Sky News interview with Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

15 June 2022

SUBJECTSenergy crisis, transition to renewables, coal-fired power stations, minimum wage and inflation, small business

LAURA JAYES, HOST: Let's stay in Gladstone. Joining me live is the Environment and Water Minister, Tanya Plibersek. Thanks so much for your time before this Cabinet meeting. Obviously, the solutions are pretty hard here but does Labor have an idea about what to do with this energy crisis on the east coast?

TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: Well, we do, of course.  Chris Bowen met with state energy ministers last week. They came up with an 11-point plan and what was interesting about that meeting was that it was Liberal, Labor, Green, energy ministers and the Commonwealth Energy Minister, Chris Bowen, working together cooperatively to address the problem. And the real issue that we have here is almost a decade of failed plans from the previous government. Twenty-two separate energy plans, they didn't land one of them. What we're dealing with is the result of delay, denial, and chaos from the previous government and, of course, we need to address that quickly. We know that there are pensioners today in very cold parts of Australia deciding whether or not to put the heater on because they're not sure if they can afford their energy bills. We absolutely need to tackle that. We know that renewable energy is both cheaper and cleaner and we want to see more renewable energy able to go into the national energy grid but that's going to take some work to upgrade our transmission network, to upgrade the grid itself. And so we're working with state and territory ministers to do that, but also to look at immediate actions like allowing the energy market operator to be able to buy and store gas. This is something that the previous government could have done at any time, but because they were so riven with chaos, with the fact that the Liberals and the Nationals could never agree, or the two parts of the Liberal Party could never agree on an energy plan, well, we're seeing the results of it.

JAYES: Certainly, and Parliament has been focused on a cleaner energy system and you do note that renewables are cleaner and cheaper but the situation we're in at the moment, the transition to net-zero, doesn't right now prove that renewables aren't reliable. They're not as reliable as we need them to be at this moment in time. 

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No, it proves that the previous government absolutely failed on making sure that our transmission network was ready for the change that's happening, not just in Australia but around the world. We've got 3 million Australians who have put photovoltaic cells on their roof - solar energy on their roof because they've worked out that it's cheaper. What we need to do is make sure we can harness that cheaper, cleaner energy in a way that makes sure that businesses and homes have a supply of energy that is reliable, that is, you know, continues to be value for money and to do that we need to upgrade our transmission system and we've got a plan to do that.

JAYES: Yes, certainly. Under Labor's climate policy it would mean 82 per cent renewables by 2030. That's still only 82 per cent. You've got another 18 per cent that will come from elsewhere. I think everyone expects that to be pretty reasonable. But, what is that other 18 per cent? Does gas become a bigger part of our energy mix?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, gas is absolutely part of the transition to renewables right now. It's an important part, as is pumped hydro, as is greater storage, as is reducing our energy consumption or being more energy-efficient. All of these things are part of the mix and we'll do them in the most cost-effective way. What we've had from the previous government is this ideological battle about keeping renewables out of the energy market. We recognise that they're cheaper and cleaner but we need back-up to make sure that the supply of energy is reliable as well and, as you say, gas will be part of that transition. 

JAYES: It's pretty wild that Matt Kean, the New South Wales Treasurer, given his push towards renewables and changing the system in New South Wales is, at the moment, saying, well, coal is the answer. I mean, how did we get to this point? We see reports in the AFR today that Matt Kean rejected an offer - or I should say more broadly the New South Wales Government rejected an offer to buy the Eraring power station, which would have cost $250 million. Where we are now, and I know hindsight is a beautiful thing, but should New South Wales just have purchased that to make sure we did have reliable power this winter?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Oh, look, I'm not going to comment on decisions made by the New South Wales Government. I think the important thing is that our Commonwealth Energy Minister, Chris Bowen, is working very cooperatively with all state and territory ministers. We recognise that we need to get power prices down, we need to make sure we've got reliability and the fact that we're staring at blackouts is really troubling for businesses and for families and we need to do that in a way that's cooperative, that gives business certainty. I mean, you know what our climate change and energy plans are, we took them to the last election. They had the backing of all the major business groups - the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Business Council of Australia, the National Farmers Federation were all prepared to sign up to Labor's climate and energy plans because they give certainty and that's what has been missing over the last decade. 

JAYES: But we are where we are right now and let's not go back through the history wars, but at this point what do we do? Do we put taxpayer funds, or does the Labor Government put taxpayers' funds towards propping up some of these coal-fired power stations to get us through this rocky period, as Chris Bowen put it, or do you find more gas? Is it as simple as that binary choice?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: It's not as simple as any binary choice, Laura, and that's the reason it's so important for Chris Bowen to be working with state and territory energy ministers and, like I say, gas is an obvious part of the solution at the moment. It's one of the reasons that the energy ministers signed off on giving the Australian energy market operator the ability to buy and store gas so that at times like this we can actually draw down on stored gas supplies. But we need to work on a range of solutions. It's not going to be one silver bullet that fixes this problem. It is something that we're going to have to, you know, address in the short term but have medium and longer-term plans for.

JAYES: But you don't rule out propping up coal-fired power stations?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I'm not the energy minister. If you want to talk about the future of coal-fired power stations it's good to get Chris and have a talk to him about that.

JAYES: We will try and do that. Let's talk about the minimum wage. What do you see as a fair increase today?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we see a fair increase as keeping up with the cost of living. We know that inflation is, well, the last figure we had was just over 5 per cent and, as you reported yourself a minute ago, it's looking to go even higher than that. We'd like to see wages keeping up with inflation. We think that people earning $20.33 an hour really deserve a pay rise of $1 an hour. It's pretty hard to argue against that. I mean these are the minimum wage workers that kept us going through the pandemic. They're the people working in, you know, retail, in nursing homes, working with people with disability and it just is extraordinary that - I know you don't like the history wars - but we had a government that said that low wages were a deliberate design feature of their economic management. We actually want to see people not falling behind. That means addressing wages, it actually means addressing productivity in our economy because we can afford to pay better wages when our economy is more productive. That means investing in training, in education, in productivity-enhancing infrastructure. It means dealing with the skills shortages that every business around Australia will tell you that they're facing at the moment.
And as well as wages, as well as productivity, we also need to be looking at some of those things that we can do to ease the cost of living. You know that Labor's got a great plan to make child care cheaper for 96 per cent of Australian families. Some of those families will save thousands of dollars a year. It will make it possible for, you know, usually mums who have been saying no four or five days a week of work because they can't afford the child care. They will go back to work more hours a week. That takes pressure off the cost of living. Of course, as we've been saying, we're also working to do something about the extraordinary spikes in energy prices that we've seen. So wages and cost of living, we need to tackle those together.

JAYES: Okay, the RBA just predicted that inflation will go to 7 per cent, though. Do you want wages to rise that much because it seems even today's decision, it won't help people keep up with the cost of living?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we've been very clear that our support for this minimum wage case is about this case, and when there are future minimum wage cases we'll make a decision based on the economic circumstances at the time. But today, later today, what we're hoping to see is low-paid workers not falling further behind. 

JAYES: Okay, and what about small business? Can they afford it?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Look, we do need to be aware of the impact on small business. We know that small businesses have been doing it tough. One of the best things we can do to help small business is deal with the skills shortage that all of them are facing right now and working with them to make sure that there's a healthy economy. They're worried about paying their wages bills but the customers who are walking through their front door, or buying from them online. If they're falling further behind, if they don't have $5 in their pocket, they're not going to stop on the way to work to buy a cup of coffee. So we need to make sure that there is confidence in the Australian economy and that people have a bit of money spare to spend to create jobs for other Australians.

JAYES: Tanya Plibersek, enjoy balmy Gladstone. It is a lot warmer than Sydney right now. We'll see you soon. 

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: It's a beautiful day here, yep. Thank you.