THURSDAY, 10 OCTOBER 2019
TOM CONNELL, HOST: Mark Butler, thanks very much for your time. There’s been a lot of push-back against Joel Fitzgibbon, including from you. Is it fair to say you won’t countenance at all adopting the Coalition’s emissions target?
MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER FOR CLIMATE CHANGE AND ENERGY: Well I’ve argued since Tony Abbott first announced this target back in mid-2015 that it’s a target that’s fundamentally inconsistent with the Paris Agreement. Particularly within that agreement the best scientific advice, which is that to protect future generations from the most dangerous impacts of climate change, we need to keep global warming well below 2°C and pursue efforts around an even lower threshold of 1.5°C. All of the advice about Tony Abbott’s targets, which are the targets we’re now talking about, are that that target is fundamentally inconsistent with the Paris Agreement. Instead they are targets more consistent with global warming of more than 3°C, which would be utterly catastrophic.
CONNELL: Given that and your strength of feeling, if the party did decide to reduce the target anyway, would you reconsider your position?
BUTLER: Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Tom. As Anthony Albanese has said, and a number of us have said, it is proper after a third election loss in a row that we have a full review of our policies and we have a full debate about our direction. I think that’s something we shouldn’t shy away from. But it’s also important for people in positions like mine, as the spokesperson on climate and energy policy, to continue to restate some of the more fundamental principles that lie behind our policies and make sure that we’re not seen as reviewing them. In the health area we’re not going to review our commitment to Medicare. In workplace relations we’re not going to review our opposition to individual contracts, for example. And in climate, we’re not going to review our commitment to making sure that we look after the interests of future generations and keep global warming below those levels that scientists advise us are so important.
CONNELL: So what does that mean exactly that you won’t review? The 45%?
BUTLER: In order to implement those principles I’ve talked about, the best scientific advice globally, and from agencies like CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, the Academy of Science here in Australia, in order to achieve those principles, we need to be committed to net zero emissions by the middle of the century. Gladys Berejiklian’s Government has recognised that as one example of a Liberal Government taking a more realistic view of this policy area. And we need to have medium-term targets that are consistent with that. And that’s the argument I make against Tony Abbott’s targets that Scott Morrison has adopted, they’re simply inconsistent with that best scientific advice.
Over the course of this term we’ll be announcing our policies for the 2022 election, and those policies in climate, I’m confident, will be consistent with those principles. But Tom, as you’d understand as an AFL fan - one perhaps still a bit chastened by the events of the last few weeks - we are only half-way through the first quarter in this election term. We’ve still got three and a half quarters to play and there is a long time for us to engage with communities about this, talk to experts and make sure that we’re very clear before the 2022 election about our policies in this area and so many others besides.
CONNELL: So to that end then, could Labor actually not set a target now, and for quite a while, wait until the election is a lot closer and it’s also clear what the rest of the world is doing, including China and the US after the next presidential election, is quite a long delay here a feasible and sensible idea?
BUTLER: There’s a rhythm to every parliamentary term and I think it’s absurd for anyone to think that we would be announcing election polices for 2022 in October 2019, only a matter of a few months since the last election and while we’re still undertaking our election review. There is a rhythm to the parliamentary term, we’ve got a National Conference that will happen mid-way through the parliamentary term, I expect; then there will be a deep engagement process, as is usual, for us to talk to industry, to unions, to community groups, to experts about what our best policy position is and that will make sure that we, in 2022, have a policy that I hope really speaks to the Australian people about our country’s future.
CONNELL: Given all that though, so the review is already happening and we’re not expecting that to come up with a magic percentage number, you seem to be saying there’d be nothing wrong with settling on a position, a new target, whether it be 45 per cent or something a bit lower, in the months just before an election.
BUTLER: Well I’m not going to nominate a time-frame - that will not be my decision alone, that will be a collective decision led by Anthony Albanese about the time-frames for us rolling out election policies. But I don’t think anyone would reasonably expect that an opposition, so close to the last election, would be announcing election policies, not even for the year after next, but for the year after that, right now.
CONNELL: What about your position on coal-mining? Would you seek to limit it at all in Australia? For example, would you be comfortable with the Galilee Basin being opened up, all of that coal being exported overseas?
BUTLER: One of the things that is important for us to consider is what happened to Labor and the Labor vote in some of those coal basins in Queensland and in the Hunter Valley. Joel Fitzgibbon, as the shadow resources spokesperson and as one of our most experienced members of the Caucus and the Shadow Cabinet is leading that examination and I think that’s something he’s incredibly well-positioned to do. I think, this close to the election, the fact of the matter is we got hit from both sides - from the far-left with Bob Brown’s incredibly irresponsible, divisive convoy up to Queensland and from the right with some chest-thumping from Matt Canavan and the like - by scare campaigns that sought to argue that our climate policies were going to have a bearing, one way or the other, on export thermal coal mines.
At the end of the day what happens to export thermal coal mines in New South Wales or in Queensland is not going to be impacted by policy in Canberra, it’s going to be impacted by global market conditions and decisions taken by our major trading partners. So decisions in Beijing, in New Delhi, in our big export markets like Japan, Korea and Taiwan, and I think that’s what we really need to be able to work through.
The climate policies that we put in place or that an alternative government will put in place deal with our domestic electricity sector, deal with our transport sector, what’s happening with our big polluting industries like steel, cement and LNG. The export thermal coal sector is going to essentially have a future determined by global market conditions, not decisions in Canberra.
CONNELL: That’s true, but we’re talking about a huge amount of coal that could go on supply in the world market and actually lower the price. There are things Canberra can do in terms of environmental approvals, are you saying that Labor’s attitude would be, let the states sort it out and let the global markets sort it out and you wouldn’t seek to do anything. Your party wouldn’t seek to do anything around whether coal mines are opened up or otherwise?
BUTLER: Well I don’t accept that opening up, for example, Adani is going to have an impact on the global coal price. I don’t think anyone thinks that Australia is able to impact the global coal price. The global coal price essentially is driven –
CONNELL: Not even the whole Galilee Basin; couldn’t be effected at all?
BUTLER: Essentially the global coal price, if you read the analysis from the International Energy Agency, is determined in the south of China where you have a range of imports coming from different countries and also domestic coal that’s arbitraged in a way that makes sure the price suits the Chinese market, which is responsible for 50% of the world’s coal consumption. So, I think this idea that is sometimes driven by both sides of the argument, particularly the far-left, that opening up a coal mine in the Galilee Basin is going to crash the world coal price and lead to an increase in coal consumption, is simply misleading.
At the end of the day, the world is going to consume a certain amount of coal and that’s not going to be determined by decisions taken in Canberra or in Queensland, it’s going to be determined by decisions taken in those countries that I talked about. And so, the global market conditions are for example being heavily driven by the fact that China is seeking to move into cleaner sources of electricity generation whether they are gas, or nuclear, or a frankly jaw-dropping level of investment in renewable energy. They’re going to be determined by decisions taken by New Delhi about its future electricity generation.
CONNELL: And so you’re, just to clarify your position then, Labor’s position now on this, on coal mines in Australia, you’ll essentially be saying; well environmentals, if they’re cleared, if those hurdles are done, good, good for jobs, full-stop, no further comments?
BUTLER: Well look, if you think about Adani they’ve got all of their environmental approvals, it’s now up to the company to show that they can make a go of this. You know I have been on the record for a couple of years saying that I don’t think global market conditions warrant the opening of a new mine in the Galilee Basin, essentially a brand new thermal coal basin. I think it was important that Federal Labor and Queensland Labor was able to block the intent by the Morrison Government to throw hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars at this coal mine because if the company ends up doing its dough, which it may well given some projections about global thermal coal market conditions, then we don’t want the taxpayer ending up holding the can for this.
CONNELL: And so that would still be your position on any of these projects, no taxpayer money Federally?
BUTLER: I think that’s a very important position and I think it’s one that was important that we advocated over a couple of years now.
CONNELL: Just wanted to ask you finally about the AFR Energy Summit. One thing most participants seem to agree on is there is an issue right now with electricity and gas in Australia and the transition is at the heart of a lot of them. Do you think there’s an issue with coal-fired power stations closing early at the moment and some of the forecasts coming out?
BUTLER: Well I mean I think what we’ve heard from the Energy Summit is that the energy crisis is not getting better, if anything it’s getting worse. It’s projected to get worse because as the Grattan Institute reminded us earlier this week we lack a coherent national energy policy. Wholesale prices have increased since the crisis emerged in 2015 by about 158 per cent and the market expects those prices to keep going up. Forward prices in the market are up by 29% in just the twelve months since the National Energy Guarantee was dumped, particularly because of an insurgency lead by our Energy Minister Angus Taylor.
So I think what the Energy Summit is articulating is a concern from industry and from the regulators that there is no plan to bring this crisis to an end. Household budgets are being wrecked by electricity bills and gas bills that just go up and up and up, and particularly high energy-using businesses like manufacturing are frankly having their viability threatened and the tens of thousands of good, well-paying jobs that go with them threatened by the lack of a plan to bring this crisis to an end. It really is time for Scott Morrison to end the ideology here, to end the fascination Angus Taylor has with extending old coal fire power stations beyond their use-by date, and blocking investment in new renewable energy firmed up by pumped hydro, gas, and batteries.
CONNELL: Finally on Angus Taylor, he says one of the big issues still is moratoria on gas exploration, particularly in Victoria and New South Wales. Do you agree, should those states lift them?
BUTLER: Well Federal Labor has always supported the responsible development of on-shore gas resources, subject to good community engagement and strong environmental approval processes. The criticism I’ve made now for a couple of years, back from when Malcolm Turnbull was Prime Minister, is that a stern lecture from Canberra is going to do nothing to deal with the deep community opposition that there is in some parts of Australia, including parts of New South Wales and Victoria, to some of these gas developments. If the Commonwealth Government is serious about getting a change in position they need to bring something to the table.
CONNELL: The Victorian moratorium is even on conventional exploration, I mean is there really widespread opposition to that? Isn’t it something that’s part of Australia’s gas production and has been for a long time?
BUTLER: Well it has been for a long time in different parts of the country including my state of South Australia for literally decades. The point I’m making though is that lecturing state governments and local communities from Canberra, as Malcolm Turnbull was wont to do and as Angus Taylor is doing, without bringing anything to the table except the wagging of some fingers, is not going to get a change of position here.
We need the Commonwealth to engage constructively about this. That’s what we did when we were last in government with the water trigger. We worked with Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott and others who really sort of sensed the growing community opposition in its very early days and tried to work with communities to build community consent to these things rather than aggravate community opposition, which I think has been the result of the lectures they’ve been getting from Malcolm Turnbull and now Angus Taylor.
CONNELL: Shadow Climate Change and Energy Minister Mark Butler, appreciate your time today.
BUTLER: Thanks Tom.