13 March 2023

Glen Bartholomew, Host: Let's stay with the nation's finances. It's been described as one of the largest peacetime investments in Australian manufacturing and industry, with the Federal Government succeeding in passing the $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund through the House last week. This fund is one of the Albanese Government's big nation-building election promises. It's linked to that AUKUS security pact, as one of the seven areas of priority is boosting defence capability.

But it's yet to clear the Senate, debate on the Bill and negotiations with Independents and the Jacqui Lambie Network posing some possible hurdles at the next sitting of Parliament. The Greens hope that cooperation will translate to other bills after getting Labor to agree that the fund will not directly be used to fund coal, gas or native logging projects. Tim Ayres is the Assistant Manufacturing and Trade Minister [indistinct] and he joins us in the NewsRadio studio. Tim Ayres, good morning to you.

Tim Ayres, Assistant Minister for Trade and Assistant Minister for Manufacturing: G’day, Glen, how are you?

Bartholomew: Not too bad. $15 billion. A lot of money to be investing in our manufacturing capabilities. Tell us how this National Reconstruction Fund is being funded exactly.

Assistant Minister: Well, as you said in the introduction, this is the biggest peacetime investment in Australian industrial capability in our history. It is a modern fund that will invest on a co-investment basis, loans, guarantees. This is not a grant fund. This will work with private sector proponents and the investment community to make sure that we are delivering new industrial capability. But it will also deliver a return to the fund and the taxpayer, which means this will be a perpetual fund that will be able to invest in future Australian industrial capability well into the future.

We have drifted down the economic complexity indexes. We have manufacturing at less than 7 per cent of GDP. Does anyone really believe that Australia can prosper and be safe and secure in the region unless we reindustrialise, particularly in our outer suburbs and regions? The real question here is for the Liberal and National Party, why are they so determined to vote against this proposition?

Bartholomew: So, is this, as you say, a bit more of a sort of a public-private partnership sort of approach? Is the government looking at sort of almost a venture capital bank role in this, the funding for a lot of these projects?

Assistant Minister: Well, this means that factories and industrial capability that would not otherwise have got private sector finance will find its home in Australia that we can commercialise, in particular, Australian research to be going to production on Australian soil. Now, the jobs and the factories that will be generated out of this will be in our outer suburbs and in our regions. This is a very big industrial capability boost, but it's also a big jobs and economic boost for our outer suburbs and in the bush.

Bartholomew: Where's the money coming from?

Assistant Minister: Well, the money will be allocated over the course of the forwards. More announcements will be made in the Budget about the sequencing of that. You don't require the full $15 billion on the first day because the fund will need to consider investment proposals as they are brought forward. But it's $15 billion. It is off Budget because it's a fund like the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and a range of these other funds whose job it is to not just allocate money out the door like in a grant scheme, which is on Budget, but it will be investing with a return to the taxpayer and a return to the fund to make sure that we can continue to do this important work.

Bartholomew: $15 billion off Budget, alright. What's the projected timeline for the fund to make this sort of cash accessible to industry, and when might we see some of these programmes approved, presuming it passes the Senate?

Assistant Minister: Well, this is, first things first. We take nothing for granted. We will work with the crossbench. I am confident that because this is, you know, absolutely in the national interest, that we’ll see it work its way through the Senate, but we do not take that for granted. The real question is how soon can we get these nation-building investments working? And that will be a key focus, for the government, is bringing forward proposals.

We've seen what's happened over the last few decades. Solar PV, for example, invented in Australia at an Australian university. There is now no solar manufacturing, solar PV manufacturing capability, left in Australia. And one country, China, accounts for 85 per cent of solar PV manufacturing. We can't afford to lose the battle for technology and industry and new manufacturing jobs in Australia. And the Albanese Government is determined to reindustrialise our economy and build the jobs of the future.

Bartholomew: PV’s being photovoltaics. A key condition for passing this Bill, reassuring the Greens in writing that this fund wouldn't directly fund any coal, gas or logging projects. One threat facing industry is a potential incoming gas shortfall, leading to some rising energy prices that we're all pretty familiar with. Is it appropriate to be promising these investments when some parts of our current industry are struggling to keep their lights on for much longer?

Assistant Minister: Well, this fund was never going to invest in primary industry capability of any kind. Not in coal, not in gas, not in forestry. But it is designed to invest in the up the value chain, in mining technology, in converting lithium ore into lithium batteries, in converting forestry products into higher value paper and other manufacturing capabilities. So, this was never going to do the work that the Greens Party apprehended. It is all about manufacturing. The commitment doesn't alter the fundamental purpose of what was going to be achieved here. There are other policy vehicles designed to deal with the challenges that you've set out in gas and other areas.

Bartholomew: While I've got you, South Australia is seeking reassurance that the announcement of buying US nuclear powered submarines under this AUKUS alliance won't derail their ability to create nuclear-powered submarine capability here, has that been discussed? Can the government provide that guarantee?

Assistant Minister: Well as the Assistant Minister for Manufacturing Glen, I’m very unlikely -- I think it'd be pretty unwise for me to pre-empt on your programme a series of announcements that are going to be made by the Prime Minister, who's in the United States at the moment with the UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak today and together with President Biden, US-time tomorrow. This is a very significant capability that has been developed for Australia. We've been through a very thorough and careful process with the optimal path assessment and announcements will be made tomorrow which will go to all of those issues.

Bartholomew: Are we going to have enough skilled workers for all of these jobs?

Assistant Minister: Well, there is a very significant challenge here and an opportunity. There are jobs here from people at PhD level through to engineers, tradespeople, submariners. There is enormous opportunity and a big challenge, of course, for Australia. This is the most technologically advanced platform that we've ever engaged with as a nation. It is a very important capability, and we're determined to get on with it.

Bartholomew: More details to come, as you say. Tim Ayres, thanks for coming in.

Assistant Minister: Good on you Glen.

Bartholomew: The Assistant Manufacturing and Trade Minister in the Albanese Government joining us in the studio.