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Transcript of interview with Johana Nicholson and Andrew Geoghegan: ABC Weekend Breakfast: 12 March 2017: Labor victory WA election; Elon Musk power solution; gas supply; vaccinations

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SUBJECT/S: Labor victory WA election, Elon Musk power solution, gas supply, vaccinations.

JOHANA NICHOLSON: The debate to keep the lights on has continued to dominate Federal Politics this week. The issue even saw billionaire technology entrepreneur Elon Musk, offer to solve South Australia’s energy issues within 100 days, or he would do it for free.

ANDREW GEOGHEGAN: Well for more on this and to discuss the West Australian state election result, we are joined by Labor’s Mark Butler, Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy. Mark Butler, welcome.


GEOGHEGAN: Can I have your reaction to that result in Western Australia?

BUTLER: It’s a stunning result. Landslide is sometimes a term a bit overused in Australian elections, but this genuinely is a landslide. I think we were quietly confident a few weeks ago that we were going to be able to get the 10 per cent uniform swing that we needed just to get a bare majority in the Parliament, but it looks like we have won 20 or 21 seats. The 16 per cent swing against the Liberal Party is a record swing and the One Nation performance is a completely damp squib. Congratulations to Mark McGowan but I think this swing has accelerated over the last couple of weeks not just because of local factors but because of factors like the penalty rates decision. Certainly we were getting feedback from the WA Branch that penalty rates were playing very badly for the Liberal Party because of Turnbull’s decision to wave through that cut to penalty rates, and their preference deal with One Nation was a very big mistake.

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GEOGHEGAN: Is this not though perhaps, more to do with fatigue from the incumbent Government rather than Labor policies?

BUTLER: There was clearly a range of local factors that played out. Colin Barnett had managed to squander an unprecedented mining boom with now the highest debt of any state, spiralling unemployment, collapsing house prices. I mean it really takes an effort to squander that extraordinary economic boom the way in which the Liberal Party did in WA. It is also quite clear, and it has been for some time, that national politics always play something of a background to state elections and we’ve seen that play out again in WA. I think there are two very clear messages for Malcolm Turnbull - he's got to take action to stop these penalty rate cuts to 700,000 Australian workers and he’s got to do what John Howard and Peter Costello did all those years ago, and what Labor has done consistently, and rule out anymore preference deals with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party.

GEOGHEGAN: So you feel that there are very much federal implications here. That should a federal election be called tomorrow for instance we would see a similar result?

BUTLER: Look I’m not going to pretend this was a federal election. This was a result with very strong local factors at play. But I think we’ve seen for sometime federal factors featuring in state election campaigns. I think the feedback that we’ve been getting is that over the last couple of weeks the swing away from the Government towards to the Labor Party has accelerated in large part because of these federal factors. The penalty rates decision is really like political poison across the country for Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal Party more broadly. But also this preference deal, this idea that Arthur Sinodinis has started and also Mathias Cormann has allowed to run in Western Australia, that Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party is now a legitimate partner for a party of Government, I think has gone down extraordinarily badly for the Liberal Party of WA.

GEOGHEGAN: Those are the negatives, as far as the Liberal Party is concerned. What do you think you see as the positive, what does Mark McGowan bring to the state of Western Australia certainly to help solve the budget problem they have?

BUTLER: Mark is going to lay out a strong economic plan for WA. There are substantial differences, often there are at a state level now, in their infrastructure emphasis, for example. Mark McGowan was prioritising public transport and rail infrastructure, while the WA Liberal Government, and certainly the Federal Liberal Government, wanted to build a very big freeway for freight trucks that wouldn’t even get all the way to its preferred destination, the port of Fremantle. So you do see strong differences about the economic plan that was presented by the Liberal Party on the one hand and the Labor party on the other. There is no question that WA is facing strong economic challenges as the construction part of the mining boom tapers off and I think there has been a very strong verdict in favour of the Labor Party plan for WA against the Liberal Party plan.

GEOGHEGAN: Mark Butler, in other news, the Health Minister Greg Hunt is basically saying that unvaccinated children will be banned from all child care centres and

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preschools in Australia under this proposal by the Federal Government. I understand that he is also encouraging the new leader in Western Australia to back this proposal, does it have your backing?

BUTLER: We are very willing to sit down and talk constructively with the Federal Government on this. Kate Ellis has talked about this idea of a ban, which is largely implemented at a state level as I think Greg Hunt is acknowledging here, but there is a role for the Commonwealth Government to play in the advocacy leadership around the importance of vaccination programs. The AMA says that, next to clean water, this is probably the most important public health measure a country can have. Over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen some very damaging public commentary led by Pauline Hanson and there is a responsibility I think for all major parties and all levels of Government to get that back on track. We’ve said that we think there is some need for a consideration of a public advertising campaign at a national level just to reinforce that public health message that the AMA is talking about, and that was damaged by Pauline Hanson’s commentary last week. We’re certainly willing to sit down with Greg Hunt and talk about this constructively - Kate Ellis is on the record on this issue already.

GEOGHEGAN: Okay Mark Butler, let’s turn our attention to your home state of South Australia and its power supply problems. Now I’m sure you’re well aware that Elon Musk, the entrepreneur, has inserted himself into this discussion. He in fact said that he can solve the problem by supplying a battery farm which would help secure renewable energy power supply. How credible is this plan? I know that Jay Weatherill, the Premier, has spoken to Elon Musk, how credible do you think this is?

BUTLER: That’s right, Elon Musk and the Premier of South Australia, Jay Weatherill, had an initial talk by phone yesterday and they are following that up over the next little while. Obviously it is at a fairly formative stage at the moment and there needs to be some detail filled in, but really I think the speed with which the costs of these batteries are coming down has surprised event the most optimistic of analysts. It really is an extraordinary cost curve we are seeing. We’ve seen Tesla do this in a range of other smaller jurisdictions, in America Samoa, in a range of remote communities here in Australia, where communities have been able to use the storage capacity of these batteries to deal with the intermittency of solar and wind technology in particular. So there is a bit of a way to go on this but it is a really exciting exercise of leadership by the South Australian Government, leading the way in renewable energy, and frankly a pretty stark contrast to the Federal Liberal Government which brings in lumps of coal into the Australian Parliament, and talks about building new coal-fired power stations in spite of the industry saying that is utterly unrealistic.

GEOGHEGAN: Have you actually spoken with Jay Weatherill? So you feel as if this is a legitimate proposal which could be done within 100 days as Elon Musk is proposing?

BUTLER: Well I think if the rules were set in the right way. I think there is a question whether the national electricity market rules work for this sort of technology. We’ve been saying and Jay Weatherill has been saying for some time, those rules are outdated, they are not working for consumers at the moment, they are working more for the big

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power companies. There are details that need to be fleshed out about whether this can fit in the current market structure we have. Elon Musk’s company has done this around the world, it is a very exciting proposal and I think further discussions between him and the South Australian Premier should be encouraged.

GEOGHEGAN: Do you feel as if there are too many regulations in place at the moment. Certainly as far as the spot market is concerned that it essentially makes it very difficult for battery storage to operate effectively?

BUTLER: That’s right. The market really is set up for a different time, for an era back in the 20th century when you have very large base load power stations distributing power through poles and wires. You didn’t have the distribution you have nowadays with 1.6 million households generating their own power, lots of renewable energy in the system, delivering modern, clean energy. We’ve got to make sure that our market reflects that new reality and works for consumers rather than for the big power companies.

GEOGHEGAN: Mark Butler, what does this tell you that a tech entrepreneur has flagged this idea on twitter and has excited so many people. Doing perhaps what politicians would take months, if not years to do.

BUTLER: It tells you something about the new media I think, and just how fast ideas are able to spread not just across Australia but across the world. But it also says, I think, a lot about the vacuum in policy leadership we have at a national level. The Energy Council made this point last week, that the lack of a modernisation plan for our electricity sector means there is an investment freeze underway at the moment and that is leading to power prices spiking across the country - particularly at the moment in Queensland and New South Wales - equivalent the Energy Council says to a carbon price of about $50 per tonne. There is a need for leadership. The South Australian Premier and Elon Musk, they are showing some leadership. We just need the Prime Minister to recognise that we have a full blown energy crisis on our hands in Australia and it needs national leadership as well.

GEOGHEGAN: Mark Butler we also heard this past week the Energy Market Operator warning about looming shortages certainly as far as gas supply is concerned. The Prime Minister has flagged the idea with State Governments, calling them to loosen restrictions on onshore gas exploration and development. Is that a solution to the problem?

BUTLER: It’s not a short-term solution. It might be a medium to long-term solution but even if that happened you wouldn’t get new gas into the market for 3-5 years at least. There is a problem right now, this year there is a problem in having enough gas in our domestic market in power generation and for manufacturing because so much of it is being exported overseas. We've been warning about this for two years as the Labor Party. We took to the last election a National Interest Test for gas development and we’ve been rubbished by Malcolm Turnbull for that policy over the last two years. He needs to have a re-look at this. He needs to recognise that over the last few years the Federal Government has done everything it could to destroy community confidence

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around gas developments. The framework that we developed with Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott when we were last in Government has been torn apart by Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull. So for them to issue blame to State Governments where communities reject these developments is simply not good enough. Malcolm Turnbull has got to recognise that the Commonwealth has responsibility here. There is the need for a short-term fix about the supply problem that electricity generators and manufacturers are facing right now, and there is a need to consider responsible development in the medium to long-term.

GEOGHEGAN: Shadow Energy Minister Mark Butler, thanks very much.

BUTLER: Thank you for having me.


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