Interview with Gemma Veness, ABC Afternoon

Gemma Veness
Gas prices, energy price regulation, changes to PCR tests.

GEMMA VENESS: Minister for Industry and Science Ed Husic joins me now in the studio. Ed Husic, thank you. 


GEMMA VENESS: Now, MPs are of course working through the detail ahead of Thursday's special sitting day. What are the concerns that you're hearing behind the scenes? We're hearing the public positions there, but what are the concerns people are wanting answers on ahead of this in terms of these price cuts and how they will work. 

ED HUSIC: Well, the big thing over the last six months has been a concern that the prices people have been expected to pay are too high for households and businesses. So what we have done in the national economic interest is bring together a package that's designed to lower energy prices. There are a lot of people out there talking. A lot of the opposition is from the narrow commercial interest or political one, but I think we recognise the common-sense position of the Australian public, which is we shouldn't be paying overseas prices for an Australian resource. It's putting pressure on households, pressure on manufacturers and works against the national economic interest. So we're trying to get that balance right, and this package does do that. 

GEMMA VENESS: We heard there from the Opposition, as you pointed to, we're also hearing from the Greens who are threatening to derail this plan. Do you think you can get it through? 

ED HUSIC: We'll work with people that have got good intent and want to be able to come to the table in the national interest, and certainly we'll listen to people, and we're obviously consulting with those people in the Senate that will be making decisions in the coming days, but again, emphasising to them that we do need to make sure we've got, in particular gas prices, at a reasonable price. We don't want to be paying war-time profiteering prices for gas; and that is what a lot of the gas companies have expected us to simply put up with. 

For six months we have been saying these prices need to be brought into check; for six months we've been asking the companies to do that. They've proposed nothing, opposed everything. Now we're at a situation we have to act in the national economic interest, and if there are people that have got their positions they want to put on the table, by all means, we'll listen. But in reference to the Opposition and some of the quotes, again, I'll say this is more from their political interest, it's not about getting power prices down, gas prices down, helping manufacturers; it's about them siding with multinationals in this debate. 

GEMMA VENESS: So people with good intent, as you put it, are there enough of them to get it through? 

ED HUSIC: We'll see. Obviously very confident that people will realise that if this does not get through, it means that there will be higher energy bills for Australian households and businesses, and I think people of good intent know that they don't want to be responsible for that. And so again, we'll work through it. 

I mean the hallmark of the Government has been to work through with people, particularly in terms of the crossbench, and they're a very big crossbench now as a result of the way that the last government behaved. We're not interested in picking fights, we're interested in getting the solutions, and we really do need on this, on energy, we do need to find a solution on this issue, and people are expecting us as a Parliament to be able to get to that point. 

GEMMA VENESS: As to price caps though, will suppliers then divert coal or gas overseas? I mean, is there any guarantee that it will stay here? 

ED HUSIC: We have been very concerned about some of the behaviour we've seen that the ACCC has reported on previously, and we do want people to behave in a fair and proper way, which is why we are arguing, as one feature of the reforms we're putting forward, to develop a mandatory Code of Conduct, that the companies not engage in some of the behaviour we've seen, the sort of instances we've heard of where they just put offers on the table, take or leave. They haven't done so in a reasonable way. 

We want both the suppliers and the buyers to behave responsibly, and the Code of Conduct should govern that, and the type of behaviour that you just referenced about them shifting stuff off to exports so they can get the higher prices, we're obviously going to be taking steps to ensure that that doesn't happen, and you'll see some of the detail around that, but again, we want people to behave in the national economic interest; that's what should guide us all in this debate. 

GEMMA VENESS: And why not a windfall tax, because we know the Greens have pushed for it, also David Pocock has stated he's quite partial to that option too; why not? 

ED HUSIC: We said for a number of reasons, unless tax can demonstrate that it will move the needle on price, I think that has to be the starting point to think about – one. You know, I said again, six months ago, while we had consistently ruled out tax, if situations don't change, you'll see circumstances alter to reflect a new one that allows tax to be considered. The gas companies need to think carefully about their behaviour. But I think we have, as a government, got the balance right with what we're putting forward, and that is put a gas price cap in place for about 12 months, improve the bargaining framework, get better outcomes, which would mean much more reasonable prices. 

GEMMA VENESS: Will the Prime Minister be meeting with these gas companies? 

ED HUSIC: I'll leave the Prime Minister's diary to him. I could just imagine the type of challenges he'd have. But I mean I've met with gas companies and retailers over the last six months, I've put this message that I've said to you, I've said this privately as well: it's in the national interest to see this come down. I particularly have been interested as an Industry Minister, being concerned for manufacturers. We have close to 900,000 Australians employed in manufacturing, industrial users make up half of the domestic gas market, it puts huge pressure on them. Australians want this country to be a place that makes things, but high energy prices put an awful lot of pressure on our ability to achieve that. We do need to get more common sense in place, and we're just not – Gemma, we are not going to put up with a situation where gas companies want to be able to war-time profiteer regardless of the impact on the rest of the country. That is not right, and the Australian people want us to be able to act properly in the national interest. 

GEMMA VENESS: And the gas industry says the mandatory Code of Conduct will lead to permanent government intervention. What's your response to that? 

ED HUSIC: I just think that's ridiculous. And some of the propositions that the gas industry has been putting forward in the last 24 hours have simply been unbelievable and don't pass the pub test. We have a bargaining framework that the independent – the ACCC, has said is not working. Some of the things I mentioned earlier, where the behaviour by some of the gas companies is just not in good faith in a bargaining environment. That framework has to be reformed, where you've got three companies that dominate the market, they're not behaving well, and we've seen bad outcomes in terms of contract negotiations. 

It is very similar to what we saw in the News Media Bargaining Code that had to be introduced where a Coalition government stepped in with Opposition support, our support at the time, to reform the market. It's surprising that the Coalition has refused to do the same now in a market that clearly is distorted, and the type of things that you're hearing where they're talking about government intervention, we don't want to intervene; we want a better bargaining framework between the producers and the users, but the producers simply have refused to play ball, propose nothing, oppose everything. That is not a situation that can continue. 

GEMMA VENESS: Finally, on another matter, these changes to PCR tests we're going to see next year. You'll now need a referral to get a PCR test. Do you understand as part of these changes who pays? Are they going to be bulk billed, or will the user have to pay anything for them? 

ED HUSIC: Look, I mean I'd encourage you to put that to the Health Minister, that's outside my area, but I think a lot of people, Australians, act responsibly around issues in terms of their diagnosis of COVID, they do the right thing in terms of RAT tests, they try to make sure that they're all clear, but for those more detailed questions, I definitely encourage you to get in contact with Mark Butler. I'm sure he'll be happy to respond. 

GEMMA VENESS: Ed Husic, thank you. 

ED HUSIC: Thanks for your time.