September 05, 2019


PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just on this suggestion from Julie Bishop, she says the Ministerial Standards should be changed to make it clear that current serving Ministers and officials shouldn’t meet with former frontbenchers. Do you think that would be a good change to the rules?

BUTLER: I’m sure we would be willing to consider any sensible discussion about how this thing goes forward but I think the first question is whether or not Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop complied with the existing standards and that is really what this Senate Inquiry is all about. There have been some very serious questions to answer and until we had this inquiry there was no way in which the public and other Members of Parliament could get those answers.

KARVELAS: Okay and today they have given some testimony in relation to that evidence via teleconference. You probably haven’t been glued to it quite like me.

BUTLER: I don’t think anyone has been glued to it quite like you Patricia.

KARVELAS: That’s quite fair, what I can tell you though is they say all of the expertise they have in relation to those portfolio areas are on the public record, they are publicly known and they are not bringing in some secret information they have learnt while they were in Government. Do you accept that?

BUTLER: I haven’t seen it; I’ve only got your reportage of it. I want to see this Inquiry come to its conclusion. I think particularly at a time of plummeting confidence and trust in the political system it is really important that we be utterly sure that people who have the privilege of serving as Ministers of the Crown are not using knowledge they acquire in that capacity for their private benefit; that I think is a really important process of this inquiry. The process that Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister, set up I don’t think was going to be able to satisfy people who had questions about this matter in the way this inquiry will.  

KARVELAS: Just moving onto the issue you’ve been very focussed on, you’ve called on the Prime Minister Scott Morrison to either rule out nuclear or reveal where reactors would be located. How could he do that when this inquiry isn’t even completed and he hasn’t even committed to nuclear because there is just an inquiry at this stage?

BUTLER: This is an inquiry initiated by the Energy Minister. It is not some flight of fantasy from some obscure backbencher no one has ever heard of; the Energy Minister at the time of the deepest energy crisis Australia has experienced since the mid-1970s has asked the relevant parliamentary committee to look at nuclear power. In my view you can’t be thinking of nuclear power as an option for Australia without thinking about where it is going to be located. If the Prime Minister is on this flight of fantasy that Angus Taylor has started, then I think he needs to come clean with the Australian community and point out exactly who is going to be expected to host one of these power stations in their backyard.

KARVELAS: But he wouldn’t know because he hasn’t even finished the inquiry or come to any conclusions about whether he thinks it is a good policy to proceed with, so this is just political isn’t it?

BUTLER: Well, if they haven’t got specific locations, at least talk about the types of communities that would be expected to host this in their backyards. This inquiry is intended to stimulate a public discussion about nuclear power. I think it’s a complete frolic, a power option that would be decades away for Australia at a time where we need solutions now. But if the Prime Minister and the Energy Minister Angus Taylor insist upon doing this, then tell the Australian people the full story.

KARVELAS: Labor MPs are expected to follow up with local campaigns essentially highlighting the potential threat of nuclear in listed locations that you’ve been able to establish through the Parliamentary Library. Aren’t you just planning to run a scare campaign? 

BUTLER: No, I think this is about getting the full story out to the Australian people. As I said, over the last few years, particularly since 2015, Australian households and businsses have been suffering through a very serious energy crisis. This Government can’t land an energy policy of the type that business organisations and state governments, Labor and Liberal alike, say would help that energy crisis. So, instead, they have moved into this frolic on nuclear power. Well, if they do want a serious discussion in the community, tell the Australian people where these power stations would be. Now over the years we’ve been able to collate a range of locations that have been proposed, including in my own community of Port Adelaide here in South Australia. If Scott Morrison and Angus Taylor are serious about this issue, fess up to the Australian people about where these locations might be.

KARVELAS: Even though you know that they don’t know where they are because it is nowhere near that stage?

BUTLER: They must be thinking about where these sorts of things would be located. Maybe not the shortlist of six locations but are they going to be seaside locations like the Gold Coast or Jervis Bay, those locations that have been considered in the past or are they thinking about something else entirely?

KARVELAS: On another issue but still very much in your portfolio area, Angus Taylor has announced a taskforce to study the expected closure of the Liddell power station and has left all options on the table including extending the life of it or essentially at taxpayer expense extending it – that’s on the table he hasn’t committed to it but it is an option. Would you support it being extended?

BUTLER: I think what Angus Taylor and Scott Morrison need to do is to recognise and admit they made a colossal mistake walking away from the National Energy Guarantee last year. The Liberal New South Wales Treasurer only last week said that their Government supported the National Energy Guarantee being brought back onto the table. Every business organisation supports that, a range of businesses only over the last week or two have said how serious this energy crisis is in terms of their viability and competitiveness. Just admit you’ve made a mistake and bring back onto the table a policy that Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg said would cut power bills and increase reliability, not some ad hoc approach to one particular, very old, coal-fired power station in New South Wales. An ad hoc approach or a frolic on nuclear power is not going to solve this very deep energy crisis.

KARVELAS: The Government took to the election no National Energy Guarantee, in fact it was dumped spectacularly when Malcolm Turnbull was dumped. So there is no National Energy Guarantee as you know, they took that to the election, they were pretty up front about it and now they are proposing a range of other things including potentially extending Liddell. Would Labor support the extension of Liddell?

BUTLER: That’s not a policy though Patricia - throwing a whole lot of taxpayer funds at a 50-year-old clapped out power station is not a policy. They didn’t take an energy policy to the 2019 election, and they need to come up with one. They’ve had 15 over the last three or four years. They now need to finally come up with a 16th that is going to garner the support of state governments, Liberal and Labor alike, as well as business organisations that are suffering through this crisis - not a power station by station approach of the type that Angus Taylor has come up with because he is like the dog that caught the car, he became Energy Minister determined to take down Malcolm Turnbull and the National Energy Guarantee but has no clue about how to take the country forward.

KARVELAS: So let me pin you down on this you don’t think it should be extended, you don’t think that is a good idea you described it as ageing, you don’t think it is a good idea to potentially extend Liddell?

BUTLER: We’ve all seen modelling about what extending Liddell would involve. It would cost many, many millions of dollars which presumably Angus Taylor thinks the taxpayer should fund - funds that would have to be recouped over a very short period of say a 5-year extension, would mean power prices coming out of that station about 25 per cent more expensive than the alternative that is being proposed by AGL and supported really by every other analyst that has looked at this; a portfolio of renewable energy, gas peaking and pumped hydro. So rather than just running an ideological position that Angus Taylor seems to be doing about extending this 50-year-old power station that really is at the end of its life - showing itself to be quite unreliable -just get out of the way and put an energy policy in place that investors have confidence in and allow those investors to start replacing the very old coal-fired generators that we have in our New South Wales and Victorian systems.

KARVELAS: Labor’s reviewing all of your policies that you took to the election so do you support the National Energy Guarantee or is that being reviewed as well?

BUTLER: Look if the Government has an alternative by all means put it on the table, but all I’m doing is listening to the voices of state governments, including the New South Wales Liberal State Government, that I think recognises that it has a very serious issue having the investment come through that it needs to replace some of those old coal-fired power stations in coming years. People are concerned about risks of blackouts in our two largest states of Victoria and New South Wales. So if the Government is determined not to put the National Energy Guarantee back on the table in spite of the fact that state governments and business organisations want it to, then what it the alternative? We’re open, we’re all ears - we’ve said time and time again whether it is the Clean Energy Target, the National Energy Guarantee or something else that had the confidence of investors and state governments, we were willing to get behind it because we’re conscious of just how serious this energy crisis is.

KARVELAS: Opposition Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong recently admitted that Labor would not have agreed to demands from Pacific Island leaders to ban new coal mines. Do you think coal has a strong future in Australia?

BUTLER: I think the future of coal, which is predominantly an export commodity for Australia, is going to be determined by decisions that other governments take. None of us can really know what other governments - particularly the really big coal customers like China, India and increasingly South East Asia - are going to do. But the International Energy Agency has some views about that which pretty much all see thermal coal for power stations flattening out and starting to decline at some pace or another. Those decisions are not going to be taken in Canberra, they are not going to be taken by Australian coal companies, they are going to be taken by our trading partners, particularly in our own region.     

KARVELAS: Are you in the camp enthusiastically embracing coal like some of your colleagues, Joel Fitzgibbon and even that different line there from Penny Wong?

BUTLER: I’m focused on my portfolio which is the energy portfolio.

KARVELAS: That’s all about coal. Are you enthusiastically embracing it like your colleagues?

BUTLER: The coal debate you’re taking about Patricia is essentially a debate about the export commodity. What I’m focused on is our domestic energy system and making sure, first of all, that we can get through this energy crisis and secondly that we can start cleaning up our own electricity system to make sure we get good, cheap renewable energy that drives really good job creation in our regional communities. That’s my job as the energy spokesperson.

KARVELAS: Do you have a view on, as you say let’s focus on exports, on coal and its benefit to the Australia economy?

BUTLER: Obviously it is a very strong driver of commodity income and we’ve seen that in the current national accounts where coal and iron ore prices are driving quite a substantial boom into the government revenue coffers. But from a climate change perspective these decisions, as I said, are going to be taken by other countries. We’ve already seen a very substantial shift over the last five or six years in China’s appetite for thermal coal, largely driven by air quality concerns in that country as much as climate change. As the rest of the world moves to consider how we are going to meet the Paris climate change commitments, particularly to keep global warming well below 2-degrees, I think there obviously will be impacts on the thermal coal market. These aren’t decisions taken in Canberra, we are not an importer of coal, these are decisions taken by other countries and we are going to have to make sure that we are alive to those dynamics within the thermal coal market.

KARVELAS: There are more fireworks in the ICAC today in New South Wales. You’re a former national ALP President are you a bit embarrassed by what you are seeing in the New South Wales branch?

BUTLER: I think I’m more than embarrassed - I’m appalled by what I’m seeing in the New South Wales branch. Like Anthony Albanese, though, I’m determined to see this ICAC inquiry complete before we start to consider what needs to take place. I think already a casual observer is able to take the view that there is very substantial culture change that needs to take place in this branch. I’m quite appalled by what I’ve heard.

KARVELAS: Are you in favour of potentially a federal intervention?

BUTLER: Well as I said I think we need to see this ICAC inquiry, this hearing that is running for five or six weeks completed and then to have a serious, sober consideration of what we’ve heard over the full hearing - not just the first several days.

KARVELAS: Just finally Peter Dutton has denied the AFP raid on an intelligence officer was an attempt at intimidation. What do you make of this?

BUTLER: I think really intimidation is in the eye of the beholder. I think people are becoming increasingly concerned about the use of these raids is to really shut down or, to use Peter Dutton’s words “intimidate”, the flow of information that you want in a healthy democracy; whether that is through journalists like Annika Smethurst or the ABC that were subject to raids recently or perhaps this latest raid. Now we don’t know what the circumstances behind this latest raid are. I think we need to know the circumstances as soon as possible. But I think more broadly there is a concern that the free flow of public information in the public interest is in jeopardy in this country and I think we need a Prime Minister and a Government that is more ready to stand up resolutely for that free flow, particularly for the press.

KARVELAS: Mark Butler, thank you so much for joining us.

BUTLER: Thanks Patricia.