Interview with Jane Norman, ABC Capital Hill
JANE NORMAN: The Albanese Government has made more concessions, but it appears no closer to securing the support it needs to get its signature workplace relations changes through the Parliament. The objective of the 240-page bill is to fix the bargaining system and give workers the power to negotiate higher wages, but the Independents scrutinising the bill says the changes are far‑reaching and they want more time to consider it, casting doubt on the Government’s bid to get this bill through by Christmas.
It’s not the only thorny issue the Albanese Government is grappling with. Two weeks ago, the Federal Budget forecast power prices would rise by 56 per cent over the next two years and gas prices by 44 per cent. On that very night, Treasurer Jim Chalmers flagged a market intervention to get those prices down. Well, patience is wearing thin. The Australian Workers Union wants gas and coal prices capped by December. The Resources Minister, Madeleine King, is one of the several Cabinet Ministers working on a solution, and she joined me a short time ago. Madeleine King, welcome to the program.
MADELEINE KING: Great to be with you, Jane. Thanks so much for having me again.
JANE NORMAN: A pleasure. Well, the Treasurer flagged a market intervention a fortnight ago. How close is the Government to finalising the details?
MADELEINE KING: The Government is very actively looking at details. There’s a lot of work to be done on this because it is a large gas market on the east coast and it’s really important that as a government, we don’t generate an ad hoc kind of response to what’s a very complex issue in the market across the east coast. What we have discovered, if we didn’t already have the hints of this, is how opaque this market is. It’s very hard to discover who is paying what, whether retailers are overcharging for some of the gas they might have bought wholesale. So, it’s a really important examination of the whole market that we have to undertake before we then go forward and have a policy response.
JANE NORMAN: I guess time is of the essence though.
MADELEINE KING: Absolutely.
JANE NORMAN: Because we have these Budget forecasts showing soaring power prices. Dan Walton from the Australian Workers Union has said he wants to see a cap on gas and coal prices by Christmas. If it’s left any longer manufacturers are going to be in really big trouble. Can we expect a cap by then?
MADELEINE KING: I think the Treasurer has been clear and all Ministers have been clear, everything remains on the table, and that has to be the case when you have such a complex problem, but, equally, a problem that affects so many people. So, as you say, it affects manufacturers, it affects industry, it affects everyday consumers wanting to heat their house in the eastern states. So, absolutely everything stays on the table. We go through this methodically, we look at consequences, unintended consequences. We really have to think this through. But I totally agree we have to think it through very quickly, and that’s what all our respective departments and the ACCC are absolutely focused on.
JANE NORMAN: So, there is a sense of urgency within Government. I guess my question is again, will we see some sort of intervention, some sort of short-term solution by Christmas?
MADELEINE KING: There will be responses. People will know more as we develop more, but I think the main thing to let the public know is that it’s very important we don’t just drag things out of thin air in response to what is a crisis because that can make things worse, so we really need to be quite considered and we are being considered and we are doing it urgently.
JANE NORMAN: It must be an interesting dynamic in Cabinet because just going by public statements made by you and your colleagues, you’ve got those who are very determined to maintain relationships with trading partners, those who, you know, are wanting to protect industries, others who are worried about keeping the lights on and pensioners being able to pay their power bills. How are the discussions sort of playing out?
MADELEINE KING: Well, I think every member of the Cabinet shares all those views. We all want to maintain very important trading relationships because this is a country built on international investment and international trade. We all want to protect our manufacturing industry. We need it to thrive to employ people and we want to make sure that people can afford power and gas. So, I think everyone wants the same things, but we all have to debate about how we get there and that’s the work we’re currently doing now with the departments, that important deep dive into these markets to find out what’s really going on, and that’s what’s going to be really important.
JANE NORMAN: And what are the possible unintended consequences that you’re warning perhaps some nervous colleagues about if the Government does act too quickly in intervening?
MADELEINE KING: Well, it goes to everything you’ve just mentioned about effects on manufacturing, effects on international trading partners. There is no doubt if you restrict sales to international partners that invested tens of billions of dollars and have really driven the development of an offshore and onshore export industry in gas, well, they would quite rightly be worried about that. And they have voiced their concern and that’s fine for them to voice their concern. So, we do have to be cognisant of these things and what drives some of the creation of these industries because the same partners that help build our gas industry will be the same partners that help build our critical minerals industry.
JANE NORMAN: That takes me to my next question because your Cabinet colleague Ed Husic has really, I guess, been the bad cop in terms of playing the roles here. He slammed gas exporters calling them greedy, calling them tone‑deaf, accusing them of milking gas prices. Do you believe gas exporters have been greedy, I suppose considering that they’re making some big profits right now off the back of the war in Ukraine?
MADELEINE KING: Well, most gas exports from this country are on long-term contracts so those contracts are not necessarily affected by the changes to gas prices around the world because they were signed 20 years ago for a particular price and a particular price mechanism which reflects investment of tens of billions of investment of those purchasers over a long time. So, they’re not necessarily getting all that increase in that bit. They’re getting it on the spot market, which I totally accept. I can understand why people object to some of that profit whilst they’re feeling the pressure, the everyday pressure of increased gas prices and increased electricity prices.
Having said all that, the three exporters of the east coast only supply three per cent of the whole east coast gas market gas, so there’s a wider problem here. We have to look at the other 97 per cent of the gas providers and what they’re doing around pricing and selling and contractual arrangements. So, when I signed the heads of agreement, which is only five weeks old, so it’s not really had time to work, and it only applies to three per cent of the gas supply, we’ve got to concentrate on the 97 per cent. What is going on there? How can we free up more of that gas at a reasonable price? How do we even know what people are paying for?
I reflect on the comments of the South Australian Minister for Resources, Tom Koutsantonis, who’s thinking about having an inquiry in South Australia about finding out, well, what are the retailers in doing this? They’ve bought gas at – this is what Tom thinks and he could be right. They’re buying gas at lower prices and long-term contracts, but what’s their mark‑up into the whole – into the retail market? So, these are the things that Government should look into to make sure that everyone knows what everyone’s paying and that it’s a fair price.
JANE NORMAN: So, you’re saying that retailers might be part of the problem here; that that’s where we’re seeing an increase in prices?
MADELEINE KING: I think the whole market is a problem. It’s opaque. We can’t see into it. Minister Husic gets calls from manufacturers. I get calls from manufacturers. I get calls from retailers. So does he. We’re all getting scattergun answers to these problems and what we really need to do is find out the truth, and a transparent market will help us get to that and will put pressure on all providers, wholesalers, retailers, users of gas, gas power generators to make sure that everyone knows exactly what they’re doing with the gas that people need.
JANE NORMAN: And so, would you back Ed Husic’s comments, though, when he calls these gas producers greedy tone‑deaf, milking gas prices? Is that a fair observation to make?
MADELEINE KING: It’s not the language I would use.
JANE NORMAN: What sort of impact is that sort of language having on our big, I suppose, buyers of Australian LNG – and I’m talking about countries like Japan, the biggest consumer of LNG in the world, and we are one of the biggest suppliers to Japan? What response are you having from international trading partners? Are they getting a bit nervous about this kind of language?
MADELEINE KING: Well, Japan does have long-term contracts so – and they’re secure and we’ve always been very clear on that. The Prime Minister has been very clear, the Prime Minister of Japan visited Perth and Kwinana just the other week and we again reiterated that Australia would continue to be – will continue to be a reliable and trustworthy supplier of energy. And the reason Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, can rely on us is because those long-term contracts are in place, and this is a country that honours those contracts.
JANE NORMAN: And you’re heading to Japan next week.
MADELEINE KING: I am.
JANE NORMAN: Has this been prompted in part by some nervousness around the energy debate we’re having domestically?
MADELEINE KING: To be honest, Japan is such an important partner in the resources sector whether it be the development of the iron ore sector in Western Australia, the development of the gas export industry, principally in WA, but also future investment we would like to see in critical minerals. So, I was always going to go to Japan; it was just a matter of when. It’s an important country. It’s an important part of our relationship. We recently signed a Critical Minerals Strategy together, so I’m keen to go over there and meet with the relevant Ministers to talk about that further.
JANE NORMAN: And what will be your message to them when it comes to those LNG exports of ours that are going to Japan?
MADELEINE KING: It will be the exact same message as I’ve given to them before, as the Prime Minister has given, as the Minister for Trade, Don Farrell, has given when he was recently in Japan – that Australia can continue to be trusted as a reliable supplier of energy for Japan and we’ll support Japan’s transition to net zero by 2050 because, quite frankly, they have got – they agreed to that ambition well before the Commonwealth Government of this country did and we want to help them get there.
JANE NORMAN: Does it say something, though, that you and your Cabinet colleagues are having to continually allay concerns about whether we are, in fact, going to continue to be a secure and reliable partner in that respect?
MADELEINE KING: I don’t think so. I think it’s always helpful to retain those friendships, but, as I said, it’s also about developing another industry. It is about making sure we have the relationships, as a new Government too, with Ministers in other countries on, you know, a new national mission to develop the critical minerals of this country.
JANE NORMAN: And just before I let you go, you’re from Western Australia. We heard recently the New South Wales Treasurer Matt Kean call on the WA State Government to free up some Western Australian gas and get it over to the east coast to help with this current crisis we have. I’m just wondering do you know of any formal request that’s come through from Matt Kean’s office? Is that even possible?
MADELEINE KING: I’ve not heard of any such request, and I don’t think he’s going to make that request.
JANE NORMAN: And that’s because it actually can’t –
MADELEINE KING: It can’t make it. There’s no pipeline. There’s no import terminal. There’s no means to get gas to New South Wales other than from Queensland or Victoria or South Australia. New South Wales does not use its gas reserves and, you know, maybe they need to think about their energy security in that context.
JANE NORMAN: You’re talking about Narrabri there?
MADELEINE KING: Narrabri is an important project and the State Government, and the Minister have said they support that. Looks like there’s still a little way to go on developing that project, but I think if the State Government chooses to let that go forward with approvals it’s well within Minister Kean’s remit to think about domestic gas reservation policy for New South Wales, and I would support that entirely.
JANE NORMAN: All right. Madeleine King, thanks for your time.
MADELEINE KING: Thanks so much, Jane. Good to see you again.
JANE NORMAN: Likewise.