Press conference - Australian Parliament House - Canberra, ACT
CHRIS BOWEN: So if I could ask you to hold your questions about that element until after the first half of the press conference.
Well, this morning I’m joined by Greg Mullins, former Fire and Rescue Commissioner for New South Wales; Major General Peter Dunn, retired, former Commissioner of ACT Emergency Services; and David Templeman, a former Director-General of Emergency Management in Australia. These fine Australians represent Emergency Leaders for Climate Action. These are the group that Scott Morrison refused to meet with.
This morning I met with Emergency Leaders for Climate Action. This was my first non‑departmental briefing meeting as Climate Change and Energy Minister after being sworn in yesterday afternoon.
I wanted to do that because the climate wars should end, and the Albanese Labor government will seek to end the climate wars by real action on climate change, bringing Australians together and listening to Australians of all walks of life, particularly Australians with great expertise.
And Emergency Leaders for Climate Action have that expertise. They have been warning Australia and Australian governments of the emerging natural disaster crises as a direct result of climate change, and they have been ignored for too long and Australians have paid a price.
So far from shying away from their expert advice and their counsel, I’m honoured by their presence and I was particularly keen for them to be my first meeting after being sworn in as Climate Change and Energy Minister. Of course, we’ll have plenty more to say, the Prime Minister and I, about our approach. We’ve outlined our plans in Powering Australia which we will seek and we will implement – will seek to implement and we will implement as the new government of Australia.
We have been elected with a mandate for real action on climate change – ambitious but achievable action, as outlined in the policies we sought a mandate for and will implement.
I’m going to ask Greg, Former Commissioner Mullins, to say a few words. Then we’ll be happy to take some questions and then, as I said, we’ll let them get on with their day and then I’ll deal with the current energy market situation in the east coast and take questions on that. Greg.
GREG MULLINS: Thanks, Minister. Well, what a stark contrast to a couple of years ago when Emergency Leaders for Climate Action tried to warn the then Prime Minister Scott Morrison that we were facing a bushfire catastrophe. And that was back in early 2019. Eventually we were able to meet with a couple of ministers, but it was after hundreds and hundreds of homes and many lives had been lost.
There’s great hope now that there’ll be a reset. As the minister said, we have to set aside the climate wars. No more blame, no more misinformation. We need to get on with this task because we’ve been through Black Summer. We’ve been through massive floods that have broken all records. This is climate change in action. We must take urgent action on emissions because that’s the only thing that is going to drive down the severity and intensity of natural disasters into the future.
So we’re very pleased that this government is obviously all about consultation. It was a climate election. Australians have spoken. They’ve seen the disasters. They’re frightened about climate change. We’ve lost a decade and we must act. So we’re very pleased that we’ve been brought in to the tent. It was pretty hard being outside the tent and knowing that a fire or a flood was coming.
So congratulations, Minister. And thank you.
CHRIS BOWEN: Thank you very much, Greg. And I should have mentioned that we were also, of course, joined in that meeting by Minister Watt, the new Minister for Emergency Management, and by my Assistant Minister, Senator McAllister. And just as I’m keen to work with Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, I’ll be looking at working with across the board with Doctors for Climate Action, with key groups right across the country as we implement the ambitious and achievable agenda we sought a mandate for. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: Minister Bowen, you paid tribute to the expertise of this group and made the point that the previous government didn’t listen to it. This group favours a 70 per cent – a 75 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030. Why are they wrong?
CHRIS BOWEN: We went to the election seeking a mandate for a 43 per cent target which, as you’ve heard me say many times, Katherine, is not just a target but is the modelled impact of our policies. I also recognise that starting in 2022 that is an ambitious target for 2030. It’s 92 months away – 92 months.
Now, of course, if our policies are more effective than they’ve been modelled to be, that’s very welcome. But that’s the target which we’ll be notifying the UN of. That’s the target we sought a mandate for, and that’s the target we’ll be implementing, and it’s the modelled impact of our policies.
JOURNALIST: Minister, will you be continuing the previous government’s investments in carbon capture and storage that they made under the technology investment –
CHRIS BOWEN: I’ve only just started receiving my briefings on the budget treatment of various pre-election statements and whether they are in the budget or not. I’ll be taking advice and making further statements. Phil.
JOURNALIST: I’ve got a question for Mr Mullins, actually.
CHRIS BOWEN: Sure.
JOURNALIST: I remember you describing the fires as 'lawns burning'.
GREG MULLINS: Sorry?
JOURNALIST: The severity of the last bushfires. I remember you describing a scenario of people’s lawns were burning. We’ve had a tonne of rain since then. We’re going to have a tonne of growth. How far – given you’re suggesting severe droughts every 10 years, how far in your estimation are we away from the next catastrophic bushfires?
GREG MULLINS: Look, climate change is driving extreme weather, and we have major flips in the climate. So we’ll go from very wet probably to very dry to very hot. The next hazard is going to be massive grassfires because the red centre of Australia is now green. It will go brown, like in 1975, it will burn. So we will have fires come back. We’ll have heat waves, droughts. That’s what climate change is doing to the world, and we need to take drastic action.
GREG MULLINS: Look, I can’t predict when the next fires will be. But those weather conditions, the hottest, driest year ever experienced in Australia – 2019 – a number of studies are saying by 2040 that will be an average summer. And by 2060 that will be a cool summer. So we must take action now.
JOURNALIST: What’s the first thing you would like to see Minister Bowen do?
GREG MULLINS: What he’s already done – open the door, because the last government had closed doors and closed minds. This government already is showing that it’s ready to consult, ready to ask experts and to take on board the science. So that’s a very promising –
JOURNALIST: Mr Mullins, sorry, on the sovereign aerial firefighting fleet, did you discuss that in the meeting today? What’s your proposition now?
GREG MULLINS: No, because there was no need to discuss a sovereign aerial firefighting fleet because that’s part of the Labor Party platform already. And there – again, Minister Watt was at the meeting, very productive meeting. And they’ll be consulting with peak council for fire and emergency services as well as Emergency Leaders for Climate Action and they’ll be taking the advice of experts.
JOURNALIST: Mr Mullins, does the target of 43 per cent, does that recognise the seriousness of the situation Australia is in regarding climate crisis, and just one other one quickly as well: did you speak to Mr Bowen about increasing that target potentially over the next 10 years so that it is more in line with the 75 per cent target that you’re proposing?
GREG MULLINS: So the science is saying that a much stronger target is needed, but I must say, 43 per cent is a lot better than 26 to 28 per cent. We’ll work on that. And I think, Minister, we did say today that if you meet and beat 43 per cent, there’s a trophy at the end of it for you. And that’s the safety of our kids and grandkids.
JOURNALIST: Mr Mullins, for all the emergency chiefs, we heard that the former government talked a lot about land management and the need for upscale hazard reduction burning but also targeted logging as well in the east coast, eastern seaboard forests to reduce the fire risks. There’s been some big studies recently talking about it’s much more complicated than that. What I’m wondering is, is how much of a focus on land management and hazard reduction do we need to see? Do we need to see a big increase in that now to deal with the risks that you’re just speaking about?
GREG MULLINS: Look, what we’ve already discussed today is a big shift in funding to before the disaster rather than after. And up to 97 per cent of expenditure is recovering after a disaster. Lots more money needs to go beforehand in mitigation and adaptation. And part of that will be looking at how the land is managed in future to mitigate bushfire – not just bushfire risk, but cyclone risk, flood risk. Because all of those hazards are becoming worse under climate change.
JOURNALIST: Mr Mullins, global warming is an international problem. Australian unilaterally cutting its emissions by 75 per cent, is that going to make any difference to bushfire hazards for Australia, and what role do you see for hazard reduction and prescribed burning and that in reducing some of the problems we face as well?
GREG MULLINS: So two questions there. So, firstly, about how much. If Australia does a lot, that is going to – Australia’s always had a leadership role in the world on nuclear disarmament, anti-apartheid, human rights. But we’ve said for the last 10 years that we can’t make a difference with an existential threat of climate change. Well, we can. This country can because we have influence and we’ve always done the right thing.
So we’re stepping that up. Encourage other countries to step up. We’re rated about 52 I understand at the moment amongst – the UN says we’re number 52 in terms of climate ambition. It’s immediate – we’ve immediately gone up the scale because of the Labor Party’s policy. And because they’re going to take advice from experts, I’m confident that those targets will be ramped up over the next few years.
JOURNALIST: Did you – sorry, just on what [indistinct] was saying, I don’t know – I mean you can’t give timeframes of when the next catastrophe will be, but what was your message to the minister today? You know, is it just around the corner? You know, what can we expect this summer?
GREG MULLINS: Look, unfortunately disasters are super charged by climate change. So bushfire frequency, the frequency of bad weather that leads to massive bushfires in eastern New South Wales used to be about a decade apart. Now it’s five or six years apart. And that is becoming even shorter. We’re getting massive floods. One-in-100-year floods in Lismore – what – three in a few weeks. So things are getting exponentially worse.
You actually can’t predict now when had next disaster will be. But the royal commission into national natural disaster arrangements said that we will have compounding disasters, which is what we’re experiencing. So we need a reset. And the only mitigation in the future which will dial that down is to reduce emissions worldwide. And Australia must do it its part.
CHRIS BOWEN: Any other questions in relation to this half of the press conference? We’re all done? Well, we’ll let these fine Australians carry on with their day. You’re welcome to stay or leave as you see fit.
GREG MULLINS: Thanks, Minister. Thanks very much.
CHRIS BOWEN: Thank you.
Well, after being sworn in yesterday morning I spent yesterday and early this morning being briefed by my department and by AEMO on the current situation on gas supply and the energy markets particularly in the east coast. I’ve also spoken his morning to the Treasurer and Energy Minister of New South Wales Matt Kean, to the Energy Minister of Victoria Lily D’Ambrosio, the Energy Minister of Queensland Mick de Brenni, the Energy Minister of Tasmania Guy Barnett, the Energy Minister of Western Australia Bill Johnston, and the Energy Minister of South Australia Tom Koutsantonis. I’ve spoken to all of those ministers this morning, and I’ll come back to that. I’ve also spoken this morning, briefed the Treasurer and the Resources Minister Madeleine King and the Industry Minister Ed Husic on the current situation.
As the Treasurer has said, Australian energy markets are facing a perfect storm. There are a number of factors at play in relation to the very serious and challenging situation with electricity supply and with gas supply in particular. We are facing obviously a geopolitical situation around the world. We’re facing some coal-fire power closure station outages and some flooding impacts on coal mines and an array of other factors.
I make this point: I’ve seen some commentary, some unnamed commentary, from members of the former government saying the new government which was sworn in yesterday should be doing more apparently. This is a government which – the former government promised a gas-fired recovery and left us a gas bin fire for the new government to deal with.
I don’t hold the former government accountable for any particular element of the crises we are facing, the situation – the very serious situation we are facing. I do say this though: the former government’s nine years of denial and delay, their 23 energy policies, their ad hocery, their challenges in approaches have left Australia ill-prepared and our energy markets ill-prepared for the challenges we are facing today in relation to gas and energy supply.
The previous government did not do the work necessary to increase renewables, to increase storage. If we had more storage and more renewables and better transmission, we would be much better placed to deal with the current challenges. And that’s, of course, exactly what our Powering Australia plan seeks to implement. But, of course, it will take some time to implement.
As I’ve said consistently, you don’t overturn nine years of dysfunction, denial and delay overnight. But action is necessary. As I’ve said, I’ve been briefed by AEMO. I spoke this morning to the Chief Executive Mr Westerman and to the secretary of my department and senior officials of my department as well as discussing the situation with each of the state energy ministers. Action is necessary and action is being taken.
AEMO, as has been publicly announced, has implemented the gas supply guarantee mechanism, and AEMO have advised me that this is already showing some improvement in gas supply and will continue to show some improvement in gas supply to the south eastern states over coming days.
The situation is serious but it is being managed by our regulators very professionally, and it is important that Australians know that the new government has confidence in our regulators, in AEMO and in the Australian Energy Regulator to take the necessary action and to advise government accordingly. They have our confidence. They are world-class regulators, and Australians should and can have confidence in them.
I make clear that the Albanese Labor government will take whatever action is necessary to ensure ongoing reliability and affordability for the energy markets, particularly on the east coast. But I also make this point: the days of knee-jerk reactions, the days of ad hoc interventions, the days of implementing ill-thought out policies are the days of the last nine years. They are not the days of this government. This government will take action when necessary and appropriately. We will do so based on expert advice. We will do so cooperatively with our state and territory colleagues. The climate wars are over and the energy wars are over. We will do what is necessary and we won’t shy away from hard decisions. But those decisions will be based on evidence, good policy, not on partisan politics, bickering, climate wars and culture wars.
Now, I have spoken, as I said, to every state energy minister this morning and indicated to them that it is my intention to convene a meeting of all energy ministers early next week to be advised by AEMO and AER on the current supply situation, on any further necessary actions which may need to be taken by the commonwealth or the states and territories working together cooperatively.
I’ve been very encouraged by the response got from every single energy minister – Minister Kean, Minister Barnett, Minister Koutsantonis, Minister D’Ambrosio, Minister Johnston, Minister de Brenni. All of them – regardless of state, regardless of political party – that they welcome the federal government’s actions this morning and will work very cooperatively with us.
One further point before I take your questions: I’ve seen some media commentary – fair enough – and some commentary about the so-called gas trigger, the Australian domestic gas security mechanism. And I’ve seen some unnamed members of the government – the former government – calling for us to implement it, despite the fact they never did.
Now, as I said, a few points: the government will take whatever action is necessary based on advice. We are not today ruling out or in any particular action going forward over and above what I’ve announced today. But I do want to make these couple of points: the gas trigger, the ADGSM, is a trigger available to Minister King as Resources Minister. I’ve seen some commentary saying it should be pulled today to deal with this short-term crisis. I think that, with respect, is a misunderstanding of how the mechanism works or would work.
It cannot come into force until 1 January next year even if it was pulled today. It is not a short-term answer. There is a process outlined under law of consultation which would have to occur before it could be implemented. It is a supply trigger, not a price trigger. So for those unnamed anonymous members of the former government who are acting all hairy chested on the way out the door, it is policy they designed. It is not one designed to deal with the current crisis. And if the government and Minister King chooses to implement it, it will be done after full consideration and advice.
Now, Minister King is, I know, talking to gas companies today about what supply they can bring online. I know Minister Husic is talking to large industrial users about their needs. The Treasurer is fully engaged and involved, and, of course, I’ve taken the actions outlined today.
The government on its first full day in office is dealing with this situation we inherited. We will continue to take the action necessary, but we will do so in full consultation with the states and territories based on expert advice, and we will do so carefully, methodically and appropriately. The days of knee-jerk interventions were the Taylor era. It is not the era of this government. Questions. Phil.
JOURNALIST: You’ve given the complexities in relation to the trigger and you’re not going to be interventionist. What actually are your options? And, secondly, in terms of blaming the previous government for this situation, does your former government have any blame under Minister Martin Ferguson for locking up all this gas into exports and not having a domestic reserve in this case. Something you called for when you were shadow treasurer.
CHRIS BOWEN: Phil, with respect, nine years of delay and dysfunction is what got us into this situation; not something which happened, you know, before that.
JOURNALIST: Labor has responsibility, too –
CHRIS BOWEN: Well, Labor has responsibility as the incoming government to deal with this situation. And in relation to your question about what options are available to us, we’ll take advice on what option are available. I’ve already indicated what AEMO has done over the last 24 hours – both the caps and the gas supply mechanism. That’s intervention I welcome – appropriate intervention.
I have asked – I’ve spoken to Mr Westerman this morning and asked him to prepare to give advice inform me and to the state energy ministers early next week – Monday or Tuesday, depending on the state energy ministers’ availability – what further actions can be contemplated. And, as I said, at this point I rule nothing in and nothing out. But it will be done carefully, methodically and based on expert advice. And I won’t be taking advice from former Minister Taylor who helped to get us into this situation. Andrew. Andrew.
JOURNALIST: Putting your squabble aside with the previous government, what have you –
CHRIS BOWEN: Statement of fact, Andrew.
JOURNALIST: Okay. Well, what are you going to do with regards to chief executives of gas companies that have taken Australian consumers, manufacturers, industry for a ride? Are you going to pick up the phone and tell Shell and Origin, for example, and remind them of their social licence when it comes to –
CHRIS BOWEN: Andrew, I’ve already indicated that Minister King –
JOURNALIST: Are you going to speak to the chief executives?
CHRIS BOWEN: I’ve already said, Andrew, that Minister King is doing that today. She’s speaking to the chief executives of the gas – now, I don’t – I want to say you respectfully that sort of culture war of this is that person’s fault or this is this person’s fault, we will take any action necessary to ensure proper gas supply. But what I’m not going to do is start unnecessarily demonising particular people or particular sectors.
If action – if the ACCC needs to take action, they will have our full support. If the Australian Energy Regulator needs to take action, they will have our full support. But it will be based, with all due respect to you, Andrew, not on your allegations against individuals on any evidence of wrong doing or changes in approach that are necessary. Up the back.
JOURNALIST: Minister Bowen, in terms of you’ve been briefed on what the energy costs I imagine for Australians would be, can you be frank with them today? How much higher are bills going to go?
CHRIS BOWEN: Look, I think it’s a little, frankly, too early. Clearly the energy market is under – straining under enormous pressure, enormous pressure. Now, at the moment this is impacting on wholesale prices. In the gas market, thankfully around 80 per cent of gas contracts are done over the longer term. So it’s not yet, in that regard, impacting on retail prices in a way which – it could be a lot worse.
Now, in terms of what impact it’s going to have in coming weeks and months, that will be something the regulator briefs me and the state energy ministers on early next week. Jonno.
JOURNALIST: Minister, you went to the election promising lower power prices. Isn’t it true, though, that in the short to medium-term power prices are only going to continue to increase? And just secondly, 48 years ago there was the oil crisis in which oil quadrupled, inflation skyrocketed, Western economies went into recession, the Whitlam government had just been elected under a banner of “It’s time”. You’ve just been elected. Are you worried about history repeating itself?
CHRIS BOWEN: Forty-eight years ago, Jonno – I was born 49 years ago so I’m not sure of the particular relevance of that analogy.
JOURNALIST: The global circumstances – commodities increasing, inflation skyrocketing and concerns about –
CHRIS BOWEN: Sure, and we’ll respond to all that. We’ll respond to all of that. And, yes, you’re right – of course there are international pressures. We said that pre-election. We’re saying that post-election. I said very clearly up front that I don’t hold the previous government responsible for all of that. It’s not their fault there’s a war in Ukraine impacting on gas supply. It’s not their fault there’s been flooding in some coal mines. It’s not their fault necessarily that there’s been some unexpected outages in coal-fired power stations. It is their fault that the system is not robust enough to deal with all those things.
Now, in relation to energy prices, I made the point that more renewables puts downward pressure on energy prices. It does, and it will. And with these elevated prices that the new government has inherited, getting more renewables and more storage and more transmission into the system is even more important and could have an even bigger impact. Up the back.
JOURNALIST: Minister Bowen, gas supplies in Victoria are often quite tight and the state relies heavily on Queensland. Does the Victorian government need to get more supply into the system?
CHRIS BOWEN: Well, as I said, I don’t think to be fair it’s a matter alone for the Victorian government – it’s a matter for all of us. And AEMO has implemented the gas supply guarantee and have advised me as late as not that long ago this morning that it is having an impact and will have an ongoing impact in coming days on improved supply to the south eastern states, most particularly – you’re right – Victoria.
JOURNALIST: Minister, can you just explain simply what AEMO action means for the average Australian consumer? You mentioned that it would help ease prices on the east coast.
CHRIS BOWEN: Well, as I said before, luckily or thankfully at this point this is this very serious situation, and I am not for one moment walking away from the seriousness of this situation. There’s a reason why I’ve spent, you know, every waking moment since I was sworn in in dealing with this issue – because it is serious and there’s no point not being upfront about that.
But at the moment it is impacting the wholesale prices. That’s having an impact particularly on large industrial users. The spot price is very elevated at the moment. We have to be clear that this – you know, this does have the potential to be an ongoing issue. This is an immediate challenge for coming days and it is not necessarily going to get better, you know, straight away. So it will have ongoing impacts. But what I’m saying is the new government is taking, will take any action.
Now, in relation to AEMO’s action, as I said, it’s basically to get in more gas supply into the system, which is helping in the south east states. They have implemented the price cap. That’s working in conjunction with Minister Kean’s actions in New South Wales, particular actions in recent days and working very cooperatively.
I’ll take one or two more – one or two more. Steffi.
JOURNALIST: Minister, last night there was an estimate of the 30 per cent of the coal-fired power going into the grid was offline. Origin CEO has called on the government to work with industry to try and up that output. Is the production of more coal-fired power something that you will consider to offset this?
CHRIS BOWEN: I spoke to Minister – Mr Calabria, the chief executive you refer to, on Sunday. He gave me a good briefing from his point of view. I make this point: you know, the Matt Canavan’s of the world are out there saying this is some renewables’ fault. This is gas – this is coal-fire power outages. How that’s the fault of renewables I really struggle to understand. Matt Canavan can make that point.
Now, the role of government in ensuring what are often private sector and in some cases state-owned coal-fired power operating is perhaps limited. But, again, as I stress, if there is advice to me about sensible and measured actions that can be taken, I would take them.
Okay, Catherine, and that will probably be the last one.
JOURNALIST: You said that the trigger isn’t effective in that it’s not an immediate solution and will take until next year. You’ve said that all actions are – you know, you’re not ruling them in or out, whatever action is necessary. So presumably a lot of gas is contracted for export already and you’re talking to gas companies today. Is one option that the government could pick up the costs of any redirection of contracted gas –
CHRIS BOWEN: I’d be very careful, Catherine, with respect of flagging breaches of contract for sovereign risk issues. But the trigger is designed – if the trigger were to be implemented – and that’s a matter for Minister King to consider all appropriate advice on – we’re not ruling it in or out. I was making the point that it’s not a short-term measure. I also make the point that it actually expires on the 31st of December anyway. I mean, this is the situation the previous government has left us. It expires. It needs to be renewed by regulation, and under the very complicated circumstances they put in place, it's not an easy trigger to pull. There’s a series of consultation. And if it was pulled today, it would have absolutely no impact until the 1st January anyway. They are all statements of fact. Statements of fact. But it is not designed – that trigger is not really designed to see existing contracts undermined.
You’ve got the last one, Mike.
JOURNALIST: Just following, would you consider reservations placed on new production projects? There’s a few in the pipeline and it’s already in operation in WA. Is that something you would –
CHRIS BOWEN: I refer you to my previous answer – the government –
JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] –
CHRIS BOWEN: – the government, Mike, will take action based on expert advice wherever we judge appropriate. I am not today – I am not today ruling things in or out. I’m outlining what action we’ve taken. I’m outlining what action AEMO has taken. I outlined the conversations we’ve had with the – I’ve had this morning with the state and territory ministers, with the Treasurer, the Minister of Resources, the Minister of Industry –
CHRIS BOWEN: – with the Minister for Industry – you don’t run the press conference, Andrew.
JOURNALIST: What do you see –
CHRIS BOWEN: – the actions we have taken and will take, and I am not going to rule – start playing today on our first full day in office the rule in, rule out game. Thanks very much, guys. Good on you.