Panel interview with Chris Bath, ABC Radio Sydney

Chris Bath
Topics included energy crisis and energy capacity mechanism proposal, emissions reduction plan, and representation in the 47th parliament.

BRUCE BAIRD: Good afternoon, Chris. 

CHRIS BATH: Senator Mehreen Faruqi, the Deputy Leader of the Greens is with me here in the studio. Lovely to see you. 

MEHREEN FARUQI: Lovely to be with you, Chris. 

CHRIS BATH: And also, we have the Federal Minister for Industry and Science, Ed Husic, with us in our Canberra studio. Ed, good afternoon to you. 

ED HUSIC: Good afternoon, and good afternoon everyone. 

CHRIS BATH: It's weird saying Ed actually. I should really be saying Minister. Minister, good afternoon to you. 

ED HUSIC: Plain old Ed is fine by me. 

CHRIS BATH: To be really honest with you I'm still getting used to saying Prime Minister Anthony Albanese because things just roll off your tongue as a Ron Burgundy kind of character on television and you're so used to saying a different name, it's taking a while to, you know, I know the election was a few weeks ago but it's just taking a while to get with the program. 

Let's talk about energy, that morass that's we're all trying to understand. Last week Sydney‑siders were threatened with potential blackouts with the Australian Energy Market Operator, AEMO, taking the step of suspending the spot market in the national electricity grid for the first time in our country's history. 

Okay. Bruce, let's start with you. How do you think we fix the problem? What do you think about today's energy capacity mechanism proposal? 

BRUCE BAIRD: I think it's got real potential. Basically, you know, the mechanism is going to allow generators to be paid for guaranteeing standby supply to meet demand and that's going to help avoid a repeat of the current grid suspension and incentivise companies to invest in new energy capacity. So for me it is a short‑term solution. It fixes the immediate problem. The lights won't go out, we can continue with Vivid down at the Quay, for example, and keep our heaters going at home, and that's a good thing. But obviously we certainly have to look longer term so this situation can't continue on a long‑term basis. 

CHRIS BATH: Senator Faruqi, I'm interested to hear what you've got to say about that. 

MEHREEN FARUQI: So what happened last week happened because of the abject failure of governments to tackle the climate crisis and to invest in renewable energy. And this will keep happening unless we make a sharp turn right now and make a rapid transition to renewable energy and to battery storage and to off river pump hydro.

I mean Bruce is right in the sense that we need a sustainable long‑term solution, but what this proposal for the energy capacity mechanism does is, it actually provides propping up of coal and gas and paying to keep coal and gas as part of the system. Which makes absolutely no sense because it is coal and gas which has brought us to the situation where we're at, so it makes no sense to then keep prolonging the problem because, you know, for one if we do that then it really puts the brakes on renewable energy investment and into batteries. But second ‑‑

CHRIS BATH: Do we have to do that in the interim though given the infrastructure's not there? 

MEHREEN FARUQI: I mean if we keep saying we have to do this in the interim, what we are doing is investing in more coal and gas. For example, in New South Wales, the New South Wales Government is saying that we need the Narrabri gas project. That is a project that is so opposed by the First Nations people that I have met there because it destroys land, water, cultural heritage and the Great Pilliga Forest. No, we absolutely don't have to do that. 

In the interim what we can do is provide subsidies to businesses and homeowners to install batteries in their homes which will allow them to store power which will take some of the pressure off the grid. But really what we need to do is start investing right now in a plan, like a government fund, government needs to fund massive renewable energy infrastructure to make sure that we have the transmission that is needed and that it is publicly owned, and that's what will make energy sustainable, renewable and cheaper for everyone. 

CHRIS BATH: Ed Husic, what do you think of the energy capacity mechanism proposal? 

ED HUSIC: Well I guess a number of things. First, I just want to congratulate Mehreen on her election. You're Deputy Leader now, Mehreen.

MEHREEN FARUQI: Yes, thank you so much, Ed, and likewise to you as a Minister. 

ED HUSIC: Congrats.

MEHREEN FARUQI: I'm very proud of, you know, all kind of my Muslim comrades in Parliament and very proud as well of Fatima Payman now joining me as another Muslim woman in the Senate. I can't wait for her to start there. 

ED HUSIC: It's good to open up the Parliament to a wide range of backgrounds and voices, so I just wanted to congratulate you first before we get into the point of pointing out our differences on some of those issues. 

CHRIS BATH: Before the argy‑bargy, is that what you're saying? 

ED HUSIC: Okay. On the capacity mechanism, it's not about, you know, propping things up. It is about providing, as the Prime Minister pointed out, a bit of an insurance mechanism as we make the transition. We do need to absolutely, I mean where there is agreement, as Bruce has said, Mehreen has said, we do need to boost supply from renewable, cleaner sources. That's absolutely the case and we're committed to it. We've committed to the longer-term targets and also the interim ones as well, and we have wanted to get away from the dogma and the ideology around this and just provide practical solutions to meet power supply in a way that is cleaner and more efficient. 

So it's about renewables, it's about more storage, and it's also about transmission, moving energy around from different sources in different parts of the country to keep the lights on, but in the interim having that measure in place that we don't see supply withdrawn from the system because it's argued by some generators that it's uneconomic to do so. So that when we get the spikes that might be triggered by cold snaps, for example, we've got that dealt with, and also conscious of the fact that there are pressures on gas supplies as well, which is a longer-term issue that needs to be dealt with as well. 

So the capacity mechanism makes sure that there's enough electricity available when people want to use it and at a lower cost. You know, ensuring some stability and providing that generators get paid. 

CHRIS BATH: Do you think, Minister, that it's time for the Federal Government to get more involved in this? I mean the states have been leading the way on renewables.  Is it time for the Federal Government to step up, rather than to say, "Oh, we'll be led by the states"? 

ED HUSIC: I think there's, you know, on this issue we need everyone working together is the first point I'd make. That we do need to have a cooperative working relationship with the States and Territories on it. And you're absolutely right, in the absence of Federal leadership over the course of the last government you've had to see states step in and do what they have. 

But we've said, and we've signalled, we want to work with them on that. We do, you know, we've also made some fairly big commitments. For example, under our National Reconstruction Fund we'll set aside 3 billion to invest in, you know, cleaner, smarter ways to generate energy and manufacture it onshore as well and provide for jobs, because we think that this should provide, as much as renewable energy deployment occurs, for more jobs, and particularly in regional Australia as well and providing much more even economic opportunity. So that's important too. 

But, you know, we've had for nine years, more, we've had sort of the biggest challenge has been within the Coalition party room getting people to not make energy issues a political football. That's been the real problem up till now and we're saying enough with that, enough with the politicking, let's get down to business in terms of the practical solutions that ensure that the lights are on, that people can warm their homes or cool them in summer and that industry has got the power supply it needs, because from an industry perspective, and I'll end on this point, you know, if we do want to see Australia be a country that makes things, there are a number of issues that need to be dealt with and the cost of energy impacting on manufacturers is a serious issue. 

CHRIS BATH: Bruce Baird, what do you think about the Government committing to a 43 per cent emissions reduction plan by 2030 and net‑zero by 2050? Do you think the Government needs to be more ambitious with its targets? 

BRUCE BAIRD: Well, you know, look, I think the previous government, and I'm clearly Liberal and I've got to say I'm disappointed they weren't more ambitious in terms of the targets they provide, and the National Party clearly held them back, in setting those initiatives. So we've got the chance to reset, and I certainly support those targets.  Whether we should go further, I'm sure our Green colleague would say yes, but from my point of view we've got to remain pragmatic, what's achievable, what do we lose out on if we set too ambitious a target? And especially as we get in place the renewables that can make this happen and certainly, we should be setting targets. We should have all the Governments involved. But I think setting the targets where they are is a realistic one and let's make sure that collectively each State and Federal government combines to make this achievable. 

CHRIS BATH: Mehreen Faruqi, this is almost a Dorothy Dixer for you really. Do you think the Government needs to be more ambitious with its targets? 

MEHREEN FARUQI: Well here's the thing. Labor's climate target of 43 per cent is actually not consistent with achieving the goals of the Paris agreement, and it is not consistent with science, and it will mean the end of the Great Barrier Reef, it will mean more fires, it will mean worse floods, and then Labor backing more coal and gas just kind of weakens climate action as well. 

What the public delivered at this election was a Parliament with a climate mandate. That's pretty clear. So we need to be better than, you know, a bit better than business as usual.  The public has demanded strong action on climate change, and I think Labor needs to do a little bit better than saying to people who have been elected by the public on a strong climate mandate a take it or leave it approach. 

The Greens are ready and willing to work with the Government, but the Government has to come to the table, as well. 

CHRIS BATH: So what would you like to see? 

MEHREEN FARUQI: So we would like to see a stop to coal and gas and we would like to see climate action that actually means that we don't end up losing the Great Barrier Reef, that means, you know, we don't pour more fuel on the fire and that means meaningful change which does not burn up the globe. 

CHRIS BATH: Do you have an emissions target in mind? 

MEHREEN FARUQI: Well we went to the election, which is backed completely by science, a target that the scientists are calling for, which is 75 per cent emission reductions by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2035. But like I said, the public has delivered us a climate mandate and we really want to work with the Labor Government to have that strong action on climate. 

CHRIS BATH: Ed Husic, are you feeling the pressure? 

ED HUSIC: No, not really. I think ‑ look, I understand what Mehreen is saying in terms of the people that have supported her, but we've been able to form a majority government.  We took a very clear plan to the election that talked about 43 per cent emissions reduction by 2030. We had that modelled. It was the first time, particularly an Opposition had modelled that and made sure that that stacked up.  And we also were very clear early on about net‑zero by 2050. 

What we are putting on the table is way higher than what the Coalition did. It's up by 17, 15 per cent from the 26/28 target that had been there since Tony Abbott. 

CHRIS BATH: I guess the question though is, Minister, is that enough? 

ED HUSIC: We think that it is. We think that that is achievable and we think as well that we need to work not only in providing the jobs that come with the roll out of renewable solutions, and as I said it's not just ‑ it's generation, storage, transmission and there's a lot there, but we're also mindful too that that will see a transition in time as ageing generators risk, like I think there are a lot of them that have had their life extended but there are a lot that will also come to the end of their life and communities that are affected by that want people, particularly in government, to be straight with them and work with them on transition and that's what we are committed to doing. 

I mean if you contrast it to what the Liberals put forward, I mean they went to Glasgow with a pamphlet rather than a plan, which was widely mocked. We didn't want to be in that situation, that's why we did the modelling. That's why we've backed it in, as I said, with investment we're prepared to make up to 3 billion through our national reconstruction fund.  We want to be serious about it. 

I understand there will be, you know, we are willing and we've said that we want this to be a collaborative, cooperative Parliament. We've committed to doing that. And as far as we can we will work with people from across the political spectrum, but again we're very clear too, just as Mehreen said that the Greens have had a mandate that's been, you know, they have in terms of their supporters, we think we've got one as well and I mean I don't want to get into exercise of the wider mandate but I think we're just as adamant. 

MEHREEN FARUQI: Mr Husic, 43 per cent is not science‑based climate action. I think that's what you've got to look at, and it is pretty disappointing that for the moment Labor is not willing to budge. 

ED HUSIC: Understood. 

CHRIS BATH: You've got the message loud and clear there. You're listening to the Monday Political Forum, joining me Bruce Baird, the former Liberal MP, Senator Mehreen Faruqi, Deputy Leader of the Greens now, and the Federal Minister for Industry and Science, Ed Husic. 

Now I want to ask you about immigration. The new Minister Andrew Giles says sorting out visa and citizenship backlogs are a priority for the Government, so Australia doesn't miss out on skilled migrants. But with Labor shortages in many areas does Australia need to have another look at entry restrictions? Bruce Baird, what do you think? 

BRUCE BAIRD: Well as it happens we had a board meeting of the Tourism and Transport Forum today that I chaired and the number one issue that people have got across the board is skill shortage. Hotels across the board in Australia are only having 50 per cent occupancy in a lot of them because they just don't have the people to service the hotel.  One of the problems is the slowness in processing visa applications for students, for backpackers, for tourists and so on who would come here and meet much of the demand. 

So I think it's time to have some radical looks, not only at making sure we change the processing so it's much faster than the current nine months it's taking in some cases, but also to look at the retirees and the taxation issue because I think it provides a big reservoir of people who'd be happy to work but they're reluctant to because it may impact on their pension or they'll be taxed on the extra earnings that they have. So for them to be able to work an additional one or two days a week is something that we collectively this morning thought was a very important initiative. 

CHRIS BATH: I might throw this out to the Minister. Is that an idea you'd be willing to take on, Ed Husic? 

ED HUSIC: I think ‑ well firstly, I mentioned a few moments ago, Chris, that, you know, energy was a big concern for industry, and the other one is supply chain vulnerabilities and tied to that is skill shortages. These are massive. So what Bruce said in terms of tourism, travel, hospitality, I absolutely recognise full, 100 per cent that it's an issue in those areas, as a lot of other industries say, and being able to find talent really important. And certainly I think we need to keep an open mind on some of the things that we can do, like what Bruce has put on the table to consider. I don't want to say to everyone breathlessly ‑ sorry, I might sound a bit full of myself just because I said something in the Political Forum, and it gets breathlessly reported ‑‑

CHRIS BATH: Well it's good to have someone create stuff for people to report, that's great. 

ED HUSIC: Yes, that's right, we're all about jobs, right.  But I was just going to make the point, you know, just because you're saying your mind's open doesn't mean it necessarily is going to happen, but we do need to ‑ we genuinely do need to keep our minds open about how to get, you know, people back in and working and meeting those skill shortages. 

I think it's an issue that we do want to skill up people locally in terms of some of the stuff we've said around TAFE and universities.  We do want to provide for that level of training but that takes time. And being able to also get skills on shore is going to be important and I think getting the balance right on skilled migration is going to be critical, and it is a conversation we do need to have because we can't ‑ a lot of the things that people are experiencing right now from the shortages in groceries through to some of the challenges in hospitality, through to some of the other things that we're seeing with inflation, you know, supply of labour is not everything but it is something and we do need to address that. 

CHRIS BATH: But what about Bruce's idea though for tax and retirees? I mean there's plenty of grey nomads out there that I'm pretty sure would happily do some work on farm picking, you know, filling an agricultural shortage or even just getting back into the workforce a couple of days a week to fill some of those gaps. Would you think about, you know, reducing taxation or making it more tax sexy for retirees to get back into the workforce? 

ED HUSIC: Well it would be easy for me to say yes to that but it's not my portfolio area so I'm very careful not to have ‑‑

CHRIS BATH: You better take it to the Treasurer, Mr Husic. 

ED HUSIC: Well it's actually social services that will need to ‑ and my friend and colleague Amanda Rishworth that needs to take all that on board. 

CHRIS BATH: Surely Chris Bowen could too.

ED HUSIC: But I'm just saying that ‑ I'm just saying ‑ you're very, I do like the energy that you're applying to this, Chris. I'm just saying, as I said a few moments ago, I don't want to necessarily ‑ I think we do need to be open minded about it and looking at those type of things and considering them, you know, like I do think that needs to be taken on board, but I don't want to have a follow up conversation as soon as I finish the political panel from my colleagues. 

CHRIS BATH: Shame. I was hoping for that. 

ED HUSIC: Wondering whether or not I've committed. But I do agree we do need to think laterally and we do ‑ I mean the other thing is in terms of some of these issues, you know, we have discovered this massive black hole in Home Affairs, nearly a billion dollars cut at a time when they knew visa processing would be under pressure as we started to re‑open.  That's something that you can't neglect. So, you know, those type of things do need to get sorted through, Chris. 

CHRIS BATH: Ed, you'll be happy this text has just come in, "I just wanted to say Ed Husic is so, so polite. Please thank him", so there you go. 

ED HUSIC: Thank you. Oh, that's so nice. 

CHRIS BATH: For that evasion, you get a complimentary text. Mehreen, one thing that we could perhaps do, Ed was just mentioning skilled migration there, could we not in this day and age reassess how we accept the qualifications of people who are overseas? For instance, you know, even in the medical profession we know what a shortage we have, in the teaching profession. Are we not able to check that their qualifications are complementary to what we have here in Australia rather than making people retrain and do another degree to be an engineer, to be a doctor, to be a nurse? 

MEHREEN FARUQI: Absolutely we could do that, but I think there are a lot more problems than just the visa restrictions for people who want to come here. Like my husband and I migrated here on permanent residency, and we got that permanent residency because we were both civil engineers and at that time Australia really needed engineers to be here. But when we got here no one was willing to give us a job. So my husband started driving taxi. We know so many other migrants from South Asia who are exactly in the same position; Masters, PhD degrees would not get a look in, started driving taxis because that was the only way to make ends meet, are still driving a taxi. So, you know, we lost all that qualification from people. 

And look what happened during COVID. Like so many temporary migrants and international students were left completely high and dry with zero support from the Federal Government, many of them were told by the Morrison Government to just go home.  People who had made their home in Australia for years and had been working hard and looking towards a pathway to permanent residency, had to go home. So, you know, you have to question whether people actually see Australia, skilled migrants who want to leave their home countries, whether they see Australia as the first kind of port or destination to be there. I think they would rather go somewhere else after they had been treated, and it is World Refugee Day today so I do want to point out that there are thousands of refugees and asylum seekers in Australia in limbo who cannot get a job because of the restrictions that they have. So I think we need to sort out those issues as well in terms of, you know, providing permanent residency pathways to people and also cracking down on exploitation of migrant workers. 

CHRIS BATH: You're listening to the Monday Political Forum, with me the Deputy Leader of the Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi, Ed Husic the Federal Labor Minister for Industry and Science and Bruce Baird, who I want to come to next. 

Bruce, I want to talk about ‑ run something up the flag pole with you. I find it extraordinary that we've heard in 24 hours the Premier say, "Oh, the flag pole's going to cost $25 million" and then today we have Matt Kean saying, "Oh, actually, yeah, we're just going to make sure we get a good price". Would it have not gone to tender? Like what's happened here? 

BRUCE BAIRD: I don't know, it should have gone to tender. I mean as somebody who was Transport Minister for seven years, I know the bureaucratic process. It does seem an extraordinarily high price, but I can imagine the bureaucrats saying, "Look, Minister, you need to be sure. We need to ‑ a huge gale's likely to occur. You don't want people being endangered below with a major flag pole incident", et cetera. And so it would go on and it's very nice for Dom Perrottet to talk about going to Bunnings and putting it up. Good luck with that. But I'm sure there must be a cheaper price out there though. 

CHRIS BATH: Yeah, we had Ray called in to Breakfast with James Valentine. He erected a huge flag pole in I think 1988 and he reckons he could do it for 10 million. Mehreen, I know we're being silly about the price tag but even if it's too high, is the cost worth it for what this means for first Australians? 

MEHREEN FARUQI: I think the question really we should be asking is why isn't an Aboriginal flag already flying on the Harbour Bridge? 

CHRIS BATH: Well I was astounded that there wasn't, to be really honest. 

MEHREEN FARUQI: Absolutely, absolutely. 

CHRIS BATH: I thought after the reconciliation march that many of us did years and years ago, I assumed, blindly, that there was one flying. 

MEHREEN FARUQI: It should be there because ‑ of course symbolism matters, but what matters even more is that we actually address the issues of First Nations injustice. That is still, you know, we have over incarceration, we have people dying in custody, we have such disproportionate outcomes in health and education. So what we need to do is yes, put that flag on right now. Today, not tomorrow. And being an engineer I can actually say I think that shouldn't cost more than $250,000 to be frank and the rest should be put into justice re‑investment. That's the way to use that money. 

CHRIS BATH: Can you put it out to tender with Treasurer Matt Kean? 

MEHREEN FARUQI: Absolutely, very happy to work with Matt Kean on that. 

CHRIS BATH: Now just to finish off, I quickly wanted to ask all of you. This week I'm in competition with my husband. He's presenting another radio program on another station at exactly the same time. If he asks you to go for an interview just say, "I'm sorry, I've already done Chris". When have you been in competition with a loved one, Ed Husic? 

ED HUSIC: Oh, I'm just trying to think. Not so much competition but when my sister went to work for Basketball Australia and as a basketball tragic, I was pretty envious then. 

CHRIS BATH: Okay, free tickets, did that happen or ‑‑

ED HUSIC: Oh, yeah.

CHRIS BATH: No, you'd have to declare it, wouldn't you, as a politician? 

ED HUSIC: You know my sister; she'd deliberately hold that out against me. 

CHRIS BATH: That's fantastic, I love that kind of sibling rivalry. Bruce Baird. 

ED HUSIC: No, no, don't encourage that. No.

CHRIS BATH: It needs to be encouraged I think. Bruce? 

BRUCE BAIRD: Yeah, well my wife started uni after I did, and I was very patronising. We got our first lot of results back and I got a B minus for my essay and my wife got an A plus and they said it was just an absolutely outstanding piece of work. End of the year when we went down to the Herald to get the results, which they used to put up on a board down there, my wife said, "I didn't pass.  I didn't pass". The next morning we found she came third in the year and got a high distinction. I got a pass; I was a law barrister. 

CHRIS BATH: Please tell me she'd framed her work and put it on the lounge room wall.  And Mehreen? 

MEHREEN FARUQI: Yeah, I'm a bit of an engineering bandwagon today. So we have three civil engineers in my household: my husband, myself and my daughter, and there's always a contest happening at the dinner table. But sadly I have to report that I have lost that contest since I became a politician because they don't see me as a real engineer any more. 

CHRIS BATH: Well you have other priorities. Thank you all for joining us for the Political Forum. News is coming up next.