ABC News with Greg Jennett

05 March 2024


Greg Jennett: Well, the Assistant Trade Minister Tim Ayres is among the many dignitaries inside the secure bubble at the Convention Centre where the ASEAN Australia Summit is being held. As far as we can tell, none of the VIP delegations in town for the summit was caught up in the traffic delay, but let’s check in with Tim Ayres on what’s been happening at the summit.

Senator, welcome back to Afternoon Briefing. I really don’t want to make you a traffic commentator, but it was said very clearly by these Extinction Rebellion protestors this morning that they were doing it because of the ASEAN leaders being in town for the summit. So the question, Tim, is: was this a failure of intelligence on the part of the many police and other security agencies on the ground there?


Tim Ayres, Assistant Trade Minister: Well, I certainly don’t think it was a failure of intelligence. I do think – I mean, I listened to that intro that you just gave. This protest persuaded nobody. It should be condemned in the strongest possible terms. It’s not an effort to engage with Australians about the issues that they claim to be representing. It’s an extremist blockade that caused great inconvenience to many tens of thousands of motorists who are just trying to get to work.

Right here now where we have the Australia ASEAN Summit, the 50th anniversary of Australia’s being a partner of ASEAN, where much of the dialogue between our ASEAN friends and Australia is about emissions reduction initiatives that we are taking that we can share in the fastest growing region of the world in human history whose energy demands are ever increasing. You know, if we are really making progress on climate and emissions, delivering low-cost energy that is low emissions, that delivers reliable power for households and businesses here in Australia and in the region, we have to succeed in the region in which we live. That’s been much of the discussion here, and to have protestors on the fringes who have convinced nobody by their actions this morning is pretty disappointing.


Greg Jennett: Yeah, on the contrary – I think they probably created a few enemies on the way through.

Let’s move on to – well, we will move on to the real substance of what’s been announced today, Tim Ayres, but on the way there, Paul Keating has obviously been monitoring recent pronouncements made by security agency chiefs, particularly Mike Burgess from ASIO who informed us last week about the detection of a former politician back in the day who was a spy for a foreign country. Once again, he's lashed Penny Wong and the heads of the security agencies, Mike Burgess among them, in pretty strident terms really. He calls this ‘China rattling’. What’s your response, once again, to the former Prime Minister, who seems very perturbed by the direction of foreign and security policy in this country?


Assistant Minister: Well, the Australian government is focused on the facts and the circumstances in which Australia finds itself in the 2020s. And, of course, Paul Keating is entitled to his view and he’s entitled to put it whichever way he wants.

I have to say that the reaction from some parts of the Australian political system to Mr Burgess’ outlining of the circumstances that he did outline, whether it’s Mr Dutton’s commentary or others, has really missed the point. I think the point that Mike Burgess was trying to make was to make sure that he played his role in this statement to educate the Australian public, politicians and journalists about the nature of the strategic challenge and, indeed, the kind of vulnerabilities that we need to attend to. That’s the message I think that we ought to pay attention to. The Prime Minister was very clear when he was asked about this earlier today, and I absolutely agree with the proposition that he put.


Greg Jennett: Would you prefer Mr Keating cease and desist from what are now becoming quite regular and on occasions quite personal attacks on the Foreign Minister Penny Wong herself?


Assistant Minister: Well, previous Prime Ministers, previous political leaders are entitled to participate am the debate. What I can say is that we have a Foreign Minister who is doing an excellent job, a Foreign Minister who’s led the debate in Australia and has projected Australia’s vision and mission overseas and national interest overseas in a calm, effective and determined way. And I’m very proud of the work that this government has done represented, of course, in some part in the 10 ASEAN leaders coming to Australia for this 50th anniversary summit engaging in a direct and meaningful way with the Australian government about the issues that matter for the region and the issues that matter in Australia’s national interest. That’s what we’re going to be focused on. We won’t be distracted by any of the noise. We will be focused in a careful way on the national interest and pursuing that in a way in the region in which we live, which is going to be all about our economic security and making sure that we’re protecting the future security of all Australians.


Greg Jennett: No, fair enough. It’s quite a showcase that’s being mounted there and it hasn’t really hit its straps yet – that is still to occur this evening and into tomorrow, Tim Ayres. But since you point us there why don’t we go to one of the new announcements at least: a $2 billion investment facility put on the table today for South East Asian countries with a focus on green energy and infrastructure. How much of this $2 billion will be in the form of loans that must be repaid? How much of it comes back to Australia?


Assistant Minister: Well, it will be administered by Export Finance Australia, and all of its expenditure will be in the form of loans or equity, so that is it’s like a range of these funds where the money is invested in particular programs and generates a return for the fund. So it builds a perpetual capacity to invest in these sorts of projects.

There is an enormous demand for investment in South East Asia. The report that the government commissioned by Nicholas Moore points to, while there’s been enormous growth in these commiserate, the level of Australian direct investment is not where we need it to be. It’s not where we need it to be in the Australian national interest and it’s not where we need it to be in order to generate positive commercial returns for our economy and for our institutional investors. It’s not where we need it to be to make sure that Australia is participating economically in the region which generates good jobs in our outer suburbs and regions.

So the whole strategy has been outlined by Nicholas Moore. The government adopted three of those initiatives straight away, announced a further five over the course of this summit. That $2 billion facility is one of the core recommendations in the Nicholas Moore report, and it will crowd in investment from Australian investors, from Australian companies and international investors in projects that move the dial in development terms and in green energy terms in South East Asia.


Greg Jennett: Yep, look, in the meantime, we’ve got a debate starting to stir here – you’d be well aware of this, Tim Ayres – around nuclear power for Australia. It doesn’t heavily feature through South East Asia, maybe one day it will. But the Coalition will develop a policy here. It has a problem, though, doesn’t it, that nuclear power is illegal in this country. If it succeeded at an election, would Labor recognise that as something of a mandate and at least agree to remove that ban under the scenario of a Peter Dutton‑led government?


Assistant Minister: Well, after a decade of taking Australia backwards on energy, where four gigawatts went out of the system and only one gigawatt went in, Peter Dutton is determined to lead the country into another energy cul-de-sac. It’s like, you know, the mad old uncle at the barbecue has become in charge of Coalition policy on energy. Nuclear energy is expensive, the kind of technologies that Mr Dutton is talking about – either large-scale nuclear or experimental nuclear reactors that haven’t been commercialised yet – I mean, we can see the experience overseas. The first large-scale nuclear power station built in Great Britain for some time, hopelessly overschedule, likely to cost $65 billion. Why is the Coalition focused on so-called solutions to the energy issues that the country faces that make power more expensive? That would be the result of adopting Mr Dutton’s strategy – so-called strategy. And it relies upon, of course, putting nuclear power stations in suburbs and regions that he’s not prepared to name.


Greg Jennett: Sure.


Assistant Minister: If Mr Dutton is serious, we – he claims that they will go in areas that have got current energy infrastructure. They will need to be close to water. Does that mean that there will be nuclear power stations in Port Stephens or in Coffs Harbour or in Jervis Bay or in Hervey Bay? I mean, this is just make-believe energy policy that’s designed to fill the vacuum of a complete failure on energy policy. Remember in government – 23 energy policies and they couldn’t land a single one. This is just more of the same from the Coalition.


Greg Jennett: All right. Strong stuff there Tim Ayres. Somehow I think this is a discussion we’re going to be drawn into, all of us, over the course of the next year in the countdown to the next election. You’ve got a fair bit happening –


Assistant Minister: We shouldn’t be distracted. Yeah, we shouldn’t be – this is designed to be a distraction. Nobody serious in the energy sector believes that this is the answer for Australia. It’s clickbait from Peter Dutton that’s designed to drive an extremist argument rather than focus on what is the public policy problem that we have to solve. The public policy problem that we have to solve in Australia is low-cost, low-emission energy that is reliable for households and industry. That is the project that the government is embarked upon. That is where the weight of evidence is. That is where the weight of experts are, and that is where the energy sector itself is going.


Greg Jennett: Yeah.


Assistant Minister: What Peter Dutton wants here is a political distraction, not a serious policy argument.


Greg Jennett: I hear you, Tim Ayres. And your arguments are, as always, noted and appreciated on this program. We’ll be talking to you again before too long. In the meantime, you do have a pretty packed program, and we appreciate you making time for us in the setting of the ASEAN Australia Summit.


Assistant Minister: Good to talk to you, Greg.


Greg Jennett: Thanks so much.