DAVID SPEERS:  So does this report undermine the Coalition’s argument that a carbon tax would unfairly punish Australian exporters? I’m joined now from Adelaide by the Acting Shadow Climate Change Minister [Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment], Senator Simon Birmingham. Senator, thanks for joining us. The Productivity Commission looked at more than a thousand different measures in the countries it did investigate. It determined that a price on carbon quote ‘generally will deliver any given amount of abatement at least cost’ – that it’s the best way to go. Do you think the Productivity Commission has got it right or wrong?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, David, good afternoon and thanks for having us. This really is, of course, a report that has failed to deliver what the Government hoped for. They hoped it would provide for a comparative carbon price regime of what actions in other countries are doing against what Labor’s carbon tax might be priced at, but of course the Productivity Commission has said ‘we can’t give you that’ and the reason they can’t give the Government that is because no other country has such an economy-wide carbon tax, none of these other countries have such an economy-wide emissions trading scheme, so in fact the Productivity Commission’s report is very clear that Australia would be getting well ahead of the pack in terms of such an economy-wide tax measure that Labor is proposing and that would, of course, have flow on effects…
DAVID SPEERS: But it does point to, of course, the emissions trading schemes already in place in the European Union and in New Zealand, and it points to steps that are being taken in Japan, South Korea, some parts of China, in California to introduce emissions trading schemes there as well, so again I ask, given it’s looked at all of this and found that this is the best way to go, that it’s the most cost effective, the cheapest way to reduce emissions, do you think that’s right or wrong?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think it’s hard to say that it’s the most effective means when you can’t guarantee Australian jobs and the future of Australian industry. Let’s understand this has looked at seven countries only, none of whom are major competitors in our minerals base in terms of the types of exporting countries that Australia competes against for our major export markets, so you can’t say that this report shows it will protect jobs – far from it. The report has been quite clear that even the countries you mention do not have the type of economy-wide carbon tax or emissions trading scheme that Labor is talking about and what it actually bells the cat on in that sense is that whilst Mr Combet and Mr Swan and Prime Minister Gillard have been out there for a long time trying to say ‘well, you’ve got these other emissions trading schemes in place’, they are not comparable with what she is trying to inflict, and Labor is trying to inflict, on the Australian economy.
DAVID SPEERS: Well, indeed, the report does not say that an emissions trading scheme would save jobs, but it does say that for the consumer this is the cheapest way to do it. The Coalition has been campaigning very strongly on the price impact that a carbon tax will pose, whether it’s on Weet-Bix or various other products that Tony Abbott’s been demonstrating, but the Productivity Commission is saying this is the cheapest way to do it, the lowest cost impact.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the Productivity Commission… I think that’s taking a bit of a stretch. The Productivity Commission certainly has found, in terms of its comparison of different measures different countries have pursued… I’m not aware any countries have equally pursued, of course, policies that will get the lowest cost abatement in the manner the Coalition proposes. Our direct action fund [Emissions Reduction Fund] will still go to the market, will ensure that we pursue the lowest cost emissions activities in Australia, it’s just that what it won’t do is put emissions taxes on 100 per cent of Australia’s major emitting companies. In the end, the Government wants to tax…
DAVID SPEERS: It says some of the small scale subsidy approaches, though, are far less effective. Is there anything in this Productivity Commission report that says your direct action approach is a good idea?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, David, of course that’s not what the Productivity Commission was asked to look at, so let’s be fair here in terms of what this report is. Now, they were asked to look at whether you could come up with comparative carbon prices across seven key economies and Australia and they found that you can’t and they found that you can’t because none of those countries have carbon prices the likes of which Labor is talking about. Now, if we want to try to read into what the Productivity Commission report means for the Coalition’s policy, you’d need to give them vastly different terms of reference for that.
DAVID SPEERS: Now, you’ve complained that the Productivity Commission did not look at countries that we compete with for exports but it did look at the United States, which is the largest producer of coal, it did look at China, which is the third largest, Australia of course the fourth largest, India is the fifth, so it does look at some pretty big players in coal.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It does and it found that we are in the middle of the pack in terms of action and quite comparable in terms of action to some of those countries that you just mentioned so Wayne Swan can’t have it both ways. He can’t stand before a press conference and say ‘this report finds we’re in the middle of the pack, we’re in danger of being left behind’. The Government has consistently said, Julia Gillard, Penny [Wong], Swan, Greg Combet, they’ve all said Australia’s desire is neither to get too far in front of the rest of the world or too far behind the rest of the world. Well, the Productivity Commission has come out and said ‘we are’ – according to the countries they’ve looked at – ‘in the middle of the pack’. That, I would have thought, would have said that our current measures, our current actions, are about right. The Coalition thinks that we need to do some more things to make sure we achieve our 5 per cent target – and that’s what our policies are about – but let’s not have Wayne Swan try to say ‘we’re in the middle of the pack but we’re falling behind’. That is a nonsensical statement from the Treasurer.
DAVID SPEERS: Well, I think he’s pointing to the action that these countries are going to take, that have committed to take in the years ahead. Japan and South Korea are moving towards emissions trading schemes. California is going to start one next year. China is trialling them in some cities…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And a lot of these trials are still very small and the program, process and so on that’s happening is still very tiny steps in this regard and the Government is very quick to latch onto small things happening overseas and try to make a big deal out of them. In the end, this report is looking at what is happening now, what is in place at present and it said that in regards to what’s happening now and what’s in place at present, Australia sits broadly, in the Treasurer’s own words, in the middle of the pack. That’s, of course, where we should be striving to continue to make sure Australia is doing its fair share but not jeopardising Australian industry and jobs, and that’s where it comes back to, and if the Government was really fair dinkum about getting some good international comparison, then they’d send the Productivity Commission back to look at a number of the other minerals exporting countries, places like Brazil and South Africa – countries that we compete with in the minerals market – and just see how we compare against them and what it would do to Australia’s competitiveness.
DAVID SPEERS: Simon Birmingham, before I let you go I just wanted to ask you on another issue, the live cattle exports suspension to Indonesia, we know the Nationals have condemned this move. They believe a better option would have been to simply ban all but the class A and B facilities in Indonesia and still have exports going to them. What do you think? Do you support what the Government has announced this week with the suspension?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, David, look, I think it’s absolutely critical that we know that every site, every facility that Australian cattle are going to in Indonesia is up to absolute ‘A grade’ standard. Now, the Government, having taken the suspension step, should be getting in there as quickly as possible and making sure that they do reaccredit those facilities that are doing the right thing. It is right…
DAVID SPEERS: But do you support what they’ve done?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, look, I have concerns that they have sent the wrong message to facilities doing the right thing and the way to rectify sending the wrong message to those facilities is to get the officials in there pronto, as quickly as possible, get those facilities accredited and get exports going back to them. What we don’t want to do…
DAVID SPEERS: So, you agree with the Nationals that we should still be exporting to those class A and B facilities in Indonesia?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I think facilities that are using world’s best practice, stun guns etc… it’s absolutely right that we should be supporting exports there, rewarding those who’ve fixed themselves up and done the right thing rather than punishing them.
DAVID SPEERS: Alright, Senator Simon Birmingham, thank you for your time this afternoon.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Always a pleasure.