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Interview with Melinda James, ABC Illawarra

1 April 2020

Interviewer: 
Melinda James

Subject: COVID-19, Jobkeeper payment, energy prices

E&OE

MELINDA JAMES: Joining me now on the line is the Federal Member for Hume and of course the Energy Minister as well, Angus Taylor. Angus Taylor, thank you very much for your time this morning.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Thanks for having me, Melinda.

MELINDA JAMES: Just briefly and firstly, could you ever have imagined such an extraordinary and enormous Government intervention as the one we've seen announced? Particularly this latest instalment - $130 billion worth - Government basically paying people's wages?

ANGUS TAYLOR: No, I couldn't and I hope I never see it again for the obvious reason. These are not circumstances any of us would have chosen, but we have to find our way through this. It is crucially important that our businesses, particularly small businesses which are such an important part, they are the backbone of our communities across this region, that they get through to the other side of this, that they're in a position where they can pick up and go again as they were beforehand. You know, I'm really acutely conscious of people who might have spent decades of back-breaking work to build a business and then they're hit with something like this - whether it's a café, or a pub, or a restaurant - they've been hit extremely hard. We've got to help them get through this. For some it means going into hibernation. For others it means going on with a much smaller business than they had had. But on the other side of this we have to be in a position where those businesses are there and we're able to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and get going again. That's what this whole JobKeeper payment - $130 billion, unprecedented in its scale - that's what it's all about.

MELINDA JAMES: Do you have concerns about the Australian economy's ability to claw its way back, and in particular, the Government coffers to refill once this is all over? We're hearing that possibly tax cuts, only a year or two old, will probably have to be wound back to help pay for this. For how long do you think we will be living with the legacy of this here in Australia?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, obviously there's a health legacy we'll deal with, we've got to get through this first obviously on the health side - then on the economic side, yeah, there's no question this is going to be with us for some time. But the judgment we've made is that we need to have an economy that can pick itself up and go on the other side. Businesses, people, employees - we want to keep that connection between employers and employees throughout this to the extent that we can. So picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves off and getting going as fast as possible - the faster we do that the better position we are then to, to deal with the debt that we will have as a result of this, there's no question.

MELINDA JAMES: Are you concerned about the depth of debt we'll be going into?

ANGUS TAYLOR: I don't think it's anything that any, or any of us like to do. I mean there's no question that this is something we'd prefer not to have to do, but it's also something, we've taken the view we have to do because of the circumstances. As I say, there's a lot of small business people out there, people who work for businesses out there who'll be listening to this in a whole range of areas. It's not just, you know, hospitality - I mean childcare is one that is coming up regularly because people are not putting their kids into childcare as much as they were. Well, we've got to keep our childcare centres going and make sure they’re able to be there when we get to the other side. And you know, that's all crucial. If we lost a huge amount from the economy, it'd be a bit like losing half your muscles, you know, we can't afford to do that. We've got to make sure our body, so to speak, is intact when we get to the other side and we're able to get up and run again.

MELINDA JAMES: Can I ask you about energy and energy bills, and a lot of people will have major concerns about their ability to pay - not just residences but businesses as well. We're about to experience a first burst of cold weather and with people staying home 24/7 for weeks, possibly months, electricity bills will go through the roof. What are you asking of retailers in terms of people's bills this winter?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Yeah, it's a good question. I was talking to a couple of the retailers yesterday and it's clear that household consumption is up a little, even though business consumption is down, and that's for the reasons you rightly point out. Look, we've asked the energy retailers to put two specific initiatives - amongst others - in place. One is to extend hardship principles to those who are impacted by the virus and that includes small businesses, all businesses for that matter. Those hardship policies mean if you're not in a position to pay your bills you can go into a hardship plan and, in particular, you won't be disconnected, and you won't have the debt collectors come around, and the companies deal with that in a compassionate way. The second piece is what we are calling a hibernation policy and that means, if you are a business that's had to shut - often small businesses in particular - that you can effectively hibernate the business without being hit by energy bills and that's crucially important. The third thing I'd point out is that even prior to this, we were seeing very sharp reductions in wholesale prices of electricity. We've been saying to the energy companies its right that that they passed on in the retail prices as we see price changes coming up in the coming months, and that we do everything we can to make sure that people's bills are affordable. Now, the hardship policies and the hibernation that I talked about - the energy companies have accepted that and the regulator has put guidelines in place.

MELINDA JAMES: [Talks over] For that grace period, what to?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Sorry, Melinda.

MELINDA JAMES: That's alright. Until at least 31 July?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Yes, correct, and obviously if this keeps going, I mean, there's every intent that it would be extended. So those guidelines are now in place, they're agreed. We have had good cooperation from the energy companies. Look, they realise that they don't want their businesses and their customers disappearing over the course of this so they are doing the right thing to ensure that those customers do survive this, and importantly the regulator will be there to make sure that the right thing is happening.

MELINDA JAMES: Angus Taylor, thank you very much for your time this morning.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Thanks, Melinda.

ENDS