CHRIS KENNY: I want to go to this other issue that was spruiked about by the Government on Sunday and Monday and that, of course, was the future of Whyalla – Whyalla, the town that Tony Abbott and a prominent union leader said would be wiped off the map by the carbon tax. Now, the Government decided to take that phrase literally and make a hell of a song and dance about it when, on Sunday morning, the first day of the carbon tax, Whyalla happened to still be there … I want to go now to Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham who joins us from Adelaide and, Simon, you’ve been up to Whyalla and the Iron Triangle this week. Is it not the case that, with a town relying on the steelworks and other towns up there relying on smelting and burning coal for energy, that the carbon tax is creating concern in those communities?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Chris, you’re right and good morning. There is very real concern in Whyalla, Port Augusta, Port Pirie – all of those types of very industrial centres – about the impact of the carbon tax and people are trying to get on with things. They’re trying to get on with business and look to opportunities that exist elsewhere, in the mining industry, but when you talk to them… and I went on Thursday in Whyalla, visited everybody from the local coffee shop through to steel fabricators and suppliers directly to OneSteel and they know there’s a real risk there. OneSteel has already been bailed out to the tune of more than $60 million and their question is, as the carbon tax keeps going up and up in years to come, when will the next bailout have to come, will the money be there or will there come a time where OneSteel is no longer making steel in Whyalla and they face a very bleak future, in that sense, of having to adjust their businesses and try to find jobs in a town that is incredibly reliant on a big employer like OneSteel.
CHRIS KENNY: But that’s the point, isn’t it? The Government has provided assistance – in the case of OneSteel, as you say, $60 million. There is assistance in the package to help them get over this carbon tax shock.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: There’s assistance there for now. The question is about the future, though, Chris. That $60 million will only last for a couple of years, yet the carbon tax, of course, by 2020 is expected to be up to $37 and it will keep going up from there and so everyone – and I’m sure OneSteel, as well – will question what does the future hold in that type of environment and that’s a fair question for them to ask, so it is about the long term competitiveness of industry and jobs that is really threatened and we know these sorts of global investment decisions, whether to keep a plant like OneSteel’s operation at Whyalla going, are made in the context of long term costs, long term uncertainty under this Government, about where those costs might go and how great they’ll be. In the end…
CHRIS KENNY: Well, speaking of long term uncertainty, if you win government and form government in the next year, you’re looking at repealing the carbon tax. Will you then also claw back the assistance that’s gone to these industries? In other words, could OneSteel find itself in two years without a carbon tax but without that $60 million in assistance?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Chris, the Steel Transformation Fund, as it’s known, the money that’s gone to OneSteel, has largely already gone. We’re not going to be asking for money back in those types of circumstances. We accept that the Government has had to pay that money to companies like OneSteel for them to keep their doors open and so they’ve done that. Unfortunately, taxpayers have had to see this massive churn of funds where OneSteel pays a carbon tax on the one hand and then gets given taxpayer handouts on the other. It’s a ridiculous system but the money has gone. Thankfully, OneSteel is keeping its doors open for now but it is that long term threat that every business I spoke to in Whyalla is genuinely concerned about.
CHRIS KENNY: Now, the Opposition’s very keen to talk about cost-of-living pressures. Of course, what you don’t mention is that you also want to cut carbon emissions by the same percentage as the Government and you’re looking at spending $10 billion doing it.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Chris, that’s over, of course, a period of time through to 2020 and the difference is that our spending is actually targeted at the areas of reduction so the Coalition’s policy says how can we most efficiently get 5 per cent reduction in carbon emissions and we will provide incentives to help people get there. The Government says let’s effectively tax 100 per cent of carbon emissions and hope that by that we can achieve the 5 per cent reduction and, even then, we know they don’t get there because they have to spend more than $3 billion in 2020 to buy foreign permits to offset the growth in carbon emissions here in Australia.
CHRIS KENNY: But you obviously agree with the environmental aim, though. No one’s saying ‘let’s not meet this 5 per cent target’ which I think… maybe there’s a market for that argument.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Chris, we’ve said that we think Australia should do its bit in the global scheme of things. We think 5 per cent is a reasonable target to work towards. Beyond that, of course, we’ve made it very clear that any further action would be dependent on seeing the rest of the world actually take significant steps towards reduction and, sadly, we don’t see that agreement looking all that promising at present and so this is about Australia honouring its commitment in saying we’ll take some first steps but, on the Coalition side, we’ll do it efficiently and effectively rather than a tax that hits the entire economy and impacts on Australian jobs and competitiveness.
CHRIS KENNY: Now, a major story breaking today is that the New South Wales Labor secretary Sam Dastyari is taking a pot shot at the Greens, suggesting that Labor needs to muscle up against the Greens that… he says the Greens are extremists. Do you see a fracturing now in the Labor-Green alliance?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Chris, this doesn’t even rate as a lovers’ tiff, I think, on the grand scale of things. In the end, we see these sorts of manufactured disputes between Labor and the Greens all the time. The reality is that Labor and the Greens have been co-dependent on each other for a long period of time now. They will remain so. We wouldn’t have a carbon tax if Labor and the Greens weren’t in bed with each other and, to my mind, the only noteworthy thing about this story is that, once again, one of the faceless men is acting without even consulting Julia Gillard on what he proposes to have done.
CHRIS KENNY: Yeah, that is interesting and we’ll wait to see what Julia Gillard’s reaction is to that. Just before I let you go, I want to ask you about tensions on your side and Malcolm Turnbull made a major speech last night supporting gay marriage in general but specifically a move to civil unions on the way to gay marriage. Do you support that? Do you support that this Parliament should legislate for civil unions between gay couples?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Chris, my personal views are well known in terms of support for movement in that area but, equally, the Party’s views are very clear and Tony’s made that very clear of standing by the promise taken to the last election. If there’s civil unions legislation, I’m sure we’ll look at it – I would hope look at it favourably as a step in the right direction, from a personal perspective – but, obviously, we’d have to go through the party processes and I’d be taking my position and my views through those party processes.
CHRIS KENNY: Alright, Simon Birmingham in Adelaide, thanks very much for joining us…