Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

Kieran Gilbert
Topics included Indigenous recognition in the constitution; gas supply; climate change legislation; quantum computing.

KIERAN GILBERT: Joining me now is the Minister for Industry and Science Ed Husic. Minister, thanks very much for your time today. Let’s start with the Garma Festival, the Prime Minister’s speech and commitment to the referendum on Indigenous recognition. He says the nation is ready. Do you agree with him on that?

ED HUSIC, MINISTER FOR INDUSTRY AND SCIENCE: First, thanks, Kieran, for the chance to speak with you. And can I just also start by recognising the passing of Uncle Archie Roach, musician and also a member of the Stolen Generation. I just want to pay respects to him and recognise his special place in the nation. 

In relation to Garma, I think you saw the Prime Minister outline a very important and further step towards reconciliation with the oldest continuous civilisation on the planet by saying that we would want to make a change to the constitution to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have a voice on things that are directly relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and also do something better than what we’ve seen in the last 121 years where governments haven’t really done a really good job on listening. And in this way, we want to be able to provide something that has been talked about for 15 years in terms of making those changes to the constitution and doing a better job on listening and potentially doing a better job on outcomes when it comes to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in this nation. 

KIERAN GILBERT: Often – well, the history of referenda in this country shows bipartisanship is crucial. Do you think that will be offered by the Coalition? 

ED HUSIC: Ultimately that’s up to them. We’re working clearly very constructively and we want to work in a bipartisan way. We think this is a moment in time for the country, for all of us to come together. We might have different views, we might have from time to time strongly held positions that might be expressed. But the big job, the big task ahead of us is to come together in a very meaningful, practical way to ensure that there is a voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders that doesn’t have to be dependent on political cycles or which Prime Minister is in at which point in time, it provides an effective voice, as I said, for the oldest continuous civilisation in a case where we haven’t really done as well as we possibly could in that – on that score. 

KIERAN GILBERT: Minister, to some other news now – and it’s my understanding that the ACCC report into the gas supply issues will be delivered tomorrow. On that front, it’s going to suggest the shortfalls for industry and the energy sector will continue into next year. Is it time for the government to pull the gas domestic supply trigger? 

ED HUSIC: Well, clearly we’ll wait for the release of the ACCC update. But we are very focused as a government in ensuring full supply at a fair price for Australian industry and households. Obviously suggestions of a shortfall are concerning, particularly for industrial users who make up nearly half of domestic gas demand. And in a situation where uncontracted gas supplies should theoretically be able to cover that – well and truly cover that shortfall. 

So we do need to make sure – we recognise, for example, that the gas producers have got some of the best market conditions that they’ve had in quite some time off the back, I might say, of a very difficult and terrible situation largely stemming from that invasion of Ukraine by Russia, which is completely wrong and has, in effect, driven up these prices. And while we appreciate that gas producers are responding in one part to international demand, we do need to make sure that an Australian resource that is being extracted by multinational companies provided to international clients is not pricing out Australian industry and households and not putting pressure on manufacturing in this country. 

KIERAN GILBERT: So you mentioned those uncontracted production which basically means that those companies can sell the gas offshore where the prices are greater. In that context and given what the ACCC report says about shortfalls into next year, it seems like a no-brainer to me that the government would say to the industry, “If you don’t commit to it, we’ll pull the trigger.” 

ED HUSIC: We’re going to, again, wait and see – once the report’s released and my colleague the Minister for Resources Madeleine King working alongside the Minister for Climate Change and Energy Chris Bowen are looking at this whole issue of the reform of that trigger. Largely the trigger is operated on the basis of supply, and supply is part of the problem because we’ve had gas-fired generators that have needed to step up at different points in time when coal-fired generation hasn’t been able to deliver over the last few months. 

But supply, while it’s part of the issue, is not the entirety of the issue. As I keep saying, if uncontracted supply is made available, the price issue is an important one, too. And we do need to see price delivered much better where we have seen a big difference not just in spot price but also what’s been offered under contract. It’s putting huge pressure on manufacturers and by virtue of that creating concern around jobs in manufacturing. And that is something that I will regularly and will continually speak up on either privately or publicly with the gas providers. 

KIERAN GILBERT: Do those providers, do they get it? The fact that those manufacturers could hit the wall due to their behaviour? 

ED HUSIC: Well, they say the right things, but I think they can do more in responding to what they’re saying. And I think that we do need to see better pricing, depending on who you talk to. I mean, some of the prices that are being confronted have been up to $44 per gigajoule. We’re coming off the back of just under $8 in the last few years. So that has been a massive jump. And that is putting big pressure on manufacturers. 

So I do, you know, quite frankly, speaking on behalf of Australian industry – notably manufacturers and the works that are in those sectors – we do want to see a better price because it does have an impact on, in particular, longer-term economic performance for the country. We’ve got – we want to revitalise manufacturing in this country. We do want to become a country that makes things. We do want to celebrate the full-time work that’s generated by manufacturing. But if we’ve got these issues like, for example, around energy pricing, that’s going to be a problem, lead in the saddlebags that we just can’t afford to have. 

KIERAN GILBERT: While I know that you and the government support the 80 per cent renewables by 2030, obviously you believe that gas plays a part for at least the short to medium term – a key part. You’ve heard Adam Bandt this morning talking to Andrew Clennell saying there needs to be a gas and coal moratorium. Are you worried that they won’t come to the table on the legislation and provide certainty in terms of that 43 per cent target this week? 

ED HUSIC: The government took to the election a commitment for a 43 per cent target by 2030 off the back of really extensive modelling. We’re saying that if we can do better than that through the performance and the working together with industry and others then that will be a great thing for the nation in terms of making those contributions. I did hear the Greens leader Adam Bandt, who I think is someone who can be worked with, but I don’t necessarily agree with everything that he’s saying. We’re not going out there trying to fire up every new coal and gas project, but, at the same time, we’re not shutting them down. 

We want to be practical, not political. Gas does have role to play with industry at the moment not just as a source of energy but as a feedstock particularly for plastics and chemical sectors. And that needs to be recognised. Switching – turning the switch off quickly does imperil jobs and economic prosperity for the country. So we’ve got to get the balance right. And there are some technologies like hydrogen, for example, that are in development, but they are not necessarily at a point where they can deliver not just in terms of supply but at a price that’s comparable to what industry’s getting at the moment. 

Industry, Kieran, is fair dinkum about this. I talk to a lot of people in industry who do and are deeply thinking about how to embed new technologies like hydrogen. And the other thing, too, is they’re not kicking the can down the road; their investors are expecting a fair dinkum approach on this as well, and that’s why they’re making those changes. 

KIERAN GILBERT: Some of our biggest universities, if we move to that issue of technology which I know you’ve been focusing on a lot since you’ve taken this portfolio, Google is partnering with some of our big unis which have a strong track record in some of the research for the next generation of technology like quantum computing and quantum AI, you’re worried that some of this collaboration will see our intellectual property end up overseas. What’s happening on this front? 

ED HUSIC: Well, there are a lot of international and particularly largely US firms like Google, Microsoft, IBM, for instance, that are working with our universities, and it is a good thing having international collaboration and having the recognition - they clearly recognise what is a reality here in Australia – and that is we’ve got some exceptional talent, particularly when it comes to quantum technology. And they’re wanting to work with them. 

But I want to make sure, the government wants to make sure, that we build sovereign capability in emerging technology like quantum, that is going to have a huge impact, Kieran, on the performance of our economy longer term. Our ambition is expressed simply – more onshore. We want to make sure that the quantum talent that is emerging here, that is working in different parts of the country – Q -CTRL here in Sydney alongside SQC, seeing Quantum Brilliance, for example – they’re all working in different ways with major breakthroughs that will mean a lot for industry longer term. And I don’t want to see any of the IP that’s developed in collaboration with overseas firms being sucked up overseas and we lose a talent. 

Where at this moment in time kind of like what we saw with solar technology. We were leaders in it until we weren’t. And we weren’t leaders when we shrugged our shoulders and said it was all too hard, saw all that go offshore. Now we have one country that is providing manufactured solar product, and it will go up to 90 per cent in the years to come. We don’t want to miss that opportunity. We don’t want to miss the chance to build sovereign capability. And we’re determined to make sure that that doesn’t happen. 

KIERAN GILBERT: So why have we been so good at the research, the R&D, like you said, on solar technology - the pioneers on solar, but then we drop the ball when it comes to commercialising this – these breakthroughs. And, again, in quantum, it’s obviously very hard to explain the full gamut of what we’re talking about here, but it’s a gamechanger, again, in terms of the tech revolution so to speak. 

ED HUSIC: Well, quantum computing – and I’m sure there’ll be others that will maybe take umbrage at how simplistic I make it – but classic computers work on the basis of switching data on and off within its system. Quantum can go in three states – on/off, on and off at the same time. And the big takeout of that is that what it means is the processing power, the ability to churn through data, and if you pair it up with AI, what that can do, for example, in the discovery of new medicines. There’d be the ability to determine how you can line up molecules to create new antibiotics. We’ve already started to discover that with the application of AI, but quantum can churn through data in a way that people would take decades to do. The development of new fertilisers in the ambition to be able to feed a growing planet in a climate that’s changing, that is a big, big step as well that potentially could be unleashed through the application of quantum computing. 

So when you think about what the prospect is for this technology and you think, okay, we need to be able to harness this onshore and not lose the moment commercialise, as you say, there are a number of things. I mean, this is a very vexed problem. Commercialisation has been a problem for years in this country. But what we’ve been signalling as a new government is to say, one, we value the talent, but not just in word, in deed. 

Our National Reconstruction Fund will have within it a $1 billion critical technology sub-fund, Kieran, that is designed to make sure that when the breakthroughs are there and the money is required to go to the next level that that capital will be there working with superannuation and venture capital to make it a reality. 

KIERAN GILBERT: Industry and Science Minister Ed Husic, I appreciate your time this Sunday morning. Thank you for that. 

ED HUSIC: Thanks, Kieran.