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Interview with Patricia Karvelas, Afternoon Briefing, ABC News 24

15 September 2020

Interviewer: 
Patricia Karvelas

Subject: Gas, gas infrastructure, basin development, coal, energy supply, electricity supply, border closures, Australians overseas, China.

E&OE

PATRICIA KARVELAS: My next guest this afternoon is the Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia, Keith Pitt. Minister, welcome.

KEITH PITT: PK, great to be with you. Great to be with your viewers.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Has the Government abandoned coal as a future energy source?

KEITH PITT: Not at all. I mean, we made a commitment in the last election where we've delivered on that in terms of feasibility study in the north. The PM has said very clearly today that coal will still be a big part of our energy mix, and if CCS works into the future at a commercial basis, well, there'll be even more coal-fired power stations.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. So, on what basis will there be even more coal-fired power stations? What sort of timeline do you predict for that, given, as you say, at this stage, it's just a feasibility study?

KEITH PITT: Well, it's not only that. There's extensive studies being done in terms of carbon capture and storage that the Commonwealth has funded over a long period of time. So, where they reach a commercial success point, well, HELE (high efficiency low emissions) coal power stations combined with CCS means a 90 per cent reduction in emissions. It's reliable, it's available, and that's what we're looking for.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Sure, but there's no evidence that's going to happen, is there?

KEITH PITT: Well, I don't agree with that at all. There's been extensive work done in CCS. Coal gasification is another opportunity as well. We're looking at all technology options.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Why does New South Wales need a 1000-megawatt gas plant by 2023 when the Australian Energy Market Operator says excess demand will only be 300 megawatts?

KEITH PITT: Well, what's become blatantly obvious is those people who are out there making money from the energy network are not interested in putting more supply into the market, because it will affect the price. Now, we're about affordable and reliable energy. The PM's been very clear. If companies and private industry won't build it, then we will.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. You say what's become clear is that they don't want to do it. Is that sort of a fait accompli? The Prime Minister said this is not Plan A, but do you expect it to become Plan A? Is that what you're saying?

KEITH PITT: PK, we've been in government now for seven years. I'm yet to see a major construction of a reliable power station. GTs, gas turbines, that provide electricity are reliable. They're peakers. They fit into the market nicely. The announcement today, I think, is in the best interests of the Australian people and those in New South Wales. If we are going to be competitive in manufacturing and we want to be internationally competitive, we need cheap and affordable electricity and gas.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So you're saying you don't think based on history, based on what's happened when you're in government, that this will happen. So what, the Government will inevitably have to step in?

KEITH PITT: Well the announcement today is that if there's been no movement by April 2021, Snowy Hydro's been tasked to build that gas turbine in New South Wales, 1000 megawatts, and that's a good start.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. Does the Government's modelling factor in AGL and Energy Australia's plans to build new gas-fired power stations?

KEITH PITT: Well, AEMO does a lot of that modelling over a period of time. And I can tell you, when I looked at their report in 2014 or '15, they said there was no need for new power stations for another 10 years. Well, that clearly hasn't come to fruition. We need to adapt to the existing conditions and what's happening within the market. And once again, in a post-corona period, we need to ensure that we are driving what we need to for Australians, for Australian manufacturing, for Australian business, and that means cheap and affordable gas and electricity.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Will the Government release the modelling that these estimates are based on?

KEITH PITT: Well, the piece around the gas infrastructure lives with Angus Taylor. He's the shareholding minister. My part is around the five basin plans in particular. So that is getting the Beetaloo open, that's looking at the North Bowen, the Galilee and others, and obviously with the announcements today, we're going to look very closely at a gas hub. But once again, these are good decisions and, of course, if private industry doesn't get involved, well, the Government will do what's necessary.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Is this an admission that you don't have confidence in the Energy Retailer Obligation?

KEITH PITT: PK, I think the states shouldn't get off the hook here. Ultimately, the states are responsible in each of their areas. It's a very difficult space, given it's a combination of all of them in the national electricity market on the east coast. But we have to make decisions that matter. In a post-corona environment, it will be about jobs. Every job will be an essential job. So the Commonwealth is doing what it needs to. I think these are strong decisions today, and I think they'll be well supported.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Why does it make economic sense for the Government to build things that the market has decided aren't needed?

KEITH PITT: Well, I think when it comes to critical infrastructure, and whether that's gas or water or electricity, this is not about simply companies making money. It's about ensuring the security of the nation. It's about ensuring there's opportunity in the future, that there's growth, and that's what we're focused on, and we've made decisions around that- on that basis.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Has the Government modelled the impact of developing the Beetaloo Basin, North Bowen and Galilee basins on carbon emissions?

KEITH PITT: Well, there's been any number of assessments in terms of engineering. There's been any number of assessments over the years about what could or couldn't be done. So what we've put forward is $28 million to develop those five basin plans. We recognise we need more gas into the market. We need to provide incentives where possible or where needed, if companies don't move in the right direction. But in terms of emissions, well, I mean, they're a question to put to Angus: he's the Minister for Emissions Reduction. But we are on target for what we said we would do.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. But should the impact on carbon emissions be a consideration?

KEITH PITT: We'll continue to look at all of those options and all of those things that matter to individuals and in terms of our international commitments. But what I've said, and I continue to say, we're on track for our 2030 targets. We'll do it in a canter. And of course, we have to ensure in a post-corona environment Australia is competitive, because there will be a great need of jobs and that will come from growth.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Are you suggesting that Australia in the longer term abandon its obligations on carbon reduction on the basis of job creation?

KEITH PITT: No, not at all. We're committed to the 2030 target. We will meet the 2030 target. But we also must act in the national interest, and that means providing opportunities for people to be employed, for those younger individuals to garner apprenticeships and traineeships, give them an opportunity. And growth is what matters. Growth is what provides those essential services. Our economy is what pays for health and hospitals, what pays for roads and other infrastructure, and we need to ensure that that continues to grow.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Australia's former chief scientist Penny Sackett says it's too late for Australia to use gas as a transition fuel and meet its climate change targets. What's your response to that critique?

KEITH PITT: Well, there's any number of gas peakers right across the country now. They can build relatively quickly, two to three years is my understanding, depending on location and in the connection for infrastructure, whether that's transmission or gas. We need to act. There's clearly could be a shortfall when Liddell closes, and if companies don't fix that gap, well, the Government will.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: What do you make of the report from XYZ recommending that JobKeeper be extended in the agricultural sector?

KEITH PITT: I haven't seen the report from XYZ, PK, but what I do know is we do-

PATRICIA KARVELAS: [Interrupts] Okay. Well, the idea... okay. Even if you haven't seen it, the idea that it gets extended for the agricultural sector, do you think that's a good idea?

KEITH PITT: Well, we've already announced an extension of JobKeeper, which we're committed to. There's clearly a watching brief on what's needed right across the country. The majority will go into Victoria in coming weeks and months. But look, I just got off the phone literally a couple of hours ago from some local providers for labour into the agricultural sector here in Bundaberg. They're at around 30 per cent of their normal capacity for backpacker hostels, which is where a lot of that surge workforce comes from, and this is a challenge.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: On some other issues before I let you go this afternoon, do you welcome South Australia's announcement on its border?

KEITH PITT: Well, I do. I think a lot of the border issues, whilst they're very popular and strongly supported, are a smokescreen. You need to ensure that the local health system can respond, that contact tracing is bulletproof, that you can ringfence where there's on outbreak, because we need to be able to learn to live with the virus until we can ensure that there are other options. We can't simply continue to cut down huge swathes of the country, and we know what happens nor individuals: they find themselves in very difficult circumstances, and I think the Australian people just want to see common sense here. They want to see fairness, and they want to ensure that all levels of government are working together.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Should Queensland open its borders?

KEITH PITT: Well, the Premier has made a decision, and she's made a statement that she won't be doing that even if it costs the election. Well, I say to the Premier it's not about the election; it's about these people who want to be treated fairly. We've see Tom Hanks roll in and got the gold carpet treatment on the basis that they bring money into the economy. Well, the Prime Minister brings more money than most people I can think of to Queensland, and we should roll out the red carpet for him, but these are the rules that are currently in place.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay, they are, but we all know based on the polling that the decision to close the borders has been popular. Do you understand why it's popular as a Queenslander?

KEITH PITT: Of course. People are concerned, as they should be. They're worried about their health and whether they might catch the virus, but as I've said, the advice from the Commonwealth has always been to ensure that your health departments and others are bulletproof when it comes to contact tracing, that there are fair decisions that are made and common sense decisions, that you can ringfence an outbreak. And I think that's the way we need to move forward in the future.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay, so you'd be comfortable with Queensland opening its borders, for instance, to New South Wales? You think it should do that?

KEITH PITT: Well, PK, I've just come from the ACT for the sittings. There hasn't been a case there since June. There's been no community transmission. We find ourself in two weeks of isolation, and that's fine, that's the rules. There's lots of people around the country that have to do that. But I think, once again, we need Queensland and other states to make those basic, common sense, practical decisions, because we can't continue to have families separated. We can't continue to have children on one side of the border and mum and dad on the other. We can't have the oncologists not able to see their cancer patients. So I think we need to manage this on a case-by-case basis.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: And we know Victoria's numbers are getting lower, which of course all Victorians are celebrating as they should after very long lockdown Are they getting low enough that in your view that Queensland should also open its border to Victoria?

KEITH PITT: Well, I mean, these are decisions made by the Premier and hopefully made on medical advice.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: [Talks over] Yeah, but what's your view? Because she says her medical advice is not to do it.

KEITH PITT: Yeah, but I mean, once again, these statements have been made by the Premier and others that on occasions they're making decisions not on medical advice. So I think people are frustrated. I think they just want to see a clear path, and I'm looking forward to seeing that myself.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Warren Entsch is going to be joining me very shortly, of course. He's on your side of politics, but he's calling for a quarantine hub to be established in far north Queensland to help Australians stranded overseas get back home in time for Christmas. Do you think that's a good idea?

KEITH PITT: Well, look, I think the states should be looking at their numbers and what opportunities they have. Cairns as an international location has a lot of empty hotels at the moment, but obviously we need to manage that risk in terms of the quarantine for returning Australians and other travellers. The numbers, majority(*) at the moment are being managed by New South Wales. Gladys Berejiklian gets the gold star. But others are not taking very large amounts of return travellers.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay, but do you think what should happen is that there should be these quarantine stations beyond the states being asked to take more people?

KEITH PITT: Well, I think there's a lot of ways to deal with the outbreak in reasonable and practical ways, and if the advice is-

PATRICIA KARVELAS: [Interrupts] Is this a good idea do you think?

KEITH PITT: Well, if the advice is that it's manageable and the risk is low enough, well, we need to look to all options, as do the states.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: And is that because there should be a priority to get these many Australians stranded back home by Christmas in your view?

KEITH PITT: Oh, PK, I don't think it's about simply Christmas. I'm supportive of all Australians getting an opportunity. These are the reasons we're in the Parliament, to act in the national interest.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Yeah. So, I mean, you're a minister, and you're saying we should look at all the options to get these people home. That's significant in my view. Is that because you're being overwhelmed by requests?

KEITH PITT: Well, it's not that at all, and I have to say we are looking at all options. Every minister in the Government and every member of the Government is working incredibly hard to see what we can do in what is a really difficult environment. I mean, I'm just heartbroken for the people in Victoria. They've been under a curfew in Australia. So these are decisions made by the state governments. I think we need to look at options. We need to continue to manage it on a risk basis. We need to continue to take the advice that's available from the health experts. And we need to live with the virus.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, just a final question. Have you spoken to your Chinese counterpart recently? Have you tried to make that contact?

KEITH PITT: Yes, we have, and they've politely declined at this time given the current circumstances.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Can you give me some more information about what that polite decline looked like and when it happened?

KEITH PITT: Well, that was a couple of months ago. We put a request in. It took a little while as it usually does for those responses to come back. But I've met with my Indian counterpart, South Korean, and then Japan and the US, and there'll be more into the future. So we'll continue to engage-

PATRICIA KARVELAS: [Interrupts] Okay, but when it comes to the Chinese decline, what were the reasons given for why they couldn't talk to you?

KEITH PITT: Well, I'm not sure there were substantial reasons provided, but I completely understand. There's a worldwide pandemic. Everyone is bogged down in their local issues. But the message I give to China counterparts and others is that Australia continues to meet its trade obligations, we continue to be a reliable supplier and that will continue into the future.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: And is- but did you think that the reason they declined to talk to you was because of the tensions between Canberra and Beijing?

KEITH PITT: No, not at all.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: You don't think those tensions have anything to do with it?

KEITH PITT: There's any number of my counterparts I haven't got to yet in terms of having bilaterals. I mean, I did a G20 from here at Woodgate over the weekend by video conference. That would have been more preferable to be there in person, meeting with people on the sidelines and meeting other counterparts. But unfortunately in the current circumstances, that can't be managed.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us, Minister.

KEITH PITT: Great to be with you, PK.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: That's the Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia, Keith Pitt.

ENDS