Interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC RN Breakfast

Patricia Karvelas
National Reconstruction Fund; energy prices, censure motion of former Prime Minister 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Albanese Government looks set to finish the year with big wins on some key policies, including industrial relations and the National Anti-corruption Commission. Now it appears they’ll be able to add a plan to lower electricity prices to that list, too. It’s likely to see a wholesale gas prices capped and a guaranteed domestic supply for producers and a mandatory code of conduct. 

The Government is also introducing its election promise of a $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund to Parliament today. Ed Husic is Science and Industry Minister spearheading that bill, and he joins us in the studio. Ed Husic, welcome. 

ED HUSIC, MINISTER FOR INDUSTRY AND SCIENCE: Good morning. I’m happy to hear that you’re happy. I’m hoping that that translates into this interview. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Let’s see how it goes. The Reconstruction Fund will be a mix of loans, guarantees and equity to leverage private sector investment. Yesterday you said Australia has the smallest manufacturing industry relative to domestic purchases in the OECD. So how will this change that? 

ED HUSIC: I think it will lever off something that is a bit of intangible, and that is what we had saw - during the course of the pandemic when we didn’t necessarily have the things that we really needed at the time we needed them most. We mobilised and we had a lot of manufacturers pivot and step in and they got – worked with government to make that happen. And I think that is the type of thing that we want to work on here. We recognise that most modern economies do need a very sophisticated manufacturing sector that can meet complex needs. I see it all the time in industry. This fund, which will be the largest in peacetime, directed towards rebuilding manufacturing capability will go a long way to supporting that ambition of seeing us be a country that makes thing. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: We’ve seen major manufacturers being squeezed by soaring energy prices. Is the success of this agenda dependent on lowering those prices? 

ED HUSIC: I’ve been concerned – coming into office of Government, we have a very big agenda, very big ambitions in terms of what we can do to grow firms and jobs. And I’ve often remarked that the lead in our saddlebags was around supply chains, skills and energy prices. I think we had movement on the first two, but the last one has proved to be a wicked problem. And we do need to see lower input costs because manufacturers, large industrial users, they make up nearly half of domestic gas demand, and the prices we’re seeing are simply unsustainable, and we do need to get better. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So your Reconstruction Fund can’t possibly work without doing the other piece, right? 

ED HUSIC: I think it can work; it’s an issue of how much better we can be as a country and to be able to see us, you know, pick up the slack that we’ve had as a nation where we’ve not performed as well and, frankly, we’ve had Governments, particularly if I may say, Coalition Governments that have goaded big manufacturers offshore. We were talking about Holden earlier. You know, they dared them to leave. They left. They didn’t really do much to have a sense of a game plan about what we do on manufacturing and industry to grow jobs, particularly in our regions where manufacturing is a big deal. And having a fund like this, very important, but we can go a lot further a lot quicker if we see those input costs come down. 

And I have absolute faith, you know, when I go around the country, Patricia, and do a lot of visits to firms big and small, there are a lot of people in there that are defying doubt, getting the job done and doing a great thing for the country. So we want to see more of that. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Let’s go to energy prices. If you can’t legislate energy caps until Parliament resumes next year, because obviously it won’t happen this year, this is the last sitting week, there’s no legislation, there’s no announcement, wouldn’t it delay relief for consumers? 

ED HUSIC: We are very focused on, as I’ve said a few moments ago, getting those input costs down. And by that, obviously getting gas prices is one part of that equation, seeing that happen, seeing those prices lowered. We’ve been working through as a Cabinet all those issues. Very complicated. You need to make sure you think through all the different possible variations and what needs to be done to ensure that we’ve got not just a comprehensive package but one that can be brought in. And so obviously the Prime Minister is considering and working. We’re also working the States and Territories on this. And so we expect to announce a decision in the very near future. But we’ve just got to go through the process – 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: And then does that mean you need legislation at the start of next year to – how quickly can you get those prices down? 

ED HUSIC: I think – well, I guess a number of things. One, I’ll leave it to the – I get why you’re asking me the question, but by virtue of me answering it gives a suggestion about what’s included in this overall package of measures, and I just – I would rather leave that to the Prime Minister, if you don’t mind. It makes it easier to have those chats. 

And the second thing is, you know, we’re seeing the gas companies finally are getting it, that we are dead serious about seeing these prices drop. We’re seeing some reported news about them making offers that are way lower than what’s been on offer previously. 

While that is a positive development, it shouldn’t take us having to browbeat them in the way that we have for them to recognise that while we appreciate they have to make, they have to cover their costs of production, they have to make a reasonable rate of return. But what they want, and they’ve been wanting us to basically accept, is that they want to be able to have an unfettered ability to make profit whatever, no matter what the cost to the rest of the country. And we as a Government have got a responsibility to say, “No, that will not be the case.”

PATRICIA KARVELAS: OK. The Australian Workers Union wants wholesale prices capped at $8 to $10 a gigajoule, which still allows producers to make large profits on their investment. Is that a sort of fair price? 

ED HUSIC: I – you know, obviously I deal a lot with the Australian Workers Union and other unions in the sector, including AMWU. You know, obviously they’re representing and they’re speaking up for their members who work in the sector. I take their views on board. But, again, we will make a decision as a Government about what we need to do particularly to reign in those prices and make sure that manufacturers aren’t saddled with those huge costs that we’ve seen that, you know, the profits that are being pursued by gas companies no matter what. We’ve got to be able to tackle that. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Why is a plan for capping coal prices proving more difficult to develop? 

ED HUSIC: We’ve got a lot there that we need to take into account because where we’ve been looking at gas it’s about uncontracted volumes. And in the coal market it’s a combo of contracted and uncontracted. So you need to work through that. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Next Wednesday National Cabinet will be asked to sign off on a plan to bring down coal prices. What happens if New South Wales and Queensland don’t agree to it? 

ED HUSIC: Let’s wait and see. I think there’s a bit of time between now and then. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. Let me be specific: tell me, what’s your message to Queensland? The Queensland Premier has expressed concern, wants compensation for if – you know, wants basically help for the way that any capping of coal affects her state. What do you say to her to get her across the line? 

ED HUSIC: Well, my message is I love Queensland. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Something more specific, with policy detail? 

ED HUSIC: Look, quips aside, obviously the states, they’ve got views and they’re expressing them. But there’s also a recognition by states – because I’ve spoken with State Ministers about this matter – bringing a sense of unity around the need to lower prices and to find a way through; really important. 

And the reason why I said let’s wait and see is, as we all well know and as tired that saying is, you know, a week is a long time in politics. We’ll work through those issues. But I do – I have a lot of faith in the fact that the states recognise with us that we need to get those prices down. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Will Queensland need some kind of – what would you need to offer Queensland in return? 

ED HUSIC: Well, you’re presuming that we won’t be able to find common ground. And I believe that we will. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Today the House of Representatives will vote on a motion to censure the former Prime Minister Scott Morrison over the multiple ministries scandal. The AFR is – in fact Phil Coorey is next after you. He’s reporting that the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader won’t be speaking. Why censure if you can’t kind of address the issue? Can you explain that to me? 

ED HUSIC: I think the Prime Minister’s been very focused on this issue and he’s expressed his views very seriously. And he is absolutely right to, I think, a situation where a former Prime Minister in Scott Morrison didn’t trust – he didn’t trust his own people but, more importantly, he didn’t trust the public. 

And he wasn’t upfront about what he was doing, and he refused to be accountable for that. And, you know, government works when you do have that clearer flow of information that you know who’s responsible for that. And I think the other bad thing in all this is not just what Scott Morrison did but what the Liberals are doing now. The Liberals right now, the Liberal Party refuses to acknowledge that this was a serious issue, that they – 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Well, they’re staying it is a serious issue but the censure is just, you know, theatre. It has no consequence. 

ED HUSIC: No, I think the Parliament does need to say what it finds acceptable and what it doesn’t. And I think there are a lot of people across the Lower House that think that this is not the way that governments should run. And they should not. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Is there a risk, though, that you’re looking like you’re just – you know, it’s yesterday’s story, that the Government looks like it’s obsessed with this? 

ED HUSIC: I don’t think so. I think that we do take the matter very seriously. We’ve had the Bell Report come out last week. To not do anything, to not react, I would put it that that would be worse. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: We’re out of time. Ed Husic, thanks for coming in. 

ED HUSIC: Thank you,

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Ed Husic is the Minister for Industry and Science, and you’re listening to ABC RN Breakfast.