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Interview with ABC Illawarra

15 May 2020

Melinda James

Subject: JobKeeper and unemployment figures, National Cabinet, investment in renewables, and falling wholesale energy prices.


MELINDA JAMES: Yesterday the figures were released, the numbers in terms of the job loss in Australia at the moment, almost 600,000 jobs lost in the month of April and the hours worked plummeting about 9.2 per cent - so, lots of people on reduced hours as well, - and we know that another million or so workers have taken up JobKeeper. I'm joined now by the Member for Hume and the Energy Minister, Angus Taylor. Angus Taylor, good morning. 

ANGUS TAYLOR: Thanks for having me, Mel.

MELINDA JAMES: It looks like Prime Minister Scott Morrison has now sort of opened the door to having another look at JobKeeper because it looks like it could face cost blowouts, it looks like maybe he might be considering things like extending beyond September JobKeeper payments for particularly hard hit industries, those sorts of things. Are they on the agenda? What will be looked at in terms of JobKeeper?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, I'm not going to get ahead of that review. The important point yesterday of course was this devastating news that 600,000 people have lost their jobs. It's a big number, of course, six million people on JobKeeper as well. And these are huge numbers, they weren't unexpected, indeed, on the unemployment side the expectation was it could have even been higher, but it's still absolutely devastating. The key thing with this, we can review these programs all we like, they're intended to be temporary and it's important we do do the review, of course, but the most important thing is to gradually reopen the economy, get businesses back up and running. It is businesses that will re-employ, that's where obviously the vast majority of the jobs have been lost, and the vast majority of the people on JobKeeper are in businesses that we have to look to get back up and running, and that's why the gradual reopening of the economy, lifting of restrictions, it's not happening overnight of course, but that gradual reopening and maintaining our health and safety while that's going on is the key thing to get done as quickly as we possibly can, and as effectively as we can.

MELINDA JAMES: I want to move on to various things that are being raised as potentials for stimulating the economy right now, particularly in regards to infrastructure for example. But just on JobKeeper, the Member for Whitlam and the Shadow Assistant Treasurer Stephen Jones has said that it seems to be that he thinks there needs to be some sort of crackdown on JobKeeper, because there are plenty of examples of people taking it up and yet not turning up to work. I mean, the idea is you're meant to still be, in some sense, connected to the employer, doing something. Is it fair that some people were signed up to a job very shortly before all this happened and they're taking home $750 a week, and for doing nothing really?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, if there's non-compliance, if there's people doing the wrong thing, then the job of the ATO and others is to chase that up and follow that up. But look, these are measures for extraordinary situations in extraordinary times - they've had to be done quickly, that's the nature of the thing - and the crucial thing now is to unwind it as quickly as we reasonably can. You obviously can't do it in a way which is going to threaten people's health and safety, but that is the way out. I mean, you know, and that's the most important thing to focus our attention on.  And really, you know, for your listeners, for me the crucial thing here is we reopen and try and get businesses back up and running, is that we all maintain our discipline around hygiene - you mentioned it earlier before I came on - but around hygiene, social distancing, obviously download the app, download the app - we've all heard it many times, but please do it if you possibly can - that's how we're going to unwind this and that's how we're going to deal with the issues that inevitably have been coming along and will continue to come along.  With respect to your initial question, if there's noncompliance obviously that will have to be dealt with.

MELINDA JAMES: What if it's compliant but to some it appears to be very unfair or inequitable or maybe even wasteful that some people are getting more money than they ever earned in the first place for doing nothing? Is that an issue in the scheme that you think should be changed?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Sure, yeah, sure - look, as you said, there's a review happening and that'll be finalised in June and that's intended to deal with any issues that are compliant that aren't appropriate. And look, as I said, this had to be done quickly and the important thing here is that, you know, 6 million people on JobKeeper, that tells you something about what the unemployment rate would have been if we hadn't put these emergency measures in place. It's an extraordinary number. And it does tell us that the measures we've taken were necessary, were appropriate, and ultimately had to be done very, very quickly. You know, we could've sat arguing in the Parliament for weeks on end about the fine points of this, but that would not have worked, and so we've done it, we'll review it in June, but most importantly, we're working to get the economy back going again. 

MELINDA JAMES: Well getting the economy going again seems to be on the agenda today at National Cabinet when the Treasury Secretary and the Governor of the Reserve Bank will join the National Cabinet to talk about means of stimulating the economy. One thing that's arisen in a Guardian article this morning is in relation to the Reserve Bank. This is way back in March, obviously before the strict restrictions were imposed. But this was about the economy looking to stimulus programs that would address climate change, and in particular suggesting there needs to be huge investment in renewables in this country. Is that the kind of thing, as Energy Minister, you would be advocating for in terms of economic stimulus?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Yeah, we're already seeing it. I mean, in 2019 we saw $9 billion of investment in renewables which is absolutely unprecedented - 6300 megawatts of new capacity. So, look, that's already happening. It'll continue to happen at very high levels. You know, one of the highest in the world on any benchmark. So they're extraordinary numbers. I mean the great challenge is we've also got to make-

MELINDA JAMES: According to this report, just briefly, according to this report, it says that the number of large scale renewable energy projects that were about to begin, so about to commence had slumped 50 per cent so there are not many new projects coming on stream. 

ANGUS TAYLOR: Yeah, I mean I've seen some of those numbers and look, ultimately, what we're seeing is an enormous investment. Solar is continuing to steam ahead at a very, very high rates. And so we are seeing enormous investment in renewables-

MELINDA JAMES: Do you see it as something that should be focussed on?

ANGUS TAYLOR: And the challenge, the great challenge we're facing right now is to make sure that's balanced with dispatchable generation as well. Look we do have a great opportunity coming out of the crisis related to that which is we're now seeing sharp reductions - we were seeing even before COVID-19 - sharp reductions in wholesale energy prices, both gas and electricity, and that's a great opportunity for manufacturing. And so we do want to take advantage of that. We can take advantage of both the boom in renewables and the falling wholesale prices to help our manufacturing sector, which hasn't seen these sort of lower energy prices on this sort of scale for many, many years with a lower exchange rate. So you look at industries like the steel industry, obviously important to the Illawarra - it's in better shape than it's been for a long while, absent the COVID-19 crisis. So coming out of the COVID-19 crisis, we really have to take advantage of that opportunity.

MELINDA JAMES: Alright, we'll have to leave it there. Thanks for your time this morning.