ASHLEIGH GILLON: Joining me this afternoon on our panel of politicians, Labor MP Ed Husic and the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment, Simon Birmingham. Good afternoon to you both. Bob Brown has just held a news conference. We were hoping to bring it to you here on Sky News but had some audio issues with that. We’ll try and get some of that to you this afternoon but he said that Martin Ferguson, Resources Minister, has his head stuck in the last century. He says he’s a shameful part of the body politic because he has been saying today that the coal industry has a bright future in this country. 
ASHLEIGH GILLON: We know that the Greens would like to get to 100 per cent renewable energy. Is this just ‘fantasy land’ stuff, Simon Birmingham?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, look, you’ve got to look at what Bob Brown said. He described Martin Ferguson as a shameful part of Australian politics. Now, these are strong words and this is coming from the Greens’ Leader, from the party that’s meant to be doing a deal with Labor on this carbon tax regime. You’ve got to wonder how these people can work together and come to an agreed position on this very important issue but when it comes to the coal industry, coal jobs, we’ve got to remember it’s not just Australia’s own domestic energy generation we’re talking about. It is absolutely our export market and thousands and thousands of Australian jobs rely ultimately on the export dollars that the coal industry generates and we all know, and this is why so many Australians are so cynical about the carbon tax regime this Government is pursuing, we all know that China and other major growing economies are going to keep increasing their need and demand for coal in future years. If they don’t buy it from Australia they’re going to buy it from somewhere else and we’d be just cutting out noses off to spite ourselves if we didn’t continue to back that industry and back those jobs whilst doing sensible things that can drive innovation around clean energy.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: There are some very wide gaps here, aren’t there, Ed? When you look what the carbon price will be, what the industry compensation package will be, now this issue of coal, there’s some pretty big gaps. How do you overcome that in the end?
ED HUSIC: Well, those gaps are being dealt with. Sorry, you first, then I’m happy to answer it.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I was going to say, there are disagreements and then there are public slanging matches and what we seem to have right now is Senator Brown kicking off a major public slanging match against a senior Cabinet Minister in the Gillard Government and your question is how on earth are you going to reconcile these very extreme views? The Greens have talked about carbon prices at a minimum of $40 a tonne going up to $100 a tonne was Senator Hanson-Young’s figure. We’ve got some extreme views here that would absolutely decimate not just the coal industry but many industries throughout Australia.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Also there are questions also about the Coalition’s Direct Action policy on this matter. Today at a news conference Tony Abbott was again arguing against the carbon tax saying that your plan will reduce emissions without any increases in prices, any increases in electricity prices in particular, no job losses at all. How is that going to happen without it costing the budget an absolute fortune?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Ashleigh, this is absolutely what was detailed in the plan we released last February [2010]. It’s been there in black and white ever since then and the plan is quite clear that we’ll call for tenders for projects and, if I can quote from it, projects to reduce CO2 emissions, deliver practical environmental benefits, not result in net price increases to consumers and protect jobs, so we’ve actually been clear all along that when you go out to the market, you seek tenders for the types of ways in which you can reduce emissions. These are the criteria against which those tenders will be judged. That’s the way we’ve planned it…
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Yes, but how much will that cost over that forward period?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It’s fully budgeted, fully budgeted at a cost of around a billion dollars a year over the period to 2020 to get your 5 per cent reduction. That cost is fully offset in the costings we took to the last election and we’ll update those costings for the next election to ensure that once again we demonstrate we can pay for this and pay for it by running a more efficient Government, pay for it by cutting Labor’s waste.
ED HUSIC: Well, I just don’t think that’s sustainable on a number of scores. Firstly, there’s already been studies by I think the Grattan Institute that said that that grants based approach simply doesn’t deliver the emission reductions, that the best way to get to this point is through a market based mechanism and the issue of the cost itself, you know, our side of politics takes, you know, naturally takes a different view about the effectiveness of what the Coalition’s proposing because in actual fact we think that, one, it’s better to target the big polluters rather than providing a major budget subsidy, I mean we are effectively subsidising industries who it’s questionable whether or not they’ll make the emissions reductions claimed and on top of that we would need to go out into the international market to buy credits because from my understanding what the Coalition’s proposing under this Direct Action model, you only get 25 per cent of the emission reductions required under our international agreements. You go out into the international market, it’ll cost us a bomb load of money which, spread out across Australian households, would equate to about I think $720 per household…
ED HUSIC: … so it’s not sustainable and there are already people on your side of the fence that know this is the case. This is simply not feasible.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Ed, you can take the policy away with you when we leave here today and actually read it. I invite you to actually read it. You’ll see that that’s far from the case and in fact, if you understood what your own Government is proposing and they claim it will transition to a market based mechanism, that just as under the CPRS [Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme], presumably your new market based mechanism will see billions of Australian dollars go offshore to buy international permits to meet the 5 per cent target. There’s absolutely no guarantee, under the types of market based mechanism Labor is proposing, that you will actually get any emissions reduction in Australia. Our fund…
ED HUSIC: So you’re saying that you’ll guarantee the reductions under what you’re saying?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … our fund does guarantee reductions happen in Australia. How could you only fund projects in Australia? Every company that has to hand over permits to the Government under any type of trading scheme can buy 100 per cent of their permits offshore if they want, if that’s the cheapest way for them to do it.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Okay, we are going to move on. We, of course are talking a lot about the carbon price and carbon tax on these programs. I do want to bring up another issue, though, which is plain packaging for cigarettes.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: It is true that a number of Coalition Members are now saying yes, that they want to throw their support behind this – Alex Somlyay, Dr Mal Washer and Tony Crook as well. What is your problem with plain packaging? Isn’t it worth giving it a go to see if it works?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Ashleigh, you can say you’ll give anything a go but you have to consider what the implications of the policies you are putting forward are. Now, Labor’s announced this I think three times in two years, this policy. They keep announcing it. They’re yet to actually bring the legislation into the Parliament so that can be judged on its merits. We hear from Nicola…
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Draft legislation, though. You’ve had a look at that, though?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And let’s get the final version before the Parliament and then we can have a fair dinkum debate about it. [Health Minister] Nicola Roxon’s indicated ‘yes, this is the first time anybody’s done it in the world’ so there is no precedent against which to judge it. To try to convince me that cigarette packets are somehow attractive nowadays when they’ve got pictures of rotting teeth and rotting livers and awful images on them… I really struggle to buy that, Ed, and frankly if the Government wants increase the size of those pictures, increase the warnings, well that’s an option we could sensibly debate. The real risk for taxpayers here is that the Government is stripping away trademarks and brands from businesses and that those businesses will sue the Government, they may or may not win, but the process will certainly cost millions, the outcome could cost billions, when you could actually go down a far more sensible route.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Isn’t there a conflict of interest here, though, because the Coalition does receive donations from big tobacco companies?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, Nicola Roxon happily went to the tennis from a tobacco company. I mean, we can play this game. In the end, those issues are…
ASHLEIGH GILLON: I don’t think the tobacco companies think Nicola Roxon is a great friend of theirs.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And clearly she’s not and that’s fine and the Coalition doesn’t seek to be the tobacco companies’ friend or anybody else’s friend in this. We want to see sensible policy made and we’ll have a look at this legislation, consider whether it really is sensible policy, but people need to understand it’s not just about an issue of getting less smokers. We all want less smokers. We all want to see that happen and Tony Abbott, as a former Health Minister who introduced a range of anti-smoking measures and campaigns in his time, wants to see it as well, but we also want to make sure that taxpayers are protected from unnecessary risks and that we actually have a situation where we got policy based on evidence in this country, not policy based on gut feeling.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Surely the Government would have looked at the legality of this. I mean, you don’t want to leave the Government open to being sued by tobacco companies as the Opposition is suggesting?
ED HUSIC: … I don’t understand, I may have misinterpreted your logic and I’m happy to stand corrected on this, Simon, but a few moments ago if I understood what you said, you said, you know, ‘we’ve got things on there at the moment aiming to dissuade people from smoking’ but then later said ‘maybe you could be a case of expanding the amount of that on the packaging’ and I don’t understand the logic on that. We want to cut through all of that and we want to be able to have plain packaging in place as one measure to stop this and in terms of the legal, coming back to the start of your question, Ashleigh, in terms of legal cost, now the biggest cost on our minds is obviously not the economic cost but the individual cost to families and people who go through the pain of cancers caused by smoking.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: I’ll let you just respond to that about the…
ED HUSIC: … If I’ve misconstrued your logic, I’m happy to be corrected.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I’m not sure quite where you’re confused there, Ed, and, look, I understand the cost to families. My own father died when I was 12 of a cancer-related illness so I do appreciate that, but we are looking here, the real nub of this debate has to come down to trademark issues, to those brands and taking those brands away. Now, the rest of the packet that happens to currently contain at present health warnings, there’s debate as to whether you could increase those and still not affect those trademarks. The plain packaging element is where you strip the brand away, strip the trademark away, and that’s where you are taking away what are recognised in international fora all over the world as genuine property rights that if they’re taken away businesses are entitled to claim compensation for and that’s where you’re putting the taxpayer at risk.
ED HUSIC:  From my perspective, frankly I don’t care about the brands. I care about making sure we make a difference…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I care about the taxpayer.
ED HUSIC:  And I care about that too and we look at the health costs, we look at the community costs. We’ve got to take this on.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Well, it looks like the Greens have said they will support this measure, so it looks like it probably will get through the Parliament, depending on some of those Independents in the Lower House. Before we go to Question Time I do want to ask you about Karl Bitar, of course the former ALP National Secretary now has a job with Crown Casino. Ed, one of the key controversial policies of your Government is introducing these gambling reforms which no doubt Karl Bitar will now be having to lobby the Government against as part of his new job as government relations for Crown Casino…
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Simon, I guess the broader issue is former Government staffers then going into roles like this, government relations where they’re working with their old colleagues who might have certain inside contacts which is why they’re hired in the first place.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Sure. Look, I’m sure that is the reason they’re hired in the first place but, frankly, good luck to Karl Bitar. He wasn’t employed by the taxpayer before. He was employed by the Labor Party. He’s got a job in the private sector. That’s a damn sight better than, say, a Mike Kaiser who’s an old Labor Party apparatchik who’s now earning hundreds of thousands of dollars courtesy of the taxpayer through the National Broadband Network, so I think Karl Bitar, go your hardest. He’s out there earning a buck in the private sector. It’s up to the Government to judge the issues on their merits and I’m quite sure that Ed is getting knocks on the door from all of the licensed clubs in his electorate who are very concerned about this policy and that he should listen to those constituents perhaps more than he listens to Karl and Crown.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Okay, you pointed out that he wasn’t employed with the taxpayer, but even if, you know, an actual Government staffer who is employed, you know, paid taxpayer dollars, would you then have a problem with it or just, overall, this is not an issue for the Coalition?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I think we want absolute transparency in way Government works and that means ensuring that you know who is knocking on the door, that you know that you actually have confidence that Ministers making decisions are making them in transparent ways and that your Cabinet processes are working. Lobbyists, well, people are entitled to get a job when they cease to work in government and if that job happens to be working for a lobbying firm, that’s their entitlement, especially seeing staffers, their skill sets are often very particular and, frankly, this is an obvious place for a number of them to go.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Very quickly, before I go, I showed the front page of The Daily Telegraph earlier today. It was Kevin Rudd dressed up as an astronaut. He’s racked up enough miles to go to the moon, apparently. Do you have a problem with that? He’s the Foreign Minister, isn’t it his job?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: He is the Foreign Minister. He’s entitled to travel around, but as I joked before we went on air, I think Ed and every member of the Labor caucus is probably chipping in to make sure he’s out of the country just as much as he possibly can be and out of their hair as much as he can be.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The one sensible issue and the one sensible question in it is the countries he’s visiting, the issues he’s pursuing, and there are some questions about whether he’s pursuing the legitimate interests of Australia or his own interests.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: We don’t have time to get into that, unfortunately.  Question Time is awaiting. We need to let you run away to that. Simon Birmingham, Ed Husic, thanks for your time this afternoon.
ED HUSIC:  Thanks.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thanks, Ash. Cheers, Ed.