Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Tuesday, 2 February 2021
Fran Kelly: The Morrison Government is shifting ground on climate change policy, with the Prime Minister saying he wants Australia to reach net zero emissions by 2050 or perhaps even earlier. It's the first time the PM has nominated that specific timetable so explicitly for decarbonising the economy. But with the parliamentary year opening today, Scott Morrison has ruled out any other major reforms between now and the election, saying the government's priorities will be the COVID economic recovery and the rollout of the vaccine. Simon Birmingham is the Leader of the Government in the Senate. He joins us in our Parliament House studio is at the start of this year. Minister, thank you very much for joining us again.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Fran. Thanks for the opportunity. Great to be with you.
Fran Kelly: The Prime Minister said yesterday it's his preference. That's the word he used to hit net zero emissions by 2050, but still no firm commitment to do so. Why not? Why won't the government be done with it and just lock in 2050 like much of the rest of the world?
Simon Birmingham: Because, Fran, our focus is on the how. Now, the Prime Minister's outlined indeed the ambition there to reach net zero by 2050 or even earlier if the technology if the how allows us to. But we do have to pursue that equation of the how. Now, Australia's got a great record in terms of how we have reduced emissions to date since 2005, Australia's managed to successfully reduce our emissions by 17 per cent, exceeding the benchmarks in the two different stages of the Kyoto Protocol. And we've done that while New Zealand's reduced theirs by one per cent, Canada's reduced theirs by zero point four per cent. So our track record is strong and it's strong in part because of the adoption, for example, of renewable energies in Australia. And what we see is that in the last 12 months, there's been a further 11 per cent growth in the in the capacity of renewable energies across Australia. So we see that transformation in the states.
Fran Kelly: Sure, but Minister why is the government so worried about targets? I mean, you'd have us believe they don't make a difference, whereas having a target does deliver certainty and will help change behaviour and investment in it's self. That's what the business sector and investors tell us.
Simon Birmingham: Well, Fran, with respect, having a target doesn't deliver certainty. Knowing how you will meet and achieve targets delivers certainty. And so that's why the investment in technologies is so crucial. And it's why we've outlined in terms of the next steps with that huge growth in renewable energies that I've been talking about. You have to look at how you achieve transformation elsewhere across the economy. It's no longer just about emissions generated from electricity generation, but also industrial emissions, transport, agricultural and otherwise. And so that's where the stretch targets that we're investing in at a technology level around getting clean hydrogen under $2 per kilo, achieving electricity from storage for firming under $100 per megawatt hour, working towards the targets of low emission steel production under $900 per tonne or low emissions aluminium under $2700 per tonne, carbon capture and storage under $20 per tonne of CO2 or soil carbon measurement under $3 per hectare. These are all crucial measures and targets that we have set to try to achieve the technological step change that will enable not just Australia to achieve net zero, but if we can do this in conjunction with the rest of the world, with the Biden administration who are so passionate about investment in low emissions technologies as well, then we can get the rest of the world to achieve net zero together. And this is the clear ambition.
Fran Kelly: Well, the National Party is nevertheless demanding more coal fired power stations with government support. That's its latest manufacturing policy. We have Barnaby Joyce already pushing back on the Prime Minister's comments yesterday about hitting net zero emissions by 2050. Barnaby Joyce says he'll oppose net zero if it hurts regional Australians or blue collar workers. Do the likes of Barnaby Joyce and Craig Kelly wield that much power and influence in the party room that you're prepared to allow Australia to be viewed as an international outlier?
Simon Birmingham: Not at all. Not at all, Fran. And I think what we will see through the types of specific policies and commitments that I just took us through in terms of those stretch targets and goals and the significant investment that we are putting in behind them and our desire and our plans already in cooperation agreements we've got with countries like Germany, Japan, Korea in relation to hydrogen, our desire to work more closely with the new US administration-
Fran Kelly: We're still talking about a gas led economy.
Simon Birmingham: -will provide big opportunities. Look, gas has played a huge role as a transition fuel for for many parts of the world, including the United States, in reducing their emissions over a period of time from the Obama administration. You saw gas as providing not just a resurgence in manufacturing, but also the means by which they've been able to reduce their emissions to provide firming and stability in the energy markets whilst you have the type of growth that Australia's enjoyed in renewables. And it will play a continued role in that regard for Australia and for many countries who rely on LNG as an export product from Australia.
Fran Kelly: The Prime Minister in that speech yesterday made it clear the government won't be pursuing any large scale reforms before the election. He says he's not someone, quote. Who pursues things for the sake of vanity. But isn't it a leader's job to leave policy ambition and try and bring the country to change with them? Convince, argue, persuade isn't just a job, not just say it's too hard or stick with the basics?
Simon Birmingham: Absolutely, Fran. And that is what we have been and continue to do as a government-
Fran Kelly: Where are we doing we're addressing this COVID pandemic and we're on track with that. And that's the Governments done that. Governments, state and federal, have done well on that. But where is where is the government trying to persuade us to go further?
Simon Birmingham: So, Fran, since the last election, we've delivered on our commitments in relation to income tax reform, a reform that has eliminated a level of income tax-
Fran Kelly: That's before the last election. What are we doing before this next election?
Simon Birmingham: I'm talking about, we'll take our policies to the next election. There's a budget between now and the next election where will outline next steps in relation to the reform agenda. But we've delivered that in relation to income tax reform. We've delivered and are delivering for small businesses and medium businesses across Australia lower rates of company tax. These are the types of policies we took to the last election, getting on and implementing in relation to them a contrast to the higher taxing policies that our opponents had at the last election and they are crucial parts now of our economic recovery from COVID as well.
Fran Kelly: I just want to ask a specific question on this, because you're in charge now as Leader of the Senate with negotiations with the crossbench in the interests of peace. Can you confirm that the government will abandon the provision allowing employers to suspend the Better Off Overall Test if you can't get it through the Senate?
Simon Birmingham: Fran, the industrial relations reforms are before a Senate enquiry at present and will show respect to let that Senate enquiry complete its work and to report. And then there'll be the opportunity in the Senate for any amendments or otherwise to be considered. We always show respect to the Senate processes and with the crossbenchers to talking to them in confidence about these issues. As we work through it, we're seeing some outrageous, misleading lies and scare campaigns being run in relation to the industrial relations reforms. And these are very modest reforms that simply seek to achieve some greater levels of efficiency and flexibility. They do not pose a threat to people's wages or conditions in the type of ways that some of the union scare campaigns would suggest. And I hope that the Senate crossbench will at least look at them in terms of the benefits they can provide and employees greater opportunity.
Fran Kelly: If they look at them and then reject them, then what?
Simon Birmingham: Well, then we will consider the next steps, we are not going to get ahead of ourselves there. We've outlined them in good faith after a very extensive process that the Attorney-General went through, not only with employer groups-.
Fran Kelly: Which the union said when they came up with something that wasn't even discussed around the table.
Simon Birmingham: And that's, that's just not true. All of these types of issues were canvassed and discussed quite extensively. And our employer groups think that they should go a whole lot further than they do. And we get criticism from big business and others that these aren't ambitious enough. And that plays into some of the questions you were asking. The unions run scare campaigns alongside the Labor Party in in cheap shots and adverts against the prime minister. The truth is, we've landed well and truly in the middle after a very extensive period of consultation with careful reforms that are all about trying to give business scope to employ more people with more certainty and to do so in ways that don't undermine take home wages for Australians.
Fran Kelly: Talking about employer groups, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry wants the government to come the end of March when JobSeeker change comes in to revert back to the old base rate of $565 a fortnight for the unemployed or forty dollars a day. Now, the government still grappling with what to do with it once the COVID supplement ends next month. And the Australian Chamber of Commerce says anyone unemployed for less than a year should go back to the old rate of $40 a day. Is that an option or will the government guarantee the payment will be higher than $40 a day after March the 31st?
Simon Birmingham: So we're going to make decisions about that in the lead up to March the 31st.
Fran Kelly: We are in the lead up to March the 31st.
Simon Birmingham: We are and what's driven our decision making right through the pandemic is data and evidence and information. Now the recovery in employment is something that is the envy of much of the rest of the world. We've seen around more than 90 per cent of the jobs that were effectively lost at the depth of the pandemic. Come back in Australia, 800,000.
Fran Kelly: Let me ask you this one, because we're nearly out of time. Is $40 a day enough for someone to live on?
Simon Birmingham: These are the considerations that we will make. I realise just how welcome the COVID supplement has been as a support measure, also as a stimulus measure through the depths of the pandemic. It's one of the factors that's given Australians such huge retained savings at present. But there are many stories out there of employers struggling to get people to take jobs that are vacant right now as well. And so we have to find the right. Approach and spot, and to make sure Australians have the incentive to fill vacant jobs. To do that work that is available so that we have the maximum number of Australians in work contributing as part of our economy.
Fran Kelly: Just final quick one, if you don't mind. The Prime Minister refused yesterday to rebuke backbenchers who spread misinformation about the virus. He'd only say in relation to Craig Kelly that - Craig Kelly is not my doctor. Why is it so hard for the Prime Minister and other ministers to tell Craig Kelly to stop undermining public health messages? The government is spending millions of taxpayers dollars rolling out these messages. Why not make sure your own MPs aren't misleading the public? This is critically important, isn't it?
Simon Birmingham: The Prime Minister, I think, was very clear about where people should get their information from. And I'll be equally as clear, Fran, whether you're a member of the public or a member of parliament, you should get your health and medical information from the medical experts.
Fran Kelly: And shouldn't taxpayer funded MPs stop misleading the public with misinformation?
Simon Birmingham: Well, ours is as democracy Fran, and we can't control the words that come out of every Member of Parliament. But I'm being very clear whether you're a member of the public, a member of the media or a member of parliament, everyone should rely upon and promote the advice of the medical experts in their fields, particularly when it comes to vaccines in the management of the pandemic.
Fran Kelly: All right, Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for joining us.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Fran. My pleasure.