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Interview with Deb Knight, 2GB

6 November 2020

Interviewer: 
Deb Knight

Subject: Energy Australia fine, trading relationship with China and the US election

E&OE

DEB KNIGHT: Friday, question time, lots to cover with our pollies, Angus Taylor, Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister and Joel Fitzgibbon, Shadow Resources and Ag Minister. They’re on the line for us now, hello fellas.

ANGUS TAYLOR: G’day, Deb and Joel.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: G’day, team.

DEB KNIGHT: Now, first up, breaking news, Angus. In the last half hour or so, Energy Australia has copped this fine - a $1.5 million fine, for disconnecting customers suffering hardship. That’s appalling.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Yeah. It’s completely unacceptable. We’ve had rules in place for a long time, but we strengthened those rules as COVID happened and we’ve required the energy companies to do the right things by their customers at this time. And if they breach the rules, the pay the price.

DEB KNIGHT: So, what were they doing? Were customers getting in contact, saying: look, I’m struggling here to pay my bill, but they were cut off anyway?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, there was an agreement - a commitment from the companies and a requirement for the companies that they don’t disconnect customers during this time who are facing hardship. So, it’s as simple as that. We expect them to comply. As I’ve said all along, since I came in to this position, we expect the energy companies to do the right things by Australians, by Australian small businesses, industry and households, and if they don’t, they will pay the price and this is just an illustration of that.

DEB KNIGHT: Well, that’s fair enough too. $1.5 million to Energy Australia for doing the wrong thing, clearly, there. Now, can you clear up what’s happening in China for us, Angus? Has the Government had any clarification from Chinese authorities about what’s happening with our exports?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, our communication lines are open, our officials are talking and at the end of the day, we’ll continue to make sure, do everything we can in our powers to get access to those Chinese markets. But, the thing I’d emphasise here and anticipating what Joel may say-

DEB KNIGHT: So, hang on. Today was meant to be D-day? Are they blocking our exports or not? Because, you know, we were talking to Simon Birmingham and he was saying they were waiting for clarification.

ANGUS TAYLOR: They’ve consistently denied any targeting of Australia. So, that is their position. But the broader point I would make here, we have opened up more markets and more trade opportunities than any time in Australian history. The price of beef and lamb, we’re selling at on the back of our new export opportunities we’ve opened up in our time, are record levels and remain so.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: And that’s wonderful. But it’s cold comfort for our wine, lobster, timber, sugar, wheat, copper, coal industries, who are all being told unofficially under back channels, that, sorry, but your imports are going to be left stranded on the tarmac or on the docks.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, we’re urging the relevant Chinese authorities to address the concerns of sectors like those, like the seafood trade and wine trade. We’ll continue to do that, Deb. But, we’ll also at all times stand up for Australian values and Australian interests. That is absolutely central to our approach, as I’ve said on this program many, many times. We will seek to work with China to get the balance right.

DEB KNIGHT: Okay.

ANGUS TAYLOR: But, it’s not a balance where we’re going to compromise our interest.

DEB KNIGHT: So, no official confirmation or denial from China. But Joel, this new article today in the Global Times, which is the mouth piece of the Chinese Government, saying that they don’t need Australian coal, because they’re moving away from fossil fuels, they’re committing to being carbon neutral by 2060. So, even coal is in their sights?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Well, more a side stepping than Kalyn Ponga there from Angus, Deb. I mean, the fact is that Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull, in the lead up to the 2019 election deliberately embraced a strategy to win that election by exploiting a nervousness within the Australian community about China’s rising influence in our region. And what's happening now is that we are seeing a response from China, about our language and the number things that this Government has done to destroy this relationship. And now, our farmers and red meat producers and growers and even coal producers now maybe lobster, cotton, wine - the list is very long - they are all paying a price. And-

DEB KNIGHT: But Joel, what would you have done differently? What would Labor have done differently? Because this is clear retaliation against Australia for asking the questions about COVID and wanting this inquiry, which was well within our rights to call for.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: A Labor government would never have allowed the relationship with our largest trading partner to deteriorate to the point where our goods are now being blocked from the China market. That's what we are experiencing here, Deb. And Angus kept talking about officials - the fact is that the Government ministers here in Australia for the first time - I mean, it's just extraordinary, I’ve not known it to happen before – are unable to have a phone conversation with their counterparts in China. Such is the state of this relationship. Now, let me say something about the Free Trade Agreement with China, which is so important to us. In 2015, when people were protesting against that agreement, an agreement the Labor Party supported, Angus Taylor said that this was one of the biggest threats to our farmers he has seen in his working career. And now we have ministers, including Scott Morrison, our Prime Minister, playing down what we are seeing played out before our eyes. This is a very serious situation caused by this Government and we want a response from this Government. Our growers and producers, our coalminers and others now expect the Government to fix this problem and they are denying it even exists. If you can't admit it exists, Deb, it's pretty hard to expect the Government to come up with a solution.

DEB KNIGHT: Angus?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Deb, if I may, look, I’d make two points. First of all, Labor didn't enter into any of the free trade agreements we entered in soon after coming into Government. They had the opportunity, they didn't do it. So, they talk a big game on this.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: [Talks over] Rubbish.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Which leads to my second - well, it’s true, Joel - and it leads to my second point, and this is absolutely crucial. We’ve had this discussion many times on this program. Joel has never once identified a single specific thing that Labor would do differently. Not a single specific thing. Somehow, in some kind of mirage of Joel’s mind, they’re going to kind of be nicer to each other. Well, the truth is you’ve got to be very clear on this. Where is it that you’re not going to stand up for our national interests? Where is it that you’re going to be prepared to compromise your values in order to try to fix the trade situation? You’ve got to be clear about this.

DEB KNIGHT: Angus, are you expecting more retaliation? Because we've had the first arrest too under the new foreign interference laws. That was made yesterday. A 65-year-old Melbourne man who has ties to the Chinese Communist Party. Should, do you have expectations that China could retaliate over this as well?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, I mean, that's all just speculation. I have no idea, Deb.

DEB KNIGHT: Are you worried?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, look, I'm not worried because I think we've got to do the right thing by Australia. I worry about trade. Of course, I do. That's an important issue. But do I worry about doing the right thing for Australia in terms of these foreign interference or in terms of the inquiry into the source of the coronavirus? No. Because this is all about doing what's right for Australia, standing up for our values, standing up for our interests. And I’ll do that every day.

DEB KNIGHT: Alright. I want to talk about the US election. We've had Donald Trump ramping up his claims of voter fraud. He's unleashed the lawyers. He's been shot down in two of the legal claims, but he says he is on track to win and win easily. Joe Biden is also confident he's going to win. We've had Anthony Albanese, one of a few people, including Kevin Rudd, the former Prime Minister, suggesting that Scott Morrison should intervene here and encourage both sides in the US to accept whatever the result may be. I mean, that's not really something, Joel, that you'd expect a foreign power to do to interfere in another country's election? 

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Well, Deb, I suspect neither Joe Biden or Donald Trump give a hoot about what Scott Morrison thinks at the moment.

DEB KNIGHT: Exactly.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: They're engaged in something of great interest to them-

DEB KNIGHT: So should Albo just sort of back off?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: I think what's important now, even more important than who wins, is that we get a period of peace and stability in the United States, and hope and pray that both sides see the sense in consolidating democracy and not undermining it. Obviously, I'd prefer Joe Biden win, but I think, and the world's greatest democracy is currently under threat, and that's where our minds should be.

DEB KNIGHT: Have you got concerns, Angus, about fraud or corruption with this election? We had the former Ambassador to the US and former Treasurer Joe Hockey telling Fordo on 2GB yesterday that he had real doubts about some of the results.

ANGUS TAYLOR: It’s not for the Australian Government to provide a running commentary. I actually very much agree with Joel’s comments on this. We need to let the process play out, be patient. I'm confident it will deliver an outcome. I'm also very confident, Deb, that our Alliance is very deep and enduring, is beyond whoever is Prime Minister or the President, and we are the closest of friends. And I'm confident that will remain. And I'm sure this will play its way out. The greatest, one of the greatest democracies we've ever seen – alongside ours, of course – is going through a process that goes through every four years, and we'll get an outcome and we will build on whoever, our relationship, whoever is the president.

DEB KNIGHT: Yeah, and let's hope that those crowds that are gathering, we know that the country is very divided and that the protesters, there’s concerns that it could break out into violence. But as you say, let's hope that it does emerge just the way it should do every four years with a peaceful transfer of power or a peaceful retention in the White House from the current president. Now, I want to end on something a bit fun, because we need to, I think, exhale after this week. I don’t know if you heard Prince Charles, but he was talking to Vogue magazine. He's not really a prince of fashion, but he does have a fashion mantra. And he says: “Buy once, buy well.” And he doesn't throw clothes away. He likes to wear them again and again. So, I want to ask you fellas, who are clear fashionistas, do you have an item of clothing that's a forever piece? Something you spent a bit of money on, and it's lasted forever. A hat, shoes, suit, a shirt. Angus, what is it?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, I didn't spend much money on it, but I've still got the same dinner suit I had when I was 20-years-old. And that was used, went to many B&Ss and other parties that you do in your early 20s as a bloke growing up in the country.

DEB KNIGHT: And you still fit into it?

ANGUS TAYLOR: I still fit into it, which I’m very proud of, Deb. Maybe I've had to loosen out the sides a little bit, but it still goes pretty well. So, that’s a good stint. That's 30, almost 35 years that I've had that suit and I still wear it. My wife laughs at it by the way.

DEB KNIGHT: [Laughs] Does she? Does she roll her eyes when you drag it out?

ANGUS TAYLOR: She does roll her eyes.

DEB KNIGHT: How about you, Joel?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: The B&S Ball, Deb. If only Angus’ dinner suit could talk.

DEB KNIGHT: [Laughs] Imagine the smells that might emanate from it too.

ANGUS TAYLOR: It’s seen a bit of mud over the years.

DEB KNIGHT: I bet! What about you though?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Look, I can't go past my RM Williams. I’m sure Angus wears them too. They are not particularly cheap, but they last forever. Every time I get a new pair, I throw the old ones in a box. And the next one’s in the box too, and they’ve all been sitting in the box for years. But they are amazing. But whenever I've had something for a long, long time, it's not because it's been expensive or well made, it’s because I like it and I think every husband around Australia has had a criticism or two from their wife about a bit of clothing. A bit like Angus’ suit, which probably should have gone out the door a long time ago.

DEB KNIGHT: Yeah. But when it works, it works, and you feel good in it. So, yeah, I'm with you. Good on you fellas. Thanks for joining us. We'll talk again next week.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Thanks, Deb and Joel.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Thanks, team.

Media contact:

Minister Taylor's office: 02 6277 7120