Sky News – Saturday Agenda

Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance






US troops in Syria, voting age, asylum seeker resettlement, nuclear waste

DAVID LIPSON: G'day there, great to have your company. A lot to get through today, lowering the voting age, Labor's suggestion for that, the nuclear waste debate and much, much more. Joining me now, the Finance Minister Senator Mathias Cormann and I will get to those issues but I just want to start with one of our top stories today and that is the decision by the United States to send Special Forces troops into Syria. What's the Government in Australia's reaction to that, and does it have implications for our own military?

MATHIAS CORMANN: Australia obviously supports international efforts to degrade and ultimately defeat the ISIS threat. We are involved in Coalition efforts across Iraq and Syria having a number of aircraft involved in that theatre. We work closely with the US in that context as we do in so many other contexts but at present the Australian Government certainly doesn't have any plans to change our involvement in that theatre. If that were to change down the track that would be a matter that the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Defence Minister would properly consider and publicly announce.

DAVID LIPSON: I want to look at this proposal by Labor to lower the voting age, the suggestion being that we should bring it down from 18 to either 16 or 17. This will be fleshed out by Bill Shorten today. What's your view of it? They make some fairly salient points, the most salient of them I would suggest would be this one that teenagers currently pay $41 million in tax, and there's the whole 'no taxation without representation' claim?

MATHIAS CORMANN: This is a pretty transparent attempt by Bill Shorten to grab himself a headline. He hasn't been successful at that for a little while. Instinctively I believe that the voting age at 18, which is where it is currently at, is at the right level, 18 is the legal majority for many purposes. I don't believe there will be much public support for this proposition. This is really just a gimmick by Bill Shorten to capture a bit of public attention.

DAVID LIPSON: What about the fact that though that teenagers can fly planes, they can get a gun licence, they can serve in the military, why not be able to have a say in the political process?

MATHIAS CORMANN: These are all matters that have been considered on a case by case basis and judgements have been made that it is appropriate for people from a particular age to be involved in certain activities. When it comes to voting I believe – and I couldn't be any more straight forward than that, instinctively my view is that 18 is the right line in the sand. Let's see how the debate unfolds if indeed there is a debate. My sense is that this is just Bill Shorten coming up with a pretty transparent attempt to grab a headline and I don't believe there will be much public support for this.

DAVID LIPSON: What about the claim that it would benefit Labor, that Labor does traditionally enjoy the youth vote, a stronger youth vote than does the Coalition, is that a factor that you are considering?

MATHIAS CORMANN: No, that's not a factor that I am considering. If anything, if you want to go down that path, I suspect that you could say that the party that would do potentially better would be the Greens. Is this Bill Shorten's attempt to undermine Albo and Tanya Plibersek?

DAVID LIPSON: I want to turn to asylum seekers. It's been a pretty big issue over the last couple of weeks and reports today that the Government is looking to Kyrgyzstan to resettle asylum seekers. Now, it looks like a deal, if there is to be a deal it's a long way off, but clearly the Government is trying to seek other solutions to having these refugees bona-fide, wallowing on Nauru and Manus Islands. Some have been there for more than two years. How much of a priority is it for the Government to find third country solutions?

MATHIAS CORMANN: Offshore processing is a central part of the success of our Operation Sovereign Borders. The principle that anyone who attempts to get to Australia illegally by boat will not be resettled in Australia is a very important principle which has helped us stop the flow of illegal boat arrivals to Australia. It's a matter of public record and the Minister for Immigration Peter Dutton has been very clear about this, we are having conversations with other countries to support our offshore processing arrangements. When we are in a position to make relevant announcements no doubt the Minister for Immigration will do so.

DAVID LIPSON: Is there any issue with the geography of this? I mean Kyrgyzstan is a very long way from Australia and very close – within 100 kilometres of the border of Afghanistan where some of these asylum seekers have fled from. Is there an issue with where we send refugees or is it, is there an issue with that?

MATHIAS CORMANN: I'm not going to speculate about an unconfirmed story in relation to matters that are well and truly outside my portfolio responsibilities. These are matters that the Minister for Immigration is appropriately pursuing as his area of responsibility. Except to say, as I have said right from the outset, offshore processing is an important part of the success of our Operation Sovereign Borders. Obviously, offshore processing including through Nauru and Manus where it is conducted of course lawfully and in a secure, humane and appropriate fashion, is an important part of our border protection framework.

DAVID LIPSON: Let's move on to nuclear waste, this has popped up as a significant debate this week and the Prime Minister himself seemed to be advocating the prospect of pulling uranium out of the ground, sending it offshore to be used in plants and then putting it back under the ground here in Australia. What's your view on that business model?

MATHIAS CORMANN: That is certainly an opportunity and the State Labor Government in South Australia has initiated a Royal Commission into the nuclear fuel cycle to explore whether there are opportunities for South Australia or Australia more generally to expand its involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle. We are keeping an open mind and will consider the recommendations that come out of the Royal Commission and we'll cross that bridge when we get there. Right now, we are working in Australia on a plan to deal with our own low to mid-level nuclear waste, which has been accumulated across hospitals, factories and defence facilities and the like over the past 80 years. We are seeking to identify through a process where relevant people can volunteer assisting with the storage of that nuclear, low to mid-level waste in an appropriate facility somewhere around Australia. We are currently going through that process here domestically. Beyond that, whether there are further opportunities for Australia in the context of diversifying our economic base, well let's see what comes out of the Royal Commission and deal with it at that point in time.

DAVID LIPSON: Just how lucrative could such a business model be for Australia?

MATHIAS CORMANN: I can imagine that this could be potentially quite lucrative. We do have the areas of great geological stability. We have political stability. These are all doubt issues that the Royal Commission in South Australia is properly considering.

DAVID LIPSON: And more broadly on nuclear power, you have been on the record some time ago saying that nuclear power is something that Australia should consider. What is your view now on actual plants here in Australia?

MATHIAS CORMANN: Well there is nothing wrong with nuclear power per se. I know that some people have an ideological obsession against nuclear energy. It is one energy source. In Australia, we do have access to significant volumes of low cost energy in the form of coal in particular. We are one of the world's largest coal exporters. We are one of the world's largest exporters of LNG. Indeed we will become the world's largest exporter of LNG in a few years from now. There are upsides and downsides to most things. In relation to nuclear it is a low emission technology, it is a safe and reliable energy source, but probably it's quite a bit more expensive to put in place than coal fired power stations. The economics in Australia probably continue to be a question mark, but there is nothing wrong with nuclear energy per se.

DAVID LIPSON: So you don't see any safety concerns with nuclear power? That is what many of the opponents point to. The fact that the waste is around for, basically forever, and if something goes wrong there is a huge problem.

MATHIAS CORMANN: I don't think it is an issue for Australia presently when it comes to setting up nuclear power stations. I don't think it is going to be an issue for Australia for a very long time. When it comes to nuclear waste, we are also - we have the largest reserves of uranium in the world. We export uranium into other parts of the world and as I have said right at the start of this conversation, in South Australia the State Labor Government has initiated a Royal Commission into the nuclear fuel cycle to explore whether there are opportunities for Australia to pursue economic opportunities in other parts of the nuclear fuel cycle. Let's see what comes back out of that and let's assess what the opportunities might be when we get those recommendations.

DAVID LIPSON: But as you mentioned, you said a lot of the opposition to it is ideological. Does that mean you believe it is not based on evidence?

MATHIAS CORMANN: Again, there is a comprehensive Royal Commission at the moment, which is reviewing all the evidence and which will come back with some well-considered recommendations. We have an open mind. We will consider the recommendations of that Royal Commission from a Federal point of view with an open mind.

DAVID LIPSON: But just to be clear for our viewers, the Government has no plans at this stage - and the Prime Minister made this clear this week, to open up a nuclear energy industry in this country?

MATHIAS CORMANN: No we don't. But when it comes to waste, as I have indicated, we are currently exploring how best to deal with low to mid-level nuclear waste that is generated in locations across Australia. How we can best and most safely deal with our own low-level to mid-level nuclear waste here in Australia in a sensible fashion.

DAVID LIPSON: Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, great to speak to you as always, thanks so much for that.

MATHIAS CORMANN: Always good to talk to you.


Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann, Minister for Finance, Perth