Interview with Deborah Knight, 2GB

Deborah Knight
Topics included the AEC, wage increase and electricity supply.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: And here they are – Ed Husic, the Minister for Industry and Science, and Angus Taylor, the Shadow Treasurer, on the line for Friday Question Time. Fellas, welcome.

The Electoral Commission, the AEC, has officially dotted all the i’s, crossed all the t’s for the federal election, which was only a month ago – it feels like a lot longer. So, all the results are in. And they’ve called this election the most complex and challenging in Australia’s history. Ed, why was this election so hard?

ED HUSIC: Well, I guess it was the first federal election post-Covid, like, post the lockdowns, and with the way in which people are changing the way they vote, we had massive numbers coming out for prepoll and going through postal votes.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: So the count was much more involved?

ED HUSIC: Yeah, it was. And I think, too, people – it was still busy on election day itself. You know, I’d be interested to see what Angus experienced in his neck of the woods. We still had people going out there and still trying to get people through and voting. It was a bit of a challenge in that way doing all of that well before the election. What we were accustomed to is big lines at the start of election day and working through the day constantly. A lot of it has altered. And obviously making sure with cyber security and ensuring that the stuff that gets reported on that's being counted on in individual booths get accurately picked up centrally. All that stuff is a challenge.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: And it was a challenging election for you and the Coalition government, Angus. You lost power, of course, but what do you think? Was this one of the most challenging we’ve ever had?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, I think it was very challenging for the AEC. And, you know, they don’t always get the credit they deserve. Unless we trust democracy, it doesn’t work. And they’re instrumental to ensuring that there is trust. And they were dealing with serious staff shortages because of Covid – as everyone is at the moment.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Yeah, of course.

ANGUS TAYLOR: And, you know, that was very, very difficult for them. I think it was a more cantankerous election, to be frank, on the frontline than I have ever seen. And the AEC had to deal with that. And then as I think Ed rightly says, it was a more complex vote both because there was a lot of prepoll, a lot of postals and a lot of minor party votes. Our – the primary votes for both the major parties was down, and that made it more complex to count.

So, you know, all credit to the AEC. I think they have done a really good job under very, very difficult circumstances. People are quick to criticise the AEC, but I think they’ve done a lot of very, very good work over the last little while.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Yeah, well said. And it does feel like more than a month, I can tell you. Now, wages are front and centre at the moment, and, Angus, you’ve come out saying that we’re heading down a 1970s-style wage-price spiral. Is that a bit dramatic?

ANGUS TAYLOR: No, I’ve said that the risk is that we’re going down that path, and we need to make sure we’re not going down that path. And I tell you why, Deb – because wages always lose. Yes, of course we want to see higher wages. All of us want to see that. I’m sure Ed does too – higher wages. But if we get into a wage-price spiral – and I remember it well back in the 70s and 80s, then wages will lose. And so that’s what we don’t want. It’s absolutely critical that this stay responsible and sensible. And that way we can get higher wages over time. But it’s very important we don’t get caught in that spiral, because that would be very, very big trouble for all of us.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: And it’s a fair point, Ed. I mean, spending across the board has got to be contained, doesn’t it, otherwise we’ll never get on top of inflation?

ED HUSIC: It’s a number of things. The first is, I mean, inflation is driven by some – a range of serious things, not just wages – I’ll come back to that in a moment – but the fact that a lot of businesses are finding it hard to get people and that’s impacting on the way that they supply product and services. And we’ve got to be able to deal with that. And that is a serious issue, and I think it’s one that we’ve got to tackle as a country.

The thing about wages, though, is that if it’s wages without productivity improvements – that is, the way we are being a lot more efficient in the way that we produce goods and services in the country – if we’re not seeing that happen then that will be where the problem is.

I think reflecting on the 70s is one thing, but that was a totally different era in time in the way that wages were set, the way that the economy was structured. We have changed a lot more, and one of the things we do need to do is work with business, government, unions together to improve productivity, invest in the way that people are trained up, make sure we could the things that make it easier for business to operate. And that’s why we’re doing in the coming months we’ve got the first instalment of that cooperation through the jobs and skills summit that we announced. And we need to keep building on that and ensure that we’ve got the people there that business needs and that when we’ve got that happening that we’ve got the improved way in which we work the productivity will fund wage increases.

But I’ll end on this point: can anyone point out to me when it’s ever been a good time to lift wages? Because every time you go to lift wages, someone will tell you it’s never a good time.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: But the economic goal posts have shifted. And even the Prime Minister has said that the government has got to cap spending and look at everywhere that you can rein it in. So surely the tax cuts for the top end of town would have to be the first place to look.

ED HUSIC: Look, that’s been legislated. There’s not going to be any change on that. And your point about spending, I do agree. And it’s one of the things – and certainly from my own perspective as an individual minister I’m looking at the way the budget is structured for my own portfolio, and where we can deliver savings we will. I think there are a number of us that are focused on that. That’s a big part of the Finance Minister Katy Gallagher and Treasurer Jim Chalmers. They’re going through that budget at the moment. But you’re right to say we’ve got to rein in spending. And that’s what we’re looking to do. But, importantly, can I say, Deb, doing it in a way that doesn’t hurt the economy either.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Well, the Greens have come out saying that they’re going to really hold you to account, and they’re picking and choosing what they’re going to support in terms of legislation to get through. Angus, are you concerned that the Greens are going to hold the government to ransom here?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Absolutely. I mean, I think this is a real risk for any Labor government. And we said that during the election campaign – that it ends up being run by the Greens in order for Labor to get the legislation through the parliament. So we know there’ll be haggling going on right now about Labor's climate legislation. And the Greens, no doubt, will be demanding their pound of flesh to get that legislation through. What we want to see is sensible, responsible government, of course. And we won’t get that if the Greens are in control.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Now, we’ve seen the energy regulator announce that they’re formally ending the suspension of the wholesale electricity spot market. That will happen at 2 o’clock today. Are things now back to normal, Ed?

ED HUSIC: I think they are getting back that way. And we’ve also made sure that we want to take – have measures in place that if – that if, you know, you need to step in and intervene or to support, for example, through the capacity mechanism, the maintaining of supply, particularly if we have any other further – and I imagine we will; we’ve only just gone through one month of winter – there will be more cold snaps through, demand for electricity will obviously peak at various points and –

DEBORAH KNIGHT: And it will no doubt happen again in summer when the heat wave comes and the air cons are pumped up.

ED HUSIC: Well, we’ve got to make sure we’re prepared for that as well. And I think these are all moments in time where we are learning and responding and acting. And I think it’s good we said as a government we wouldn’t continue the suspension of the market any longer than needed to. That’s certainly been the case. And keeping the lights on and putting the consumer first has been a top priority, and we’ve managed to avoid blackouts and, importantly from an industry perspective, load shedding as well, which would affect a lot of manufacturers.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: And Energy Minister Chris Bowen came out this week saying, Angus, that this crisis has been Taylor-made – a direct dig at you. How much responsibility do you and the government – former government take for what’s happened over the past two weeks?

ANGUS TAYLOR: It’s interesting, Deb, isn’t it, that a government that promised it was going to take responsibility doesn’t seem to be very keen on it. But the truth was – and here are facts –

DEBORAH KNIGHT: They’ve only been in government for a month.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Yeah, but hang on – we kept the market working effectively. We kept gas prices at a discount of over three-quarters of the international price, and we’d been getting supply into the domestic gas network to ensure that the market was working effectively. Now, there’s tough circumstances, there’s no doubt about that. The global environment is very tough. But we achieved that. And it’s just miraculous, isn’t it, that when Labor gets into government not only do we see the electricity market not working, we see boats starting to come again. I mean, these are incredible coincidences.

But let me tell you, Deb, I very much welcome the fact that the market is resuming today. I think that’s very positive. But the key over the coming months will be supply. Let’s watch the prices when the market comes back on. You’ve got to get that gas generation and the gas into the domestic network. You’ve got to work with those gas producers, not demonise them. Offer them the carrots and sticks to get supply into the network, as we did. Only then will you get the outcome.

And then you can get on with it job instead of passing the buck. You know, frankly, Chris Bowen and Anthony Albanese, they’re more interested – let me tell you, they’re more interested in personal attacks than they are in problem-solving. It is crucial to focus on the problem.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Ed Husic, your right of reply.

ED HUSIC: Angus spent like 99 per cent of that answer flicking everything to us. I’m just going to say – never underestimate the commonsense of Australians. I was speaking with people this week who just – you know, people on the street talking about, you know, what’s happened post-election. And they know full well it’s a bit rich to try and suggest that us being in, as you reflected, Deb, for four weeks, that we’re responsible for this crisis. I think people know these things build up over time.

You know, we had a coalition government that sat on price increases they knew were going to come for energy. They bickered and argued amongst themselves and held up the process of finding new forms of energy to be able to get into the system and make sure that the type of constraints we’ve had this week or in the last few weeks wouldn’t occur. I think people know full well we’ve had to inherit this.


ED HUSIC: But if the Coalition wants to believe that it’s all suddenly our fault, I think most people will know exactly how to treat that.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Well, let’s see how you go when – let’s see how you go when the honeymoon’s over, though.

ED HUSIC: True, true.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Yeah, but can I briefly respond to that? It’s not the situation you get; it’s how you respond to it that matters when you’re in government. And, you know, the key is getting more supply into the market. We’ll work with Labor to do that, and we tried to work with Labor to get the Kurri Kurri gas generator up, but they refused to support us for a long, long time. So we’ll work with them on this. But the truth of the matter is they’ve got to get more supply into the market; not some never-never dream out in the distance about, you know, renewables and batteries, but now.


ANGUS TAYLOR: And we’ll work with them to do that. But they’ve got to get real about it and stop demonising gas.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: All right. Now let’s end on a fun one, which we like to do. It is Bring your Dog to Work Day today, and there’s going to be a puppy coming in to the studio here, a trainee assistance dog, after the news at 1, which I’m looking forward to. The saying in politics is that if you want a friend, get a dog. Tell me about the dogs in your life. Ed?

ED HUSIC: The first dog in teenage years we had was a bitzer named Benji. But more recently had a terrific chocolate lab called Archie, who unfortunately – I don’t want to bring the segment down – but he’d gotten on in years, got to 13 and my boy – I felt very badly and sad for my boy having to see Archie have to toddle off quite recently, straight after the election.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Well, it’s sad when you lose a loved one, a member of the family.

ED HUSIC: Well, it is. It is. It happened – we were taking down posters after the campaign, he and I together. And it was just about 10 and I got the call in that’s what was going to happen and had to race to the vets and say goodbye. And I did a little thing for him during the swearing-in. He came with me to the swearing-in. And in my left pocket I said, “I’ve got tucked away his last collar.” And I said, “We’ll share this. We’ll share this moment together.”

But they do – kids find it hard. And the bonds that, in particular, kids make with pets is really important. But, you know, as often has been reflected, we really don’t deserve dogs – they’re such great pets and such loyal friends.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Yeah, they certainly are. And I know, Angus, your office has got Disco and Marcel as regular visitors. And you’ve been on the hunt for a new dog for your family, too.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Yeah, look, we’ve got a very dog-friendly office, and Disco and Marcel are regular visitors to the Camden office, particularly during the campaign. We’ve got a beautiful sheepdog collie called Maggie. She’s still got a bit of work to do on the sheep. She’s not quite there yet.


ANGUS TAYLOR: But we’re working on that. We’re working on that. She’s a beautiful, beautiful dog. And we lost a dog called Jack, a corgi, a little while back, which was very sad for the family. Ed’s quite right – it’s a loss for everyone when you lose a dog. It’s part of the family. And, you know, I’ve always felt that way about our pets.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Yeah, we do love our pooches and our pets in general. Fellas, good to talk. We’ll chat again next week.

ED HUSIC: Thank you.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Thanks, Deb.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Ed Husic, Minister for Industry and Science, and Angus Taylor, the Shadow Treasurer, joining us here on Afternoons with Deborah Knight.