Interview with Kieran Gilbert on Afternoon Agenda, Sky News

Kieran Gilbert
The National Reconstruction Fund; Safeguard Mechanisms; Inflation rates; Australia-China relations. 

KIERAN GILBERT: Let's go live now to the Industry Minister, Ed Husic. Minister, thanks for your time. I'll get your thoughts on what Adam Bandt said on a range of issues in a moment. First though, to that exclusive information that I brought to our viewers at the top of the programme that the Defence Strategic Review is broken into 18 chapters - one of them exclusively on the defence workforce crisis, basically. Can it be overcome, given how drastic the challenge is in that space, both in uniformed military, but the production line as well in building our military hardware? 

ED HUSIC, MINISTER FOR INDUSTRY AND SCIENCE: Good morning, Kieran. And I think that is a really important question. I mean, we were elected at a time where we had some of the most significant national security and economic security challenges and a lot of it stems from in terms of the response -  our investment in people, in their skills and making sure that we've got a workforce that can meet the nation's needs. It's why we've invested heavily and we've flagged our investments in TAFE through to University. Really important to make sure that we've got the skills that employers need and also changes to the way in which skilled migration occurs. So again, we've got the people here at the time we need them. The Defence Minister has previously flagged that those workforce shortages do present a big issue that needs to be tackled if we want to fulfil our obligations under AUKUS and if we want to be able to ensure we respond strongly to those national security challenges that I referred to earlier.

KIERAN GILBERT: And that workforce capacity is part of a broader story within industry. You made the point recently the Coalition didn't really appreciate or enjoy the point that you made. But you're saying the National Reconstruction Fund has specific relevance to things like the workforce in defence and the defence industry's capacity more broadly. Can you explain that to our viewers this morning?

ED HUSIC: Well certainly two elements that are really important to take into account in relation to the National Reconstruction Fund will be around. For example, targeting defence as a priority area and also critical technologies, emerging capabilities that will be important not just for our economic security, but our national security. And our AUKUS partners expect us to come to the table with our capabilities, particularly in terms of technology. In some cases, for example, on quantum technologies. That will be really important for the economy long term, but also play a big part in national security. 
We've set aside under the National Reconstruction Fund a billion dollars for critical technology to support quantum firms here in this country be able to continue to stay here instead of leaving because they don't have the capital to support them. Now, the Coalition is opposed. They're opposed to the National Reconstruction Fund and by virtue of that, they're opposed to providing a capital platform that can ensure smart quantum firms that can deliver for the economy and our security can't continue onshore because they're going to have to go offshore to find the money. We're seeing that now. We don't want that to happen. We want Australian-made and we want the capital here to make that happen.

KIERAN GILBERT: The Opposition accused you of a new low, trying to use national security to make your case on this issue. Now, the Coalition maintains its opposition to the Reconstruction Fund is based in part on the fact that it would be inflationary, that it would be expansionary at a time the economy is red-hot with inflation.

ED HUSIC: Well I think we need to recognise this, and if I can emphasise this; the Albanese government's $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund is one of the largest investments in manufacturing capability in living memory. It's going to ensure that we reduce our dependence on broken or concentrated supply chains and take up the fight to inflation. It can create good, secure work, particularly in our regions, and also respond to what Australians want, which is that this is a country that makes things. 
Now the Coalition might not like the fact that their opposition presents threats, particularly in terms of national security, and they may not like that we're making those points. But this is a consequence of their no vote. Now we offered to work with them, they suddenly decided they wouldn't, and now they're reacting to the implications and the consequences of their own decisions. We don't think that them treating this in the way that they do is good for the country. And in terms of some of the arguments that they've made, for example, claiming that an investment in capability that will reduce dependence on supply chains and lead in the fight to reducing inflation and interest rates - that they set us on the course on - that is just ridiculous that they would make that claim. 
The reality is the way we will structure the fund too, Kieran, is that the investments, the injections into the fund will occur over time. The investments will occur over time. But importantly, this is about building capacity. And if the Coalition thinks that investment in capacity and in businesses is inflationary, we wouldn't be having banks invest in businesses as well. I mean, it's a ridiculous suggestion by them, and a desperate one at that.

KIERAN GILBERT: The Greens this morning saying that on the Safeguard Mechanism, that it's an offer, not an ultimatum. Do you welcome that more open language? It sounds like they might not be on a path to repeat 2009.

ED HUSIC: I think the big thing out of the election, Kieran, is that people wanted their parliament to work. They understand that there will be different parties that will be housed within those parliaments, but they want answers to some of the big things that concern Australians. And they want to be able to get a sense of hope out of the way that parliament's working, that positive change is being made. For example, on the National Reconstruction Fund, I’ve taken the time to talk to crossbenchers and Greens alike, regardless of our numerical position in the House. It's a National Reconstruction Fund where we can build support together on a nation-building moment. 
The safeguards are also a big part of us being able to reduce emissions and increase jobs in the process as well with all the other things that we're doing. And certainly we want to have a constructive approach to dealing with different parties. And in terms of the National Reconstruction Fund, we've been having positive discussions with not just the Greens, but other crossbenchers as well. And we hope that continues. But it is a moment in time to get things right. I have to say I did notice Mr Bandt make a suggestion that not getting some of the changes we wanted in 2009 on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and our refusal to continue with that saw us go backwards in 2010. 
Having lived through that time, I think in large part a lot of what we saw was because we realised that the Greens and the Liberals would team up and that they'd block us on that. When we responded, as Kevin Rudd did at that time, there was a big reaction from the public feeling that we weren't taking forward serious action on climate change. The Greens contributed to that and I think this is the point everyone's making; can we learn the lessons? Can we do better? Can we work as a parliament to achieve the type of things that the Australian public wants? And we've all - not just the government, but also crossbench and Greens - we've all got a part to play if the Coalition doesn't want to learn those lessons.

KIERAN GILBERT: The RBA Governor really facing a lot of scrutiny in the last week, he's trying to thread the needle of dealing with inflation and still have a soft landing in the economy but a lot of people are hurting as you know - businesses, householders around the country. How important is it that you and your colleagues focus on that issue of cost of living first and foremost - first, second and third, basically in their political terms, as Paul Erickson, the National Secretary of The Labor Party, urged the caucus to do in recent days?

ED HUSIC: Tackling inflation is the big economic challenge for this generation. We cannot afford to see it re-emerge and become a set feature of our economy because of all the things that it does. Not the least of which is put pressure on households with their cost of living. We've been very focused on that. We have, for example, set aside targets to deal would provide relief for cost-of-living pressures which you've seen - cheaper medicines, reforms to childcare, what we flagged will come in the budget on further energy relief measures. We want to repair broken supply chains that's leading to the supply side shocks and the National Reconstruction Fund plays a part in that. Playing our part in returning revenue uplift to the budget as well, really important there. And making sure too, that in the course of all this - Australians get we inherited an inflation and interest rate challenge from a Coalition that just spent money like no one's business and didn't take supply chain issues and supply side issues seriously. 
We were set on a trajectory of higher inflation and interest rates by the Coalition from their time in office. But people know they've elected us as a government to respond. That's what we're doing. And they've also seen some signs that inflation has peaked and that it will moderate through 2023. But we've got a lot of work to do and as a government, we've fixed absolutely on that.

KIERAN GILBERT: My colleague Andrew Clennell mentioned earlier in the programme that he understands several Australian coal shipments have now been able to unload in China in the last couple of weeks. Since this thaw in relations, did you think that it would be back on an even keel so quickly? And is it still a potent political issue? We saw quite a strong backlash from Australians of Chinese descent at the election. We've got the Aston by-election coming up. 15% of that seat are Chinese Australians. Where is that issue now? Or has it moved on in terms of its political potency?

ED HUSIC: I think as a new government, we've recognised the need to get the tone right. Stand up for your values but do it in a way that you can still keep talking and working through issues. And you're seeing some of that be reflected in some of the news that you've referred to. And it's a contrast to the way that the Coalition managed things. And I think there was a backlash from people who felt that they were under pressure, given their heritage, their background. We can as I said, stand up for our values, but also do it in a way where we focused on the differences between governments importantly, and to be able to work through that. 
We think that it is important. We recognise that the way that the Chinese government and the way that their economy has evolved. They've obviously grown in terms of over that period of time and expect to see that reflected in international arrangements. But we also need to ensure that there's rules-based approaches to the way that we work and that we all are respecting and working cooperatively with each other wherever we can. And there's got to be a way that you make a chart or chart a course through all that. That's what we've attempted to do. But again, it's a contrast. You can do this stuff sensibly or you can do it the way that the Coalition did it in government; over the top scoring, trying to score headlines and impacting on the country as a result. We think there is a better way to stand up for our values but also get the job done.

KIERAN GILBERT: Industry Minister Ed Husic, appreciate your time.

ED HUSIC: Thank you, Kieran.