Interview with David Speers, ABC

20 Sep 2020
Prime Minister

DAVID SPEERS: Prime Minister, welcome to the program. You've made a series of energy announcements during the week, but there is one we haven't heard yet: Will you commit Australia to achieving a net-zero emissions target by 2050?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, as you know, our policy is to achieve that in the second half of this century, and we certainly will achieve that, and that's why this week's announcements were so important because it was about the technology we need to invest in now, which will make it a reality, particularly on the other side of 2030 and I think the sort of target that you've talked about then becomes absolutely achievable. I'm interested in doing the things that make that happen. I think that is very achievable, but it involves making the investments that we have set out for ARENA and the CEFC this week. That's how you get there and that's what matters because we are very focused on lower emissions. I believe that can be achieved but what I'm more focused on is the doing.

SPEERS: The technology roadmap is about to be released. The Government has been working on this for a while. Just to be clear, you are saying a net zero target by 2050 it can be achieved but won't be in the roadmap as the end goal here as the actual target?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the technology roadmap as you say, will be released shortly what we've been saying all along though is that it is about the technology, and that will produce the results and the results means lower emissions and what we need to make sure the investments are driven by having lower emissions, lower costs and supporting both today's jobs and future jobs.

SPEERS: But you've got to know where you're going, PM, you’ve got to know what the, what the, end of the road is?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we do know where we are going. Yeah we do, and the end of the road is lower costs, lower emissions and more jobs. That's where we are going. And on the 2020 target, well of course we have just met that target very comfortably by 430 million tonnes. I remind you as you will recall, that back in 2013 we took a plan to the election to achieve that. That was actually dismissed but we had a plan to achieve a 2020 target and we have achieved it, and not only just achieved it, we’ve bettered it. The same will be true for 2030 and the investments we’ve outlined this week and the many other initiatives we're already engaged in-

SPEERS: And I’ll come to those, just on 2050, you’ve got the Farmers Federation, the Business Council, every state and territory, more than 100 countries have all committed to this. Why won't you commit to that target?

PRIME MINISTER: Because I'm more interesting in the doing, David. I know people get very focused on the politics of these commitments, but what I'm focused on is the technology that delivers lower emissions, lower costs and more jobs. That's what actually matters to people. That's what changes their lives and so that's what we are delivering. When we make a commitment, we meet it, and we don't just meet it, we beat it. That's our form.

SPEERS: But you won't make this commitment?

PRIME MINISTER: We are committed to investing in the technology which reduces emissions in this country. And I think those sort of things are achievable with the right investments in the right technology. And you won't get there, I guarantee you this, if you are going to narrow the sorts of technologies and the sorts of solutions that you are prepared to look at which is why we want to broaden that out.

SPEERS: So let's talk about what you have announced during the week. Is the Government still committed to a technology agnostic approach to achieving the cheapest, most reliable power?

PRIME MINISTER: Of course we are.

SPEERS: So when the Liddell coal-fired power station closes in 2023 or before, does it have to be gas that replaces it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, gas has chosen itself because as yet, there has been nothing that has been presented which meets the goals that we have which is reliability and the firming capability for renewables to meet the gap that will be created. But of the 1,000 megawatts that are needed to replace Liddell, there will be a mixture. There will be gas but there will also be some form of traditional coal-fired which will make up part of that, but there’ll also battery as well. That's all part of the 1,000 megawatts [inaudible] so it’s not just one.

SPEERS: You are threatening to build a new gas-fired power plant, why not say-

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, because that's the bit that is missing.

SPEERS: Why not say to the market, ‘Here's what we need. Give us the best, most cost effective option you can'?

PRIME MINISTER: That's exactly what we've said to the market. We're saying, ‘you step up, we'll step back'. If they can produce that on the rules, and the rules are the reliability and affordable and it meets the challenges that we have with the closure of Liddell, the market should go right ahead, they should knock themselves out. And that’s what we actually want them to do.

SPEERS: It has to be 1,000 megawatts? It has to be, 1,00 megawatts?


SPEERS: What are the rules here? What are you actually asking for?

PRIME MINISTER: The 1,000 megawatts are already being made up in part by some investments which I believe definitely will go ahead. I think Energy Australia is very close to going ahead with a number of projects. As I said, there are a number of battery projects, there are a range of projects that will make up that 1,000 and that is the market responding.

SPEERS: So what is the missing piece?

PRIME MINISTER: There is about 250 megawatts or thereabouts that we believe are going to be necessary to fill that plan out, and we can do that and deliver it on the ground and that's important, David. A lot of people can talk projects, but they've got to get approved, they've got to be built in time, and you can get a gas-fired power station built in that time and delivered when it will be there. It won't be on the wish list, it will be on the done list, and that's what we need to be in place. That will meet the criteria. If there are others who come up with a better plan and can deliver that plan in the time-frame and meet the reliability - great, tremendous! It hasn't happened yet, though.

SPEERS: You are at least open. Okay we will see what comes up based on that definition there of 250 megawatts.

PRIME MINISTER: For that component, yeah.

SPEERS: For that component. You also want to expand the remit of the renewable energy agency to fund non-renewable options including carbon capture and storage. You are putting an extra $50 million into carbon capture and storage research. PM, you know that Australian taxpayers have spent more than a billion dollars I think over many years trying to see if carbon capture and storage will work one day. The fossil fuel industry keeps saying it is just around the corner. What makes you think this will be a viable option one day?

PRIME MINISTER: It is already happening at Gorgon, there’s already projects that Santos are wanting to pursue and for our resource base David, we have the most skin in the game to make sure that we can make it work. I'm not prepared to give up on it. I'm prepared to keep looking for the answers in this area because it will reduce emissions and it’ll support jobs in Australia. That's why I think Australia has a special interest in wanting to ensure that if anyone is going to crack this technology for those resources then it will be us.

SPEERS: Sorry to jump in there, the Gorgon project you mention isn't operating yet as I understand it. The Santos project - they say it would need a carbon price of nearly $30 a tonne?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, whether it needs that or not, David, the point is that carbon capture and storage, when you say it is a myth and will never happen -

SPEERS: Well, it is expensive, is the point. That's what the companies are saying - it is expensive.

PRIME MINISTER: But this is why, it is an emerging technology. We are also investing in hydrogen. That's not a reality to the extent we would like it to be now, but if you go back 10 years ago, the story was very different. Our argument on ARENA is this, that solar and wind which dominated a lot of the last 10 years and a lot of work that ARENA did - fine, it is established as commercially available, has got scale, it stands on its own two feet. We now need to invest in the technologies for that next generation that will be there post-2030 and post-2035. And so, that goes in the mix, but so does a range of other issues. We want it to be able to look at things like how steelmaking is done in Australia, how we build residential buildings and how we run hotels and HVACs systems, all of these things which lower emissions and change how industries operate and at the same time ensures that we're reducing emissions in those businesses, because at the end of the day that's what we are trying to achieve. We are not trying to achieve any particular kind of renewable technology. We are trying to lower emissions. Soil carbon, for example, is something that can be funded under this. Now soil carbon is a negative emissions technology, effectively, and if that- and Australia has an opportunity to do very well there. And that means it can achieve all the sorts of ambitions that we started the interview talking about.

SPEERS: On coal, Prime Minister, can you just clarify for us: Is there realistically any chance of a new coal-fired power station now being built in Australia?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it’s been a while since there has been one, but there have been some new ones. We do have a feasibility study which has been funded up in Collinsville and that was done genuinely. We promised that we would do that. That study is now under way and that is a question that is in the process of being answered so I’m not going to prejudice the outcome.

SPEERS: With Liddell for example there’s a lot of talk about making AGL sell off that coal-fired power plant, someone else running it. That's obviously not going to happen now. Has the world moved on?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it will be driven by the economics, ultimately. I'm not about to sort of rule things out unless the economics rules them out ultimately, and that is why if CCS is able to be established, then these are game-changing technologies. So whether it's viable in these forms, that is the very proposition that has been put as part of that Collinsville project which is not a large project, but it is an important project for industry, and regardless of whether - I mean, if that proves feasible, fine. If it doesn't, then we still have heavy industry challenges, and that's why the funds we’ve announced this week are to change and improve how industry can operate. I mean, I made announcements in the Hunter and in the Illawarra. I mean, they are the oldest in heavy industry regions in our country. I want those sectors to be successful, those regions to be successful in the future. If you go up to Gladstone and places like that, I want them to be successful, and that means finding reliable energy solutions with technology and harnessing what we have well into the future because their jobs are important to them.

SPEERS: Let me turn, leave the energy space. In just over a week, the JobKeeper and the JobSeeker payments will be reduced by about $300 a fortnight. Has Treasury done any modelling on the impact this will have on the economy?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, what we've seen in the last three months is over 400,000 jobs come back into the economy, and that is good news. That is encouraging news. We are just over half of the way back, and JobKeeper has played, with JobSeeker, an incredibly important role in keeping people in positions. But what was more interesting about the figures this week, David, is that we saw the effective rate of unemployment fall from over 14 per cent when it peaked after the crisis hit and that went down to 9.3 per cent. Now, I've always said that the actual rate of unemployment is a lot higher than that measured rate, always been up-front about that, and what I found most encouraging about the jobs numbers this week is that effective rate of unemployment was coming down which mean this: Those who had been reduced to zero hours are starting to get the hours back. Still a long way to go.

SPEERS: I want to ask you about that but just coming back to the question, has Treasury modelled the impact of reducing the JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we are moving forward with the Budget is just under two weeks' time, and there are a range of measures that are in the Budget, I can assure you, which are going to be pro-boosting...

SPEERS: I'm sure that's the case, but I'm just asking you and surely you must have had the experts look at this-

PRIME MINISTER: My point David is they take into account - Sorry I will let you finish.

SPEERS: This is a big call. We are in the middle of a recession and you are reducing the payments. What does Treasury say the impact will be on the economy?

PRIME MINISTER: What Treasury says is that we need to boost aggregate demand in our economy and the full suite of measures you have as a government need to do that job and that's what the Budget will do. And so you don't have to hold on to every measure forever. There are other measures that come in and pick up from where others left off. We are transitioning JobKeeper - it's important to do that. We always said it was not something that would be around forever. JobKeeper also finds its level where the need is greatest. 60 per cent of the JobKeeper payments which will be made at the end of this will be in Victoria. Of all, Victoria will account for more JobKeeper payments than all the other states put together, combined.

SPEERS: Unemployment is still rising in Victoria.

PRIME MINISTER: Of course, that's right, so it is a program that finds its level of need, David, and JobSeeker is the same. But there are other programs and the Treasurer will go into greater detail about that obviously in the Budget which are dealing with the here and now, but rebuilding our economy and then building it for the future so we can go into a decade of prosperity.

SPEERS: Do you think unemployment nationally will keep rising from this point?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it is a bit hard to say on the measured rate, David, I must say, and there are conflicting views. The figures that came out this week were a pleasant encouragement in terms of their improvement, but for those who still don't have a job, that is of no comfort to them. People are still out of work and we need to get them in it.

SPEERS: What's your sense of it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'm watching these issues closely and I'm pleased that we've seen over 400,000 jobs come back. I think we will see more come back-

SPEERS: So it might have peaked. It might have peaked Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER: David, I'm trying to answer the question if you’ll let answer the question.


PRIME MINISTER: I'm saying there will be more jobs come back in. The measured rate of unemployment will depend on how many people, what the participation rate is and all of those things, but what I'm saying is we’ve seen over 400,000 jobs come back in, I think there will be hundreds of thousands of more jobs come back in between now and Christmas, particularly if we get this next step right in Victoria. The number of jobs went backwards in Victoria in the last month. We will see Victoria bounce back, that will add to the national jobs growth. Now where the actual level of measured unemployment is by Christmas, it's hard to say at the moment I’ve got to say. I hope it's lower, but at the moment it is hard to say where the course of the pandemic is, because it's not just about what's happening in Australia, David, it's also about what is happening around the world. We are in the middle of a global pandemic recession and so Australia's growth is going to also be affected by that as well. And they are issues that are well beyond our control, so we will keep getting it right here and keep seeing the jobs come back and importantly that means extra jobs coming back for women and young people.

SPEERS: A final one, Prime Minister, the relationship with China, it seems to deteriorate continually. Do you have any plan for a circuit-breaker here, any plan as to how you can at least restore communication between ministers?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, there is communication obviously between our two countries and there is quite regular communication at that officials level-

SPEERS: Not at the ministerial level.

PRIME MINISTER: We are always available - the point I was about to make, obviously we would welcome that and as soon as- it takes two parties to actually have that engagement.

SPEERS: How do you do that, though? What's your plan to make that happen?

PRIME MINISTER: Well David, our plan is to always be consistent about Australia's national interests. Our plan is to be very clear about what we're seeking to do and to ensure that the offerings that we are making from the Australian economy, whether it is in our resources sector, agricultural sector, our services sector - they are compelling offers because our trading relationship is a mutual one. It is not all one way we both benefit from it and I believe the Chinese Government understands that as well. What we are also doing is we’re working constructively with all the partners in the region who also want to see a balanced Indo-Pacific and a safe and secure Indo-Pacific that respects the sovereignty of every country in the Indo-Pacific and we're big supporters of that and we're working constructively with partners like Japan and India in particular, Indonesia, Singapore and so many others. Vietnam - I mean one of the most important relationships we've been developing most recently outside of Indonesia in the region has been with Vietnam who have proved to be a great strategic partner on many issues within the Indo-Pacific. So the way I think we come through this is by drawing together a region that is focused on stability, and I think that will improve relations within the region more broadly.

SPEERS: Prime Minister, thanks very much for your time.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks a lot, David.