Interview with Greg Jennett ABC News Channel

Greg Jennett
Energy prices and cost of living; National Reconstruction Fund

GREG JENNETT: Let’s move on now, and a bank of election promises still need to be passed into law by the parliament throughout this year. In sheer dollar terms, though, the $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund for manufacturing is one of the biggest before we get to the budget in May, anyway. 

Industry Minister Ed Husic is in charge of shepherding that through, and he’ll have to do it in the face of staunch opposition from Liberals and Nationals. He joined us straight after Question Time here in the studio. 

Well, Ed Husic, welcome back to the program for the year. Straight from Parliamentary Question Time, where it’s fairly obvious that the Coalition has painted a target on the government over cost-of-living expectations, then poring over the Reserve Bank board’s statement. It looks like you’re going to have to endure a lot more scrutiny and pressure over cost of living and interest rates for quite some time yet. Do you accept that? 

ED HUSIC, MINISTER FOR INDUSTRY AND SCIENCE: We’ve got to break the back of inflation. As a country we thought that this inflation had been buried off, but the zombie has forced its hand out of the grave, as it were, and we’ve got a job to do on that and we’re very focused on that. Now, this happened, it started on the Coalition’s watch. A lot of the wasteful spending that they engaged in helped fuel this. We are focused on reining in inflation and in the meantime providing that cost of living relief that is going to matter a lot to Australian families. 

And it’s also important that we beat back inflation because it’s hugely distortionary within the economy, and we just can’t afford to see that happen. And we want to be able to be on a pathway where we see interest rates go down, not up. 

GREG JENNETT: I know you could rattle off a list of medium-term measures that the Albanese is already on to to try and take the sting out of inflation and cost of living pressures, but let’s just talk about one that you have been very active on, and that’s the gas and coal price caps for manufacturing. 


GREG JENNETT: When will we – manufacturers that is – notice it taking the sting out of prices? 

ED HUSIC: It was really important based on those projections we received from Treasury just ahead of the October budget where you saw what was going to happen with electricity, you saw what was going to happen with gas. And I was already concerned about the impact on gas prices, particularly for manufacturers. And from our point of view, we needed to start that process of reining it in, which is why the parliament was brought back by the Prime Minister, why we think that over the course of the next two calendar years, you’ll start to see some of those prices be reined in. 

We were very conscious that a lot of contracts had been entered into, so it’s very hard to change the terms of contracts. We’re not in that business. So we will see that. We’ve had some initial figures the Treasurer released in January suggesting that there’s been some softening of that sharper edge on price increases –

GREG JENNETT: But not a lot. 

ED HUSIC: – but we’ve got a bit to go. Well, we understood that this would be a challenge. But, to be frank with you, it is way better that we have acted instead of arguing about what is to be done in 2023 on a problem we knew was going to arise in 2022. And, again, we’ve taken this action seriously, and it’s meant a lot. And I know a lot of manufacturers who are breathing a sigh of relief knowing that at least there’s some certainty longer term for them around prices. 

GREG JENNETT: We’re going to keep an eye on that. 

ED HUSIC: You and I both. You and I both, my friend. 

GREG JENNETT: Let’s take you to what lies right before you – the $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund. The Coalition says it lacks transparency, exposes taxpayers to risk and enshrines inappropriate ministerial discretion. It does actually give you enormous amounts of discretion, this bill, doesn’t it? 

ED HUSIC: Well, can we just take a moment. The Coalition is lecturing people on the lack of transparency, lack of oversight, political interference. When you look at program after program where they disrespected taxpayer dollars and handed them out on the basis of political not national interests, to have the Coalition level those arguments – which are patently wrong – is just out of line. 

But let me just make a point about the reconstruction fund. This is $15 billion that will be managed by an independent board, guided by an investment mandate with all the oversight provisions that exist on an – like what you see with an existing fund that is exactly the same, like the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

GREG JENNETT: So there’s nothing in that investment mandate – which you and you alone will control – that could skew these things politically – 

ED HUSIC: No, that’s not right. No – look, sorry. If I may, some of this detail will be apparent in the weeks ahead – 

GREG JENNETT: I’m just looking at the bill because the bill establishes the power for ministers to issue the investment. 

ED HUSIC: The ministers will absolutely issue an investment mandate guided by advice from people in investment and industry circles. There’ll be no colour-coded spreadsheets like what we’ve seen under the former government. It’s deliberately set up as an independent body. And let’s just be very clear about this: this is the greatest peacetime investment in Australian manufacturing capability. 

After the pandemic when we saw we didn’t have the products we needed at the time we needed them most, the dependencies we have on just a few countries for these goods, the impact on our supply chains, we are not going to waste that moment in time where we said we have to do better. We want to do better, and we’re not going to ignore those lessons. The National Reconstruction Fund has got a really important role to play, and we expect that it will revitalise manufacturing and support jobs in the process. 

GREG JENNETT: All right. Just quickly and finally, it all comes down to numbers – you can do it without the Coalition, of course. Pretty solid starting position in the House. In the Senate, David Pocock, the Greens and Lidia Thorpe will get you there. Have you – are you engaging with all of those? 

ED HUSIC: We’ve started that process, and we’ll keep engaging and we will take on board views. I think what was bizarre about the Coalition’s behaviour is that they just rushed out of position. They’ve never had any of these concerns that they’ve uttered running off to their favoured media outlets and putting them out there without coming to us. It just seemed really unusual. If they reconsider their position, I’m happy to work with the Coalition, and I’m happy to work with other parliamentarians. And we respect their role in the nation’s parliament. 

GREG JENNETT: All right. Well, that will fall to you in the days ahead. Ed Husic, great to talk again. 

ED HUSIC: Likewise, Greg. Thank you.