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Transcript of interview with Patrick Karvelas: ABC RN Drive: 9 March 2017: gas/electricity crisis; Kate Ellis leaving Federal politics

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SUBJECT/S: Gas/electricity crisis, Kate Ellis leaving Federal politics.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Market Operator and the Australian Energy Council, as you just heard, both say that state-based bands of new gas projects need to be lifted. Mark Butler is the Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy, welcome back to RN Drive.


KARVELAS: Good, should the state based moratorium’s on gas exploration, like those in Victoria, be lifted?

BUTLER: I frankly don’t think it is as easy as that. We certainly do have a significant gas supply issue; we’ve been talking about this now for a couple of years. Since 2015 the Labor Party at a national level, took the approach we needed to look at a National Interest Test around gas development because it was becoming clear, even back then, that there was a question mark over whether we were going to have enough gas coming out of the ground to supply our domestic needs in the industrial sector, in the power sector as Matthew talked about, and for households - which has been a pretty steady 700 petajoules per year for a long time; but also feed the big LNG operations that were built at Gladstone.

We’ve been talking about this supply issue for a considerable amount of time. But it appears the Government, at the Federal level, has been asleep at the wheel. We were told last week in Senate Estimates by the Head of Treasury that they, to use their worlds, “have done no work specifically on the Australian gas market,” which I find extraordinary given the economic importance of this issue. But the question of

supply does go to some of the issues at a State Government level which have been frankly both Labor and Liberal Party issues; in New South Wales and Victoria particularly, and more recently in the Northern Territory. I think it really comes back to the responsibility the Federal Government has to build a framework that encourages community consent, or allows community consent to be built around these often very controversial gas developments. That has been something where I think the nation has gone backwards since the election of Tony Abbott.

KARVELAS: Okay. You sound like you’re sitting on the fence on this; if these moratoriums aren’t lifted then where is the gas going to come from?

BUTLER: I think we do need to think about a more sensible approach to gaining community consent for gas development where that is possible around the country. We worked very hard on this when we were in Government. Traditionally, the Federal Government really hasn’t had very much to do with the approval process for this type of development. It had been very much a State Government issue. But as community consent started to be raised around this new type of development, unconventional gas, specifically coal seam gas, we in our last term of Government developed a Federal framework, working very close with Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott the conservative, rural independents who had their finger on the pulse, particularly around New South Wales politics. We developed a framework that would hopefully give people confidence that there was a very close analysis of the impact on water resources. We set up the Independent Expert Scientific Committee. But, as soon as Tony Abbott came in, he tried to tear all of that down and refer it all back to State Governments where there frankly was a loss of trust in some State Governments around this approval process. Then to add fuel to the fire, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull then tried to ban farmers groups, community groups, and environment groups, from taking action in the courts where they thought that these approval processes had been breached.

KARVELAS: Sure but that’s history. What happens next? I mean right now -

BUTLER: It’s not history because that very fragile community consent that surrounds these gas developments was exacerbated by Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull. They have a responsibility, not just to blame the State Governments, now they have a responsibility to re-build the framework where community support for these projects, and the economic benefits that flow from them, can be rebuilt. Because frankly in many -

KARVELAS: So you want to rebuild them, I accept that, so isn’t one of the ways to rebuild them, to join Josh Frydenberg and to call for the states to lift their moratoriums. Isn’t that the way that you lift in this area? That you show some leadership and that you’re willing and prepared to work with the Government to make certain demands of the states? That they look at lifting moratoriums?

BUTLER: I’m not willing to join Malcolm Turnbull and Josh Frydenberg thinking that it is everyone else’s fault - that everyone else has to do something and they get to sit there back in the cheap seats and get to do nothing except allocating blame for the position that has been quite apparently coming down the road now in Australia for a couple of years. Yes, I think there needs to be a discussion about responsible gas

development but that is not just about State Governments. It is also about the Commonwealth Government reasserting its role in giving communities confidence that these developments will be done in a way that is environmentally responsible, that looks after our water resources. Josh Frydenberg and Malcolm Turnbull have to stop the blame game. They have to take some responsibility for the position we now find ourselves in in the electricity sector and the gas market. There is a fair dinkum energy crisis enveloping this country.

KARVELAS: There is and some new projects in Queensland are being approved by the State Government, on the condition that the gas produced is for domestic use only. Is this something you support on a national basis?

BUTER: This is something we have advocated strong support for. The South Australian State Government, before the Queensland Government, also indicated that there would be incentives put in place for companies exploring new gas developments provided that gas would also be put into the domestic market. There are State Governments thinking laterally about this but they have to do it without any support from the Commonwealth Government. It’s nice for Josh Frydenberg to get into the media this morning and applaud that, but at the same time they are not doing anything to invigorate a Federal framework to give people confidence that this is going to be responsible development that doesn’t wreck their water resource. Tony Abbott really did enormous damage to community confidence around this.

KARVELAS: He did but as I say it was in the past and I understand that politicians like to talk about the past -

BUTLER: The issue is you have to rebuild that confidence. The future is about rebuilding the confidence and the Federal Government has a role to play in doing that - so do State Governments, so do landowner groups, so do environment groups, so do the big users of gas. We’ve got to have a discussion about it.

KARVELAS: This is the discussion we are having and it looks to me like it is an urgent discussion, given what looks like is unfolding according to AEMO is a crisis. How much should we limit exports then?

BUTLER: We’ve been arguing for a National Interest Test in the gas market now since 2015. Really for those two years we’ve been rubbished by Malcolm Turnbull, that this is policy that he is never going near. Now he has slightly softened his approach to that over the last few days, which has been positive, but we do very seriously need to have a look at the way in which there is going to be enough gas for our power sector, our industrial sector, and households - particularly households in Victoria, for example, that are very heavy on their gas use. This is a national interest issue; it is not just about States, it is not just about the private companies involved. The Federal Government needs to take some action here to guarantee the supply of gas for those very important domestic areas.

KARVELAS: So the National Interest Test that you talk about, is part of that limiting exports?

BUTLER: Part of that is ensuring that gas developments in the future are assessed according to, first of all, ensuring there is enough gas in the domestic market, so if there is further development for exports, like the LNG trains that have been built in Gladstone, those exports take place in a way that is consistent with the national interest. The national interest, first and foremost, is ensuring we have enough gas in our own market. That is the big question that has been raised, not just by the AEMO report this morning but by a number of other reports that have questioned whether we have enough supply in the system. It is playing out very badly in the power sector right now.

KARVELAS: Many of the exploration projects are required to increase supply of coal seam gas. Should they be included on the list of potential new projects?

BUTLER: I think they are on the list of potential new projects. There are projects that have been on the list, coal seam gas but also shale gas, away from the coal communities in the Eastern States, they have been on the list of projects for some time. But in many cases they are stuck as a result of this lack of community consent and community support that I talked about. That is not going to be easy to fix and you can’t do it by a media release calling for State Governments to lift a moratorium, which has strong community support in those areas. We need to work through this deliberatively, constructively and recognise that everyone has a role to play beyond just issuing media releases.

KARVELAS: Before I let you go, today your South Australian Labor colleague announced her intention to resign from Parliament at the next election. She raised the issue of her young child; she didn’t want to be separated from her son during the school year. She said it was easier obviously before school because you can always bring a child to Parliament but when they are locked into the school schedule you can’t. Is this a sign to you that there are still too many barriers for women pursuing a career in politics?

BUTLER: On a personal level I am devastated that Kate is leaving. She’s a very dear close friend and a very trusted colleague. She has made an extraordinary contribution over her 13 years, most of them as a frontbencher as a Minister and then a Shadow Cabinet member as well. But I think all of these decisions taken by people who still have so much to contribute to public life really do raise questions about our ability to have the best possible people in public life - and Kate really is one of them - in a way in which she feels is consistent with her family responsibilities. We should always be thinking through ways in which we can improve that. It is difficult when you’re in Federal Parliament and you are based in a different state. Particularly difficult for people that have frontbench responsibilities who live in the outlying states that requires a lot of travel in non-sitting weeks as well.

KARVELAS: Is there any way we can honestly fix it though Mark Butler, because I agree with you, and I think a lot of people agree that we want to see a really diverse range of Australians in those key roles. Diversity is key for life experience alone. But how can you structurally change the way you run the joint unless of course, I don’t know, you change the entire system and you all live in Canberra for instance and don’t make that commute. How else would you fix it?

BUTLER: I’m not sure that is going to be the best way to do it, I don’t think you’re going to get many people putting their hand up for that. Certainly our ability to come back to our community is a really important part of being a local member. I’m just in the car waiting to step out to a street corner meeting, which Kate works very hard at as well. I don’t think there is an easy way. Particularly for members in the National Parliament who have to travel, particularly if you have to travel if you have senior frontbench responsibilities, which someone of Kate’s talent is always going to have. There are things that you can do at the edge, at least in those early childhood years. You are able to take your child, as Kate does with Sam, to the Parliament - and changes to sitting times so parents aren’t sitting right through the night, as used to happen many years ago. These are the things we can do at the edge but for the National Parliament I think there is a very serious challenge we have to ensure that people like Kate and a number of fathers who have these challenges as well, are able to achieve so much in public life, as Kate has done over 13 years, while also being a great parent.

KARVELAS: Mark Butler many thanks for joining me tonight.

BUTLER: Thanks Patricia.