a clean energy target – will lead to lower power prices. The cost is coming down significantly. So why we are having this debate about investing in technology that no private company wants to invest in, is beyond me. But Labor has said, look, we need bipartisanship on this. The industry needs certainty because if you look at the pure economics, it’s demand and supply. And no-one is investing in electricity generation, because they don’t know what the rules of the game are. And what we need is bipartisan support; Labor is offering that olive branch to the Coalition, but Malcolm Turnbull has such a divided party room, he can’t even take up the significant recommendation of his own report by Alan Finkel, and that’s a clean energy target.

Ali Clarke: It’s 08.43 on ABC Radio Adelaide. You have Ali Clarke and David Bevan for Breakfast, and we’re in the middle of Super Wednesday. Amanda Rishworth, Labor MP for Kingston was just then. Cory Bernardi, leader of the Australian Conservatives, is also with you, as is Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham.

As I return to you, Minister, we’ve been speaking at length about bullying in and around schools, after the death of a 13-year-old girl here in Adelaide. As part of that earlier this morning, I spoke to Skye Kakoschke-Moore, Nick Xenophon Team Senator. Now she’s calling for a Senate inquiry into cyber-bullying, and she will move this motion today, as she revealed to me after seven o’clock. Are you going to pick up the ball with this?

Simon Birmingham: Well look, it’s a tragic case, and as a dad of two young daughters, it’s cases like this that frighten the hell out of you when you think about raising your own family and the challenges that many others have. We as a Government have established a Children’s eSafety Commissioner to try to provide policy and program leadership for schools, communities generally in this space. And if there’s to be a Senate inquiry, I’m sure that they will provide really valuable information and evidence to that process about the things that are happening, not only in Australia, but also globally. And I, together with Malcolm Turnbull, spent some time with the eSafety Commissioner a couple of weeks ago, talking about these issues of bullying.

And the challenge for us as to how we address this is it’s a bit like going back a couple of decades and how we tackled drink driving as a society. That, yes, there might be a place for some areas of tougher laws and the like, but you’ve really got to change culture as well. You’ve got to make it that bullying is unacceptable and called out by peers and others in the school environment, in other environments. That you can’t just expect that an enforcement regime will make the solution. There’s got to be that recognition right across the board that we have to, as a society, take some responsibility here and make sure that the children are protected.

Ali Clarke: But if there is room, as you said and I’m quoting now, there might be room for tougher legislation, why not get on the front foot, take a look at what’s happening say in Victoria with Brodie’s Law, and start having these meaningful conversations and looking at changing legislation around on a federal basis, right around the country, as opposed to waiting for someone else to lose their life, and then acting?

Simon Birmingham: Well look, I’ll happily hear any arguments, in terms of where people think the law can be enhanced. The point that I’m making there though, is that we shouldn’t think that a legal solution is going to fix this. We shouldn’t think that government can simply fix this. This is about community behaviour, attitudes in families, behaviour in schools, and it takes a whole of society response to be able to deal with it. That’s not an excuse for us not taking it seriously and doing it, we should all pull our weight and do whatever we possibly can. If there’s a need to enhance federal laws, I’m very happy to look at it, champion it; that is indeed why, as a government, we set up a specific office in government looking at eSafety related to children because we recognised that cyber-bullying, cyber-safety, all of those factors are very real problems.

David Bevan: But when it’s everybody’s responsibility, it’s no-one’s responsibility. You can cast the net – obviously there’s truth it what you’re saying, but you can cast the net so wide that everybody can walk away saying, well it’s so big a problem. You are the Federal Education Minister, and this appears to have involved school children. Given what’s happened in your home state, will you revisit this issue?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely, David. I mean I will be looking very closely in relation to issues and things that we as a federal government might be able to do. But I don’t want to pretend that there’s a magic solution there either. So, that’s not about creating an excuse…

David Bevan: [Talks over] No, no, and no-one would expect that there would be.

Simon Birmingham: … it’s just about realistic, and making sure that I have as much a responsibility as a parent as well to make sure that I educate my children, and that every other parent has a responsibility if they think their children are engaged in bullying activities, to think about well how can they best tackle that and stop that.

David Bevan: Well just quickly, let’s get a comment from Amanda Rishworth, and then Cory Bernardi, on that issue of bullying and cyber-bullying, and whether or not we can better police this. Amanda Rishworth?

Amanda Rishworth: Well look, I would like to first extend my sympathies to the family. This young woman and their family live in my electorate, and I know that she was very involved in the Moana Surf Lifesaving Club, and it is an absolute tragedy. I think in terms of cyber-bullying, one of the differences, I guess, between more traditional bullying, is that in generations gone by, is that it never leaves you. With phones and connectedness, it is a real challenge. It goes home with you, it goes everywhere with you. So, there is a huge challenge.

I chaired an inquiry into bullying in the workplace in particular in a previous parliament, and Brodie’s Law, which was particularly around workplace bullying, was – people believe that was an effective deterrent. Now, that was some years ago and I’d be very interested to look at that. I mean that really was involved in the criminal code which each state jurisdiction has a responsibility to. But I think that this is all levels of government, the community taking this very, very seriously, and really looking at what are the similarities between, I guess, previous generations’ experience, but also what are the uniqueness of cyber-bullying in particular – something that never, never goes away.

David Bevan: Cory Bernardi.

Cory Bernardi: Well you can no more blame the Federal Government for this and demand a legislative response than you can Facebook or one of the telecommunications services that allow people to do this, right. It is what we’ve got to deal with, and if the government does have any role, it is in providing an education program through schools and for parents for parents to use. Ultimately, kids are going to do awful things. They don’t have sometimes the judgement and they don’t understand the empathy about how things can affect others. And so parents and schools need to work through this. There is an educational quotient, but you cannot legislate against young people doing foolish things. And no matter the tragic consequences of this case, we have to be realistic about what we can achieve and hope to achieve.

Ali Clarke: Cory Bernardi, leader of the Australian Conservatives, Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham, and Labor MP for Kingston, Amanda Rishworth, thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Ali?

Ali Clarke: Yes, Simon?

Simon Birmingham: If I can just very quickly, I mean obviously, whilst in cases like this we always encourage people to look at Lifeline or beyondblue, if need be in terms of seeking help if they are a victim of bullying and have personal or emotional concerns and issues. But also, in terms of parents, families, schools, wanting information, I urge them to Google the Children’s eSafety Commissioner. They’ve conducted more than 200,000 virtual classrooms, face-to-face presentations around the country and really there are some good resources there to help people talk to their children about these issues.

Ali Clarke: Simon Birmingham, thank you. The numbers for Lifeline are 131114 and as well, you can go to the Kids Helpline on 1800551800.

Minister Birmingham’s media contact: Nick Creevey 0447 644 957
Department Media: media@education.gov.au