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Interview with Sabra Lane, AM, ABC Radio

20 March 2020

Sabra Lane

Subject: Energy security, COVID-19, the COAG Energy Council meeting


SABRA LANE: The federal, state and territory energy ministers are holding a teleconference today to discuss how they are going to keep the power on. It's not their usual face-to-face catch up, partly because the Federal Minister Angus Taylor was recently in the United States and he's taking a very cautious approach, minimising his contact with others. COVID-19 has changed the focus of today's hook-up - the anticipated economic shock and hardship are now the priorities. The Ministers will talk about how they can help Australians who are struggling to pay their power bills and ensure that the power stays on. Angus Taylor welcome to AM. What assurances have energy companies given you about making sure they won't cut off power and gas to consumers and small businesses who may not be able to pay their bills now?

ANGUS TAYLOR: I've been having regular discussions with the energy companies over recent days and I have asked them to apply hardship policies to those impacted by coronavirus, and they have assured me they will do exactly that. Of course Snowy Hydro, which is owned by the Commonwealth Government, will take the lead on that. It is absolutely crucial, Sabra, in these really testing times that we have energy companies that are treating customers who are impacted negatively by the coronavirus, either directly by contracting the virus or they’re in small businesses for instance that might have lost much of its custom - it's crucial that hardship policies be applied appropriately. This is a major challenge for the industry but it's one that I have asked them to step-up to and I'm confident that they are in a position to do that. 

SABRA LANE: Have they given a guarantee?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well they've given me an assurance that hardship policies will be applied to those who are impacted by the coronavirus and that is absolutely essential for the industry, and most importantly essential for Australia. 

SABRA LANE: Alright. That, that's directly affected by the coronavirus. What about those people, vulnerable people who have lost their jobs? Does that apply to them too?

ANGUS TAYLOR: That's what I'm saying - people who are directly or indirectly impacted and are in hardship. There are hardship policies in existence now. We saw them being used during the bushfires for instance. They were applied appropriately by the companies during the bushfires, and I've said we need to do exactly the same, exactly the same in the approach we're taking to the coronavirus. And during the bushfires of course that included businesses that were impacted, even if the businesses weren't burnt. So this is a very important principle and it's one we're asking the companies to abide by. And look the important point about COAG today is we want to take a nationally coordinated approach to this and I'm confident-

SABRA LANE: Alright. Let's get into that - what about the power companies themselves? They've enacted their own pandemic plans. What assurances have they given you that the lights and gas will stay on even if they too have staff becoming ill? Because hospitals will need constant supply here to save lives.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Yeah, you're absolutely right. This must be a strong focus - it is a strong focus. So infection control and workforce management for instance, which is what you referred to there, is a priority. I've been talking to the companies and to AEMO, the market operator, about this for several weeks now, making sure we've got workforces that are healthy and safe, and able to keep the lights on. There are many measures being taken. In Snowy for instance, we have two operating centres - one in Jindabyne, one in Cooma - we're keeping them completely separate so that we can ensure workforces are safe, are healthy and are able to keep the lights on. That will be an ongoing focus. So this  is important work, we've been working it through with each of the companies. We are putting in place today an approach, which is a national coordinated approach, and governance to ensure that across state and federal governments we're working with the energy companies to get the right outcomes and I am, I am confident the right things are happening. There's an enormous amount of work that needs to continue to be done but this is a very strong focus for all levels of government right now.

SABRA LANE: Are there any immediate impacts? 

ANGUS TAYLOR: We're not expecting to see any immediate impacts, Sabra, other than the hardship issues that I've described a moment ago, we will - we're starting to see those now. But of course what we're not seeing yet is any disruption to supply across either electricity, gas or liquid fuels which is something that the COAG Energy Council is also focused on. There is no disruption to supply chains. Consumers should be very confident that there is fuel, gas, electricity available. One of the positive things is this is happening at a time of year where we generally have redundancies in the system and we want to make sure that we continue to see more than enough supply available for customers and that will be an ongoing focus.

SABRA LANE: Mr Taylor, there have been big drops in the price of oil, some motorists are yet to see that reflected at the pumps. What are you doing to ensure that that is actually passed on?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Yeah look, this has been a very strong focus for the chairman of the ACCC, and he was out yesterday making the point that we should be seeing oil price, the price of fuel at the bowser down towards $1.10 - we are seeing it in some places, we're not seeing it across the board. And it is, we will continue -

SABRA LANE: And what are you going to do? 

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, we'll continue to call them out. As Rod Sims pointed out yesterday, consumers can make choices on this, and must. Now we have information available to consumers now where they can see using apps the rate -

SABRA LANE: Sure. But you're, that sounds like you’re powerless. You're telling consumers to do the work.

ANGUS TAYLOR: We're not powerless at all. I tell you the best regulator in any economy, Sabra, it's the customer. The customers - now, now to make sure that they can get a good outcome it's crucial we give them the information available. And you know, I looked this morning in Goulburn, where I live, and there are big differences in the price across different fuel stations. It is crucial that we call out those petrol stations that are not doing the right thing and we don't use them, we don't use them. 

SABRA LANE: Alright. 

ANGUS TAYLOR: And that will continue to be a focus. I'm confident we can get these prices down to the level they should be at, as Rod's pointed out - $1.10 is a good benchmark, customers should be looking for that and I'll continue, I'll continue to make that point, make sure we are pushing the fuel companies to do the right thing as the oil price has come down enormously, as you pointed out, down to below $30 a barrel.

SABRA LANE: On another portfolio issue, Christiana Figueres, the woman who led the UN negotiations on the Paris agreement, says the Federal Government will be breaking international law and acting immorally if it uses the Kyoto carryover credits to meet the 2030 target. What’s your response?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, we don’t accept it. But the important point I would make here is-

SABRA LANE: Sorry, she’s in a position to know, isn’t she? She’s the woman who actually negotiated this deal. She knows what’s legal and what’s not.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, we don’t accept that. We simply don’t. But I tell you what, Sabra, we will always seek to meet and beat our targets-

SABRA LANE: She says “meet, beat, and cheat”.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, let’s be clear about this. When we entered into the Kyoto 2 agreement, which is coming up for completion this year, 2020, the Labor government at the time in 2012 made it a condition that carry-over from Kyoto 1 be available. Now, we’re not having to use that. In fact, we’re going to beat our targets by about 411 million tonnes, almost a year’s worth. So we’ll seek to meet and beat. We always do. We’re 10 years away from our 2030 target you’re talking about - we’re already on track to beat it by 16 million tonnes. We want to do it by significantly more, and we won’t have to use the carry-over if we do that. So that’s the aspiration of the Government. We’ll continue to work every day to achieve that, Sabra.

SABRA LANE: Angus Taylor, thanks for talking to AM this morning.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Thanks for having me, Sabra.