Interview with Steve Price, Australia Today

Interviewer
Steve Price
Subject
Topics included gas supply, industry and science, rocket launch in the Northern Territory, and quantum computing.
E&OE

STEVE PRICE: Ed Husic is the minister, the new minister, Federal Minister for Industry and Science; he's been good enough to join us on the line. He joins us on the line. Thanks for your time. 

ED HUSIC, MINISTER FOR INDUSTRY AND SCIENCE: Good morning, how are you?  

STEVE PRICE: I'm great. You talked to my mate Ross Greenwood on Sky Business at the weekend, on the gas supply issues. Ross made the point that he thought that it was dumb Australia had some of the biggest gas reserves in the world and yet was not reserved for Australian people and industry. What did you make of that comment and what are you hearing from industry, minister, back the other way about gas prices? 

ED HUSIC: I've said publicly, and I said this to Ross, and I agree, with the huge reserves that we've got, making sure that they are available—that an Australian resource is available for Australian industry to support local jobs, that is it's priced competitively as well, really important, and I think a lot of people in the public expect that as well. And I've certainly communicated to, you know, representatives of the gas companies, and while I understand they have got some of the best market conditions for their product that they've seen in donkey's years, they can't go off in a blaze of glory and leave everything smouldering behind. I've met with manufacturers who've been very concerned—you know, they have seen a four times lift in the price they pay for gas. That's big; it's huge for them. And if it means that they come under increasing pressure and have to make decisions about jobs, then that is something very serious and we do need to get balance in the way this is done in a country that has so much gas supply. 

STEVE PRICE: Why do you think we got to this point? I mean, when you stand back from it, and you're a very practical person in all my dealings with you—when you stand back from it and look from a distance at something as simple as Australia has a lot of gas, but it's all contracted out and much of it is sold off, you stand back and think, "Why would we do that?” Why was the system allowed to evolve into the one we currently have? 
 
ED HUSIC: Look, it's a good question and I think, you know, if we were to go through all the ins and outs of that, it would take a lot of my time—or a lot of our time, I should say. But I think the big thing that's changed everything right at this point in time is what's happening with the Ukraine and the fact that Europeans are cutting off their access to Russian gas supplies and so they're looking around, trying to secure their own gas supplies for their own needs and that's driving up the price. That's why I said a few moments ago, the markets conditions for gas companies here, like they're hunky dory for them, and that's not going to change any time soon, mind you. And I think the other pressure for us is that as the Northern Hemisphere goes into colder weather they'll definitely want to be locking down supplies. So, I think, and what I've made the argument for, is not just increasing the amount of supply for local industries, and for households mind you, like we spoke about a few weeks ago, so that they're not having to make choices about heating their home, what needs to happen is that the supply needs to increase and it needs to be at a competitive price and we can't have local industry being forced to pay some of those international prices for an Australian resource we know has traditionally been four times less in price.  

STEVE PRICE: At the end of line here is the consumers, too, not just gas consumers, domestic gas consumers, but people buying products manufactured using gas, where the prices are so high that the products are going to cost more. It's just going to add to our inflation cycle, isn't it?  

ED HUSIC: Yes, spot on. That has been a big driver in inflation, and I do worry as a Western Sydney MP, as I said to you, I think there would be a lot of people who want to warm up their homes and know that Australian gas can do the job and should do it a lot cheaper. It's not like we're having to transport this from some other part of the world and pay the shipping costs that come with that. So, you know, I've said publicly, and I'll say it again: the gas companies have a social licence in the way that they operate. They've got to make sure that supply is there for industry and for consumers, for households. You know, people see it; they see the situation. They see a lot of these companies are largely multinational, that are extracting an Australian resource to sell to international customers at a price that is hurting Australian industry and local consumers. That is boiling it all down to its base level. That's what we're at. We can make some decisions that improve collectively—like, we can work together on it—to improve the situation and I'm very focused on that issue as are my colleagues. 

STEVE PRICE: Industry includes miners, right?  I mean, I know you're not the energy minister, but industry in the broadest term includes people who mine for coal and generate it, people who explore for gas and export it or do whatever they do with it. How do you deal?

ED HUSIC: And iron ore for steel as well; yes, and coal. 

STEVE PRICE: So how do you deal in your position with the over the top zealotry of the Greens who want all of coal and gas exploration to be halted, no new projects to be built? You're the Industry Minister, how do you tread that fine line or do you not consider it a fine line?  

ED HUSIC: No, I think it's a fine line. Modern democracies have got people who feel strongly. In this day and age, there'll be people on all sides of the debate who feel strongly about their point of view. We've got to be able to understand those points of view, but we've got to make decisions for the collective good and they've got to be practical decisions, common-sensical ones. And what I've said is, from my point of view, I understand why people who, you know, who are concerned about the environment and climate are concerned about increasing gas supply, but the fact of the matter is we can't turn gas off right now. And we can't turn coal off either, in terms of coal fired generation. There are ways in which we can change the energy mix with renewables, but in the meantime there are a lot of, in industry in particular, that use gas either for heating or as part of an input into the production process, that until there's an alternative, Steve, that they can't—and mind you, that the alternative is affordable or in the same price range, because there's no point giving someone a new form of energy or energy supply, or an alternative to gas that costs way more than what it does at the moment. So, what we've got to be able to do is have alternative energy supply for industry that's competitively priced. If it's not there in the meantime, there will be a reliance on gas, because it is supporting the production of goods that we all rely on and it's supporting jobs particularly in regions. So, getting the balance right is important. I just come to the heart of your question, you know, right back to the start, I know people on either side who feel very strongly on it, you've just got to chart a course down the middle to get the job done. 

STEVE PRICE: You've got a bit of a juggling act, but I presume that you've deliberately as a government combined industry and science, because on the one hand you're advocating for industry, but you're also going to be advocating within cabinet to budget, to the Treasurer Jim Chalmers, more money for science because science ultimately is going to solve these problems of how do you get reliable battery storage, for example. 

ED HUSIC: Yep, that's right and there has been a deliberate decision to do that because a lot of what's happening in our scientific and research communities is thinking ahead about different ways of getting things done and then finding a way to commercialise that and put it in the hands of industry to do it in a wider broader way, and being able to think through some of this stuff particularly in terms of for instance hydrogen development and how we can produce that in a way that meets the needs of industry and do it in a much cheaper way, like, that's the stuff that a lot of people in the scientific and research community are working on and industry is really engaged on it too, Steve. I was just up with the Prime Minister a couple of weeks ago in Gladstone visiting Rio Tinto's Yarwun alumina refinery and where they're looking to bring on board hydrogen as part of their processes. There are people, for example, like Star Scientific up on the central coast that are doing a lot with hydrogen in terms of the development of the technology. So, we've got some smart people here and the thing we've got to do more is recognise that Australian brains are being applied to deliver Australian based solutions to these difficult questions and issues and that we do need to celebrate that, support that and make sure it turns into a reality.  

STEVE PRICE: As Science Minister did you hear the enthusiasm for that rocket launch in the Northern Territory during the week? We know it was out in Arnhem Land. Incredible cooperation between the Indigenous community and the American companies that have it. When that rocket went up, I mean, it was just—the joyous sound of the bloke calling on the countdown and sending that rocket up. It didn't go into space, but into the upper levels of the atmosphere. That's the sort of thing you must be excited about being involved in. 

ED HUSIC: Yes; yes, I think so. I see a lot of good stuff that's happening. You know, that work there, it's a huge sign and vote of confidence in Australian capability that NASA has done its first launch outside of the US and done it right here in Australia; and congratulations to the company, ELA, that did that. 

STEVE PRICE: Let's have a listen. I've just found it again. I know you'll love this. 

ED HUSIC: That's great. 

[AUDIO PLAYS: Three, two, one, go!] 

STEVE PRICE: How good was that? 

ED HUSIC: It's pretty good. And in the last week, just in the last week, a few days ago, I was really proud to be at the Uni of New South Wales where Silicon Quantum Computing company, led by Michelle Simmons have been able to develop a process that can simulate at an atomic level, they're being able to organise atoms, and to help that as part of the process of the development of quantum computing which will be huge. It's the next evolution of computing. That is, you know, a lot of us that hold an Allen key and look at an IKEA flat pack and wonder how we'll get the job done and here are a bunch of Australians who are working out how to work out atoms. And they're doing it right here —

STEVE PRICE: Don't bring up IKEA with me. I can't do that. 

ED HUSIC: Well, I just think that the people that level of complexity that they've got the know how, and there are other firms I'm visiting this afternoon like Quantum Brilliance in the ACT. These are smart Australian firms that are at the leading edge of developing the new waves of technology, and we don't even know. They're right under our nose and we don't know or celebrate them, and I think we should because that's where we can create really good long term jobs and economic value for the country and it's something that I'm very focused on in this role, and have been for quite some time.  

STEVE PRICE: I can hear the excitement in your voice. And any time you want any of those people to get wider publicity, let us know. Always a pleasure to catch up, I know how busy you are. Good on you. 

ED HUSIC: Good on you. 

STEVE PRICE: Ed Husic there, Minister for Industry and Science.

ENDS