Interview with Greg Jennett, ABC Afternoon Briefing

GREG JENNETT: Assistant Climate Change and Energy Minister Jenny McAllister finds herself in Germany this week. Energy security is at a bit of a premium in Europe these days, and gradually countries there are looking further afield to find alternative sources of it. We spoke to Jenny McAllister from Berlin moments ago.

Jenny McAllister, always good to have you on Afternoon Briefing, all the more so when you’re joining us from Berlin there morning time locally for you. You’re representing Australia at these climate talks in Germany which, of course, is world renowned for having very energy efficient factories, buildings and work places. What does Australia have to learn from Germany, particularly in light of some of the tax breaks that you’ve recently announced here?

JENNY MCALLISTER: Well, you’re quite right, Greg. Germany has an enviable reputation as an energy-efficient country. In fact, they rank third in the world for this. So there’s quite a lot that we can learn from them. I’ll have a chance while I’m here to speak with a range of industry participants and government participants who work on these challenges. One of the things I’m most interested in is how they’ve gone about improving their housing stock. They’ve got a range of initiatives to help house owners, households improve the energy performance of their homes, and that’s something, of course, that is of real interest to Australians. We know that a lot of Australians really waste a lot of money purchasing energy that quite literally leaks out the door or out the window. I’m really interested in understanding about how Germany has gone about tackling that challenge in their own situation.

GREG JENNETT: So at the household level, as opposed to business, which I already alluded to you’ve had an announcement on before leaving Australia. But what is it that you might entertain or contemplate to drive energy efficiency at the household level?

JENNY MCALLISTER: Yeah, well, I’ll have a chance while I’m here to actually go and inspect something really interesting, which is a retrofit of an entire and quite old apartment building in Berlin that’s been retrofitted to basically meet all of its own heating and electricity requirements. It will be really interesting to see how they’ve done that from a physical perspective but also some of the challenges they’ve encountered in financing it. That’s one of the areas we are really interested in working on. We had a really big discussion the other day with a number of the banks and major investors. They are also interested in how they can support their customers to improve the energy performance of their own homes. And we’re interested to understand how the Germans have financed a lot of this work.

GREG JENNETT: And would you –

JENNY MCALLISTER: But you’re right, Greg; it’s not just about homes, sorry to interrupt Greg, but it is also about businesses. And German business also is characteristically very energy efficient. You’ll have seen the Treasurer make a significant announcement over the weekend to put in place essentially a tax discount for businesses that invest in their own energy performance. Really interested to understand from the German perspective what kinds of measures would work here as well.

GREG JENNETT: All right. Well, that might be an ongoing topic of conversation with us, particularly when you come back to Australia. But the German energy experience is not all green, not by a long shot, particularly since Nord Stream gas supplies were cut off on account of the Russia-Ukraine war. They are burning more brown coal and fossil fuel than they were just a few years ago. What are they seeking from Australia for their own energy resilience? Are they discussing LNG with you?

JENNY MCALLISTER: The real reminder being here of the global energy crisis that actually has engulfed the world since the conflict began in Ukraine. It’s not isolated to Australia; it’s a challenge here in the European context as well. One of the concepts of conversations I’ll be having is about our hydrogen partnership. Australia actually has longstanding relationships working on possibilities for green hydrogen and how we might go about setting up supply chains to deliver that. Minister Bowen was here back in January announcing the next phase of that collaboration. We’ve done research work together, we’ve brought businesses together to understand the kind of technical, regulatory, infrastructure hurdles that might be necessary to set up a hydrogen supply chain. It’s a real opportunity for Australia that the Germans are very interested in.

We, of course, have quite a lot of land, abundant sunshine and wind, and they have a big hunger for energy, as you’ve alluded to. We are working closely with the Germans, both government to government and with industry to better understand how we can stand up that sector. We released a report recently, a joint report, which really indicated that the shipping distances aren’t a significant impediment to getting this industry going. And so I’m really looking forward to meeting with many of the counterparts here, and I know that the embassy has done a great job at bringing them together later in the week.

GREG JENNETT: Well, indeed, green hydrogen was going to be my next question after asking about LNG, so why don’t we skip straight on to it, because we know that entrepreneurs like Andrew Forrest of Fortescue Metals fame is heavily invested in developing green hydrogen. Would the Australian Government in order to meet customer demands in countries like Germany be prepared to offer subsidies or other forms of assistance to accelerate the development of green hydrogen, bearing in mind, Jenny McAllister, that we are very much competing against America and its Inflation Reduction Act at present?

JENNY MCALLISTER: Look, hydrogen is a real area of focus for us. You’ll know that in the last months we passed the National Reconstruction Fund through both houses of Parliament. That is a really important piece of nation-building infrastructure that will allow us to support a range of projects, manufacturing opportunities, including opportunities associated with hydrogen. We know that there are enormous opportunities for Australia in the clean energy economy. Unhappily we sort of had 10 years under the previous government where very little happened. We are keen to accelerate the development of these industries, and we’re looking very closely at it. But we’re conscious that the decision by the United States to establish the IRA changes the landscape a little bit, but it’s a welcome development. It will mean that the United States is focused on accelerating clean energy transition as well. We want to be part of that, and we’re looking at very closely.

GREG JENNETT: All right. Well, look, finally a domestic one – I could go on at further length, I suppose, on green hydrogen, but I won’t – just by the time you get back, Jenny McAllister, we’ll be right up towards the budget. The Treasurer has made it very clear today that energy assistance on household bills will be directed towards those primarily on welfare or income support payments. Where does that leave working Australians, low-paid working households, if it is to be narrowed off towards those on support payments?

JENNY MCALLISTER: Greg, we’re really conscious that Australians are under a lot of pressure. And it’s not just energy prices, it’s also mortgage pressure, of course, and a range of other cost pressures in the economy. This is the demon of inflation, and it is why the Treasurer is so focused on dealing with inflation in a responsible way in the Budget that comes through. We’ve made it really clear that there will be a range of measures that seek to help Australians with cost-of-living challenges. That includes, of course, taking into consideration the potential that those kind of relief measures might have on inflation. But it will be a responsible budget, one that does look to help Australians where we can and one where is really thinking carefully about all the opportunities, we have to help Australians who are doing it tough this year. As for the details, you might have to wait and see what’s in the Budget.

GREG JENNETT: I somehow thought you might have kicked that one in right at the close, Jenny McAllister. I’d expect nothing less at this time of year just seven days out. Thanks so much for joining us from Berlin, and we will see you on return, perhaps around Budget week.