Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News
KIERAN GILBERT: Let’s return now to our discussion of federal politics – the Modi visit. Joining me is the Minister for Energy and Climate, Chris Bowen. Thanks for your time. As part of the Narendra Modi visit there’s a hydrogen taskforce that is being established. It’s got obviously huge potential, but how far away are we talking about in terms of realising some of these export arrangements with hydrogen?
CHRIS BOWEN: Oh several years, but we’re well on the way. I mean, green hydrogen is ultimately a form of storing energy, storing renewable energy. That’s what it ultimately is, and that’s what we need domestically to store energy for when we need it, and it also has huge potential for export. India is obviously a key partner, but, you know, Germany is probably right up there in terms of countries interested in buying our green hydrogen. Japan we have some arrangements in place with. Countries that are energy hungry are looking for ways of meeting their own emissions reduction targets but they know they can’t do it all themselves. That’s why Australia’s potential as a green energy superpower is just so big.
KIERAN GILBERT: And with India too? Because from what I heard in India when the Prime Minister was there is that they’ve still got a big demand for our coal.
CHRIS BOWEN: Of course, of course. But every country is different in terms of relationship. So when I meet with my friend and colleague R. K. Singh, the Indian Minister for Energy, we are talking about collaboration on hydrogen and solar. He’s particularly interested in learning from Australian solar experiences, particularly interested in collaboration on research and development. That’s what the green hydrogen taskforce- hydrogen taskforce is all about with India that was announced today – working together to try and get those costs down, because we do need get the cost down to make it more viable. We’re not there yet. It’s got that huge potential both domestically and for export.
KIERAN GILBERT: With the Modi reception, it was a huge reaction and response. You’ve got a pretty sizable diaspora, Indian diaspora in your electorate. There are questions that flow on, though, from Narendra Modi and questions about treatment of minorities and that sort of thing. As a democracy the treatment of the Sikh community, Muslim community, his own behaviour towards the media, do we have to factor that in in terms of a bilateral relationship?
CHRIS BOWEN: We respect him as the world’s largest democracy is what we do. And, you know, we do that. I was at the reception last night. I saw people of all faiths there which was wonderful. He gave various shoutouts to people of different faiths as well in his speech. He’s the leader of the world’s largest democracy, and the diaspora in Australia is a huge national asset as well. He used the term last night, “democracy, diaspora and dosti” building from the old, well over-used, hackneyed phrase of “curry, cricket and commonwealth.” And then he went on to say “energy, economy and education” which is obviously of key interest to me. So it is a very, very important visit, the first visit since 2014.
And I’ll be frank, Kieran, the relationship between Australia and India has waxed and waned over the years. New Prime Ministers with good intentions have come in and restarted that relationship, and then all too often it sort of petered out because we haven’t had a huge heft to the relationship. One of our biggest hefts to the relationship now…
KIERAN GILBERT: Do you think that’s shifted now?
CHRIS BOWEN: I do. I do. Prime Minister Albanese is giving it a real investment – a real investment. And, again, I’m not taking away from what other Prime Ministers have tried to do, but it’s often petered away. But the other big change is the diaspora and the strengthening and deepening of those links. I see them in my own community, I see them across the board. When I’m at a renewable energy function often I’ll meet members of the Indian diaspora there and they are ambassadors, in effect, for India to Australia and vice versa – they become advocates for Australia in the world’s largest democracy, a growing economy, a very, very important friend and ally.
KIERAN GILBERT: Tomorrow is an important day – we’ve got the Default Market Offer, basically in simple terms, where the electricity price is going to go. There was a draft offer in March of this year. Do you expect a similar sort of ballpark tomorrow?
CHRIS BOWEN: Well, we’ll see tomorrow. Obviously it’s a very independent process and arm’s length from me, as it should be. It will be out tomorrow. Obviously that draft is out for a reason – it’s out because it’s the Energy Regulator’s best estimate at that time.
KIERAN GILBERT: That’s the draft there on the screen. We’ve got it there.
CHRIS BOWEN: That’s right. She takes feedback on that. You know, historically they’re pretty – they track pretty closely. The Energy Regulator has herself made the point in Senate estimates this week that our intervention has made a huge difference – the coal and gas caps and the rebates. Made a huge difference, that it’s a very different scenario that we have been facing if we hadn’t intervened. Of course, we are still talking about big increases. But you look at our intervention and if you get the rebates, for example, in New South Wales we’ve gone from a 40 percent increase to a 7 percent decrease. South Australia, a 51 percent increase to a 5 percent decrease, for example, if you get the rebates.
KIERAN GILBERT: So the rebates will basically offset the increase?
CHRIS BOWEN: In many instances, for those who receive the rebates, yes.
KIERAN GILBERT: So that’s the sort of vulnerable households, those on tax benefits and so on?
CHRIS BOWEN: Yes, very carefully targeted in consultation with the relevant states. You know, we’ve developed those deals with the relevant states. So it’s a double-edged attack, if you like – we’ve got the coal and gas caps. That was important for reducing the input prices, because that’s what’s driving the price increase. The price of coal and gas is going up, the price of electricity is going to go up. It was pretty controversial when we did it. It was 100 percent the right thing to do. But we recognised at that time it wasn’t going to be enough, so we also put the rebates in place.
KIERAN GILBERT: And in terms of those interventions, what’s your read on the supply in the medium term, the medium to longer term? We’re fine, we’ve got the supply in the short term. The cap is in place to deal with the prices. Are you comfortable with where the relationship is at with gas producers particularly?
CHRIS BOWEN: Yeah, well, when you talk about supply, I imagine you’re talking more about gas than coal, because we do have the odd issue that we’re getting coal to coal-fired power stations, but by and large they’re logistical challenges, usually. We had some issues last winter with flooding et cetera. But in relation to gas, yes, it is an issue. All the advice to me is that, yes, in the short to medium term it’s okay. When you take into account the measures that we’ve put in place, we do need to think about what we’re doing in relation to around 2027 onwards. That’s been factoring in our discussions with the code of conduct which, as you know, is out for consultation. And, you know, obviously we’re in the middle of a massive transformation in our economy. As I’ve said on multiple occasions, we’re going to need gas for some time to come as a very important peaking and firming fuel as we make this transition to 82 per cent renewables. Gas is very flexible. It can be turned on and off at short notice.
KIERAN GILBERT: Are they being constructive, the companies?
CHRIS BOWEN: Yes.
KIERAN GILBERT: The producers?
CHRIS BOWEN: Yes, we’ve been engaged in good discussions, as you’d expect. We’re the government. We have to look after the national interest. They represent their own corporate interests. But, of course, we consult across the board.
KIERAN GILBERT: The Prime Minister made an announcement at the weekend with President Biden – I don’t think it’s got a lot of air time, but it’s a significant deal that’s done. I was reading through it earlier. It’s the Climate and Critical Minerals and Clean Energy Transformation Compact. It’s got quite a far-reaching remit. Does it basically allow our suppliers, our country, our technology, into the Biden administration’s approach with those subsidies in the Inflation Reduction Act, as it’s called?
CHRIS BOWEN: It’s got several parts, Kieran. It is a very important arrangement. You know, this is not just words on a piece of paper; this is a very important arrangement. First of all, it basically promises to integrate our two clean energy supply industrial structures. That’s no small thing. This is a massive transformation for both economies. Obviously the United States is a much bigger economy than ours. And that sets up a dialogue between me and Jennifer Granholm, the US Energy Secretary. Now, we already had an informal dialogue, but it sort of formalises that and institutionalises it about how we’re going to do that. It also sets up a dialogue between Madeleine King, the Resources Minister, and her counterpart on critical minerals.
But what it also does is related to the Inflation Reduction Act is the Defence Production Act in the United States. That has sort of, if you like, special treatment for US domestic suppliers. We don’t get a piece of that action. There’s a 500 million US fund which is split between different parts of the clean energy supply chain, including critical minerals and what feeds into battery manufacture. Also within the Defence Production Act there’s a 750 million fund as well which we haven’t had access to.
KIERAN GILBERT: But now we do?
CHRIS BOWEN: Well, the President – which is no small thing – the President has agreed to push for us to get that through Congress. Now, with the weight of the support of the presidency of the United States, we’ve still got work to do, but this is the first time a President has leaned in and said to the Congress, “I want you to look after Australia here.” Canada currently has these rights and no other country does. It’s a wonderful thing for Australia to get the access to that. Through that, the Inflation Reduction Act, if you like, created that $500 million fund through the Defence Production Act, so that’s our pathway in. It’s a very important first pathway. Then, of course, there’ll be further discussions about how we take it and really integrate those two supply chains.
KIERAN GILBERT: And you’ll be doing that with your Energy Secretary counterpart?
CHRIS BOWEN: Jennifer Granholm.
KIERAN GILBERT: What sort of time frame are we talking about? Do you want to get that done by the end of the year?
CHRIS BOWEN: We’ll put some milestones out by the end of the year. Jennifer and I will be meeting over the course of the year at various places. As I said, we already had sort of a regular informal contact. I want to pay tribute to our Ambassador to the United States, Kevin Rudd. He’s been very important in helping bring this together. It’s been whole-of-government effort – the Prime Minister, his key ministers – obviously myself, Madeleine, Ed Husic, the support of the Treasurer, Kevin working very hard on it in Washington. A whole-of-government effort.
KIERAN GILBERT: Finally, on the Voice, it’s quite a delicate time at the moment. The yes campaign yet to really build its charge towards the referendum. But today the former Prime Minister Scott Morrison provided his critique. He’s worried about the impact on executive government by having representations from the Voice. You returned serve on Twitter. Why did you feel the need to do that?
CHRIS BOWEN: Look, because I was, I was concerned by his contribution. To say that it impacts on executive government, I mean, this is a guy who secretly swore himself in to ministries. That’s a fundamental undermining of executive government, and I did feel obliged to point that out, that there’s a fair bit of hypocrisy going on here. It enhances executive government. As a member of the executive, it would enhance the way we do things.
You know, Kieran, we’re probably running out of time, but I just want to make this point: New Zealand reached a constitutional settlement with their first peoples in 1840. They guaranteed Māori representation in parliament in 1867 and have done so since then. Canada recognised their first peoples in their constitution in 1982. These executives and democracies have functioned pretty nicely, thank you, since then. This is Australia’s time. It is a terrible gap in our governance architecture that our first peoples have no enshrined voice to us.
Now I’ve heard the argument about this brings in division. I’ll tell you what is division – it’s Indigenous inequality. It’s Indigenous death rates being so high. It’s low birth weights. It’s poor Indigenous outcomes for school completion. That’s division. That’s racial division. And what we’ve done up until now has not worked. It is Australia’s time to say that and to say to our first peoples, “You sent us” – now six years ago – “a message from the heart, and we respond from the heart with a resounding yes vote.” Now yes, the campaign is only getting up and running. I’m confident that the Australian people will respond with the same positivity that our First Nations people reached out to us those six years from Uluru.
KIERAN GILBERT: Minister Chris Bowen, appreciate your time, as always. Thanks.
CHRIS BOWEN: Thanks, Kieran.