Interview with David Speers, ABC Insiders

DAVID SPEERS: Time to talk to the Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Chris Bowen, now, and to take us there here he was as Shadow Treasurer in 2019, describing Scott Morrison's changes to superannuation as a 'retrospective tax.'


CHRIS BOWEN: As I said, the 250 to $200,000 change, the Government changed it from, I think, 300,000 down to 250. We think fair enough, but it should go a bit further so the government really can't claim the high moral ground. Again, the Government said no change to superannuation and then Scott Morrison, as Treasurer, brought in a retrospective tax.

[Excerpt ends]

DAVID SPEERS: Chris Bowen, welcome to the programme.

CHRIS BOWEN: Morning, David. Morning, everyone.

DAVID SPEERS: That was you back in 2019. Is what Labor is now considering something you would describe as a retrospective tax as well?

CHRIS BOWEN: No, there were particular elements about Scott Morrison's plan which were backdated. But the key point there is that Labor was backing measures to make superannuation more sustainable and more equitable and indeed, we suggested at that time it could go a bit further. But what we're talking about here, David, is a very sensible discussion, led by the Treasurer about making sure our superannuation system is sustainable and equitable.

And I've seen Liberals frothing at the mouth at those words, saying how outrageous it is that our superannuation system, that we should even consider making it more sustainable or more equitable. I mean, superannuation was a Labor invention to give working people a chance at a dignified retirement. We're very proud of it, we'll build on it and we will make it sustainable and equitable as well.

DAVID SPEERS: Let's turn to your current portfolio. The government, of course, need the Greens to pass three major bills at the moment, including your changes to the Safeguards Mechanism. The Greens aren't happy, as mentioned earlier, they reckon you're making the climate problem worse, in fact, by approving more coal seam gas fracking in Queensland. That will increase emissions, won't it?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, let's look at what we're trying to do here, David, and I'm more than happy to go through the details of particular elements of it. But firstly, let's just lay out what we're trying to do here. What I'm trying to do as the Minister, what the Government's, doing is reducing emissions from all our big emitters as a whole, new, old, existing, proposed industrial, resources.

Now, the Greens are focusing on one particular element, new resources, they can do that, that's okay, but I'm doing something a bit different here. This is the biggest chance the Parliament has had in more than a decade to actually get a sensible framework to reduce emissions from all our big emitters. As I said, anybody who emits more than 100,000 tonnes a year. Now, this is 205,000,000 tonnes of emissions out of the system by 2030. That's roughly equivalent to two thirds of the cars on Australia's roads.

So that's a big deal, David, and that's why we're focused so importantly on getting this through. Now, inevitably, when you bring in a big reform like this a whole bunch of people will say it doesn't go far enough. A whole bunch of other people will say it goes far too far. The Coalition have written themselves out of the story and made themselves irrelevant. So we're now in discussions with the Greens and as I've said repeatedly, if they have good faith proposals, just as we did on other matters before the Parliament, the climate bill, EV tax cuts, et cetera, then we'll work them through.

DAVID SPEERS: Okay and I'll come to those proposals. But just back to the question. Opening new gas fields or expanding gas fields will increase emissions, won't it?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, inevitably, any new development has emissions implications, whether it's industrial or resources, David. That's why I'm so determined to get a framework in place to see those emissions come down. Now, if the Safeguards reforms don't pass, then there's no constraint on carbon in our biggest emissions, in our biggest emitters, emissions will continue to go up, just as they have since the safeguards reforms were brought down in 2016.

DAVID SPEERS: But the Greens' point is, you're not really constraining them because all these big companies can just buy offsets.

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, on offsets, David, because we are proposing a pretty ambitious agenda of 4.9 per cent emissions reduction each and every year of course, we are allowing some flexibility.

DAVID SPEERS: Well, unlimited flexibility, isn't it? They can buy as many as they want.

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, David, when you're looking at the biggest emitters, they have different options available to them. Now, some will find it easier than others. I believe emitters will look at the least cost, most efficient way of reducing emissions in their actual facilities. But some will find that hard, like cement, for example. Now, if people want to argue for limits on offsets, they have to show me how an industry like cement could reduce emissions without laying people off or reducing production.
I don't want to see Australia making fewer things or investing in less technology. I want to see Australia making more things and investing in more technology. And that's why this regime that we're putting forward, this Safeguards reform, is so important, because it takes 205,000,000 tonnes of emissions out of the air. Yes, it provides some flexibility, but when you're embarking on such an ambitious proposal, you should provide flexibility.

DAVID SPEERS: So why then, alongside all that, do we need new coal and gas projects?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, the Greens suggest that there's this pipeline of automatic approvals, which is just not right. Now, ultimately, David, the Greens need to decide here. Are they a part -

DAVID SPEERS: Can I ask about your position here?


DAVID SPEERS: I appreciate you want to have a go at the Greens. Why do you think we should not ban new coal and gas?

CHRIS BOWEN: I will get to that point, David. I just want to make this point. The Greens need to decide, are they a party of protest or a party of progress? This is big progress. If they want to protest, they can do that. But this is about progress.

DAVID SPEERS: Okay, so why won't you ban coal and gas? New coal and gas.

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, on new proposals, David, we are taking our national energy market to 82 per cent renewables by 2030. That's a big lift from where we are at roughly around 30 per cent in 83 months. That's a huge task, but it still means that 18 per cent will come from non-renewables, inevitably. Now, eventually we'll build from that 82 but in the medium term, we are still going to have 18 per cent of our energy grid coming from non-renewables and increasingly that will be gas. As coal-fired power stations leave the system we're not going to do nuclear, that leaves gas and our job -

DAVID SPEERS: So can you just say no new coal, at least?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, our job is to ensure that we have the capacity to ensure that our lights stay on as we make this massive transformation, which is the biggest economic transformation since the Industrial Revolution.

DAVID SPEERS: And do we need new coal mines to do that?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, David, the only coal matter that has been decided by this government is Tanya Plibersek's decision to reject Clive Palmer's coal mine. I mean, she will continue to do her job in a very passionate, effective and competent way that she has shown in the first nine months of government.

DAVID SPEERS: But in your pathway to net zero do we need new coal?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, David, The Labor Party is not proposing any new coal mines.

DAVID SPEERS: So why don't you just say to the Greens "we'll ban new coal?"

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, because we believe in insisting that the regime is improved so that emissions come down from everyone, all big emitters. At the same time, Tanya is reforming the EPBC Act in line with the Samuel recommendations, which recommended much greater transparency about emissions from approvals. She's getting on with that job. I'm getting on with the job of tightening the Safeguards Mechanism to actually get real emissions reductions into the system.

DAVID SPEERS: Okay, so there won't be a bit there won't be any sort of ban, any sort of time frame as to when we can stop opening up new coal and gas?

CHRIS BOWEN: No, that's not part of our agenda. It won't be part of those negotiations.

DAVID SPEERS: So, on gas there's also the Beetaloo Basin in the Northern Territory and a decision pretty soon, we understand, from the Northern Territory government about whether to allow full scale gas fracking there. Last time you were on this programme, you agreed if that is to be opened up, it needs to be fully offset, no net increase in emissions. Is that still your position and how is that going to be achieved?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, and that is the position of the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory government, which was the recommendation of the Pepper review, which is what governs the consideration of these matters in the Northern Territory, that there be no net increase in emissions. I mean, all parties are technically committed to net zero. All parties. Technically the Liberals, even though they don't really believe it, technically the Nationals, even though they really don't believe it and the Greens -

DAVID SPEERS: Okay on Beetaloo, if there's going to be no net increase in emissions, will that involve the Commonwealth chipping in to buy offsets?

CHRIS BOWEN: No. Well, these are matters for the Northern Territory government to consider.

DAVID SPEERS: So, nothing from the Commonwealth?

CHRIS BOWEN: No, I'm not proposing any particular Commonwealth action in relation to the Beetaloo, no. Not in relation to that.

DAVID SPEERS: Because Chief Minister Natasha Fyles is looking to the Commonwealth to ensure that happens.

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, David, these are ongoing discussions. But as I said, my job is to get emissions down from all our emitters. I understand the focus on gas and coal and oil in this discussion, that's very important. But so is finally, finally getting a regime in place which reduces emissions from all our biggest emitters.

DAVID SPEERS: Okay, but just coming back to that question. The Beetaloo Basin if that opens up, there'll be nothing from the Commonwealth to help offset it.

CHRIS BOWEN: There have been no discussions between the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory government about that, no.

DAVID SPEERS: Okay, well, on the, one of the compromise options that the Greens are talking about, you referenced it, the EPBC Act. This is putting a climate trigger in environmental laws so that approvals have to consider the climate impact before a project goes ahead. What do you think about that idea of a climate trigger?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, David, as I said, Tanya is progressing very important reforms to the EPBC Act, which will be a big step forward. I'm likewise progressing reforms to the Safeguard Mechanism. The two are, if you like, both complementary but not related pieces of legislation.

DAVID SPEERS: You could have a view, though.

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, my view is that we're getting on with the job of implementing the election mandate we got, which was to implement the Samuel review, implement reforms to the Safeguard Mechanism.

DAVID SPEERS: What about a climate trigger? Do you think that's a good idea?

CHRIS BOWEN: That's not what we're proposing. No. And I believe that the Samuel reforms that Tanya is progressing, which provide much more transparency to this matter, accompanied by the reforms that I'm proposing to the Safeguard Mechanism, which actually get real emissions reduction. I mean, a tonne of emissions out of the air -

DAVID SPEERS: Well, a climate trigger is not a new idea, though. Way back in 2005, when you were in opposition, a private members' bill was introduced by one Anthony Albanese to introduce a climate trigger into the EPBC Act. If it was a good idea 18 years ago, why not now?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, we can all go back. I'm not sure what you were doing in 2005, David. I certainly remember you were doing lunch time on Sky.

DAVID SPEERS: I was covering the Parliament.

CHRIS BOWEN: You were doing lunchtime on Sky and I was a junior opposition backbencher.

DAVID SPEERS: Well, Anthony Albanese was introducing a bill for a climate trigger.

CHRIS BOWEN: Yeah, well, the policies that we are implementing are not what we - anybody might have talked about in 2005. They're what we've got a mandate to implement in 2022. That's what we're implementing.

DAVID SPEERS: Okay, a couple of other things. Snowy hydro, I've got to ask you about Snowy 2.0. The big tunnel - one of the big tunnel boring machines is stuck underground. It's apparently stuck in some soft ground there. It's a little unclear exactly what's going to happen here. A huge hole has opened up above it, the tunnel maybe has collapsed. Can you give us an update about what's going on and how you're going to get it unstuck?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, I won't be down there with a shovel myself - what I will be doing is working very closely with Snowy management, which is what I've been doing. As you know. I'm not here to pretend to you that I'm happy about everything that has happened at Snowy 2.0 because I'm not. And it is delayed by at least twelve months. And that is deeply disappointing because it is important for the stability of our grid going forward. And when I came to office, one of the first pieces of advice the department gave me was that it was running twelve to eighteen months late and that had not been made public. And I took the decision that that should be made public immediately and that we needed a plan in place to get it back on track.

Now David, I do recognise that this is one of the most complicated engineering projects underway anywhere in the world at the moment. I mean, these tunnels are difficult to build, but the previous government made commitments which are not being met in terms of timeline. The Finance Minister and I have appointed a new Chief Executive, Dennis Barnes. He knows that very high on his KPIs is getting this project as fast as humanly possible back on track.

DAVID SPEERS: What's he telling you about this machine? How are they going to get it out?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, they're working on all sorts of elements. Not everything is as quite publicly presented, but the project is -

DAVID SPEERS: Well, why not? What's going to happen with this machine? Have they told you?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, the project - I do get regular briefings, David, the project is moving too slowly for my liking -

DAVID SPEERS: How are we going to get this out? Is it somehow top secret?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, there's an engineering process underway to make more progress with the boring machine. Florence is its name. An affectionate name, I'm sure. But we need to make more progress on Snowy 2.0. It hasn't been fast enough. There have been other issues with Snowy 2.0. The government has appointed a new Chief Executive. In effect, asked for a completely fresh set of eyes, a completely fresh approach to what has been a problematic project which we inherited.

DAVID SPEERS: Sounds like these are underground matters that must remain confidential.

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, I'm not here to give engineering advice to the experts at Snowy 2.0. I'm here to encourage them to do more.

DAVID SPEERS: I mean, you mentioned the fact these delays keep coming, the costs keep going up. It's well over the cost and the time frame that we were initially told about. Is it time to have an independent assessment, a reconsideration about the whole project?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, the project is important. It's a good project when it's finished. The project will proceed. And importantly, of course, we're plugging it into the grid, which the previous government didn't do, with our Rewiring the Nation announcements around that. They put money into the project they didn't actually connect it to the grid. But in terms of an independent review, the ultimate independent review, David, is our new Chief Executive and that's what we've done.
Now, I want Snowy focused on that job. I don't want them focused on trying to justify what's happened so far, I want them focused on fixing it. The Chair, David Knox, the Chief Executive, Dennis Barnes, at my request, are focused on fixing it, working closely with the Finance Minister and I. And we need better progress on Snowy 2.0. I'm not here to pretend that it's all been smooth because it has not been.

DAVID SPEERS: Final one, Minister, on hydrogen. On Friday, you met your state counterparts. You've agreed to, well, the need for an overhaul of the hydrogen strategy, given what's happening globally, particularly in the US. This - the Biden administration, they're pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into hydrogen and other renewables. It is a game changer. There are fears we're just going to be left behind, we'll lose our opportunity for the export and jobs boom. Ultimately, will governments have to spend billions more to get hydrogen off the ground?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, Australia has massive opportunities when it comes to green hydrogen exports. You're right about some of the challenges. But a couple of weeks ago, I was in Germany releasing a report with the German minister which showed that green hydrogen exports from Australia to Germany are viable and desirable and feasible. And also stood with the German Minister, a Minister of the Federal Republic of Germany, who announced their funding of Australian green hydrogen projects in the Illawarra and South Australia. I mean, it's pretty extraordinary.

You've got an Australian government and a German government working closely together to develop Australian green hydrogen projects employing Australians, because Germany knows and other European countries know they can't provide enough green hydrogen for themselves and Australia is a partner of choice. So, yes, I did ask the state and territory Ministers to agree with me to review our national hydrogen strategy, which was written in 2019, is now out of date compared to international developments. But I am very optimistic, with the right policy settings, Australia can be a renewable energy export powerhouse and green hydrogen will be right at the centre of those jobs and investment.

DAVID SPEERS: Chris Bowen, thanks for joining us this morning.