March 02, 2020


RAFAEL EPSTEIN:  Mark Butler joins us, he’s the Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy. He’s in our Canberra studio. Good afternoon, Mark.

MARK BUTLER: G’day, Raf.

EPSTEIN:  Just on Coronavirus. You don’t look like an Opposition that trusts the Government on a lot of things, do you trust the Government on their coronavirus response?

BUTLER: I'm very confident the Government is taking advice from the medical experts. We have extraordinary clinicians at a Commonwealth and a State Government level. The chief medical officers are hooking up very, very regularly. As the Opposition we're getting regular briefings, both our leader Anthony Albanese but also Shadow Health Minister Chris Bowen, and we're very confident the Government's actions are in accordance with the best available medical advice.

EPSTEIN: You are tearing strips off them over things like sports rorts, do you worry that people might not trust them over issues around elections, but then we're all expected to trust them when they talk about something like coronavirus? Is that a disjunction?

BUTLER: Obviously all governments should be subject to cross-examination and analysis. In a situation like this, the coronavirus that has come on very, very quickly and is obviously concerning people in Australia and across the world - I think your listeners would want to have a high level of confidence that Scott Morrison, Greg Hunt the Health Minister, Anthony Albanese, and Chris Bowen for that matter aren’t making their own judgments about this. They're listening to the advice and we know that we have some of the best clinicians in the world in Australia, have had for a very long time. They're working very, very hard on this and I think it's important in these times when the country is very concerned about a significant threat to community safety and community health that the politics are taken out of this as much as possible and the two major parties try to act as one.

EPSTEIN: Look, you are the person who speaks for Labor on climate change and energy. At the moment you've got a target for 30 years time, the middle of the century, net zero emissions, supported by tonnes of organisations across the spectrum. You've got a target for 30 years time but you don't have a target for 10 years time. What’s the point?

BUTLER: We’re about a quarter of the way through the parliamentary term, Raf, and we said after we lost the last election, which was our third election loss in a row, that it was important for us to have a really deep review of all of our policies. Not just climate change but across the policy spectrum. And as we now embark upon the next stage, having conducted our election review, we are now embarking on our next stage which is sitting down and listening to businesses, community groups, workers, trade unions in my area, environment groups obviously. We needed to set out what the core guiding posts of that position we're going to be.

The announcement the other week by Anthony Albanese was really a reaffirmation of two core principles over our approach to this policy area. The first being an implementation, a real implementation, of the Paris agreement on climate that was agreed by all of the world's nations in 2015. That does require a developed economy like ours to be net zero emissions by 2050. As much as Angus Taylor, the Government's minister, might say otherwise everyone else recognises, all state governments, all scientists recognise, we have to be at that point in 30 years time. Also we reaffirmed our opposition to the idea of somehow cheating, and using the carry over credits. The fact that we over performed during the period of the last Labor government should not be some excuse for not acting over the next 10 years and it is something again we reaffirmed our opposition to. And finally, we wanted to reaffirm our clear view that we have to transition the electricity system in Australia, one of the most carbon intensive electricity systems in the world at the moment, to clean energy over the coming years. And that means not propping up with artificial taxpayer subsidies, new coal-fired power stations, which the current Government under Scott Morrison appears intent on doing again.

EPSTEIN: And I think in fact I saw some news over the weekend that they're giving for million dollars to a company that's got a post office box but let's talk about Labor. Last time you were using targets recommended by the Climate Change Authority some years ago, it was very clear you listened to them, you had a 45 per cent emissions cut for the year 2030, very much guided by the Climate Change Authority. You mentioned then in your answer you're going to be talking to business, talking to people. Who are you going to? You're going to have to set a target, either agree with the government on 2030 or be more ambitious, is there a group of experts you're going to rely on to set your short and medium term targets?

BUTLER: We’ll you’re right, back in 2015 the Climate Change Authority, a statutory authority set up by the Australian Parliament, went through a very exhaustive inquiry to recommend to the Parliament and the government of the day what the 2030 or medium term emissions reduction target should be and we adopted that position after having quite a period of discussion with businesses and other groups. There's not any current, available, official advice from a statutory authority like the Climate Change Authority to update what is now, or by the time of the next election at least, going to be seven or eight year old advice and I think that's a real gap in the public discourse.

EPSTEIN: But you'll have to listen to someone. Who would you listen to?

BUTLER: That’s right, we're going to work that through over the coming months. We sit down with all of the scientific groups, we always have. CSIRO, the Australian Academy of Science, a range of other private groups who do a lot of work in this area, provide a real Australian frame to what is after all a global challenge and a global effort. So that's really my job for now on, Raf, in the next phase of this parliamentary term to use those core principles we outlined around net zero emissions by 2050 and so on to sit down with those groups and craft a policy that Australian voters and Australian businesses and others have well before the next election, which is due in 2022.

EPSTEIN: I know it's two years away from the election. I'm not going to ask you how much your plans will cost but I am interested, you had a reasonable amount of detail when I interviewed you before the last election I was asking you for more detail, but my query would really be this, do you aim to spell out more of the cost of your plan this time or less than the last election, do you pick more or less detail than the last election you think?

BUTLER: That in part will be informed by the discussions we're having over the coming little while. I mean for example, businesses and other groups that have an interest in this area have to strike a balance between knowing what a party of government, which is essentially the Coalition or us, what they intend to do if they win government. Business wants to know that, other groups want to know that. While also recognising that sometimes you have to be in government to be able to work up very specific proposals to get the modelling, to get the advice of government departments that, for example, I don't have access to now as the Shadow Minister. So it is that fine balance between having enough detail but also enough flexibility to ensure that the policy is the best possible policy after you win government and have it modelled up by a government department officially. Those are discussions I intend to have over the coming months with all of the groups that have an interest in this area sitting down with local communities, particularly in regions that have particular opportunities and challenges.

EPSTEIN: You've been criticised, or Anthony Albanese has been criticised, picked the 2050 target easy, don't have any detail, it's the small target strategy?

BUTLER: Well of course we're going to have detail between now and the next election. This is very early in the parliamentary term. We thought it was important to reaffirm our core principles so that people know when they're sitting down and talking with us what the parameters are of our thinking. We're not going to walk away from the Paris Agreement, as I think the current government has done, we're not going to walk away from the transition to clean energy which is important in the fight against climate change, but also will deliver cheaper electricity to households and businesses. We want to make that very clear as we embark on the discussion and that's really what we're doing now.

EPSTEIN: So are you guaranteeing cheaper electricity?

BUTLER: I think every report, every single report, that I've seen in all of my years in this portfolio say that with a proper energy policy in place, and we haven't had one for years, with a proper energy policy in place the cheaper new electricity to build is going to be renewable energy. It already is and it's getting cheaper every year still. Solar energy is still coming down by about 10 to 13 per cent every year. Wind energy is still getting cheaper, but this Government is walking away from that and instead using taxpayer dollars to embark upon the building of a new coal fired power station in Queensland that private investors won’t touch with a barge pole.

EPSTEIN: Let's bring in Bill calling on 1300 222 774 from Surry Hills, Bill what did you want to say?

CALLER, BILL: Mark, we've had a discussion offline about this but I think it's important not just to listen to the experts, but also 70 per cent of people of the population like myself who are actually calling out, crying out, for much better policies. But also not to get freaked out every time someone says ‘costs and details’ because it's quite possible now to work out the costs of what will be if we do build more coal fire power stations.

EPSTEIN: So what are you trying to say to him, Bill? Did you want to turn that into a question?

CALLER, BILL: Yeah, well the question is can you do some costs on not doing the stuff that needs to be done as well as what needs to be done?

BUTLER: I think that's the very interesting shift in the debate over the last few months, particularly given the awful summer that Australia has been experiencing, that people are starting to ask the question, well what's the cost of not acting? What is going to happen to our country if we continue on our current pathway? The Melbourne University released some modelling last year which they updated in the last couple of weeks that indicates that on our current pathways, we'll see costs of something like 2.7 trillion dollars.

EPSTEIN: And I don’t dispute those costs, Mark and I’ve pointed out what the CSIRO have said. But if I can try and nail you down a bit, Bill is saying he would like to see you produce some detail that shows this is how much I policy will cost and right next to that this is how much not perusing our policy would cost. Would you do something like that?

BUTLER: I think that's very much going to be the frame of the debate over the coming couple of years because community members like Bill and businesses are both saying, what is the cost of not acting?

EPSTEIN: I think he wants a bit more than a frame, I think he wants the detail.

BUTLER: Well, that's right, and obviously you can only start to produce those sorts of pieces of analysis once you have more detail on your policy and that's my job as the Shadow Minister over coming months. But we also have a whole lot of work that is being produced right now. As you I think just alluded to Raf, the CSIRO in some work that's been used by the New South Wales Liberal Government for example to support their policy of net zero emissions by 2050 has modelled that the net zero commitment would compared to our current pathway, produce stronger economic growth, higher real wages and lower energy costs. We know that this is not only going to be a good thing for the planet, it's going to be good for the economy.

EPSTEIN: What do you want to say, Andrew?

CALLER, ANDREW: Yeah Raf, I'm wondering keep talking about net zero emissions, we're still going to emit to make things like steel and concrete etcetera etcetera , where's all the negative side coming from?

EPSTEIN: You mean what's going to soak it all up?

CALLER: Yeah we can’t just plant trees to soak all this up, it's not going to work that way. It's got to be ongoing. How’s it going to work?

BUTLER: Well, I think by and large that the view is that most of this, I’ll call it sequestration, so sucking down carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it somewhere, is going to be in the land and we have extraordinary land resources which we can remediate. Not just through planting trees but through our soils, through blue carbon, which is the mangroves around the rim of the continent, through fantastic old, very culturally deep practices that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been pursuing for centuries.

EPSTEIN: Don’t you have to rule out things like new coal mines and new coal-fired power stations? If you really want to get to get to net zero 2050 you can't just stick everything in the ground, you've got to actually say not just, ‘we’ll let the market decide on coal mines and coal-fired power stations.’ Don't you have to say no to them?

BUTLER: My job is to do deal with emissions in Australia and we have said, as Anthony said this in his speech a couple of weeks ago, that there is no place for new coal-fired power stations in Australia. We already have two-thirds to three-quarters of our electricity being produced by coal-fired power, we need to get that down. We don’t need to build new coal-fired power stations. As for coal mines, which are not suppling Australian coal-fired power stations, but are being loaded onto ships and sent overseas, what we’ll see really is decisions not taken in Canberra shape what happens to them but decisions taken in the capital cities of our major trading partners, in the boardrooms of major global companies.

EPSTEIN: So you don't think you need to rule them out as a government to get to net zero?

BUTLER: What's going to happen is those things are going to be shaped by the global market and you’re already seeing that. You’re already seeing thermal coal demand, the form of coal that's used to make electricity, start to peak in most of the major customer areas of the world and projections seen to see those decline quite considerably. So those decisions taken overseas are going to have an impact on Australia being the biggest coal exporter, the biggest exporter of gas in the world. There’s no question about that but those won't be decisions taken here in Canberra, they'll be taken overseas. There is no question Raf that the whole world is going to need to get off fossil fuels over the next few decades if we are going to meet the Paris agreement and it's not just Australia meeting net zero emissions by the middle of the century, a whole range of other economies have to as well.

EPSTEIN: Can you turn climate change into a vote winner? It was seen as a loser especially in Queensland for Labor last May? Can you turn it into a vote winner?

BUTLER: Well I'm not sure that I agree with the analysis that it was, in net terms, a vote loser for the Australian Labor Party last election. That wasn't the conclusion of our election review that Craig Emerson and Jay Weatherill headed up. There's no doubt we certainly had challenges in particular regions of the country and you mentioned the coal regions of the Hunter Valley and central Queensland. I'm not saying that there aren’t challenges for us in the climate change policy area, but I don't accept that it was an overall negative for us at the last election, I don't think there's any evidence for that.

EPSTEIN: Thanks so much for joining us. Mark Butler, appreciate your time.

BUTLER: Thanks, Raf.