2SM Sydney, Breakfast with Richard King

28 June 2023


Richard King, Host: I am not sure it’s an appropriate introduction to my next guest, but he does come from a union background. New South Wales Senator Tim Ayres, our Assistant Minister for Trade and also Assistant Minister for Manufacturing, and he is on the line now. Good morning, Tim.

Tim Ayres, Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing: G’day, Richard. Good to be on the show. I won’t sing along with the song!

Richard King: Look, the late Simon Crean also like yourself had a union background. Did you have much to do with Simon Crean, Tim?

Assistant Minister: I was very sorry to hear that Simon had died. I had known Simon for 30 years. He was a remarkable person who made an extraordinary contribution to Australia and to the Australian labour movement all the way during the accord, and then as a Minister in the Hawke and Keating and Rudd and Gillard Governments. There are very few people in our history who can claim to have made the kind of contribution he did.

He was a friend of mine. We just had breakfast just a few months ago, and it was very sad news. I really send my condolences to Carole and his family and his many, many friends across the labour movement and across the country. Simon made really close friends in the business community, and he did a lot for Australian business and Australian workers. He was leading a delegation, when he died, of the Europe-Australia Business Council to Europe, promoting Australian business in Europe, fighting hard for jobs and commercial opportunities. He was a really decent bloke, and he will be really sadly missed.

Richard King: Yes, indeed. The tributes coming from all sections and walks of life, which is good to hear. Look, just on the subject of unions, I notice, I think it was last week, the Mining and Energy Union decided unanimously to divorce themselves from the, well, what was the CFMMEU. Does that happen very often? Do unions decide to part ways with each other?

Assistant Minister: No, it doesn’t happen very often, but it’s an overwhelming emphatic victory for the leadership of the Mining and Energy Union. In the Hunter Valley, all of those mines up the valley represented by the Mining and Energy Union. They have lodges at every single coalmine in the Hunter Valley, and right across Australia they’ve made an enormous contribution to, firstly, to our history; secondly, to the economics, making sure that there are good jobs for mining workers, fighting for permanent work, pushing back against casualisation and labour hire. You know, that union has played a really strong role and making a really strong contribution to the debate about [the] economic future of mining and energy regions. So, that’s a welcome development that vote, really strong vote. It really shows a strong determination for that union to chart a future for itself.

Richard King: Thirteen to 7, my guest Queensland – Queensland. New South Wales Senator Tim Ayres Assistant Minister for Trade and also for Manufacturing. Big announcement today. This is a real plank of Labor’s National Rail Manufacturing Plan and, hopefully, we will be building trains here in Australia. Can you tell us a bit about the announcement that you will be making today, Tim?

Assistant Minister: Well, yes, it’s a real opportunity. As you say, in my former role, before I came into the Parliament, I was in the Hunter Valley all of the time, you know, in workshops, in workplaces, fighting hard against the decisions of the previous New South Wales Liberal Government to offshore rail work overseas. It cost thousands of jobs. It cost hundreds of apprenticeship opportunities and means it smashed some of the manufacturing capability in the Hunter. And what did the New South Wales Government get? It got trains that ran over budget, that ran over time, that don’t fit through tunnels, that don’t work across the network, have got quality problems that it’s costing a lot of money now to resolve. So, I’m delighted to be part of the Albanese Government that is going to make sure we’ve got a National Rail Strategy that brings all of this manufacturing back to Australia.

Richard King: Right. Now, you put together this Rail Industry Innovation Council. You’ve been announcing that to people today. Look, and a lot of people will say, okay, look, you’ve just put a whole lot of people on board that are probably going to be remunerated handsomely and it’s probably just going to another talkfest without a great deal in the way of results coming out of it, resulting jobs et cetera. Your response to that? Is this just going to be another talkfest?

Assistant Minister: Well, this does three things. Number one, it brings together the leadership of industry, a council of experts, who are going to help us deliver this strategy. Secondly, it delivers a National Rail Advocate. On top of the $14 million that the Government has committed already to the Office of National Rail Industry Coordination, Jacqui Walters will provide real strategic leadership, real nous and real capability to this role. Thirdly, our strategy here is yes, we’ve got Governments now with the election of the Minns Government in New South Wales who are all at a state level committed to Australian manufacturing of rail.

Queensland, where I am today – I am reluctant to concede this in State of Origin season, but Queensland has led the way here. A multibillion‑dollar commitment to a local manufacturing capability, have been delivering trains here in Queensland year after year under the Palaszczuk Government. What this National Rail Manufacturing Plan does, that Anthony Albanese announced before we went to the election, is that it is about coordinating the states to make sure that we get locked in over the decades local rail procurement, and that means that companies can invest in jobs and in apprenticeships and industrial capability with confidence in the long term.

Secondly, I want to make sure that we build scale across the states so that we build our capacity to not only make passenger rail here but lift the scale so that we are competitive in terms of freight and mining rail. There are more jobs and more opportunities there. And that we are making the Australian trains for the future, not just being on the end of global design and supply chains, but that we are making the trains here that match Australian characteristics. That gives us the scale to then be able to export components in a global market. We’ve got this opportunity, Richard, to build a big rail industry that creates thousands of jobs for tradies but also apprenticeships and engineering cadetships for the future.

Richard King: All right, Tim, is there a time frame for this council? Are they just going to sort of deliberate ad infinitum or is there a bit of a deadline? They’ve got to come up with some plans and some solutions.

Assistant Minister: Well, they’ve got a job to do. I want to see a much more fleshed-out strategy by the end of this year. I want to be working with this Council and with the new Advocate, who will chair the Council, to drive change by the end of the year. But then we have to have an enduring capability for the Commonwealth to use its convening power, capacity to work across the states in a cooperative way, not the politics, not the slick announcements, but actually the hard work on policy delivery, because this is something that we could hand on to future generation, decades and decades and decades of rail manufacturing.

Richard King: I think we’d all like to see a lot more manufacturing here in Australia, Tim. Look, we’re short for time. But a few things. You were in China, I think it was in March of this year, and obviously, hopefully, lifting more trade restrictions, but we have this dilemma with China; they are our biggest trading partner but some people are talking about the fact that they think we will be at war with China in a number of years. What’s the situation at the moment from your point of view?

Assistant Minister: Well, the Government has been working very hard to stabilise the relationship with China. There are some structural differences that we should not shy away from here, but the job, as Anthony Albanese said recently at the Shangri‑la Dialogue, a very significant gathering of regional leaders – the job for Australia is to do three things: stabilise the relationship with China, encourage dialogue between the countries of the region, but thirdly to use all of our statecraft, to use all of our effort, to create the kind of region that is in our national interests and is in the region’s interests in the future.

A region where no country dominates and no country is dominated, where we all as countries of the region have our own sovereignty, our own capacity to shape our own futures. And that means all of the hard work that the Government has been doing at the Prime Ministerial level and the Ministerial level is about all of that engagement across the region, whether it’s my portfolio in trade, Penny Wong’s work, in Don Farrell, the Trade Minister’s work, he’s building those connections and that confidence and that engagement across the region to shape the future that’s in our interest.

Richard King: Now, I’ll bring back the commitment, the electricity bills and power bills, to go down $275 under your government. Well, from 1 July, which is on Saturday, electricity prices are going to go through the roof again. Is it going to get worse or is there a plan to try to bring down the cost of energy, Tim?

Assistant Minister: Well, this is the Government that put caps on the price of gas. That has put big downward pressure on the price of electricity. Action in the market, working with the states on coal prices. We’re the only government that has had a plan, an energy plan that’s actually been stable and delivered real outcomes here. Now, Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine has meant that there has been big pressure on energy prices around the world –

Richard King: Well, because there’s a couple of other things I want to get to, but the reality is from 1 July, electricity is going to cost more for us. The other thing that’s obviously become an issue for the Government is the fact that, well, in terms of popularity, it seems to be on the slide a bit. Down from election time and highs and the latest Newspoll showing the referendum on the Voice is on track to be defeated. Do you think the Government is going to have to change tack on the way the whole Voice is being promoted and sold at the moment, Tim?

Assistant Minister: Well, let’s just let me make the point on electricity, which is it is hundreds of dollars cheaper than it would be if the Liberals had got their way. They voted against the reforms that would have kept electricity prices down. It is much cheaper than it would have been if they did that and got its way.

Richard King: Yes, but it’s going up as of Saturday.

Assistant Minister: Yeah, but less than it would have been. The price impact would have been very difficult for families if Peter Dutton had got his way. On the broader questions, the Voice proposal, the referendum, is a very straightforward proposition. There’s been a whole lot of Chicken Little campaigning in the Parliament in Canberra from Peter Dutton and his colleagues about this. It’s disappointing to see.

Richard King: But you would accept that the Voice is a concept, and it is difficult to actually promote a concept. Would you agree? Everyone seems to accept that we should be enshrining in the Constitution recognition, you know, Indigenous Australians they’ve been here for 65,000 years, but the Voice is just a concept and it’s a bit hard to sell.

Assistant Minister: It’s a pretty practical idea.

Richard King: Yes, but it’s a concept.

Assistant Minister: Yes, well, all of these things are. I mean, all of the provisions in the Constitution are, you know, not fully fleshed-out propositions. Defence power, the corporation power, these are references in the Constitution that Parliaments amend over time to shape the circumstances as they evolve. And that will be the case with the Voice.

Everybody knows that if you’re making decisions about a particular community, they are much better decisions if that community gets a voice in the process and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians haven’t had a voice. And all this proposal does is build an advisory capability, guarantee, that can be amended over time, but it can’t just be swept away. It is advisory, so it will give advice. It will put the issues together. It will drive better outcomes. But it’s always going to be up to the Parliament what it does with the advice that it’s given. That’s appropriate. It’s absolutely consistent with our tradition of Westminster parliamentary democracy.

It will make a big difference over time, and I think we’ve got many, many months until the referendum comes along. The Chicken Little crowd in Canberra have been saying ridiculous things. It’s just got sillier, and sillier and sillier. Michaelia Cash was claiming it would have an impact on the development of roads in the Victorian road system. I mean, it’s too silly for words. The people who are saying this, they are not fair dinkum.

Richard King: Okay. Do you think that Peter Dutton, the Opposition Leader, and Simon Birmingham have been fair dinkum and genuine in their criticism of the latest announcement of aid to the Ukraine, $110 million, coming out saying “Too little, too late and we’re giving them sort of second‑hand rubbish”? Do you think that’s a fair criticism?

Assistant Minister: I think people [are] throwing stones from outside on this. That’s not the way that those issues should be approached. Australia has been and is a very significant contributor. We are punching well beyond our weight. Hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of contribution to the supply of hard material and defence material for Ukraine’s brave struggle against Russia’s illegal war of aggression. Australia is making a very, very strong contribution. Judgements have to be made in conjunction with the Ukrainian authorities about what is the best material. That work has been done. And taking cheap shots from the side doesn’t assist Ukraine and it doesn’t assist what should be beyond politics.

Richard King: Very quickly, because we’ve got the news in about 30 seconds. The Rabbitohs, I know you’re a mad keen fan. You’ve lost two in a row. You’re going to turn that around?

Assistant Minister: Well, I don’t want to talk about last couple of weeks.

Richard King: All right. Good luck this weekend, Tim. I’m going to have to wrap it up. But thank you very much for your time.

Assistant Minister: Any time, mate. Catch you shortly.

Richard King: Good on you. Thank you, Tim Ayres, New South Wales Senator.