Interview with Greg Jennett, ABC Afternoon Briefing

Greg Jennett
September National Accounts; Gas and coal prices; Reliability of Australian trade; High-speed rail and Australian rail manufacturing.

Greg Jennett, Host: Well, since the September National Accounts, if the economy has slowed, then it’ll be even more important for exporters to lift their game to prop up any domestic weaknesses. Let’s bring in Assistant Trade Minister, Tim Ayres. He joins us now. 

Tim Ayres, Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing: Greg. 

Jennett: Welcome back, Senator. Great to see you again. We’ve a lot of farewells at the moment; this is probably our last time with you, so we’ll do that at the end of the conversation. Wages growth – just to pick up on Angus Taylor’s point – over three per cent in the national accounts. Where would you want to see that settle to know that the growth you wanted had landed in the sweet spot? 

Assistant Minister: Well, it’s a good thing to see some growth in wages. Of course, a very significant part of that, I think, can be attributed to minimum wage rises that happened following the election of the Albanese Government. But households are still doing it tough. Wages are still well behind the growth in the cost of living and, of course, we’ve seen a decade of historically low wages growth, so households have got a long way to go to catch up in real terms and we don’t – we’re under no illusion this is a very difficult period for Australian households. 

Jennett: Yeah, no, it certainly is. Why don’t we move into your portfolio on trade. Exports did weaken during this period of three months after what we should acknowledge has been extraordinary growth over quite a long period of time, if you take out overseas travel, overseas trips. Are you seeing any numbers as Assistant Minister that looks at the effect of price capping and energy demand – coal and gas? Obviously, the Government’s wanting to move down that track, but will that have any impact – price capping – on exports of those commodities? 

Assistant Minister: Well, that’s a very nicely asked question, Greg. We are going through, of course, a careful, deliberate Cabinet process in terms of where we’re heading on energy prices, and the public will get to see some of that play out over the course of this week. We have been very deliberate and very careful to make this a proper effective process. We haven’t rushed to the press release. We’ve been working carefully with industry – the Ministers with each of their departments and now in some consultation with the States and Territories about how this is going to proceed. 

But the overwhelming issue here is that energy price rises have had a significant impact on households and when we’re talking about exports, a very significant impact on the capacity of gas dependant east coast manufacturers, particularly those who are exposed to energy price volatility from the end of this year. 

Jennett: But they’re going to wear that, you’re saying, are you, because you’re not making any apologies for holding back larger amounts of gas and soon-to-be-announced coal? 

Assistant Minister: For energy dependant manufacturers, for gas dependant manufacturers, they need to see downward pressure on gas prices, and that’s what the Government is moving to resolve. We have dealt with, earlier in the year, dealt with the question of gas supply – a significant amount of gas supply released – but we haven’t seen an equivalent movement downwards in prices. There are significant profits being made by gas producers this year in no small part due to Russia’s illegal war of aggression against Ukraine and the impact that’s had in global markets. Now, Australia is a big gas producer and a big gas exporter to the world and I’m confident that what Australians want to see is gas being provided at reasonable prices, with absolute certainty and reliability to manufacturers and households, and that’s – those are the issues that the Government is very carefully working through and has been now for some months. 

Jennett: Have you or your department on trade – so DFAT, therefore – received representations, as word has filtered out about where the Government is going, received representations from Japan, from Korea, from other customer nations, saying our interests need to be protected here too?

Assistant Minister: We’re in a constant dialogue, Greg, with our major trading partners and our partners who rely upon Australian energy supplies about all of the issues around energy. Those dialogues, those reassurances have been constant and ongoing all the way through this year, and Australia is a trusted and reliable partner for many of these countries on these questions. It’s not a new – it’s not a new issue, and what we’re seeing around the world is Governments taking action over this set of issues. It is complex. It is complex. We’ve got to deal with supply. We’ve got to deal with price. We’ve got to make sure that Australia’s reputation as a trusted supplier of these resources is maintained and I’m very confident that the measures that the Government announces in due course, after we’ve gone through a proper process, will achieve all of those objectives. 

Jennett: Yeah, it’s not unique, as you say, and you do have to land it on the head of a pin to get right. Let’s see what next week brings. 

Just, finally, bit of a footnote to our year of conversations, Tim Ayres. I was flicking through a speech you made on railways and their importance to this nation only yesterday and it rather got me to thinking how high on your priority list is high speed rail in this country, an all-new form of rail compared to what was in your speech? You were talking traditional rail. But do you look forward to its development over the next three years? 

Assistant Minister: Well, I think Australians are excited by the prospect of new high speed rail infrastructure. The High-Speed Rail Authority Bill went through the Parliament – one of 62 pieces of legislation that have gone through the Parliament this year since the election of the Albanese Government, so we’re getting on with the job – and the job of that authority will be to scope out all of the challenges, obstacles and opportunities that are there for high-speed rail. 

You know, we have a great history as a nation where rail has brought the Federation together. It is a key public asset and public good for Australia. I’m particularly focused on making sure that we’re building rail rolling stock and rail infrastructure and rail components here in Australia for the passenger market, for freight, and getting back into the game of exporting rail components in the global supply chains overseas. 

I saw in New South Wales far too many workshops closed, far too many jobs lost, far too much industrial capability sent overseas for projects that have now been running over cost, over budget, over time and have got significant safety and reliability and quality challenges. You know, we have to – you know, we can point all those problems out – the failures by Governments in the past – but right now the challenge is to work across the Commonwealth with the States and Territories to make sure we’ve got a rail manufacturing plan for the future that delivers high quality passenger rail and local jobs and local good jobs and apprenticeship and engineering cadetship opportunities and rebuilding Australian industrial capability and manufacturing for the future. 

Jennett: All right. One step at a time. More on that next year, and for your regular contributions, we thank you. We’ll talk to you then. 

Assistant Minister: Good on you, Greg, and happy Christmas to all of your listeners. I’ve really enjoyed being on the show this year.