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Transcript of interview with Peter Van Onselen: The Contrarians, Sky News: 21 August 2009: Renewable Energy Target legislation; CPRS and agriculture; MP entitlements; industrial relations reforms; nuclear power.

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The Hon. Tony Burke MP

Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

Tony Burke - interview with Peter van Onselen, The Contrarians, Sky News

21 August 2009

Minister for Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry Tony Burke Peter van Onselen, The Contrarians, Sky News, Sydney


SUBJECTS: Renewable Energy Target legislation; CPRS and agriculture; MP entitlements; industrial relations reforms; nuclear power

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Welcome back, you’re watching The Contrarians. We’re joined in the studio now by Tony Burke, Minister for Agriculture. Thanks very much for being with us.

TONY BURKE: Great to be here, Peter.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: This week the Renewable Energy Bill went through but am I right in understanding that coal has been defined as a renewable energy?

TONY BURKE: Some of the work that has been done with coal through those negotiations goes to some of the concepts that have been developed with clean coal as well. So I’m across all the agriculture parts of it but on some of the specific final negotiations which were changing day by day when we finally got the opposition to come to the table, there’d be others better able to be able to provide that information.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: But you’d have to be able to say, intuitively, the idea of coal counting as a renewable energy doesn’t seem right if you’re serious about being able to hit renewable energy targets.

TONY BURKE: As I say, there are different ways and different uses for coal, there’s the clean coal issue as well and I’m just not in a position to be able to provide you with that part of it.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: From an agriculture perspective, we’ve got the Renewable Energy Bill that’s just gone through, albeit with amendments. Some commentators, at The Australian for example, Paul Kelly, have been critical of the Renewable Energy Bill. Why is it a good thing, in your view that it’s gone through?

TONY BURKE: Well essentially, if we’re going to move to a low carbon future and the world is moving in this way, we’ve got more at stake than most countries to need the world to go down this path. You need to be able to do two things: to have a price on carbon within the economy and to make sure the renewable sector can build up to a critical mass to give people real options in energy use, away from the high carbon polluting options.

Now, the Renewable Energy Target is a way of lifting capacity so that when a carbon price is introduced you have real options there for what can be done through wind, solar, geo-thermal and

of course in some of the agricultural areas as well with the use of biofuels and with the use of the gas.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: What’s left now, it was decoupled and we’ve had the renewable energy part go through. What’s left now is the ETS and no doubt we’ll be revisiting that in months ahead. From your perspective, how do you respond to concerns by some farmers about whether agriculture will or won’t be ultimately included at some point down the track in an ETS?

TONY BURKE: A lot of people would love for us to be able to make a complete decision now: in or out. The problem with agriculture is that the science is not where we need it to be to make that final call.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Well, America and Europe have made that call. They’ve said that it’s out.

TONY BURKE: Well, Europe has said that it’s out. America has said that it’s out, in terms of emissions but in, in terms of sequestration. And America, let’s not forget, made that change in a context where they’re not part of Kyoto - so they don’t have to have a system where they be part of the international carbon market. We want to be part of the international carbon market and that means we have to have methods that can be accounted for within the international accounting framework.

Now, the interview that you just had with Fran Bailey, talking about the bushfires: if we were to bring land use into the carbon framework through the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, Australia would be up for penalty payments when the bushfires occurred, because of the carbon that was released. For a continent like ours, those sorts of accounting mechanisms for land use just don’t work. That’s why the front-line of our negotiation at Copenhagen is to try to split off human intervention from natural causes. That gets us in a stronger position to make these sorts of decisions.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: European countries have signed Kyoto and ratified it obviously as well, yet they’ve excluded agriculture from their emissions targets and so forth. Why can’t we do the same? I guess that’s the question that farmers are asking.

TONY BURKE: For a country like Australia we’re talking about 16% of our total emissions. So we’re talking about a significant commitment that you then put on the rest of the economy, if you do take agriculture out. Now we may still land in that space - we haven’t made a final call on it. But you can’t trade something unless you can measure it. And even if you had the international accounting mechanism in place that I just referred to, the science of measurement is still not good enough to trade with.

Now the Americans say they can do it and they hold up as an example the Chicago Climate Exchange. But when you hear people on fear campaigns talking about carbon prices and extraordinary amounts and what if it was $100 a tonne: the Chicago Climate Exchange at the moment is trading at 40 cents a tonne. So in terms of having some line of income back to farmers, because the measurement is so poor at the moment there are some areas where you can do it well, some areas where you can’t. You end up with something where it is being traded at such a low value that it is close to the meaningless end of being any benefit to farmers now.

By 2013, with the money we’re investing in the science, we think we’ll be in a much stronger position to make a call on that. If they were to be included, it wouldn’t be until 2015 that it will happen. But to make that sort of a call now when we know that the international accounting is not being done in a way that suits Australia and we know the science of measurement is nowhere near where we need it to be: it’s just a strange idea to make that call immediately.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: OK, can I move on to another issue. I talked to Fran Bailey about the entitlements, the draft report by the Auditor-General about potential misuse of entitlements. That must be concerning to you as a politician, in terms of the public’s attitude toward politicians when they see that kind of a story on the front-page.

TONY BURKE: And this is why we’ve had the highest level of commitment to levels of transparency. There’s a whole series of changes that we’ve already brought in.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: But more needs to be made though. I know that one of the commitments from Rudd was that he would introduce an independent Auditor to deal specifically with entitlements and the reports say that hasn’t happened yet. Is that a commitment that is going to come soon?

TONY BURKE: There’s a package of reforms that we’re working on, which we will be able to announce a bit further down the track. But we’ve already delivered on many of the reforms that we’ve promised in this sort of area - on issues like printing entitlements. The reports today refer to a draft report from the ANAO - the Australian National Audit Office. Once that becomes a final report the Government will then be able to work through the recommendations.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: One of the things that’s in the draft report which was interesting to me was the idea that there is a cartel there, six printing companies that are doing I think 20% of the printing service for major parties. Yet out of that group there are large numbers of political donations that are happening as well. That’s not a good look. If you’re in politics and you know the public is watching this closely, when they see that there is almost this exchange where taxpayer-funded dollars are going into this printing and postage allowance for this small cartel, yet elements of that cartel are donating back to both sides of politics: it’s a bit of a pox on both your houses, isn’t it?

TONY BURKE: This is why we have made the commitments on transparency. At the moment all we have is the draft report referred to in the papers today and draft recommendations. When we’re able to see a final report, the Government will work through each and every recommendation and look seriously at recommendations that come to us as to how we might be able to make the system work more effectively. Work in a way that can continue to have public confidence.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Another issue that was on the front page of The Australian today was a criticism by ‘shoppies’ head Joe de Bruyn of Julia Gillard. I think he described her as a ‘weak link’ or the ‘weakest link’. He said, it’s not smart politics: this issue of her making concession after concession to the restaurant industry and now perhaps the horticultural industry as well and the pharmacy industry are wanting some workplace concessions as well. Which side do you fall on? You’re in a difficult position. You’re supported by the shoppies quite openly - you were very positive toward them in your opening position to Parliament - but Julia Gillard is your Deputy Prime Minister. Who’s right? Is Joe de Bruyn right or is Julia Gillard right?

TONY BURKE: Well the criticisms in today’s paper refer to actions that haven’t been taken, that’s the first thing. The second thing is that award modernisation is something that has been overwhelmingly successful. There’s been a few areas where some employers have wanted to raise particular issues with Julia [Gillard], her office, and her Department. There’s been some areas where some unions have wanted to raise particular issues on the other side of the coin. But overwhelmingly, the process has been successful and on many of these issues where the award has come out there are still transitional issues to be dealt with by the Industrial Relations Commission. So it’s important for Julia Gillard to be able to work through the different concerns that are raised with her.

The restaurant employees to-date is the only one where there has been any sort of an intervention. If you were to ask business of any level a few years ago, ‘What’s one of the things you’d like to see?’ They’d say simplification. They’d say we’ve got different systems in every state and we’d like to see some national awards. You’d get a similar story from a lot of unions. If we can cut out the red tape, if we can have systems where we have more national unity instead of nine different systems on different awards, that works well for everybody. Overwhelmingly it has been a success.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Another union leader who has this week been critical, not of Julia Gillard, but of the Government generally, and maybe Kevin Rudd in particular, is Paul Howes at the AWU. He’s advocating turning to nuclear power - or at least having a debate about it. Do you think we should have a serious debate about nuclear power in this country?

TONY BURKE: Well, let’s not forget that at our National Conference about four years ago we dealt with this issue in great detail and took a very firm commitment to the last election that we would not go down a nuclear path within Australia.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: But what about just having a debate about it? What about having a really open, public debate which might end up deciding the same thing as that Conference? At least having that debate, if people like Paul Howes are advocating it. You’re one of the younger members of the Cabinet, you must be thinking about this as a potential solution for climate change in the decades down the track?

TONY BURKE: For a nation like Australia, we have so many other fuel sources that are available and we can easily latch onto a whole lot in the renewable sector: because of solar, geo-thermal and our access to wind power, our access to cogeneration in sugar mills, for example. We’ve got so many renewable options available that, for the resources-rich nation that we are, it’s pretty hard to build an economic case as to why we would want to go down a nuclear power path. We’ve got a firm commitment that we’re not going down that path and that’s the Government’s position.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Tony Burke, we’re right out of time. Thank you very much for coming into the studio and being with us today.

TONY BURKE: Real pleasure to be here.