ABC News Afternoon Briefing with Greg Jennett

04 December 2023

GREG JENNETT (HOST): A Senate frontbencher. The assistant Trade Minister, Tim Ayres in a lull in senate proceedings. And we must stress this conversation took place before news of Peta Murphy's death came through. Senator Ayres, we're assured, would have paid tribute as a friend and colleague if things had happened in a different order.

Well, Tim Ayres, this could be the last time that you're on afternoon briefing for the year. I don't want to rule out a future appearance, but we're wrapping up soon. Why don't we start with the nuclear ban in Australia? French President Emmanuel Macron has urged, or encouraged, I suppose, Australia, to lift that ban. What's the reason for, having it?


SENATOR TIM AYRES: Well, Australia is, of course, a big exporter of uranium to the world and nuclear power will form part of the World’s response as countries scramble towards their net zero targets. And of course, for France, with an established nuclear industry, established nuclear power and all of the capital that's been sunk into nuclear energy, I can understand why, from the French perspective, they see nuclear as a part of their answer. But just because it's a good answer for other countries around the world doesn't mean that it's a good answer for Australia. The upfront capital costs are enormous. The subsequent cost of energy much higher for consumers. So, investments in nuclear power for Australia would see surges in electricity prices. And we've got much better answers here in Australia. I noticed Peter Dutton jumped on this straight away. All of the things that Peter Dutton's against. Finally, we've found something that he's for. He’s for nuclear power stations. So, in the Hunter Valley, for example, Peter Dutton is running around this scare campaign about offshore wind. He's suddenly interested in sand dune preservation and all of this stuff that he's displayed no interest in for his whole political career. So, he's against offshore wind developments that people will hardly be able to see. But he's for a big nuclear power plant in Port Stephens, or Coffs Harbour, or Jervis Bay or Hervey Bay or Cairns. So, he's for nuclear energy, for nuclear power stations. They can only go in a few places on Australian coast, all of them in coastal areas.


GREG JENNETT: And in Labor seats. You are raising there, Tim Ayres, in many ways, the commercial arguments against nuclear power in this country. But on the question of the ban, is there a principle that underlines it? Is it safety?


SENATOR TIM AYRES: Well, it's not in Australia's interest to go down the cul de sac, which takes us nowhere except to higher priced power, significant community, you know this is people for good reasons apprehensive about what it would mean if Peter Dutton and Ted O'Brien's plan for nuclear power stations in Port stevens or Harvey Bay or Jervis Bay ever got off the ground.


GREG JENNETT: So, is that the reason for the ban? To allay community anxiety?


SENATOR TIM AYRES: Well, we want to provide security and certainty for the investment community here, too. The cheapest form of power for Australia is renewables plus storage. That's why the government's investment in the Rewiring the Nation Scheme is directed towards making sure we can lock that into the power system. Drive prices down. Now, we've seen ten years where the previous government had four gigawatts of power exit the system. Only 1 GW go in. That's made the mountain that Australia has to climb harder. We know what the answer is here. It’s investment in grid capability and its investment in renewables and storage in partnership with the private sector.


GREG JENNETT: And that explains Australia's voting pattern at the cop talks in Dubai where it did support a one third renewables for the planet aspiration, but it did not vote or did not support the triple nucleus role in global power supply as an exporter. How do we reconcile that? We're providing the uranium. But we're not prepared to support, in many cases, Allies expanding their nuclear pre-existing generation.


SENATOR TIM AYRES: I think this is the right answer for Australia. We will continue to be a solid partner in energy terms exporting uranium, gas, other products, to partners around the world who rely upon this as they go through their own clean energy transitions. But for Australia's purposes, that the best, the cheapest response, the most efficient response, and the response that sets up, in particular, manufacturing for the future, is low carbon renewables plus storage, approaching all of the issues in transport and agriculture that need to be dealt with, that sets Australia up for the future. We've been dragging our heels for the last ten years. We've got an opportunity in this decade, which will be a consequential decade for Australia's future, to get the policy settings right. And it's all about renewables. It's all about storage and it’s all about driving price down.


GREG JENNETT: Last one on this, you could still lift the ban and never have nuclear in Australia because it doesn't stack up for the financial and commercial reasons you outline. What would be so bad about that?


SENATOR TIM AYRES: Well, we want to be honest with the investment community and with Australians. We are not going down this cul de sac. Now, Peter Dutton is committed to a nuclear future. Nuclear power stations all up and down our coast. There would need to be dozens of these facilities in order if Australia was going to meet its net zero obligations through nuclear, dozens of these facilities all up and down our coast. We have a nuclear capability in nuclear medicine at ANSTO. We do not have a vast nuclear capability of delivering big energy project. It would be expensive. It would be a diversion from what's actually in our national interest and it would overall have the impact of pushing up prices. It's a bad idea for Australia, and I understand Peter Dutton's “no to everything, yes to nuclear,” but I think it's not a sensible response for Australia.


GREG JENNETT: Sounds like an argument that is going to persist throughout 2024. The Government's midterm slump, if I May call it that, Tim Ayres, what’s it going to take to halt it?


SENATOR TIM AYRES: Well, I think the Government's been focused on doing the job that Australians commissioned us to do. Managing the sorts of challenges that we've just been talking about, but also focusing on the cost-of-living issues. Now, I understand that if you're an Australian family now, as the cost of living has gone up over the course of the last 18 months, interest rates have gone up. These are very challenging economic circumstances, not just for the country at an aggregate level, but for individual households. I absolutely understand that, and that's why the government has been absolutely focused on not just managing the fiscal task, so providing as much room for the independent Reserve Bank. So, a big fiscal turnaround with discipline on spending, but also having a focus on the $23 billion package that is there for keeping downward pressure on household costs.


GREG JENNETT: So, why aren't people giving you credit?


SENATOR TIM AYRES: Well, you know what's going to happen over the course of 2024. There's an alternative government, the Dutton-Morrison continuum where nothing has changed. Now, these guys just imagine an alternate universe where they continued in government and the same profligate approach to public expenditure which would have meant no budget surplus. Upward pressure on inflation from the federal government. Pressure on the Reserve Bank to act more. Just imagine if those cost-of-living measures which they have voted against hadn't been delivered. Energy prices, electricity prices in households 18% higher, childcare costs 12% higher.


GREG JENNETT: Doesn't sound really pitch for a positive support for the government. It seems to. It seems a pitch to “Don't vote for them.”


SENATOR TIM AYRES: I'm a positive kind of fella. We are going to keep doing our job. We are going to keep focused on these cost-of-living issues and use that matter in the national interest. Govern in the national interest. I think what voters will have seen is that the Albanese government is a government that does what it says it's going to do. We've worked through in a systematic way implementing our election commitments not like the last government. Remember Peter Rabbit? Peter Rabbit? Tony Abbott, elected, said he would do all of these things protect in the ABC. I remember that no cuts to Medicare and then instantly turned around and did absolutely the opposite. I think what Australians have seen from us is we've been elected on a platform of doing some things. We have done those things, of providing adult, stable government. That is what we are providing. And through next year, you'll see more focus from the government on those issues.


GREG JENNETT: Does sound like you're giving us a foretaste of 2024. And we'll return to all of that, I promise, in the new year. I hope you get a break. And thanks for your support for the program. Tim Ayres.


SENATOR TIM AYRES: Yeah. Merry Christmas, Greg. And to you and to your listeners. It's been terrific being on the show.