Interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC RN Breakfast

Patricia Karvelas
Interview discusses energy and gas prices, onshore gas exploration and development, and the technology sector.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: This week, millions of you along the east coast have been told to turn down the lights, switch off the appliances and save as much electricity as possible. And while mass blackouts as so far been avoided, it’s clear there’s no easy fix to what critics are increasingly calling a broken system. With much of the focus on electricity generators, gas prices have risen from $10 to $800 a gigajoule in the last 12 months. Ed Husic is the Minister for Industry and Science and my guest this morning. Minister, welcome.

ED HUSIC: Morning. How are you?

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Well, I’m okay. Congratulations on, like, officially becoming Minister. I know that that’s quite a significant achievement for anyone, so I just wanted to start on that note.

ED HUSIC: Thank you. It means a lot. I was just going to say, too, what did I say when you left Afternoon Briefing?

PATRICIA KARVELAS: That you were sad?

ED HUSIC: Well, there was that, but I also knew that it was going to be so hard to have us chat in our usual quote/unquote individual way, and here I am I had to become a Minister in the Albanese Government in order to get on your program.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: You did. You had to become a minister and you achieved that.

ED HUSIC: You set the standard so high.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: You achieved that just to speak to me. Look, I’ve got some serious questions here that I know that you will be able to handle because the gas situation, look, if I can be blunt, it’s nuts.

ED HUSIC: It is.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Australia exports 82 per cent of the gas extracted here. Allocating a fraction of that for domestic use would bring prices down dramatically. Does the nation need a national domestic gas reserve?

ED HUSIC: A number of things: first, you’re absolutely right. It’s been something, particularly from my perspective, and with the ambitions that our Government took to the election around manufacturing, being able to get energy prices, like, at a level that are rational, to put it that way, really important for us to achieve. And I’ve been tasked with the job to bring a lot of that stuff to reality, but there are a number of factors where energy is the big one on the table that is putting a lot of pressure on broader industry. And I think I’ve got a great deal of sympathy with the view in the broader public that these are Australian resources that should be made available for use by households and, in particular in my instance, industry, and at a rate that doesn’t put pressure on them and, by extension pressure, on jobs.

And so, you know, we have said all things should be on the table and when we’re talking that, a lot of the gas companies should realise that the things that are being put on the table by a wide range of people in the community include what’s happened elsewhere in for-profits tax, what’s happened elsewhere, gas reservation policy, to the heart of your question. Those types of things, you know, will be considered, amongst a range of things that need to be taken into account to give certainty to industry.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Are you angry with the gas companies?

ED HUSIC: I’m absolutely agitated. I get – and this is on behalf of industry and also the constituents I represent that are worried about how they heat their homes during cold snaps, and those gas companies I get – a lot of us get that they have all these market conditions right now where there’s a huge demand for their supply, particularly as a result of what’s happening in the northern hemisphere where they’re not so reliant on Russian gas anymore, and so the gas companies here are clearly being able to ride that. But the – if you look at what’s happened on the behaviour of gas, Patricia, you know, there have been a lot of firms that have been worried about where their contracts have been headed. And so, they’ve effectively surfed the spot price when the prices were low because they couldn’t necessarily go to their boards with contracts at prices that they were and expect support for that. And now they’ve been caught with what you’ve quoted in terms of those spot prices and they’re under the pinch, and there are a lot of – I’ve been talking with manufacturers for quite some time about the pressures on their business, energy being the big one, and they can’t necessarily lock into contracts. Those contracts aren’t necessarily going for longer than two or three years. They are victim to the spot price.

And coming to your point that you made in an earlier question, if we’re shipping out of some of our ports seven times the level of supply that is used by the Australian market in one year, it’s not an issue of supply here. This is not an issue that we don’t have the gas. It is the supply that is available locally at a price that works for industry.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Atlassian billionaire Mike Cannon‑Brookes has joined the CEO of Santos in backing some kind of windfall profits tax. Here he is –

MIKE CANNON - BROOKES: We have some mechanisms for that in the oil and gas sort of resource rent tax but very poorly enforced and very poorly enforced over the last 10 years. There’s a lot of things we could do there to capture some of that profit back for Australia, if you want to think about it way that. And this is gas that’s come out of Australian ground and it’s going overseas.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: What do you make of what he says? Is he right?

ED HUSIC: Well, as I indicated when you were asking me this question earlier in our chat, all these options should be on the table, and they should be considered. Whether or not they stack up or line up at a particular point in time, we’ll deal with, but I think the biggest signal we need to send at this point in time is: understand the gas companies are coasting on market conditions at the moment but they don’t operate in isolation. They cannot behave in a way that puts impact on the wider economy and the wider Australian public. They cannot be blind to that. And, you know, certainly the Albanese Government is very focused on making sure we get a reasonable, practical solution on this. We need to work as well with States and Territories. They’ve got a role to play as well, and they’ve got a big interest and a big stake in this too. That signal needs to be sent.

Let me put it in context. I know that we’re not in this territory at the moment because they’re going the other way, but if interest rates were falling and banks were holding on to that and not passing on the interest rate cut to the wider community, one of the arguments we’d be putting is that that is having an impact on the commercial environment for a lot of other businesses, and we’d be putting pressure on the banks to play ball. Well, I think we’re in a similar sort of territory here with gas companies, and I think they do need to recognise the social licence that exists. And from my point of view as the Industry Minister, I do think of all of those manufacturers and all those jobs and particularly in our regions that are being put under pressure because of what we’re experiencing right now.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So, you think taxing profits and using that to compensate households should be on the table?

ED HUSIC: We have said all things are on the table and –

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Well, no, actually, the Prime Minister is saying taxing profits isn’t. Do you think it should be?

ED HUSIC: From my perspective – well, obviously I think what the Prime Minister thinks, clearly. But I – 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But you also think that taxing profits should be on the table.

ED HUSIC: I also think that gas companies – if we go to a point where this type of pressure is being placed on businesses, you will find that there will be considerations given in ways that at other points in time weren’t necessarily the case.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Do you agree with Dan Walton, the National Secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union, that Victoria’s decision effectively to ban all onshore gas exploration and development for close to a decade has contributed to the gas shortage?

ED HUSIC: I think – well, I got asked this as well around State Government positions. State Governments reflect what they believe is the sentiment in their neck of the woods. So, I’m not in the business of chipping different State Governments on those types of positions, but I do think that gas will play a role in sustaining industry in the short to medium term. A lot of industry, when I talk to them, Patricia, they are very much on board. In fact, we met a major one this week when the whole Cabinet was up in Gladstone. We visited Rio Tinto’s Yallourn alumina refinery. They’re thinking a lot about hydrogen and they’re thinking a lot about how to factor that into their production process, and that work is quite advanced, and their investment plans are being shaped up accordingly.

Now, the technology to make that deliver energy in the way that manufacturers need it at a particular point in time, that stuff is not necessarily happening as quickly as we’d like because that’s just the nature of technological development. And once we get there too, where hydrogen does get supplied, it needs to be supplied at a cost that’s relatively similar to what people are getting at the moment for gas or electricity. So, those are the things that we need to factor in when we talk about renewables et cetera. That stuff does need to get factored in.

And being able to find other sources of gas in the interim, that’s going to be an important part to play while still conscious that we do want to get to net-zero and we do also want to meet our interim targets, as we announced yesterday.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The so‑called gas trigger that was developed by the Turnbull Government, it’s now being looked at by your government and your Cabinet to try to make – change it perhaps. Lots of kinds of issues with it – long consultation process, it doesn’t start until next year. It goes on. Do you think there needs to be change to it and do you think it should happen fast?

ED HUSIC: So, my colleague Madeleine King is tasked with the responsibility of reviewing how we can improve the operation of the trigger to deal with all those things you just said, Patricia, and we do need to do it as quickly as we can. There is a challenge because a lot of the supply – a lot of the trigger at the moment hinges on what you do with supply, and what we’ve got at the moment is not necessarily a supply issue and it’s certainly not a cost of getting that gas, extracting it; it’s a pricing issue. So, you know, how you reform that, that’s the stuff that, you know, needs to be taken into consideration.

But I do think that given what we’re going through at the moment with the cold snaps that we’re getting through winter, the pricing issues and the pressure that’s being put on industry – and the other thing that we don’t necessarily factor here in our part of the world is that in the northern hemisphere where their winters get just as cold, if not worse, than what we have to experience, they do rely on gas, and they will try to lock down levels of supply that will meet their own communities’ needs and that will have an impact on price as well.

So, you know, us being able to ensure that the trigger operates in a way that satisfies what households and what industry expects is really important.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: During the election campaign, Labor pledged to get 1.2 million more Australians working in the tech sector by 2030. How do you plan to deliver those additional workers?

ED HUSIC: I guess a number of ways. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it is important to also send the signal to the broader business community that technology is playing such a big or increasingly bigger part of the way they do business and having people with those skills will be really, really vital for them longer term. And we saw that through the course of the pandemic where a lot of businesses when they were under pressure thought: How do we get our job done when we don’t necessarily have people around? And that’s been one of the drivers, for example, in the advances in robotics where some jobs are just either – you just can’t find people or they’re too dangerous and it’s better to use robots.

There’s a number of things. One is, obviously, we took to the election a very solid platform around human capital investment, notably education and those pathways in TAFE, providing 465,000 TAFE fee-free places, for instance, boosting support for universities, making that happen really important. The runway there for that development obviously takes a while for people to get their skills developed and there will be stuff that we need to consider in terms of when you’re in the workforce and up-skilling while you’re at work, very important.

The other thing is, too, we’ve got a lot of talent that sits in other parts of the globe, Patricia. Australians who left the country, the brain drain that we always were sensitive to but then we sort of lost interest in tackling under the former Government in particular, and people have left the country and I’ve heard it a number of times from people in this space where they believe their talents weren’t valued and they couldn’t be put to use onshore. And I particularly think about that around the areas of artificial intelligence where people have left, and quantum is another area as well where people feel that there’s not enough interest there. I’ve certainly been calling – and I do think instead of having a brain drain we need a brain regain and being able to get Australians with talent back home to help work on the things that we have said, particularly the stuff that will get unleashed under our national reconstruction fund, the $15 billion co-investment fund that we announced, things around critical technology where we’ve set up a $1 billion – or we will be setting up a $1 billion critical technology fund to invest here in that is going to be really important.

And the biggest thing – and without me rambling on your program, but the biggest thing we need to do is send this important signal, which is we need to have a lot more faith in Australian know-how. Sometimes the tall‑poppy syndrome does get in the way and we don’t want to get too full of ourselves and I get that, and we try to be a lot more modest than people in other parts of the world. We’re a very smart people. We have had to be to survive here. We should recognise that and we should back that with interest by Government, programs that advance that and, importantly, that the money is there at a time when it’s going to get harder to find it at those points in time to have Aussie inventions, Aussie know‑how applied to grow jobs, industry and make the place a better place to live.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just, finally, Ed Husic, before I bid you farewell, you’re one of two Ministers now who are Muslim in the Albanese Government. That is historically significant in this country. We’re a multicultural company, yet the Parliament and the Cabinet, governments, you wouldn’t know it until perhaps now. You went to Indonesia; in fact, you were mentioned by the Prime Minister in many speeches about the fact that he was travelling with a Minister who was Muslim. What kind of reception did you get because of that? How much does that mean and how much does that offer in our exchanges with diverse countries around the world?

ED HUSIC: Well, before I get to answering that part of your question, let’s just remark on the fact that two migrant kids grew up and were able to have this conversation, you know, you putting the questions to me and me dodging them.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: You mainly answered them, actually.

ED HUSIC: Oh, okay. Well, that’s a metric I haven't lived up to. But, you know, this is a moment in time in terms of what’s happening in the broader country and being able to send a signal to people that the opportunity is there, and that the door isn’t shut. I’ve said elsewhere that for people who felt like they were part of the other, that they can now see that they’re part of the all. And the quality of decision‑making in the country and the quality of the conversation that we have and being able to have a wider frame of view, that does mean something. And I think it was important in the context of this visit as well – I mean, I went there because I think there’s a lot of options for us, a lot of chances, for us to work with our Indonesian friends on common problems that confront both countries.

And so, from an industry perspective, from a science perspective, we are having that – we will be inviting my counterpart the Indonesian Industry Minister to come over and hoping that the Chief Scientist here will go on a delegation together to meet with Indonesian scientists and researchers as well, so that’s good. But also show the Indonesians that some of the things that have been projected, the suggestions that we might be shut, we don’t have that level of diversity and there’s not that chance for people to be involved, to be able to counter that is very important.

I have to say from a personal perspective having you don’t even up in Western Sydney, I would never have imagined I’d be standing there as part of a prime ministerial delegation, being able to meet an Indonesian President and it just shows the way – and I think we should sometimes think – there’s a lot we can talk about that’s deficient in Australian politics, but the opportunity it provides for people to be able to participate and have a part to play in Australian democracy I think this is one of the great things of our country that we don’t celebrate enough, frankly.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us, Ed Husic, from one migrant kid to another. Not kids anymore though, hey? Big kids now. Thank you for joining us.

ED HUSIC: Thank you very much.