Interview with Andrew Clennell, Sky News, Afternoon Agenda
ANDREW CLENNELL: Well, consumer watchdog the ACCC has outlined a tighter series of guidelines for the gas industry and how it plans to enforce the price cap of $12 a gigajoule introduced by the Albanese government late last year. This includes penalties of more than $50 million for companies that breach the emergency measure. The ACCC chair will join me next hour.
First, though, let’s bring in the Industry Minister Husic, the man who called gas companies a ‘plague of locusts’ on this very program last year. Ed Husic, thanks for joining us.
ED HUSIC, MINISTER FOR INDUSTRY AND SCIENCE: G’day.
ANDREW CLENNELL: So we’ve got the price cap in place and yet we’re already getting these reports gas companies are saying to the retailers, “Sorry about this. We haven’t actually got any gas that we can give you at that $12 price". What do you make of it all? Have you heard this anecdotally yourself?
ED HUSIC: I’ve heard all sorts of differing responses to the measures we took to protect the national economic interest around gas prices. We simply could not have them continue on the same trajectory that we saw through 2022. We saw in the last few weeks, bearing in mind that this measure kicked off just on Christmas Eve, we had some people saying they needed some information, some guidance, they couldn’t get these contracts working out until they saw that guidance. Well, they’ve got the guidance now. The ACCC has released that today.
But in a nutshell, now, if you’re offering a contract, don’t offer prices more than $12 a gigajoule. It’s a temporary measure while we work out the way in which we improve the bargaining framework. But we’re doing it, as I said, in the interests of businesses, in the interests of households, and we’re making sure that gas companies, they can still make their profits, but we're making sure that Australians get access to an Australian resource at an Australian price.
ANDREW CLENNELL: Is this price cap going to work?
ED HUSIC: We want it to take the edge off. We absolutely want it to work, and we will keep monitoring to make sure that whatever steps need to be taken are taken to see that an Australian resource, as I’ve said, is priced appropriately. We think it will have an impact, and we think it’s important that it has an impact.
ANDREW CLENNELL: I detected before in your first answer some cynicism about gas companies needing more information. Is that a fair summation?
ED HUSIC: You know, people read into your words the way they want. I think some were – look, if I can be completely frank with you, as you want to expect from me, I think there are some that were obviously having a bit of a whinge about the fact that we’ve had to take the measures that we have. We tried for ages to get them to see sense and to move. The claim that they were surprised by the government’s move is a bit surprising in itself because we flagged for ages this was a serious issue they needed to get on top of. Sure, there might be some that are addicted to the Putin profits that they were making and they’re going through withdrawal symptoms, but they should be under no illusion about the determination of the government to get the balance right in terms of pricing.
They were making big profits even when at half of this gas price cap of $12. They were still doing very well. They can still do very well. But, again, as a government, we’ve got to get the balance right for not just the gas companies making the big profits but for other businesses that are dependent on gas as well, Andrew, and for households, we do not want to have a situation where people are making decisions, particularly in winter, not to use gas appliances because they don’t think they can afford it. It’s just crazy in a country that has ample supply that that would even be considered.
ANDREW CLENNELL: And as Industry Minister, what’s been your feedback from manufacturers? You were warning some were going to go to the wall if something wasn’t done last year.
ED HUSIC: Largely relief. A lot of manufacturers are happy that they’ve got some certainty here, that they know that they’re not going to see this phenomenal leap in prices which puts huge pressure. The reason we’re so focused, Andrew, on this is manufacturing largely, by and large, produces full-time, secure, well-paying jobs. It’s really important to a lot of communities, particularly in regional Australia.
And we cannot simply have one section of the economy in terms of gas production do very, very well at the expense of other businesses, which is why I keep coming back to that point about getting the balance right. I think there’ll be some manufacturers who would like the price lower. Of course they would. We looked at where the trajectory was, where prices were at 12 months leading into the decision. We thought this was about right, but I think overall manufacturers will welcome the fact that they’ve got some degree of certainty. There’s even more certainty provided today as a result of the release of the ACCC guidance. And we expect people to play ball, work together and do what’s right for the economy and for households.
ANDREW CLENNELL: Could the cap be extended longer than the 12-month period that it’s been set in place for?
ED HUSIC: I don’t think so. I think what we want to do is, one, have that emergency measure in place for 12 months, Andrew, and while that’s in place the big thing that we want to do is get people agreeing on the shape of the mandatory code of conduct. That is the big thing that guides the way in which contracts get negotiated. My firm view is this is something best done between producers and consumers. They need to work out their contracts. They don’t need government intervening. We’re only intervening as an emergency step to try and get that certainty and to be able to give people some degree of pricing comfort as it were. But I don’t see it going beyond the 12 months, no.
ANDREW CLENNELL: So you’ve got the two caps. The third thing we’ve been hearing about is the Treasurer’s working with state governments on electricity bill relief and rebates.
ED HUSIC: Yeah.
ANDREW CLENNELL: But are these only going to apply to people on family tax benefit, or are we going to see it go broader to people on higher incomes than that and to businesses, this sort of relief?
ED HUSIC: I think, you know, we’re working, as the Treasurer said, we’re working through with the states and territories on that very point. There’s still a bit to go. And I might leave it to the Treasurer to announce that when they’re good and ready.
But, again, we’re taking on board views. We haven’t – we’ve sort of not tried to rush but not delay. You know, we’re trying to find that medium where we can ensure that people do get that degree of relief. A lot of people are suggesting all sorts of things about whether or not the states and territories would agree in the sort of latter part of last year to where we’re headed. The good thing has been regardless of political colour, Labor, Liberal state and territory governments get that we need to get this solution worked out. And I believe that spirit of cooperation will continue in the weeks ahead as we sort this stuff out.
ANDREW CLENNELL: Now, there’s a lot of talk at the moment concerning the possible lifting of the JobSeeker rate in the May budget. What’s your view on the need for government to do that?
ED HUSIC: I think, again, there’s a whole set of processes that are being put in place coming out of last year’s negotiations around workplace relations reform and how this all fits in. It’s pretty complex. You want to make sure that you get it right in terms of what has to happen. There’s obviously a very big expectation in parts of the community at the level JobSeeker’s at, we do need to have a look at that. And, again, that will be worked through and decisions about that will either be taken in the budget or at some time after that.
But it’s in someone’s else’s patch, Andrew, and it’s not really for me to – I know you want me to offer an opinion. It’s not as cabinet minister my responsibility to offer opinions, you know, like you’re banging an elbow against a vending machine and out pops a view from one cabinet minister. But there are people that have got responsibility for it, and I’ll leave it to them.
ANDREW CLENNELL: I don’t mind the odd vending machine shake myself. Look, the Treasurer spoke yesterday about more net migration this year. You know, it’s been reported potential 300,000 extra people coming into the country. As Industry Minister I assume that with skills shortages you’d welcome that?
ED HUSIC: Yeah, I think we need a mix, right? We've been focused on what we do to train Australians up to meet the roles of Australian businesses, the jobs that Australian businesses have got. We’ve also heard because they can’t find people, the fact anecdotally some businesses will say to me, “You know, I’ve had to go out to market three times with three different salary or wage offerings to try and find people,” and so that’s been a big issue.
Some of the training, the work that we’ve been doing on the fee-free TAFE places, backing in more university places, that will train people up. But it’s not an answer for the here and now because obviously it takes time to train people up. Getting those skills in from people from other parts of the world really important because that type of pressure on employers, we can’t have that. As an Industry Minister I pick that up, you know, in talking with businesses quite a bit. They want to get talented people in. We’ve got to meet that, and so that’s an important part of dealing with that.
I think in part that’s had an impact on inflation and the way that’s been going. But we’re seeing some positive signs. The US, you’re seeing inflation start to track down, we’re expected under budget forecasts for inflation to drop, really important for us as an economy to beat that back and also to beat back expectations about how inflation will hit. And having more people around to meet the needs of employers is good for the economy, good for inflation, obviously good for people that want to get that secure work as well.
ANDREW CLENNELL: And just finally, I just wanted to ask you about the Voice to Parliament. Peter Dutton’s position, we had Ken Wyatt on earlier, he said he had people coming up to him saying, “Just get on with it". What’s been the reaction in your electorate to it?
ED HUSIC: I think people will wait and see how things unfold over the coming months leading in to whenever the referendum gets locked in and that detail being provided. I think there is an element of just get on with it and move on, but there’ll be people that want to understand what’s going on, too, and we’ve been trying to provide that and work that through.
I think that the best thing, the most important thing, is that goodwill is applied to that, and I think that there are a lot of people with goodwill within the Coalition who get it across Liberal and National parties. And I think, you know, I really want us to avoid the politicking.
ANDREW CLENNELL: Is Peter Dutton one of those?
ED HUSIC: Well, I would hope that he would be. Let me put it to you that way. And I think he’s got a moment in time to step up and be part of the national process here. This is an important step forward from a reconciliation point of view. Giving a voice to people about issues that affect them I think is a valuable thing. And I’m just going to make the point that I think as much as we can work together and I think people made a decision at the election last year that they were sick of bickering and fighting between politicians, let’s work together to get it done.
ANDREW CLENNELL: Ed Husic, thanks for your time.
ED HUSIC: Good on you.