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Transcript of interview with Peter Van Onselen: Sky Australian Agenda: 15 June 2014: Climate Change; Prime Minister's overseas trip.

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SUBJECT/S: Climate Change; Prime Minister’s overseas trip.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Mark Butler is the Shadow Climate Change spokesperson, thanks very much for your company.


VAN ONSELEN: Is it your view that the Prime Minister is in his discussions abroad, with some of the way that some of the debates around climate change were being discussed, that he has deprioritised it?

BUTLER: Well, it was never a priority for Tony Abbott. I think that’s been clear for many years now. I think what the Prime Minister received overseas was a reality check. The degree to which the rest of the world - maybe with the exception of Stephen Harper - but the rest of the world is moving forward, looking to the Paris negotiations next year for a very ambitious agreement; moving forward while Tony Abbott is trying to take Australia backwards. I think it was a reality check for the Prime Minister and I hope he’s reflecting on that.

VAN ONSELEN: Should he focus more on climate change, in your opinion?

BUTLER: I think he should, it’s a very, very significant challenge, economically, environmentally, socially, for Australia, as is it for the rest of the world. But Australia is a very vulnerable place to climate change. We’ve seen that over recent years with an increase in the number of extreme weather events and it’s exactly what scientists have been advising us for many years would happen. It’s happening over in the US

as well. It’s happening in China. That’s why China has acted so dramatically over the last 18 months because they are living with the impact of a carbon heavy economy.

VAN ONSELEN: Is the Labor Party in Opposition now trying to prioritise climate change in a way that it perhaps in Government you didn’t. Because last September, on the ABC, you said, “If you look at any of the research, the question of the carbon tax, or carbon pricing, or emissions trading ranks very low on the issues that people are talking about.” That was an admission barely eight months ago that climate change is nowhere in the political agenda, yet now it seems like it may be somewhere.

BUTLER: Well, people are very focused on day to day issues of running their household budgets, making sure their children get an excellent education, making sure there’s a good quality health care system available to them. But what the research has shown is a couple things. Firstly, that climate change is increasing in terms of people’s importance. We saw that with the recent Lowy Institute report and research; and also that, even in spite of the very toxic debate around carbon pricing in the last few years, the CSIRO report that’s done regularly into climate change attitudes shows that the Australian people remain very concerned about the threat of climate change. So, this is a policy issue that’s not going away - the Prime Minister might wish that it goes away - but, it’s not going away and it demands the attention of any party that wants to govern Australia.

GERARD HENDERSON: Mr Butler, you mentioned Stephen Harper and Canada. But, in a sense it’s no accident is it that Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott are in line on this issue, because both nations, both Australia and Canada have very similar economic interests as exporters of minerals? So in a sense Tony Abbott seems to be following what he perceives to be the national interest of Australia as Mr Harper is following what he perceives the national interest of Canada.

BUTLER: Well that might be the case, the similarities of the economies might be the case, but there are provincial level arrangements in Canada around carbon pricing including one province that has a carbon tax. And even if that is the case looking backwards, looking forwards it is quite clear- if you look at the way in which China is dealing with traditional energy sources, America’s gas revolution, and only in the last couple of weeks South Korea - our third largest export market for thermal coal - introducing a $20/tonne tax on thermal coal imports - things are going to change and it’s important that Australia - and Canada for that matter, but that’s a matter for them - it’s important that Australia be well positioned to ensure that we’re a leader in future markets which will include a whole range of clean energy markets like wind and solar which up until the election of the Abbott Government we were seen as a world leader in.

HENDERSON: Do you really believe that President Obama will get his energy policies through in the United States and that China will do what it says it will do?

BUTLER: Well, look, I’m not well positioned to say what the likelihood of a successful court challenge to President Obama’s EPA initiative is. I mean this is a - as you would know Gerard - this is a body that has had clean air powers now since President Nixon was around, so that’s really a matter for them. But one can’t doubt the will of President Obama. It’s very clear that he intends over the next couple of years, particularly leading into Paris, to make sure that America does important work domestically but is also a leader in international negotiations and I’m very confident that China is in the same position. China is very, very concerned about its air quality, particularly in the north. Over the last 18 months they have made very significant initiatives in the area of carbon trading for example but also starting to look to alternative energy sources. They, only a couple of months ago, signed a statement with the US - Li Keqiang and US Secretary of State John Kerry - that recognised in their words ‘the urgent need for action on climate change’ and their joint commitment to making sure that Paris was ambitious agreement next year. Now this is language you just never hear from our Prime Minister.

TROY BRAMSTON: Mark Butler, to talking about the Prime Minister for a second, do you accept that the government’s proposed increase to petrol excise could actually act as a price mechanism and help to reduce carbon emissions in the long term?

BUTLER: Well, I think an increase in petrol tax has to be very severe, very dramatic to start to impact on behaviour. At the end of the day, people have to drop their kids at school, people have to take their kids to footy, people have to get to work and public transport in Australia is still limited in many communities. So, this is a price mechanism, what Tony Abbott admitted in America is effectively a carbon tax - but one I don’t think is very effective, which is why I don’t support it - but one which is also incredibly regressive -people on lower incomes, living in rural and regional Australia, living in our outer suburbs end up paying more than people who happen to live in inner cities. And that’s why we don’t support the Government’s increase in petrol taxes. It’s not an effective way to deal with a very serious problem.

BRAMSTON: I mean, Mark Butler, isn’t that the exact point of any price mechanism to deal with climate change, in that it’s got to have an impact broadly across the community and it’s got to change consumer behaviours. So, if it works, as you just said, and will stop family driving their car as regularly as they perhaps do now. That itself will change consumer behaviour and have an impact on climate change. Isn’t that the exact purpose of government trying to deal with global climate change?

BUTLER: That’s one way and that might be Tony Abbott’s preference. We made it very clear in the election and we’ve been arguing in the Parliament since that we think the most effective way to deal with carbon pollution - to bring it down - is to put in place a legal cap and then let business work out the best way to operate rather than imposing carbon tax style arrangements in the motor vehicle sector, for

example, that just seek to impose pain on ordinary Australian households. We’ve made that position very clear, since the lead in to the election.

VAN ONSELEN: But not much pain Mr Butler, because as you were saying before it’s a pretty nominal impact. Surely, it’s either a limited impact that doesn’t really cause much pain or it causes pain and therefore acts as a price mechanism.

BUTLER: Well it will build over time. Rather than that sort of price signal which seeks simply to impose pain - which is Tony Abbott’s avenue - we’ve said what we want to do is put a cap on carbon pollution. The sort of arrangement that is beginning in China, that will begin in South Korea in the next six months, that operates in many, many markets in the North Hemisphere. That’s the sort of arrangement we’re arguing for in Parliament. It ensures that business works out the best way to operate within an ambition - within a pathway - of reducing Australia’s carbon pollution, rather than slugging Australian motorists.

VAN ONSELEN: I want to ask you about Labor’s position in the wake of the new Senate which is likely, it would appear from some of the comments coming from Clive Palmer and his team, that the carbon tax will be repealed and will be removed, despite Labor’s opposition to that. Where do you go, as an Opposition, after that? With that reality likely, do you plan to campaign at the next election for the introduction of an emissions trading scheme, which is what you’re arguing for now as your reason obviously for blocking the repeal of the carbon tax.

BUTLER: Well let me just correct one point first Peter. We do support the abolition of the carbon tax. We voted to abolish the carbon tax in the Senate and replace it with an emissions trading scheme - a cap and trade scheme - and we were unsuccessful in the Senate because the Government voted with the Greens to defeat our amendment. So, we’re not voting to support the carbon tax. We’re voting to try and bring in an ETS. But if you’re right and if the reports are correct that Clive Palmer and his party are going to support the abolition of everything, the replacement of everything - every model possible, either a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme model, replaced simply by Direct Action, which is a dressed up slush fund -nothing really more than that - and an increased petrol tax, then we’ll obviously as an Opposition have to take stock and over the next year or two build an alternative policy arrangement to take to the Australian people.

VAN ONSELEN: So, it wouldn’t necessarily be an emissions trading scheme? I mean, I sort of in a sense there gave you a chance to clarify that for us. But, is Labor’s position that you are, as you say, going to take stock and perhaps come up with some sort of alternative that’s a little bit different to an ETS?

BUTLER: Well, I’m not going to indicate one way or the other what we’re going to do because we will do that in a deliberative way. We will talk to the community, we will talk to stakeholders, to business, to environmental organisations, to the renewable energy sector, we’ll also have a look at what the context is, what the

international background is, depending on how negotiations proceed in the lead in to Paris. But that will be a deliberative policy process, as all of our policies will be reviewed in the lead in to the 2016 election and also into our national conference in the middle part of 2015.

VAN ONSELEN: But what sort of other options are on the table? Other than an ETS, a return to a carbon tax, or indeed a version of Direct Action, beyond Tony Abbott’s version. Are there any other options that are in the mix that I’m not aware of?

BUTLER: We’ll look at all policy options. We want to have a really broad ranging free discussion with stakeholders and with the community. What people can be assured of is that the Labor Party is committed to taking action on climate change - strong and sensible action on climate change - but we want to look at a range of different options. We’re very interested in what other countries are doing to deal with this. Now, an emissions trading scheme is a very popular approach by other countries, including countries in our region, but it’s not the only one. So we want to have a very broad ranging discussion and not lock ourselves into what might have been policies in the past for the future.

BRAMSTON: Mark Butler, you just mentioned the popularity of emissions trading schemes, but as Climate Change Minister in the previous government, you would be well aware of the Labor polling that showed the carbon tax and Labor’s policies on climate change were a vote loser for the government. It was one of the key reasons why Labor lost the last election, that’s the verdict of the Party’s pollster. Could you ever see yourself walking away from an emissions trading scheme. It’s still part of the Labor platform, and I suspect at the Party’s conference next year there will be resistance to any attempt to water down that platform. So, if you accept that, are you effectively saying that emissions trading scheme will remain part of Labor’s platform in the lead up to the next election?

BUTLER: No, I’m not. I’m not Troy. Can I also just say that there’s been research published on a number of occasions since the election that puts an emissions trading scheme at the top of the list of Australian’s choices for actions on climate change, well ahead of Direct Action and as you say well ahead of the carbon tax. So, an emissions trading scheme does have resonance out in the Australian community. It’s the position we took to the election and that’s why we’re continuing to argue it in the Senate and more broadly in the Parliament and in the community. But look, there will be discussion in the lead in to the national conference, I know that there’s a strong view within the party that Labor should always be committed to taking strong action, sensible action, on climate change, but quite what the detailed policy is that we end up taking to the 2016 election, I don’t want to pre-empt that. I want to make sure that there’s a good broad ranging discussion within the Party but also in the broader community about that.

HENDERSON: But Mr Butler, I thought there’d been a broad ranging discussion within the party for the last 10 years, and certainly for the last seven years, but now you’re talking about going out and having yet more discussions with various groups and individuals and members of the party, but I thought you’d done that over many years both under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard and then again under Kevin Rudd.

BUTLER: I think you’d agree Gerard it would be unusual if a party that has lost government simply dusted off its 2013 election platform across a whole range of policy areas and took it to 2016 without having reviewed it, without having talked to the community about what it liked about those policies and what it didn’t like about those policies. This is also a very fast changing area of policy, particularly during this term of the Parliament. As I’ve said before there are going to be very significant developments internationally, one way or the other, I think they’ll be positive, I think they’ll be ambitious, but one way or the other the international background to this policy in this area will be very different in 2016 to the position that we faced in the last Parliament. I think it would be utterly negligent of us not to engage in a very broad ranging discussion with the community about this.

HENDERSON: But this is what Kevin Rudd said about the Copenhagen conference, he was highly optimistic, but it came to naught. What makes you think that Paris will be more successful than Copenhagen?

BUTLER: What makes me think that is a very clear commitment made by the US and China. I think what Copenhagen taught us was two things. One, you need to do a lot of preparation for this, you can’t just fly into a city and assume that a very substantial agreement can be locked down in a matter of days. But it also taught us that in the modern world, in the 21st century, if the US and China aren’t on board, aren’t leading and driving momentum towards an international agreement then nothing will happen, and what we have seen over recent months, including that joint statement I talked about, is a very clear commitment by the two biggest economies, the two major powers, the two biggest polluters of carbon dioxide, we’ve seen a very clear commitment from them to drive a strong agreement. Now, whether that happens remains to be seen, but I think that the position that we have now is very different from the position we had in the lead in to Copenhagen in 2009.

BRAMSTON: Mark Butler, given that the Prime Minister is almost about to make his return trip to Australia, and he has been meeting with heads of government in Asia and in North America, do you believe that he is a “Nigel no friends”?

BUTLER: Look, everyone has friends, and I think it will be for others to provide commentary on the success or otherwise of Tony Abbott’s trip. I think certainly in my portfolio area I hope it was a significant wake-up call to Tony Abbott about the sense of resolve there is internationally, not everywhere -

BRAMSTON: But, Mr Butler, if I can stop you there for a second, you say it’s up to others to make commentary about the Prime Minister’s trip. You had Labor’s foreign

spokesman, Tanya Plibersek, did exactly that by calling him a “Nigel no friends” and this has attracted a lot of criticism inside the Shadow Cabinet, Shadow Ministers that I’ve spoken to in the last week. Do you share that criticism that it was a silly comment and given the evidence of Mr Abbott’s trip no one could make that claim?

BUTLER: I think that comment was made a time when there were reports, including from your newspaper Troy, that there were question marks over Tony Abbott’s diary and whether or not he was going to follow through with a range of very important meetings. That was a comment made then and in the context of the information - VAN ONSELEN: So she jumped the gun?

BUTLER: Well there were reports made in the newspapers that there were a range of very important meetings, meetings in Australia's national interest, that might not be going ahead and I think that was quite a reasonable comment to make in light of the reports that we had in front of us at the time.

HENDERSON: Mr Butler, as a former minister, you will understand that meetings are finalised very close to the event when busy people are meeting other busy people. This was not unusual. In fact, it seemed to me that Tony Abbott’s diary, even at that stage, was very extensive and indeed became more extensive on the American visit.

BUTLER: Well those weren’t the character of the reports that we were reading at the time Gerard. The reports we were reading were that those meetings were not going to be proceeded with.

HENDERSON: Well that was a report from a journalist.

BUTLER: That’s right, and that was the comment made in response by Tanya Plibersek in response to that. The recognition of the importance of those meetings, if the Prime Minster was going to go overseas that it was important that he meet with as many people as possible in positions of importance in allies like the US.

VAN ONSELEN: Mr Butler, you’re a very senior member of the Opposition, a senior factional leader of the Left as well. How important is it to you that in the lead up to the next election - I realise we have well over two years before it is potentially upon us - but how important is it to you that from Opposition that Labor chooses to go in to the next election with a serious alternative manifesto. No one can deny that the polls indicate that Bill Shorten has done a very good job politically of holding the Government to account. You’re ahead in the polls, his personal ratings are strong, but two years is a long time and I think that one of the things the public may be crying out for is, indeed Labor’s supporters may well be crying out for, is a strong alternative platform beyond the natural opposition of policy measures that you don’t like. How important is that to you?

BUTLER: I’d say a couple of things. Firstly, we’re in the 2016 election to win it. We’re not talking about a two term strategy or a three term strategy. We’ll be going

into that campaign to win it. The other thing I’d say, is that Labor has never won government from the conservatives with a small target strategy, whether it was Rudd, Hawke, Whitlam, going way back even beyond that. Labor only wins government if it presents a strong, alternative vision to the Australian people and I know that Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek will be committed to doing just that in the lead in to 2016.

VAN ONSELEN: So is that a banner call by you for exactly that? There’s a lot of debate and discussion to be had between now and the 2016 election internally for the Labor Party, it sounds like you’re very strongly committed both or historical reasons and for personal ideological reasons in a strong alternative platform.

BUTLER: Well I think it’s a reflection of the reality of Australian politics. Labor wins government from the conservatives when the Australian people see a vision that is replete with Labor values that it thinks will change the country for the better and I think the Australian people, particularly in light of the Budget that Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey have handed down, are hungry for that vision, and I know that Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek will be working very, very hard over the next two years to build that agenda and put it squarely before the Australian people.

BRAMSTON: Mark Butler, your counterpart Greg Hunt internally within the Government for announcing a policy that was taken to the 2010 election about a solar rebate program. Where do you stand on that program? Would you support it even if the Government Ministers don’t?

BUTLER: Well, this is a bit of a debacle really. I’ve read these reports this morning and they seem to indicate, by the person who’s leaking against Greg Hunt, that this was a policy that wasn’t talked about since the 2010 election campaign. The problem is that Greg Hunt talked about this policy incessantly. A million solar roofs on households, solar towns, solar schools, it would be $600 million of expenditure, and what we ended up with in the Budget was $2 million, another broken promise by the Government. And this needs to be seen in the broader context of renewable energy policy. This is policy that needs to be - the solar roofs policy - needs to be seen in the context of other broken promises from this Government around solar and wind energy.

BRAMSTON: Is it a policy that Labor would support? I mean even the other day you were out there supporting the Green Army proposal, so there are a number of elements of the Government’s program that you’re supporting; other elements of course that you’re not. Is this another one that you think you’ll give Greg Hunt support for?

BUTLER: Well, first of all Troy, can I just say, what I’ve said is that there are certainly issues that I want to work through on Green Army, workplace rights, about training obligations and such like, but we’re continuing to work through that and

we’ll make a final decision about the Green Army program in due course, once we’ve had all of those questions addressed.

But in terms of this policy, it’s really important to look at the background. You can’t isolate the solar roofs policy from the broader renewable energy target. When Greg Hunt talked about this, the Australian people, the solar industry was of the view that the Renewable Energy Target was a completely bipartisan position because that’s exactly what the Opposition, the now Government, had said, as late as the election campaign back in September. They said, for example, that they would continue to support the role of the renewable energy agency, ARENA, which it then abolished in the recent Budget. This is just one of a series of broken promises in the area of renewable energy and you can’t take one in isolation from the other.

VAN ONSELEN: Alright, Mark Butler, Shadow Climate Change Spokesperson, we appreciate your time on Australian Agenda, thanks very much.

BUTLER: Thank you.