Interview - ABC AM

Sabra Lane
Minister Bowen discusses the Energy Ministers' meeting and the energy market

SABRA LANE: Energy Minister Chris Bowen, welcome to the program. 

CHRIS BOWEN: Good morning, Sabra. Good to be with you.

SABRA LANE: Are there meaningful changes that will come from today’s meeting to ease the price spikes that consumers are facing? 

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, certainly the state and territory energy ministers who I’ve convened in the meeting today will be making progress. I mean, there’s no easy fix this year. We’ve been very clear about that, and one meeting isn’t going to solve all the problems of 9 years of lack of energy policy, but we have some meaty issues to discuss, some issues around powers of regulators, some issues around information and some issues that I will be putting forward about better planning and better integration of the massive investment we need to avoid this problem into the future. 

I can say, Sabra, I’ve been in constant contact with my state and territory colleagues since I was sworn in last Wednesday, and it’s not just one meeting; we’ve been making progress all week and no doubt we’ll continue to talk about the issues today in the lead up to the meeting.

SABRA LANE: The Australian Council of Social Service is calling for a $1000 emergency energy debt relief payment for households on low fixed incomes. Is that a possibility in the October Budget? Is it something the government is considering? 

CHRIS BOWEN: Oh, look, as both the Prime Minister and Treasurer have made clear, there will be cost of living relief in the Budget based on the policies we took to the election and, of course, we’ll continue to work through sensible suggestions across the board. The Treasurer has made that clear, and I make that clear in relation to energy policy. I’ve been working not only with the state and territory energy ministers but with energy companies, with regulators, nonstop since last Wednesday to deal with this crisis that we’ve inherited, and we’ll continue to look at all sensible suggestions.

SABRA LANE: The Australian Workers’ Union says that the government should have a tax on gas export profits with the new revenue going to new renewable energy projects and battery storage to stop this kind of problem that we’re seeing now from happening again. Is that a solution? 

CHRIS BOWEN: They’re 100% right to suggest that we need more investment in storage and transmission and renewables. This is really what’s caused this problem – that we haven’t had the investment we need in renewables and transmission and storage over the last few years. We’ve had a 17% reduction in renewables investment. We’re way underdone on transmission. As AEMO, our energy regulator, has said, we need 10,000 kilometres of new transmission lines, and we need 9 times the amount of utility-scale renewables to make the system more stable. That’s what we need and that’s what we’ve been missing out on over the last few years. That’s what our Powering Australia policy really is designed to do. We’re regrowing the nation. 

Sabra, I make this point: the policy we took to the last election is now more important than ever to get the stability and certainty around investment, to get the transition to renewables well underway and to invest massively in transmission and to increase storage. The system is unstable. That’s why we are so ill prepared for this crisis that we’re facing that there just hasn’t been an effort to do anything of those things.

SABRA LANE: You nicely dodged the point though. The AWU would like to see a new tax on those big profits on the exports going to help shore up this. Is that something you’re willing to consider? 

CHRIS BOWEN: Look, Jim Chalmers has made clear that’s not a path we’re going down, and I make the point that the situation in the United Kingdom is a bit different from the situation we’re facing and you can’t just translate one answer in one country, as good as it might be for, say, the United Kingdom, to the situation we’re facing in Australia, which is a little different.

SABRA LANE: You’ve talked in some of your earlier answers about the transition that’s underway. Is what we’re seeing right now an example of the kinds of outages that could happen in Australia as we make that switch from fossil fuels to renewables, that it is going to be lumpy, sometimes disruptive, and big shocks and costly? 

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, I think Sabra, I put it more in terms of that’s the risk if there isn’t the proper plan, which we haven’t had for the last 9 years, and that’s why we do need the proper plan. I don’t accept it’s inevitable, but I do accept that’s the result if you don’t get it right. We’ve had the chopping and changing of energy policies. We haven’t had the investment in transmission. There’s no transition without transmission. That’s what our Rewiring the Nation policy is all about. It’s more important to make this transition to 82% renewables and to get the renewable energy from where it’s generated to where it will be consumed. It’s more important to get that right. And I will be talking to my state and territory colleagues today about some ideas we have to get that transition better planned, to get the states and territories hand in glove with the Commonwealth. We’re all one team. That’s the point I made to all state and territory ministers in the last week. We’re all one team. Regardless of state, jurisdiction or political party, we’ve got to get this transition right and that’s absolutely the leadership that we will be bringing to the table.

SABRA LANE: Many Australians would think it’s crazy that gas producers are making big profits on their exports now and not making additional supply to the country where they’re exploiting those resources – or attempting to make more available. Is this an example of governments – plural – failing Australians by not thinking about these consequences? 

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, can I just make a couple of points, because I’ve seen some of this commentary, particularly from the Opposition about gas supply and, on the Opposition’s behalf, it’s either incredibly naive or incredibly dishonest because a couple of points: Last week we activated the gas supply guarantee, AEMO did that. Both Minister King and I have been talking regularly to the gas companies and in my case to the electricity companies. The gas pipeline from Queensland to southeast Australia is currently working at 100% capacity. I mean, you couldn’t get more gas into the system if you tried as a result of the policies and the actions that we’ve taken. 

So, I’m not sure how the Opposition thinks they’re going to get more gas from Queensland down to the southeast. I mean, by telepathy or by carrier pigeon pulling balloons of gas? I mean, they say the government should be getting more gas into the system by making more phone calls. They’re either incredibly naive – and that shows why they’ve made such mistakes over the past 9 years – or they’ve just decided to be dishonest with the Australian people.

SABRA LANE: But the Gillard Government in 2012 shunned the idea of a gas reservation policy when it was looking at new exports for big projects off Queensland. You were a part of that government. If you had your time again, do you wish you’d implemented a reservation policy? 

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, I could also point to my statements in Opposition where I suggested that we needed to keep more gas for domestic purposes and the then Turnbull Government said that that would be an outrageous intervention and terrible Venezuelan style socialism. And then they brought down the ADGSM, which, as I pointed out, is about as blunt as a basketball in terms of its impact in the current crisis. So, Minister King, Madeleine King, the Resources Minister, has said that she’s looking at options in terms of the ADGSM and what needs to be done, but it is not a short term solution; because of the way it was designed by the previous government, it’s not a solution to the crisis that we’re facing in these days and weeks.

SABRA LANE: Chris Bowen, thanks for joining AM this morning. 

CHRIS BOWEN: Nice to talk to you, Sabra. Good on ya.