Interview with Kenny Heatley, Sky News

KENNY HEATLEY, HOST: Welcome back. Returning to one of our top stories now, Australia has become increasingly reliant on China for vital devices which power the nation’s solar power grid. It’s raising concerns over potential foreign interference and disruption. Chinese companies now own 58 per cent of the market for smart inverters, which convert energy from rooftop panels into electricity.

And joining me live for more on this is Assistant Climate Change and Energy Minister Jenny McAllister. Good to see you again, Senator. Thanks so much for joining us. So, almost 60 per cent of Australia’s solar energy smart inverters are made by Chinese companies linked to the Chinese Communist Party and under Chinese national intelligence laws companies that supply solar inverters can be ordered by Beijing at any time to spy on, disrupt or sabotage foreign power supplies. With this huge push towards renewables, that’s a problem, isn’t it?

JENNY McALLISTER, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR CLIMATE CHANGE AND ENERGY: Well, the government’s working right across the economy to understand national security threats that might present to Australians as they go about their everyday lives, and that includes, of course, risks that come about because of potential for foreign interference through all of the devices that have become so prevalent in our homes and workplaces. It is a key area of focus for the government and, regrettably, we are having to do a lot of work to make up for a period where the previous government really didn’t bring focus to this issue.

When it comes to the renewable sector, there is a particular issue about concentration in the supply chain across a whole range of products and it is why we are so focused on looking at ways that we can expand our own domestic manufacturing capability, because we shouldn’t be so reliant on a single source for any aspect of a critical element of our national infrastructure. Again, an area that was entirely neglected by the past government, keen to push domestic manufacturing offshore. That’s not the approach we’re taking. We are actively considering the ways that we can expand manufacturing in these areas in Australia.

HEATLEY: Opposition Home Affairs and Cyber Security spokesperson James Paterson says we are going to find ourselves in a situation where our grid is absolutely riddled with these inverters with known cybersecurity vulnerabilities. Is he right? Could we potentially be hacked by – you know, it could not be China. It could be another country as well and could potentially bring down our energy grid if we are in the future in the majority where we are relying on renewables?

McALLISTER: Well, a couple things here. Senator Paterson really needs to explain why his government did so little about high-risk vendors in the nearly 10 years that they were in office, and it seems a bit much to be raising these concerns now. Nonetheless, of course, we take national security seriously. Of course, the Minister for Home Affairs is regularly briefed on these kinds of issues by our intelligence agencies, but, as I say, one of our key areas of focus is expanding our manufacturing capability so we are not as reliant – not as reliant – on importing some of these key components that will be so important in the transformation of our electricity system.

HEATLEY: Is your government planning to do any modelling to predict what would happen to Australia if there was a hack on our energy grid if there were a majority of renewables in the system?

McALLISTER: Look, the Minister for Home Affairs is regularly briefed on a range of threats across the national security system. As I said, we are very focused on improving our cyber resilience. It’s an area that we consider was grossly neglected under the previous government and an area of real focus for Minister O’Neil.

HEATLEY: But the question is, right, if companies like Huawei can’t be trusted to be involved in Australia’s telecommunications network, why would it be okay for our energy grid? You would actually think that that could be worse?

McALLISTER: Look, as I’ve indicated, the Minister takes regular advice from our national security agencies about threats right across the economy. We are very focused, of course, on building out the supply chains that are necessary. This is a substantial transformation, a transformation of markets, of infrastructure, of our energy arrangements and it is going to require focus also on any national security implications. It’s something the government is thinking about carefully and, of course, Minister O’Neil is laser-like in her focus on the cybersecurity challenges facing the country.

HEATLEY: Okay. Energy Minister Chris Bowen will visit India, Korea and Japan over the next 10 days in an attempt to strengthen international climate and energy cooperation with his ministerial counterparts in those countries. What is Australia hoping to get out of this trip?

McALLISTER: Look, the global transformation towards greater renewables and decarbonisation of the global economy more broadly offers real opportunities for Australia, really important economic opportunities and our key trading partners are taking this issue seriously. Also, Minister Bowen is travelling, as you said, to India, to Japan, to Korea, to meet with counterparts and understand the approach that they are taking in their economies to this important transformation. We have Australian businesses lining up to be providers, supporters, investors, participants in the transformation that is taking place not just here but all around the world. And I know Minister Bowen will be very keen to understand the kinds of things that are on the agenda in each of those countries and to talk to counterparts about ways we might cooperate. We can cooperate on technology, on research, on skills, on trade. There are a whole range of areas where Australia can benefit now that our government has taken the important decision to take this issue seriously.

HEATLEY: Senator Jenny McAllister, did you watch the Matildas game last night? What did you think?

McALLISTER: I had the very good fortune actually to be out at the stadium. It was so exciting and, you know, so proud of the Matildas, so proud of these women who just perform so magnificently for our country and, frankly, so nervous for them in this really important first game, but what a terrific result.

HEATLEY: Well said and good to chat. Thank you, Senator.

McALLISTER: Thank you.

HEATLEY: Senator Jenny McAllister there.