December 05, 2016





PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Government is to review its climate policies as it chases the targets set out in the Paris Agreement. In the Terms of Reference released today the idea of taxing emissions on the carbon intensive industries like power generation will be tested. Does it sound a bit like a carbon tax to you? We will have to wait and see because the review will take place next year. Mark Butler is the Shadow Climate Change and Energy Minister, welcome to RN Drive.




KARVELAS: A price on emissions is being investigated in this review, but only for those carbon intensive industries like power generation. You took this kind of policy to the last election; you must welcome this part of the review in that context?


BUTLER: We do welcome that small part of the review, but we did take that policy as part of a much more substantive electricity modernisation plan which I’m happy to talk about. But when we did take that policy to the election only in July I very vividly recall Scott Morrison calling it a ‘big thumping tax on electricity,’ and Greg Hunt railed that it was ‘a great big electricity tax.’ So we’ll see quite how the Prime Minister reconciles that sort of rhetoric that we’ve seen too often from the Coalition on Climate Change policy, with what appears to be one small glimmer of hope from an otherwise pretty disappointing announcement today.  


KARVELAS: Well given you are in favour of this element isn’t it kind of incumbent on you to drop the politics, to drop reminding them on what they said to make it happen. I mean because it’s the politics of the possible, isn’t it? You’ve got this opportunity for the first time to be on a unity ticket on at least this element, is this the moment not to be talking about the divisions but actually helping the Prime Minister?


BUTLER: Well we’ve been clear that we would support his policy for many months now, as have a number of business organisations, people in the electricity sector, it’s an idea that came from the energy market commission itself, so really the only players in the debate who haven’t yet come to the table and said they would actually do it is the Government. So once they do it we’ll be happy to sit down with them. But it’s important to recognise that this alone will not transform the electricity sector in the way in which I think pretty much everyone who has an understanding of the electricity sector recognises it needs to. What we have seen today is effectively the Prime Minister and the Minister for the Environment put a permanent road block in the way of renewable energy development such that there would be no further federal support for any renewable energy projects being built, no policy that would allow renewable energy projects to be built, beyond about 2018 or 2019. That is really the most fundamental problem with a pretty disappointing announcement we’ve seen earlier today.


KARVELAS: The National Renewable Energy Target is 23.5 per cent by 2020, you say the Government needs to say what the target will be beyond that but generally speaking targets are set between 2020 and 2030, why should the Federal Government be any different?


BUTLER: Well the industry has made it very clear that if there is going to be strong investor confidence in a building program beyond 2020, they need to know what the rules are going to be really by the latter part of next year .


I mean you can’t just switch on and switch off these investments. There are 173 countries around the world that have renewable energy targets and are really all clamoring for investment dollars to come to their country to build big solar plants, wind power plants and the like. It’s very clear from the industry itself and the Prime Minister would know this, and certainly Josh Frydenberg would, that there is a high level of expectation that the rules for renewable energy will be clear in the next 12 months.


Now what we’re seeing today is a pretty clear statement I think, and anyone who has listened to it would agree, that this Government does not intend to put in place any support, any policy that would allow further renewable energy projects being built beyond 2018/2019 which is effectively when the 2020 renewable energy target runs off. 


KARVELAS: Fairfax is just reporting, as in just a couple moments ago that they’ve spoken to Coalition MP’s and some of them have gone on the record, they’re pretty outraged by this review - ‘one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard,’ says one of them. Given this kind of response straight away it returns me to the point I was making before about the bipartisan support. We’ve seen this show before, we’ve seen the divisions on this issue over and over again, over a number of years, are you concerned that there is just no way this can fly given the divisions on this?


BUTLER: I am concerned, I’m conscious that you warned me off this topic earlier Patricia but you know Craig Kelly, for example, the Chair of the Coalition’s Environment Committee, he already today has said that there would be no support within the Coalition party room for carbon trading, and this is a version of carbon trading there is no question about that. So that doesn’t bode particularly well for that small bit of progress to be made on a bipartisan basis between the major parties and the Parliament. That I think will be an enormous disappointment for people throughout the community. Business groups, environment groups, a whole lot of community groups including the ACTU, the Council of Social Services have actually been devoting a lot of time and energy over the last several months to try to resolve their differences so that they can present a united front, a basis of consensus in Parliament to try and get over the climate wars that have bedeviled this area of policy now for almost a decade. I think those background comments from the Coalition party room, I assume most of them are anonymous and people aren’t putting their name to it, doesn’t bode well for business groups who want to be able to invest with a level of certainty getting that sort of confidence from the Parliament.


KARVELAS: You’ve been to the Latrobe Valley to see the effects of the Hazelwood closure, wouldn’t your target of 50 per cent renewables by 2030 cause even more coal fired power stations to close, making it impossible for communities that rely on those jobs?


BUTLER: Well the first point I would make is that I have been to the Latrobe Valley twice this year and have spoken to community groups, the councils, unions, and others about the need for good support to be put in place as plants inevitably close down, but we should bear in mind the reality that these plants reach the end of their lives at some stage. The AGL Economics Department put out a paper only a few weeks ago, confirming that three quarters of Australia’s coal and gas fired power plants have already reached the end of their design life. Even if we didn’t have a renewable energy revolution underway, climate change imperatives and the like , Australia would still be in a position today of having to think about how we renew our electricity infrastructure, because most of the infrastructure we use now was built in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s and is coming to the end of its life, and it needs to be renewed. Now we’d like to see it renewed and replaced with clean, modern renewable energy but there is no question it will have to be replaced with something.


KARVELAS: There are reports around today, they are all but confirmed I must say that the Government must cut the Green Army scheme, the Tony Abbott era policy which aimed to pay 15,000 unemployed young people to do environmental work. Now Labor supported this at the time, you’ve criticized the potential cut today but the scheme has never attracted the numbers it was attended to so why keep pumping money into something that is underperforming?


BUTLER: There’s a couple of points about this. At one level this was unremarkable in the sense there have been labour market programs in the environmental space going back to Paul Keating’s Government.  Howard did it, Gillard and Rudd did it, and as I said Paul Keating did it. They were called different things, The Green Corps among others, so to that extent the Green Army was sort of unremarkable. It was really an extension of something we had done for a couple of decades. The scale of it was very big and I think people did wonder whether those sorts of numbers were going to be deployed in a way that Tony Abbott wanted them to be. But the biggest quarrel we had with Tony Abbott’s version of this is that he funded it by cutting half a billion dollars from Landcare. Now Landcare is a very high level environmental program developed between the ACF (the Conservation Foundation) and the National Farmers Federation decades ago, which had been working wonderfully well in local communities to restore our particularly land sector based environment.

So robbing Peter, in environmental programs that had been shown to work over decades, to pay Paul, to fund essentially a labour market program which had some modest environmental benefits, was something we didn’t agree with.


Now the semi-announcement we’ve seen in the papers today would indicate that all of the money that was taken from Landcare will now also be taken from the Green Army and we don’t know where it is going to go. It’s a very bad outcome overall for the environment and it’s not a good outcome for labour programs in the Government.


KARVELAS: What do you make of Tony Abbott’s Facebook post where he criticises Malcolm Turnbull and the Government for taking this approach. Of course the Green Army was his baby to be clear and then says you know they’re embracing Greens policies not their own centre-right policies? What do you make of that criticism?


BUTLER: There are lots of arguments you can make against the announcement that was dropped to the papers this morning, but I’m not sure I really follow Tony Abbott’s. It looked a bit like personal spite I have to say and there’s been a bit of that over the last few weeks in the Parliament. There are arguments you can make against the announcement that was dropped to the newspapers this morning, unless of course that money is going to be returned to the Landcare program. If all of this is going back to Landcare then that would be a different question, but there’s no indication of this.


KARVELAS: Well it’s about improving the budget bottom line which is another thing the Government need to do to protect the Triple AAA credit rating which Labor says it is also committed to? Surely you need to support them in making cuts, in making changes that will improve the budget bottom line?


BUTLER: Of course but Landcare was a very long standing part of our environmental protection fabric, developed really in a landmark way between farmers and environmental groups decades ago and they cut half a billion dollars out of that. Now if they weren’t going to splash $50 billion in a company tax cut then maybe we would have to have that discussion Patricia but really our view is that program was working incredibly well at a time when our environment is under very serious pressure and rather than getting this sort of drop to the newspapers the Government should come clean and say exactly what they are planning to do with that $350 million dollars they have cut this morning.


KARVELAS: The Adani mine project at Carmichael is progressing, the PM met with the Adani group chairman today and a concessional loan of $1 billion to partly fund the rail infrastructure required for the mine is now very actively being discussed. What’s your position on that loan?


BUTLER: Well this I think is really telling that at a time when the Government is undertaking a crusade against renewable energy - I mean, to listen to Malcolm Turnbull over the last couple months about renewable energy is to wonder what happened to the person I think Australian’s thought they knew - so at the time there is this crusade against renewable energy development, a drop this morning that contains no support for renewable energy beyond 2020, the Government appears to be willing to sling a billion dollars of taxpayers’ money to a big multinational, multibillion dollar company to develop a coal-mine in Northern Queensland. So it is hard to get a handle on quite what this Government’s values and ambitions for this country are.


KARVELAS: So the rail line though is critical to the project, if the Federal Government doesn’t invest in that infrastructure who will?


BUTLER: It’s a private rail line to a private development from a big multinational company from overseas. This Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund has been in place now for a considerable amount of time and this would be the first time as I understand it’s expended any money. Now we took to the election through the Tourism Spokesman for Labor Anthony Albanese a plan to deploy a billion dollars of that money into tourism projects. I understand for example the Cairns airport is keen to have support from a fund like this to be able to expand tourism opportunities. But instead of doing anything like that in small and medium based enterprises seeking to expand their business in Northern Australia, the only thing this Government can think of to deploy money from this infrastructure fund is to fund essentially a private railway for a multinational company in an industry that itself says that more than 50 per cent of the operating mines already in existence for thermal coal in Queensland are operating at a lost.


KARVELAS: Mark Butler, thank you so much for your time.


BUTLER: Thanks Patricia.