Interview with Greg Jennett, Afternoon Briefing, ABC News

Greg Jennett
National Reconstruction Fund; Investment in Chinese Technology; nuclear waste storage; ALP National Conference.

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Well, on the ALP national conference, virtually every Albanese government frontbencher will be heading to Brisbane for the three-day gathering starting on Thursday. Depending on what happens with the Matildas semi-final on Wednesday evening, I suppose, it will either be headline-grabbing news or barely noticed at all. But in any event, Industry and Science Minister Ed Husic will be going there. We caught up with him here in Canberra, starting out with the creation of the new board to run his $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund, which is the centrepiece of the government’s make-it-here approach to manufacturing industry. Ed Husic, thanks so much for coming back on.


GREG JENNETT: Now, you’ve not only formed the board of the National Reconstruction Fund Corporation, I think it’s going to crack on and start having meetings very shortly. I notice on it are people who might be described as traditional Labor appointments – one comes out of the union movement – a Liberal one too in Kelly O’Dwyer. Has this been designed so that it is practically impossible to undo or dismantle this fund for future governments if they so wished?

ED HUSIC: Well, I think what should make it impossible to dismantle is the focus that it has in revitalising Australian manufacturing capability in the face of concentrated supply chains, what we came out of the pandemic, the sort of geopolitical impacts on trade and also the challenge of climate change requiring us to decarbonise as much as we can. That work will go on for years. It’s not just what will be present for the Albanese government but for administrations that follow. So that’s really important. It’s a national reconstruction fund. We want people from different corners of the country with different skills and experiences to help guide it. That’s why you might get a Dan Walton, ex-AWU, who’s been speaking up for manufacturing for the entirety of his time as a senior leader in the movement, or it might be a Kelly O’Dwyer that’s worked within government but is now in investment and finance circles that can give us the sense of how we shape a fund like this to work in with other funds. So we’re bringing different talents, united in national good for work that is going to last well beyond this administration and the next.

GREG JENNETT: Okay. When might it start dispensing money or attracting co-investments, all of the above?

ED HUSIC: Well, you’re asking an exceptionally impatient person that. And to answer that question, I would love it to have done it yesterday. We needed to do so not in a rushed way but in a right way. We want the investment decisions to be made in the national interest, to deliver a rate of return, that they stack up, and that by doing so they’re building strong firms that are adding to our economic – deepening our economic complexity, generating secure work and attending to those priority areas that are the focus of the fund.

GREG JENNETT: I’m sure it didn’t escape your attention late last week that the US is proposing Treasury powers to ban American investment into Chinese entities in tech, in AI, in microchips, all of this related in some way to the reconstruction fund. Is Australia considering something similar?

ED HUSIC: You’d appreciate that I’d be very careful about entering into a space that talks about what we may or may not do in a national security sense. But from an economic security perspective, this is not the first time, this is not novel as an approach by the US. They’ve done this in generations past where they’ve had a view about the use of technology and how it might play out in a broader geopolitical way. From our point of view we are trying to build our capabilities in a critical technology arena, not just in terms of AI but quantum, which we’ve previously spoken about, and it might be in robotics as well. So, you know, we’ll keep tabs and we’ll watch closely and work with colleagues in the Biden administration on those type of issues. From our point of view –

GREG JENNETT: The outflow of – sorry to interrupt, but the outflow of Australian investment into Chinese entities in these areas would I be right in concluding is relatively small?

ED HUSIC: I think – and also people have been making their calls, seeing the way that things have played out on the international stage. So, you know, I think that’s – if I can put it in rather broad terms – taking care of itself. From our perspective, what we are sending a signal both within Australia and overseas is this is a government that is very focused on rebuilding our sovereign capability in key areas, that there are big opportunities. And we also, in particular, are calling for Australians that are overseas to see that and if they can bring the talents and experience that they’ve grown offshore to bring it back on to Australian soil and help us what we’re trying to do will be a terrific thing.

GREG JENNETT: All right. You also have responsibility, Ed Husic, for nuclear science through ANSTO. Since the decision or announcement by Madeleine King, your colleague, to abandon the Kimba waste site last week, has ANSTO given you any update on the limits of its capacity to continue storing in its case intermediate waste? Might you have interim steps here?

ED HUSIC: I don’t believe I’ll need to take interim steps based on the advice that ANSTO has provided us. They believe that they’ve got quite enough leeway and that this will give us time, as has been indicated by the government, to resolve this. And so I’m relatively comfortable about where things are at based on the advice that ANSTO has provided.

GREG JENNETT: When you say “resolve this”, it is long resolution, isn’t it, if we’re starting literally with a blank sheet of paper once again? What’s the earliest anticipated time do you think for not only identifying but legislating and then burying waste?

ED HUSIC: Well, that will be in the realm of the Minister for Resources, Madeleine King, will work on in terms of the specifics of your question. But as it relates to ANSTO, which I’m directly responsible for as Minister for Industry and Science, they’re pretty comfortable about where things are at. And we’ve got, as I said, room, we’ve got breathing space, on that matter.

GREG JENNETT: Is it likely that ANSTO might have to engage in more transfer and transportation of waste into temporary locations? I know there are some 400 locations in all that different levels of waste are currently stored in Australia. But might they have to transfer more if their capacity to hold it around Lucas Heights, for instance, is limited?

ED HUSIC: I hope you’d appreciate, I’d be very careful about speculating. It is dealing with low-level waste. A lot of it is generated for medical purpose. So a lot of the isotopes that are used to treat people that are facing some of their toughest personal health challenges, and they do a lot of great work, ANSTO, in helping meet that need. Again, if you can appreciate, I’m not going to be going out and spelling stuff out about what might happen longer term.

GREG JENNETT: No. I understand.

ED HUSIC: But the folk at ANSTO, a bunch of dedicated, terrifically talented people, they’re working through all that. And I’m sure whatever they – whatever assistance they require and they approach government, we’ll be there to work that through with them. But at this stage they’re saying from their point of view that they’ve got quite enough time and leeway to deal with this issue.

GREG JENNETT: Do you see any merit – not just you personally, but the government in general – on a single-site fix here? Because what we now know, of course, is that in the longer term Australia will have to dispose of high-level nuclear waste from nuclear-powered submarines long into the future. Might there be an attraction into centralising all forms of nuclear waste, bringing these two streams together?

ED HUSIC: Well, you’re inviting me to comment on work that will be undertaken by the Minister for Resources. So if you don’t mind, I might leave that to Madeleine and she can sort that out.

GREG JENNETT: Okay. One final one –

ED HUSIC: Or respond to your question.

GREG JENNETT: All right. Well, I’ll tempt you in, because I know you have skin in the game – you’re going to the ALP national conference. Is it necessary for the word “AUKUS” to appear in the policy platform of the ALP?

ED HUSIC: Okay. There’ll be a lot of speculation about what will or won’t occur. I’ve watched this space for years as an ALP member since my late teens, watching national conferences before I even joined the party. There was always a lot of drama or intrigue about what may or may not occur. Let’s see how it plays out. The great thing about our party is it’s filled with people that have got a lot of ambition for the nation, a lot of energy there that expresses itself in different ways. Just because it happens that way, it doesn’t mean that the party is going to be riven asunder and that all the drama that plays out on the floor of conference, that has been there, it's been a feature of conferences for quite some time. Let’s see how it plays out. And I’m not going to go into individual wording about whether or not one thing should appear or not. It will play itself out. I’ve seen in my space a whole a lot of stuff that’s been speculated in industry and science about something’s terrible about it not being in and some of it’s just routine, you know, some of it is the stuff that happens leading into conference. I don’t get too worked up.

GREG JENNETT: I know, I know. 

ED HUSIC: I know it has to be the focus of political coverage in this week. I get that it’s got a role. 

GREG JENNETT: It’s going to, I promise. And it’s occupying lots of attention among your colleagues.

ED HUSIC: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I’m not – and I’m not denying that, right? Absolutely. And that stuff will get worked out. I’m not here to pretend that it’s all smooth sailing by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just part and parcel of the territory.

GREG JENNETT: Yeah, it will take the wisdom of Solomon to bring this into some amicable solution, but often that’s what happens, Ed Husic. Good luck with that. We’ll talk again soon.

ED HUSIC: Thank you so much.