29 May 2023


Monte Irvine, Host: I have been joined on the phone now by New South Wales Labor Senator, Tim Ayres. Good morning, Senator, how are you this morning?


Tim Ayres, Assistant Minister for Trade and Assistant Minister for Manufacturing: G'day Monte, I'm really good. Good morning to your listeners too.


Monte Irvine: You're down in Canberra. The Parliament's sitting at the moment. What's the weather like in Canberra this morning?


Assistant Minister: It's cold, and it rained a bit overnight. It's a typical Canberra May/June morning.


Monte Irvine: Fantastic. I lived in Canberra during that time, and many, many years ago, and I know how cold it is, and I know how lazy that wind is.


Assistant Minister: It's going to get colder still.


Monte Irvine: Absolutely.  Now, while we're talking about the cold weather, we think about heating, and of course electricity prices were announced in the last week, that they're likely to rise by 20 to 24 per cent for Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales and South-East Queensland. We spoke to Barnaby Joyce last week in relation to this, and he's saying that basically that with the closing of Liddell Power Station and the inadequacy at the moment of renewables within Australia, we can expect higher bills for quite some time to come.


Assistant Minister: Well, that's an extraordinary, extraordinary thing to say. You know how I ‑ I don't really like to argue with Barnaby of course, but that is completely dead wrong, and he knows it.


The big challenge that the Australian Government has on its hands at the moment is a global spike in energy prices, that the International Energy Agency says, correctly, is 90 per cent the result of Russia's illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine. That's what's driving the big spike in global energy prices, and it's also, Monte, one of the big drivers behind inflation in the rest of economy. Households will be seeing rises in costs, not just in energy, but in a whole series of other areas.


Now, the Government's responsibility here is to try and put downward pressure on those prices, but also to support the most vulnerable in our community, and the Government has acted. We've done three things that have made a big difference.


Number one, we've put a cap on the price of gas, and worked with the states to deliver caps on the price of coal.  Now, that has put enormous downward pressure on prices right across the economy. No previous Australian Government has done it, and Barnaby Joyce and Peter Dutton were opposed to it. If they had got their way, electricity prices and gas prices would be much, much higher today, they would be sky high compared to where they are now.


Now, secondly, we have provided a mechanism to support people, low‑income Australians, to get subsidies for their power bills. That will mean that for some low‑income Australians, particularly those in New South Wales, bills will actually be lower than they were last year. So that is a way that Jim Chalmers and Chris Bowen and the Government devised to support low‑income Australians in a way that's not inflationary and doesn't provide a sort of cash splash in the budget but supports low‑income Australians.


And the third thing we're doing is putting a very strong renewable energy target to put in the medium and long‑term, to put as much renewables and storage in the system, which we know is the lowest cost power.


Now, those three measures taken together, some of them short‑term, some of them medium‑term, is the most coherent approach to energy policy in more than a decade. Remember, the last guys, 22 different energy policies, and couldn't land any of them, which is a substantial reason why there's been so much uncertainty in investment in this sector, and you know, that is also a driver of high prices.


Now, I know that for households and business still facing rising costs, you know, has driven enormous pressure on household budgets, it is still a big challenge for businesses, but I just say, the Government has acted, we've been opposed every step of the way by Peter Dutton and Barnaby Joyce and the Liberals and Nationals, we've put considerable downward pressure on energy prices, and if Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton and Barnaby Joyce had their way, prices would be much higher today than they are now.


Monte Irvine: I know this is probably a better question for State Governments, but do you think State Governments should be looking at re‑entering the energy market, and you know, say for instance, Liddell, should the State Government have looked at that, bought Liddell, and be supplementing or subsidising the energy that they could produce to help push down the prices, not just for low‑income earners, but say for, you know, the mid to low‑income earners that are working?


Assistant Minister: Well, two points on this, Monte. Number one, we've all got to work together, State and Federal Government have got to work together. In some states, in Victoria in particular, the State Government has stepped in and established its own electricity authority to have public ownership of new renewable energy capability.


So that's the first thing. Everyone's got to work together, recognise their responsibility. At Commonwealth level, we're putting $20 billion in there to rebuild the energy transition capability so that we've got grid stability.


Secondly, on Liddell, this is an old argument. The last State Government, the Liberal Government and the new State Labor Government looked at Liddell, looked at whether continuing its operations would have a positive effect in terms of supply or a downward pressure on prices and concluded that it would not.


You know, I've spent time at Liddell Power Station. It is an ageing piece of infrastructure that costs more and more and more to continue, and in fact at the end of the day you cannot keep old infrastructure going forever. It costs a huge amount of money to maintain.


The maintenance cycles that were put in place for Liddell were there designed to get it to its end date, and you know, continuing to extend it would just put additional costs into the system, have no positive effect in terms of supply, and there's not a challenge in New South Wales on that question. It really is a furphy. It really is designed as a distraction, this argument, from what is the job that we have to do as a Government and a community here.


While we've got to support people through this price shock period that's caused by the war in Ukraine, and we've got to put as much low‑cost electricity in the system in the medium to long‑term, and the low-cost electricity is from renewables and storage. That's how we're going to get grid stability in the long‑term, that's how we're going to drive down the cost of electricity.


Every other answer from the Liberals and Nationals, and you know, late night television, and all of the nonsense that you hear about this argument, every other answer on electricity will put upward pressure on prices. The only way that we drive down electricity prices, increased reliability and storage and drive down our emissions at the same time and make Australia a renewable energy superpower with good jobs in the regions is to get the energy transition right, and to put as much renewables and storage into the system as possible.


That's why the Government has a target of 83 per cent renewables by 2030 for the Australian system, because we know that it will make electricity cheaper for households and for business, and grow jobs, and give people a bit of pressure off their household budget.


Monte Irvine: Senator, it is National Reconciliation Week. You're down in Canberra. Parliament is sitting during this time. What are some of the plans around that that will happen in Canberra this week?


Assistant Minister: Well, there will be, of course, a lot of discussion in the Parliament on these questions. There will be further debate, of course, on The Voice Referendum legislation which is making its way through the Parliament. But we've had all these opportunities in Australian history, you know, the 1967 referendum, the Redfern Speech, progress in terms of land rights, you know, all of these junctures in our history where Australians have had an opportunity to reflect on our past and to think about our future,


And, you know, my strong view is that we are stronger as a nation if we can have an honest assessment of our past, including the difficult and challenging parts of Australia's history, and that we are stronger as a country when we reflect properly on the challenge of reconciliation and the opportunities of reconciliation.


We have the oldest continuous culture on earth in Australia. You know, it is something that should be a source of great national pride; 60,000 years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history in Australia. That is a remarkable thing. It is a profound national asset, and Reconciliation Week is an opportunity to celebrate that, to consider and reflect on, you know, what has happened over the course of the colonisation of Australia, what that means in terms of the position of First Nations communities today, and to take practical steps to address that and to acknowledge that.


It is, you know, a year where we're going to have a referendum, which will be the opportunity that this generation of Australians has to accept, you know, what is a very generous offer to recognise First Nations in the Constitution, and to give First Nations communities from across Australia a voice.


It's Reconciliation Week this week, but we've got this referendum on later this year, which will give every Australian a chance to have a voice on what is, you know, one of our most important nation‑building questions.


Monte Irvine: Fantastic. Senator, I've run out of time. Thank you so much for your time this week. New South Wales or Queensland?


Assistant Minister: Well, it's New South Wales, but oh, gosh, it's going to be a tough game, and you know, I reckon that we've got, you know, a few more days, of you know, breathless State of Origin commentary. I know there's a big blue about which shade of blue there should be in the jersey. It's ‑ anyway, it's going to be on on Wednesday night. I, however, am going to be sitting through Senate estimates which will go through until 11 o'clock on Wednesday night. So, I'm hoping ‑ I don't know whether I'll be able to sneakily get updates on my phone as we're going, but I'm going to miss the Origin, I'll have to watch the replays on Thursday morning.


Monte Irvine: Fantastic, Senator, thank you so much for your time. Talk to you next week.


Assistant Minister: Good on you mate. Catch you next week.