Interview with Nadia Mitsopoulos, ABC Perth

Nadia Mitsopoulos
Superannuation changes; Taxation; Manufacturing opportunities; National battery strategy; Manufacturing costs in Australia and selling at higher prices; Robotics; Circular economy; National Reconstruction Fund. 

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Now I've got to say we've had a lot of Federal Politicians coming through WA recently, over the last year, but particularly in the last few weeks and, of course, the Prime Minister was here with his Cabinet last week and I've got to say it's been a while since WA has had a Federal Government pay us so much attention and they just keep on coming and I've got Ed Husic in the studio. He's the Federal Minister for Industry and Science. He's back in Perth and he's here to talk up manufacturing. Minister, welcome back. 

ED HUSIC, MINISTER FOR INDUSTRY AND SCIENCE: Nadia, I love Perth so much my personal Google maps I have all these hearts of places I love to go and see and eat in Perth. I've got to expand it to broader than just Perth but I love visiting and I've been quite a frequent visitor, if you don't mind me saying, over the time I've been in the shadow and also this current role.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Oh, Minister, you probably say that to all the capital cities.

ED HUSIC: Busted.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: But you are talking to a state-wide audience so we are well beyond the boundaries of Perth this morning.

ED HUSIC: And they are more than welcome to chip me and also give me suggestions for new places on my Google Maps pins to put in for places to visit and see.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: They can text us and I will send you the list, okay.  

ED HUSIC: Terrific, it's a deal.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: 0437 922 720. Where does Ed Husic need to go?

ED HUSIC: Exceptionally productive interview and we've only spoken for a minute.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Which is- we're organising your travel plans for the next year for your holidays. We're going to get into manufacturing in a moment but can I just touch on superannuation and those changes and the reaction to doubling the rate, the tax rate on the super accounts of over $3 million.

Now, I appreciate the Government said it only affects 80,000 people, so high earners, but the wider issue seems to be one of trust, that you've broken an election promise and therefore the trust of voters and that really matters to people.

ED HUSIC: We take that very seriously. I think it's from the Prime Minister down, we're very focused on the things we said we'd do, we'd deliver. We've also made sure, with these changes that you're referring to, they will not take effect in this term of Parliament. They will be put and people will have a chance to have their say at the next election on them, and we would, ask people to take into account the fact that  we've inherited a budget mess, a trillion dollars in debt, we've got rising inflation and we want to put downward pressure on interest rates, we've got to be able to trim costs where we can do so and bring the budget back into repair and that's what we're trying to do.

And I think the PM's made the proper call in terms of setting it back beyond the '25 election and, as you've pointed out, you're going to have a hard time trying to find people that earn over $3 million because 99.5 per cent of people will be unaffected and we think people in that bracket to help make a contribution to budget repair.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: People are now worried, though, about what is next, what else could be on your hit list?

ED HUSIC: Well, I think the Prime Minister also dealt with this yesterday, too. There was a whole lot of speculation around what might be brought in and he was quite adamant that for example, the whole suggestion around capital gains tax and the family home, he ruled it out and he added a full stop and an explanation mark, and all the other stuff, he’s rightly put down to speculation. We are very clear that we want to be able to do the things we said we would do at the election, or that we took to the election. 

But bear in mind, too, from time to time, we've got to respond to things that we may not have spoken about during the election, most notably energy prices and the way that we're going. We had to do some things there that we didn't have necessarily a policy on but people did expect help on reducing power and gas prices.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Very Eastern State - that's a very Eastern States issue, though, they don't have that issue here.

ED HUSIC: No, I understand that, and I am a very - I'm very admiring of the fact that on things like gas prices, WA has led the country with its reservation policy. But for the rest of the country and what it does to our economy, and to manufacturing, it's a big deal. But to the bigger point I'm just trying to make, Nadia, is that some stuff just crops up through the life of a government you've got to respond and so we obviously are trying to do things that are consistent, fair, and also right for the national interest long term.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Just mentioning tax there and it was interesting to read some comments to the West Australian made by Curtin MP Kate Chaney and she said the subject of tax can't just be taboo. She said she gets quite frustrated that every time there is a debate about structural issues in the budget, it just gets shut down straight away. Do you agree with her?

ED HUSIC: I mean obviously I take on board what Kate's saying - 

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: And why can't we talk about it?

ED HUSIC: - and deal with her quite a bit particularly in terms of my portfolio and I have a lot of time for her. Look, I just think those types of things around tax from our perspective, from a government perspective when you're dealing with these things and the complexity, you need to do your homework, you need to line things up and you need to be able to take people with you, it's a longer term process. 

And I just think that, what makes it easier is if you have an Opposition that's constructive. The Coalition clearly isn't. Peter Dutton, in this case, wants to go to the trenches defending $3 million superannuation accounts. I never hear any Coalition politician ever back a pay increase for some of our lowest workers in the country and never apply vigour to improving their lot but Peter Dutton's making it a big case of fighting us on the superannuation changes and this comes to my substantive point, and to your question, about tax reform. You've really got to be conscious of the fact that you don't have a parliament that wants to have that broad-ranging discussion when you've got a Coalition acting the way it is. So it just changes the way you do things.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: You can initiate it, though. You keep talking about it.

ED HUSIC: Understood. Look, anything in that realm will be up to the Treasurer in terms of leading it. Tax is his territory. So as much as I know, I'm not really going to open the door because it goes counter to what I just said to you. I think you need to do your homework on that and get stuff lined up properly.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Ed Husic is my guest this morning, the Federal Minister for Industry and Science. You are in WA to talk up, I guess, our manufacturing capabilities and in your opinion piece in The West today are saying that we could be a manufacturing powerhouse. What are the opportunities here?

ED HUSIC: You referred to Professor Klinken earlier.  

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Peter Klinken, yeah.

ED HUSIC: A great convo with him yesterday and he showed me in - he took out, as you'd expect with a chief scientist, had a great, handy A3 sheet of paper listing all your current capabilities and you can go and you also referenced some of his previous comments about the fact that we have all these critical minerals and that we should be value adding and turning those into batteries that are in high demand in a country like ours.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: He said we can do it from start to finish, everything.

ED HUSIC: Yeah, and he's sort of, pardon the pun, energy that he applies to that, plus I'm later going to be seeing the Future Batteries Industry Cooperative Research Centre located here in Perth and talking things through, and they've really helped me sharpen my thinking on this issue, too, and we've launched a development of a national battery strategy off the back of that CRC's work right here from Perth. 

We do need to value add. We do need to be able to meet the needs, not just now of people, but longer term, and people like Peter Klinken and others here are right to say we've got to have a long-term view about, not just in WA but nationally, what's our economy look like longer term? How do we create jobs?

And the reason I'm so focused on manufacturing is most modern economies need manufacturing capabilities. They create really good, secure, full-time work for people and they're going to be able to produce the things that, particularly through the course of the pandemic when we expected to be able to get products that we needed and we couldn't, we need to correct that. We need to learn the lessons. Not just say we learned the lessons, show people that we have and make something concrete out of it.  

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Okay, so the National Battery Strategy that you mentioned there, what does that actually provide for? 

ED HUSIC: So we're looking at all elements, and, again, the future battery industry CRC mapped out  the the battery value chain. So you go from mining to refining, what you dig out, processing it into the materials that then go into the manufactured cells. You need to look at things like the software. These batteries are very complex. They're run by software to make them super efficient, and the other thing is, too, longer term, thinking about recycling and reuse because we don't want to have all these batteries and all that material end up in landfill. How do we use batteries better and extend their life?
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Because we'll have a responsibility, if we're making these things, and exporting them across the world, surely we would also have a responsibility to try and deal with the waste at the other end, because that's a big issue.  

ED HUSIC: I think, well, it's an issue in as far as for those countries, they will obviously have their own plans about how they deal with waste. But here, you're absolutely on the money.
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Some will also argue we should be responsible for what we ship out, too.  

ED HUSIC: I understand, and obviously in the sort of dialogue that happens in the community, you take on board all views. But from our own perspective we do need to think through about how we reuse material. I've seen some really clever firms that are emerging start-ups that are thinking about how to do the extraction of that, what's remaining in batteries, consolidate it together, create new battery storage as well and they were out of Melbourne, one particular firm that has received government funding, too. 

We need to scale that up. All this activity up. We are one of the fastest, greatest users of rooftop solar. A lot of the people feed the excess power they generate on their roofs back into their grid but there's some value in them storing that energy and electrifying as much as we can what we use in households. Our households do have a big emissions footprint and the more efficient we can get on energy use at home is really, is a big deal.
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Okay, so Ed Husic is my guest this morning, the Federal Minister for Industry and Science. Isn't the cost one of the problems labour cost because the reality is it's cheaper to get things made overseas, and so we do see a lot of Australian companies that manufacture overseas, and then people on the text line, I appreciate you quite like getting feedback from our listeners, they talk about, say, fuel cost, for instance, energy prices, for instance. I mean, it's more expensive here.  

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: So then how do you find a market if you're going to have to sell this stuff at a higher price? 

ED HUSIC: Well, I think part of the thing about solar is it has dramatically cut costs for people in terms of their energy and being able to pair that up with batteries and energy storage systems is really important. And going straight to your question about the cost of being able to produce here, again, a lot of the work that has been done to assess how we can get involved in making our own batteries says that automation, and I've been to some, for example, Tesla gigafactories in the US and seen how much that's automated, the use of robotics, etc, that has brought that cost down. And the people that work within there, their labour rates are internationally competitive. 

There is, to be completely frank with you, there's probably a difference in construction costs for building a lot of these gigafactories that do the production. But, again, we're thinking that through and I think there is - the biggest thing, people, when they think about batteries they think usually about EVs, which is really important. But for me, a lot of my thinking has been about how we create energy storage for residential, commercial, and industrial use and there's a huge market here for that given that a lot of either you see from what I said about homes, through to a lot of businesses that I go and visit that are actively thinking about how do we put more solar panels on and then how do we store that energy and then input it into our production process. So the demand's there, the market's there, and we've just got to deal with some of the other elements. 

The big toughie, if I can put it that way, is processing the the material and that's a hard thing and talking with friends in the US, in the Biden Administration, they're very keen to work with us and see how we can, together, sort that out because a lot of processing is done largely out of one country and that's China.  

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: A couple of texts coming through. This listener says I tried a horticultural robotics start up in Perth, no-one was interested. Magic word in Perth is tenement. We don't even make gasoline and diesel. We could make batteries, lithium and nickel, still high purity aluminium, machined aluminium and on it goes. Grain-based added value products that we can make really anything, it's just a vision of - it's just a matter of vision and political will, and this listener says we have neither.  

ED HUSIC: Can I just say to your listener that my interest in robotics is deep. We lead the world in field robotics. We've got some really talented people there.  

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: We do a lot here in WA.  

ED HUSIC: Absolutely. For example, mining, you see some of the automation that's occurring there.
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: They work with NASA on those kind of things.  

ED HUSIC: Yeah, and so I kicked off the development of the National Robotic Strategy because I think longer term it's going to be really important for some of the reasons I mentioned earlier about battery production, but there are a whole lot of other things, too, in terms of advanced manufacturing that we need to do. If that's a horticultural robotics company, I'd be very keen. I can now make this assurance to you and your listeners, I'd be very keen to meet up with them and see what they do because I do like to go and see a lot about what's being done with robotics and we actually announced yesterday a grant to Murdoch and Curtin universities to help them with their WA robotics play-offs, students there that are getting into robotics and scaling up their work. 

So I can assure it may have been missing in times past, one of the first things I thought of coming into the portfolio in government is why on earth do we not have a national approach on robotics when we know that there's so much that needs to be done and some people, I'll end on this point, will think that it's weird that a Labor Minister is thinking about robotics and automation.  

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Because they will say you're taking jobs away.
ED HUSIC: And the reality is there are a lot of jobs that are going unfilled and we just can't have that work not be done and robotics, increasingly, fills the gap where you can't find people. We also are very committed to upskilling people for the longer term work and that's why I talk a lot about manufacturing, the skills requirements there are huge. So we can do both. But we can do it from the perspective and on the robotics group that's advising me, I've got unions represented on there because I'm thinking longer term about work force. It's not just about creating a bunch of robots, it's about integrating robotics and workers together for longer term national good.
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Peter Klinken often talks about medicines that we should be making medicines here. People saying a lot of those kind of things come from New Zealand. He's talked about that. Recycling. That's the other thing. We take our recyclables, we don't value add to them and now we've lost our recycling of soft plastics so people on the text line saying there's opportunities there as well.  

ED HUSIC: 100 per cent. They're right. And my colleague, Tanya Plibersek, is thinking about that and I'm working with her on a circular economy, in terms of thinking through, right from the design phase, thinking through all those elements that do need to be reused and encouraging that to happen and again, there's been very little political will on that. So we are certainly aware of that. On medicines, I will make the point quickly, we've invested in setting up with Moderna a mRNA manufacturing facility in Victoria but that is a foundation stone for a broader lot of work through which we want to invest via the National Reconstruction Fund in medical manufacture here onshore and to be able to see others emerge.
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Just quickly, time frame on that fund, that's the $15 billion fund where people can get some money to get those projects happening. When will that money be available? 

ED HUSIC: So the National Reconstruction Fund will be the biggest investment in manufacturing capability in living memory. We're working very quickly. If I had my way, it would be up yesterday but clearly we have to go through Parliament to set it up. We're hoping to get it through Parliament this month and we're hoping to set the fund up in the next few months. But we've got to get moving. We've got to invest in manufacturing. We've got to create good long-term jobs and open up opportunity here in WA. 

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Okay, Minister, I'll leave it there. Come to Collie says the listener. Communities are going through a transition and - communities going through just transition are where we will get the most bang for our green manufacturing buck because, of course, Collie's phasing out of coal over the next few years. So there's an invite to go to Collie. Where should the Minister go? Can you text me, please. 0437 - 

ED HUSIC: That's right, I need to put those on my Google map. 

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: - 922 - he needs to heart you. Thanks for coming in. Good to meet you. 

ED HUSIC: Terrific to be with you.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Ed Husic there. The Federal Minister for Industry and Science. If you do text me, I will send through your suggestions of where else other than Perth he should go. Collie's on the list. Where else? It is 9:25.