RN BREAKFAST: 16/10/19

October 16, 2019


HAMISH MACDONALD: Labor is signalling that it will back the Coalition’s so-called ‘big stick’ legislation that will give the Government strong powers to intervene in the electricity market. The back down comes as Labor is in the midst of an increasingly public debate within its own ranks over what its carbon emissions target should be after its election loss this year. One of those taking part in this debate is Shadow Climate Change Minister Mark Butler who joins us from our Parliament House studios this morning. Mark Butler, a very good morning to you.     

MARK BUTLER: Thank you Hamish.

MACDONALD: I note that in the last term of Parliament Labor was characterising this big stick legislation as a bizarre Venezuelan-style intervention that would chill investment. Why is it no longer and why are you backing it?

BUTLER: First of all, and most importantly, this is a different Bill from the one initially presented by the Government in two major respects. The first is a lot of the ministerial power, or minister discretion, over the exercise of these powers has been replaced by the work of the ACCC and importantly by the Federal Court. We think that that is more appropriate. The second, perhaps more important thing for us is we were very concerned, as were state governments and other stakeholders, that the original Bill contained a very substantial backdoor to privatising those electricity assets that have been protected from the Liberal Party’s obsession with privatisation over the last few decades – particularly in Queensland, WA and Tasmania. Now we are still not convinced that the backdoor on privatisation is being completely shut which is why we will be moving amendments to the Bill and if those amendments are not supported by the Government we will vote against the Bill.   

MACDONALD: But when were those changes to the original legislation made?

BUTLER: They’ve been made over the course of a number of iterations but at the same time we have been engaging with industry -

MACDONALD: Let’s be honest with the listeners this morning, they were made last December – so not this week, not last week, last year?

BUTLER: I was about to say Hamish that we have been engaging with industry and particularly with state governments that are concerned that their communities that have resisted privatisation might have their will overruled by a Federal Government about what we should do on this Bill. You would have seen quite substantial shifts in the attitudes of businesses organisations to this Bill, the Business Council for example -   

MACDONALD: So you’re taking your cue from business and that is why you’ve shifted your position, is that what you’re saying?

BUTLER: No don’t put words into my mouth Hamish. Obviously we engage with industry about these things, we don’t take dictation from them as you would know, but a responsible alternative government does listen to not just industry but a range of stakeholders about what view we should take about legislation before the Parliament. 

MACDONALD: Presumably you haven’t just started the conversation with business recently. These changes to the legislation were made last December and yet as recently as the weekend Labor was attacking this legislation so what has changed between the weekend and now?

BUTLER: As I have said, originally when the Bill was presented there was a very real risk of privatisation of state government owned assets. The Government said there was no risk and then they changed the Bill. We still don’t think the Bill -

MACDONALD: In December?

BUTLER: Yes – and over the course of that time since then we have had an election and a range of other distractions that have taken our attention away but we have engaged, particularly with state governments and stakeholders involved in those publicly owned jurisdictions, about whether or not the changes to the legislation announced some time ago by the Government were sufficient. We are still of the view, after undertaking advice, that they are not and we are moving amendments to the Bill. Now if those amendments are not accepted by the Government or are not able to pass the Parliament we will vote against the Bill. Now it is still up to the Government to demonstrate of course whether or not it will achieve the things that it says it will achieve, particularly lowering power prices that continue to go up and up and up. We still very much hold the view that this legislation is in no way a substitute for a coherent national energy policy, which stakeholder after stakeholder says lays at the heart of the energy crisis afflicting Australian households and businesses.       

MACDONALD: I do want to get to that but I am interested to know how committed you personally are to voting for this because I note that you put out a statement just hours before Labor changed its position on this pointing out that it would do nothing to bring down power prices.

BUTLER: I think that is now a matter for the Government to demonstrate.

MACDONALD: This is from you, a few hours before your party changed its position you put out a statement saying this would do nothing to bring down power prices. Why did you change your mind?

BUTLER: Let me be clear, this is not a piece of legislation where if we were to have won the election back in May we would have brought forward in the Parliament. We think that it is not a substitute for a coherent national energy policy. We think we have knocked off the worst elements of this legislation, particularly around the possible privatisation of publicly owned assets. We have removed that ministerial discretion after objecting to that as you say, a change that was made some months ago to the legislation. We have listened to the views of industry and other stakeholders about this and now if it passes the Parliament with those improved amendments around privatisation it will be for the Government to demonstrate whether or not it achieves its objectives.
We are committed to making sure that this does not distract from the much more serious issue of arguing for a cohesive national energy policy because if we don’t get one of those this energy crisis, which is the worst energy crisis we’ve seen since the mid-1970s, will continue to get worse not better.    

MACDONALD: What is your position on what Labor’s position should be in terms of what its emissions reduction targets should be?

BUTLER: My position is very clear and that is our targets in a long-term and in a medium-term sense should comply with the best possible scientific and economic advice about how we implement the Paris commitments. Those are to make sure we keep global warming well below 2-degrees and pursue efforts around 1.5-degrees. That is the basis on which we formed our previous policies based on advice from the Climate Change Authority, delivered a little over five years ago in 2014. The Authority, the Climate change Authority, is a body setup by the Parliament. A statutory authority specifically empowered with giving advice to the Parliament, the Government and the community about these things. That was the way in which we formed our advice in the past and I’d hope would be the way in which we formed our policies in the future.

MACDONALD: So no change from what you went to the election with?

BUTLER: No change to the core principles, which is the point I’ve been making over the last couple of weeks.

MACDONALD: But this is a question about the specifics of the policy, are you talking about a 45 per cent target? Are you talking about something much less than that? Specifically what do you think it should be?

BUTLER: What we can’t battle against is the effluxion of time and the advice that I just referred to was delivered more than five years ago and was delivered in a context of envisaging a 15-year implementation time frame. I think Anthony Albanese has made the obvious point that by the time of the next election we will be about halfway through that timeframe and as a number of other stakeholders, like the Carbon Market Institute CEO John Conner has pointed out, really by that time as we meet the mid-2020s the Paris Agreement will have parties expected to looking at their 2030-2035 targets. So the numbers in their precise form will shift around as this process goes on. The important thing is to restate the core principles that we have – if I could just finish this point Hamish – we have a long-term commitment to net zero emissions by the middle of the century and we will set medium-term targets that are consistent with those principles and the best available advice. That is what we did in the past and that is what we will do in the future.

MACDONALD: This is the problem though as a Party you obviously need to be specific about what your target would be by 2030. You had a very different policy than the Government going into the election. It is clear that there are divisions within your Party about what the target should be and I think everyone listening to this this morning would say you are declining to put a number on it?

BUTLER: Essentially what you are asking me to do Hamish is to announce our 2022 election policy literally four or five months out from the 2019 election. It is an absurd proposition Hamish, you know that.

MACDONALD: You heard the first question which is what’s your view about what the Labor position should be – what is the target?

BUTLER: I’ve said my view, my view is that it must be informed by the best advice, as it was in the past, and it must comply with those principles. Now it may well be as we approach 2022 that we are talking about a 2035 target instead of a 2030 target in which case the precise number will be a different number.

MACDONAD: You’ve made it clear in the past though that you believe the Government’s target of 26-28 per cent is not consistent with those principles. Therefore you must strongly oppose the position that is put forward by Joel Fitzgibbon?

BUTLER: Yes, I strongly oppose the Government’s target. It was pulled out of thin air by Tony Abbott. Every piece of independent analysis says it is consistent with more than 3 degrees of global warming and is fundamentally inconsistent with the Paris Agreement. That is why from the day it was announced I have been vociferously opposed to the Government’s target because it betrays our responsibility to future generations and it delays the enormous investment and jobs opportunities that come with a proper transition to clean energy.

MACDONALD: So there are those within your own Party that want to betray future generations then because that is what they are talking about?

BUTLER: I think our position has been made clear over the past week. We will continue to adopt, as Labor Party policy, positions that are consistent with the Paris Agreement.

MACDONALD: The Labor caucus also resolved on Tuesday to propose its own motion declaring a climate emergency. What does that do?

BUTLER: I think what it attempts to do is to demonstrate to the Australian community that we have heard the repeated urgent advice over the past 12-18 months in particular from the world’s leading scientists, from economic regulators, including our own here in Australia like APRA, the Reserve Bank and ASIC and also by health professionals, that the window is closing on our generations ability to meet its responsibility to meet those Paris commitments. We’ve heard advice that really it is within the power of this generation to start the transition to a clean energy economy in a way that meets those Paris commitments and at the moment we’re on track for more than 3 degrees of global warming, not those set out in the Paris Agreement, which would be utterly catastrophic. Now the words could be crisis or emergency or anything else but around the world in Parliaments like the UK, Canada and several other Parliaments, city councils and so on, this sort of language has been used as an opportunity to try and bring together different political parties at least around the urgency of this task.

MACDONALD: Do you honestly reckon it could do that here?

BUTLER: We failed yesterday, we tried to have this debate brought on and the Government gagged that debate. They wouldn’t even allow the debate to proceed. I think the hopes that some stakeholders had that at least there would be some within the Coalition or Liberal Party room that would stand up and say hang on, 350,0000 Australians have signed this petition, let’s have a debate around the urgency of the threat of climate change. Not about policy prescriptions, not about the political differences, for example, on the transport sector or the renewable energy sector, but just around that core task that our generation has to start that transition in a way that meets those key commitments in the Paris Agreement for our children, our grandchildren and generations beyond. Unfortunately, we couldn’t even get that debate going.

MACDONALD: Mark Butler we always appreciate having you on the program, thank you.

BUTLER: Thanks, Hamish.