Interview with John Laws, 2SM
JOHN LAWS: Unfortunately, all the weather warnings and more came true yesterday. Several outer Sydney suburbs experiencing very, very significant and very, very damaging flooding. There were several evacuation warnings in the south-west during - along the Georges River and the Nepean River, obviously, mostly, with the historical town of Camden bearing the brunt of that brutal weather. And it's hard to describe it any other way – it was brutal. The rain is easing but for many areas they're still inundated. And to tell us more, the Federal Member for the south western Sydney seat of Hume, Angus Taylor, joins me on the line. Angus Taylor, good morning.
ANGUS TAYLOR: Good morning, John. Thanks for having me.
JOHN LAWS: Okay, pleasure. Angus, tell me, how bad is the situation in your electorate now?
ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, it's eased off. It was bad. We had the Nepean River up at 14m, which is not record levels but it's getting towards it. We had many of our organisations, our buildings, the Show Society, the sporting club, petrol stations and some houses as well, all under water as a result of the heavy rain the night before last. Fortunately, yesterday, we had something of a reprieve, where the storm, where the weather went through a little further north, and so things have eased. We're seeing the water level subsiding now but there's an enormous amount of work now to deal with the damage that has been done. It's very significant. And, you know, lots of both organisations, businesses, and households who have got a lot of work to do. I've been on the ground over the last two days in Picton and Camden, and obviously there's a lot of distress about what's actually occurred.
JOHN LAWS: Well, I can imagine there will be. Angus, will the ADF be required to help clean up the areas south-west of Sydney, do you think?
ANGUS TAYLOR: We're just assessing the best way to deal with it now. It's only now that the water's starting to go down that we can look at the damage that's been done and how best to deal with that. We certainly had the ADF in the region when we had the bushfires two years ago and they were absolutely outstanding, I have to say. And, you know, incredibly welcome and did a marvellous, marvellous job. The best way to do the clean-up now, we're still assessing. But what I do know is that there's been incredible community support. We had to sandbag Picton about a week ago now and, of course, the river came back up again a couple of days ago. And just the community support and spirit we saw – you know, it was professionals alongside volunteers. And my experience, growing up in a country area and being and living in regional Australia most of my life, is that it is that combination of local community volunteers and professionals that does, does the job and gets the job done. And that's exactly what we've seen in that region over the last … in my region over the last week or so.
JOHN LAWS: Thousands of people have been told to evacuate their homes. Where are they going to go? The evacuation centres have got to be bursting at the seams, haven't they?
ANGUS TAYLOR: No, we haven't … Look, fortunately, we've been lucky with this in that we have an evacuation centre in Narellan and there have been calls on that but limited. A lot of people have got relatives in the area and they've been able to find places to go as a result of that. But, you know, I spoke to people yesterday who were struggling to find places. We've got them into evacuation centres, we've got them temporary accommodation, and so we're dealing with that. But, look, it's been tough, John, there's no doubt about it. And we're out on the ground making sure they get the support they need.
JOHN LAWS: I've spoken to the Mayor of Camden. I've got to say, she sounded very down, she sounded defeated, almost. Apparently, the town's in a very bad way. You were there yesterday.
ANGUS TAYLOR: Yep.
JOHN LAWS: How bad is the situation in Camden?
ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, look, a lot of the town, because it's on the side of a hill, got away unscathed. But the area, essentially, Camden looks out onto a floodplain, and the floodplain itself was entirely flooded. And so we've seen where we hold the show each year and a lot of the sporting grounds, the equestrian centre, there's a sports club there which is a real hub for the community and has been getting back on its feet in the last couple of years, it went under and deep under, you know, over a metre under. And so that damage has been very real, and we all feel it. We've been working with the council to get the sports club back up on its feet again in the last couple of years. And the Show Society hasn't been able to have a show for two years, and it remains to be seen whether the show, which was scheduled for the beginning of April, will be held. So, you know, that's a big impact on the community.
JOHN LAWS: A hell of a big impact.
ANGUS TAYLOR: At a time when we're trying to, sort of, get back up on our feet after the pandemic, to lose the show – this is the second-biggest show in NSW behind the Royal Easter Show. It's a massive show. And, you know, incredible community support. The committee is just one of the most brilliant volunteer organisations I've ever worked with. I happen to be a patron of the show. But the prospect of losing that again, I know, is really hurting.
JOHN LAWS: What financial support, if any, is available to flood-affected residents?
ANGUS TAYLOR: Yeah, so we've got immediate household support, obviously the $1,000 per adult, $400 per child. There will be additional support as required for businesses that have been impacted and we've just announced today another million dollars per council area to provide immediate input and support in the recovery and clean-up, and that includes, obviously, Camden and Wollondilly, which are the two affected areas I'm talking about. But it's across many of those local government areas across NSW and Australia. So, that's important support. We'll be monitoring very closely the input that's required, how best to provide that support over the next little while as we move into the recovery phase. And, you know, I'm very conscious of the work that has to be done. And just the, you know, the impact it's had. We were recovering from the pandemic …
JOHN LAWS: Yeah.
ANGUS TAYLOR: … and this has been a real hit.
JOHN LAWS: Yeah, as excuse me. As Energy Minister, you asked Australia's Energy Regulator to reinstate consumer protections, including payment plans and hardship arrangements for the flood-affected residents. Are the energy companies following your requests? Are they doing as you have asked?
ANGUS TAYLOR: We expect they will. Look, this is a regime we put in place during the pandemic. It says to them, you're not to send in the debt collectors, you're not to disconnect people, you're not to force people off the grid – that's completely unacceptable in circumstances like this. They abided by that through the pandemic. I have to say, we saw – for the most part – very good behaviour by the energy companies in terms of their treatment of customers. We expect exactly the same with respect to the floods. And so far, so good, but we'll be watching this very closely. And I know the Australian Energy Regulator, who oversees this, will be watching closely as well.
JOHN LAWS: Good. That's very important. I've spoken to Bridget McKenzie about the Emergency Response Fund, which is accruing incredible interest but is hardly being spent. I'm aware it's being used as a last resort, but we're living through seemingly nonstop natural disasters. Don't you think it's time to start using the cash for disaster mitigation strategies now?
ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, look, which cash gets used for what is something I'll leave to Bridget. You know, that's her responsibility. But what I will say is that we do need to make sure these communities get the support they need through the recovery to get back on their feet and deal with the tragic circumstances we've had. I mean, fortunately, there's been no loss of life in my part of the world. There obviously has been elsewhere. But getting communities back on their feet is a big job and we'll be there to make sure we provide that support. Those discussions are very active in real time now as we are working to make sure we've got what we need in place to provide – alongside state government, of course, and they're enormously important in this – but making sure they've got the support they need.
JOHN LAWS: Would you recommend that the Emergency Response Fund be used?
ANGUS TAYLOR: What I will recommend strongly is that communities and community organisations, businesses and households, as well as, you know, organisations like the Camden Show Society, get the support they need to get back up on their feet. You know, frankly, John, where the money comes from is secondary, from my point of view, and I think from the community's point of view. As long as they're getting the support they need at this point, that's what counts.
JOHN LAWS: Yeah. But you didn't answer the question. I don't know whether you want to or not, but -
ANGUS TAYLOR: I just … look, at the end of the day, where the money comes from is less material for me, as someone who's dealing with these issues on the ground, than making sure we've got the support we need. That's what counts. And that's what I tell you I'll be - I will be adamant about. I've spoken with Bridget, the Prime Minister, Treasurer, and many others about making sure we've got the support we need. And I know other local members in areas that are flood-affected are having those same conversations.
JOHN LAWS: Okay. Angus, I know that we got you here to talk about the floods, but I'd like to borrow your brain, if I can, for a minute. You're the Energy Minister. The United Kingdom and the United States have announced a ban on Russian oil. Are you going to follow suit?
ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, we already have an effective ban, John, because we only buy 1.5% of our crude oil from Russia, and that's done through Ampol and Viva. And they have said that they will no longer be importing any crude oil from Russia. They don't need it. I mean, we import crude oil from 30 different countries, as well as having a substantial amount ourselves, coming from, primarily from Bass Strait. And so we don't need it and we won't be using it. And so, you know, that's the situation. It's a much bigger issue for Europe, of course, 'cause they do - are more reliant on it, and they're particularly reliant on Russia for gas. We're in a position right now which is enviable, where our domestic gas prices are 80% below the international price.
JOHN LAWS: Yes.
ANGUS TAYLOR: That is a good position to be in 'cause we've kept the foot on the accelerator with supply of gas during the pandemic. Many of us – many, I was told many times the gas-fired recovery was all wrong, but we are in the position we are today because of that. Global oil prices are a challenge, there's no question about that, and we're seeing pain at the pump. And that's why we are part of a global collective action now to release stocks onto the market to try and stabilise the market, because it is painful, we know that.
JOHN LAWS: Yeah, very painful. Russia was Australia's 46th-largest trading partner in 2019, with the trade balance strongly favouring Australia. What's going to happen there?
ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, I mean, obviously, international trade with Russia has already subsided greatly. You know, they're not a particularly important trading partner for us, relative to many others, and nothing like our Asian neighbours, of course. But we have seen a big reduction in trade with Russia from across the world. You can't even make international transactions now, currency transactions, through SWIFT, which makes international trade extremely difficult. And that is having a massive impact on the Russian economy, make no mistake about it. I mean, their currency has collapsed, inflation has exploded. This is very real for Russia. And, sadly, these are the consequences of an action taken by them which was completely unacceptable and was a true act of thuggery and bullying.
JOHN LAWS: It was. But, tell me, where's it going to go?
ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, I'm not gonna try to predict these things! They are very hard to predict. But where it does take us is making sure that we shore up our own position for the critical products we need. And we've talked about oil, we've talked about gas. I mean, we don't rely on Russia for gas and, thankfully, that will not be the case. But it is for Europe, and I think every country around the world that has traded, and does trade with Russia has got to make hard decisions about how to deal with that. We're certainly - we're certainly doing exactly that.
JOHN LAWS: Yeah, well, we trade with them. Australia mainly imports fertilisers and crude oil and inorganic acids and metals from Russia.
ANGUS TAYLOR: That's right.
JOHN LAWS: So, I mean, we're still doing business with them. Will that continue?
ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, the fertilisers, you know, is a really good example, 'cause that's an important one. Fertiliser and ammonium nitrate, which is used in the mining industry.
JOHN LAWS: Yes.
ANGUS TAYLOR: And we are expanding our production of that as we speak. We've got two major projects producing urea, which is the nitrogen fertiliser used for producing crops, in Western Australia, which will turn us from being a fertiliser importer to being a fertiliser exporter. This is incredibly important for Australia. It is a big breakthrough to be in this position. Both of those projects are advancing well and they're made possible because we have a strong supply of gas, which has put us in a position where our gas price is substantially lower than in Europe and in Asia. So, this is exactly what we have to do now. We have to put ourselves in a position where we have the sovereign capability we need to feed ourselves, to supply ourselves, to have our energy that we need, our food that we need, and, of course, fertiliser is one of those critical inputs, and that's why we've been so focused on it.
JOHN LAWS: Look, is it true that there's a urea shortage in the world generally?
ANGUS TAYLOR: There has been, there's no question about that. And you will remember, John, just before Christmas we faced a potential crisis of a shortage of AdBlue, which many people have to put in their cars and, of course, goes into the newer trucks, which is made from urea. So, this has been a major issue. We are now producing nearly all of the urea we need for AdBlue in Australia, in Brisbane. That is a big change. It wasn't the case before the crisis we faced, but we've dealt with it and we'll continue to deal with it, and this is why we need our own production in these critical areas. And it's a big focus for me as Energy Minister.
JOHN LAWS: Is this going to be a new business for Australia?
ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, it certainly is. I mean, you know, being in a position where we have kept the foot on the accelerator on production of gas through the pandemic when most countries around the world haven't has put us in an absolutely enviable position. We had Boris Johnson out in the last 24 hours saying that the UK needs to sort this out. Well, we, we didn't, we didn't hold back. And we got a great deal of criticism for what we called the gas-fired recovery, making sure we had enough gas for our industrial processes, for manufacturing, for energy sources coming out of the pandemic. We knew this was going to be important. We've done exactly the right thing, I think in hindsight - I think everyone can see that now - despite the criticism we faced. And the result is that Australia is extremely well-positioned now on energy, on manufacturing, at a time where these are really difficult issues for much of the rest of the world.
JOHN LAWS: Okay. It's been good to talk to you, Angus. You've been very informative and very generous with your time as well, and I thank you for that.
ANGUS TAYLOR: Good on you. Thanks, John.
JOHN LAWS: Okay, bye.