Interview with Meecham Philpott, ABC Tropical North

15 June 2022

Radio Transcript
Prepared: Wednesday 15 June 2022
Title: Interview with Meecham Philpott, ABC Tropical North
Description: Meecham Philpott interview with Minister Murray Watt discussing the Federal Cabinet meeting in Gladstone, dams, energy and electricity costs for farmers
Channel: ABC Tropical North
Program: Breakfast with Meecham Philpott
Date Broadcast: 15 June 2022 
Time Broadcast: 7:43AM - 7:54AM

MEECHAM PHILPOTT, HOST: So, the Federal Government settles into Cabinet – a Cabinet meeting today in Gladstone, which interestingly is in the seat of Flynn, which is a seat the ALP did not win and is very much a coal seat, so it could be rather interesting to see what happens over the next couple of days. Anyway, I got in touch with Senator Murray Watt, who we’ve spoken to a number of times here on this program. But, of course, the Senator is now the Minister for Agriculture and Emergency Management. And I said to the Minister, ‘if Federal Cabinet is coming to Gladstone, so when should we book them in for a meeting for Mackay?’

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE: Well, in fact, I remember when I was in the Queensland State Parliament, we had a session of Parliament in Mackay a while back.

PHILPOTT: Very true.

 WATT: So, maybe we can go one step better, who knows? But look, I think this is a really terrific announcement from Albo that we’re going to have the full Cabinet of his Government meet in Gladstone and while it is not in Mackay, it is in regional Queensland, and I think it’s a real coup for the very first regional Cabinet meeting of this Government to be held in regional Queensland. You know, obviously, the issues in Mackay and Whitsunday aren’t exactly the same as Gladstone, but there are certain issues where there are similarities as well.

PHILPOTT: Is that the game plan, that because you’re actually there in the heartland, that you will be talking to people who might be concerned about this or might be concerned about that?

 WATT: Yeah, that’s right. We’ve been asked to think about issues that need to be discussed in Cabinet that are relevant to regional Queensland, and also there will be a big civic representation held by the Prime Minister after the Cabinet meeting where there’s a whole bunch of people being invited - whether it be business leaders, school leaders, community leaders - everyone you can possibly think of will be there and everyone will have a chance to mingle and chat with ministers, which is something that people in regional Queensland don’t often get to do. So, I’m pretty confident that by the end of this Cabinet visit and the site visits that a number of people are doing, that people will have a much better picture of the issues that regional Queenslanders want us focusing on as a new Government.

PHILPOTT: Minister, look, if I was a pessimistic kind of guy, I’d look at the reason you’re having it in Gladstone and say that it’s one of those seats where Labor, you went OK no doubt about that, but you didn’t get the chocolates.

WATT: Yeah, that’s right, we got a pretty good swing to us in the seat of Flynn, which takes in Gladstone, probably one of the better ones in regional Queensland. And, look, we always knew that it was going to be difficult to take back a lot of those seats in regional Queensland given how badly we had done the previous federal election, but we have made some pretty good inroads, whether it be the seat of Dawson around you or Capricornia further south of Flynn. But I think it’s quite a deliberate move from Albo to host the first regional Cabinet meeting in a seat that we didn’t win because we want to send a really clear signal that now we are a government we intend to be a government for the whole country whether people voted for us or not, there’s not going to be any punishment for people who didn’t vote for us. In fact, there’s a message for us that we still need to try a bit harder and still need to connect a bit better and I think having a Cabinet meeting in a place like Gladstone will really help us do that.

PHILPOTT: You’ve got some serious things you’ve got to look into straight away. Power is one of the big ones right now.

WATT: Yeah, it’s a huge issue and, of course, Gladstone is one of the industrial powerhouses of the state so it’s an interesting time for the Cabinet to be going there. Again, I think that’s a good thing so people can see firsthand what the impact of this energy crisis that we’ve inherited is going to mean for heavy industry and jobs and households in regional Queensland. You’ve probably seen from the news that we’re doing a lot of work with the states and territories, so they’ve got a role in this as well to try to, you know, get on top of these energy prices and make sure that we’ve got the energy supply that we need. But, unfortunately, Meech, this is one of these things – I’ve spoken to you before that the previous government just never focused on getting energy policy right and that’s why we’ve got, especially in other states, we’ve got ageing generators and we haven’t built new generation in the way that we should. We haven’t got the new transition that we should and now we’re paying the price. There’s a lot of work to be done there because I know it’s a massive cost of living issue for people and we need industry to have the certainty of electricity supply as well.

PHILPOTT: From your point of view, and you are the Minister for Agriculture, so I dare say you’ve got a lot of farmers beating the door down at the moment saying, ‘I just can’t get my crops off. I can’t afford to run the pumps and all the electricity that I need’. Is it as simple that we just don’t have enough coal based power at the moment because maintenance, some have been knocked out and so forth, or is it because we’ve got too much renewable coming into the grid and can’t store it? How do you see it?

WATT: I probably see it as we just haven’t invested as a country in the electricity grid as a whole to make sure that we’ve got reliable, secure, cheap electricity supply. Again I think we’ve spoken before, Meech, that we haven’t been able to get people to invest in new coal fired power generation because it’s increasingly a really expensive way to produce power, but the problem was that because the previous government didn’t really encourage renewables, we weren’t seeing the investment in renewables to top up what our coal fired power generators could supply and gas as well.

We’ve said all along that we think we need a bit of a mixture of both. We can’t close down the coal fired generators tomorrow, as some people would suggest we do, because the whole system would crash. But the other problem is that the big thing that’s really missing in the whole electricity grid at the moment is the transmission so those towers and wires that you see out west of the range, transporting the power from the generators to the distribution technique. If we can really upgrade that and make it a bit more modern that would allow some of those solar farms and wind farms and other renewable things to come online, and that would give us the power that we need. The problem is that it hasn’t happened and, therefore, people aren’t building those things and meanwhile our coal fired power stations are getting older and more rundown.

PHILPOTT: So, effectively we need the baseload while we’re building all the renewables, isn’t it?

WATT: Yeah, absolutely. What we’ve said is that we need to keep running our existing coal fired power and gas fired power basically until the end of their lives. And we’re in a fortunate position in Queensland where our big power generators are relatively young compared to other states. I mean, if we were having this conversation in New South Wales, some of their big coal fired power stations, they’re going to be closed in the next few years, and because of that their owners don’t want to invest in them and that’s what’s making them creaky and breaking down like what we’re seeing at the moment. At least in Queensland at the moment our power stations are relatively young, and we will be able to use them for a while, while we keep building the renewables and the technology keeps improving. So, we’ve got a bit of a good lead time there.

PHILPOTT: Obviously, Senator, you are a Federal Minister for the ALP, but you’re uniquely situated in that you had time there in the Queensland Parliament. I’m just wondering your feelings with regards to coal royalties. There’s quite a bit of talk at the moment that maybe the slice of the pie is going to go up. What are your thoughts?
WATT: I think I might leave that one to my state counterparts.

PHILPOTT: It’s interesting though, isn’t it? You can argue, ‘well, look, it’s our coal, we’re Queenslanders, we deserve as much as we possibly can’ so you go hard at the negotiating table, but you can see coming back the other way, yes, but it’s all about investment so it’s got to be a real figure that we’re dealing with and also we need to know what that figure is going to be for the next 10 years to get the investment.

WATT: Yeah, look, it’s a difficult balance to strike and you’re right; these resources are owned by the people of Queensland, and I think the people of Queensland have got a right to get a fair share of that, especially when companies are making very high margins on the product at the moment. I think the other important thing about this is that regional people, quite rightly, want to see investment in their communities, if there are going to be changes to royalties. So, I would certainly hope that if the State Government does go down this path, there’s a real pay off for regional Queenslanders as well.

PHILPOTT: Dams, you’re a fan of that one?

WATT: Our position about all dams is that we’re open to them as long as they stack up. One of the problems I think we saw from the previous government is that they were all systems go saying that these dams would go ahead, but they did it without business cases being produced so no one knew how much the water was going to cost and what the cost of the project was. And, you know, let’s face it: dams are expensive things to build, and you want to make sure if you’re going to invest billions of dollars of taxpayer funds, they’re going to be viable. Urannah Dam is a project, I know it’s still underway, they’re finalising business cases and things like that. If it stacks up and it can work, sure, go ahead. Obviously, it’s got to meet environmental approvals and that kind of thing. But we’re very agnostic about these things. If they stack up and they can pass the approvals, then sure, let them happen. If they don’t stack up and they’re going to destroy the environment, then we probably need to have a think.

PHILPOTT: Pumped hydro – it’s a different beast as soon as you throw pumped hydro into it.

WATT: Exactly. Look, I met with the proponents of the Urannah Dam and that’s certainly one of the key features of this proposal that might let it get over the line. It’s not just about supplying water for [indistinct] electricity grid running. So, there’s a lot of angles to this project and I think it’s a really exciting one.

 PHILPOTT: The more I do interviews with regards to electricity and, you know, getting industry rolling and supporting our farmers and also at the same time transitioning into clean green power, it seems like we need a massive, massive couple of batteries lying all over the country. Would you agree?

WATT: Yeah, I think that that’s real opportunities for batteries to be developed across regional Queensland, and in some ways pumped hydro is a kind of a battery. You can store the excess power that you’re generating, and you can use it when you need it, and we might be in a position where we need it very soon. I’d love to see us get to a point where we can be building those big batteries. We actually had an election policy that we were going to deliver community batteries across the country because there’s a lot of people who are generating solar in their own homes and they’ve got nowhere to store it and they can’t afford a battery themselves, but we can plug it into a community battery that people can then draw on. But over time, I can see a day when some of our big manufacturing outfits are generating their own power, storing it as well, and that’s where you can really cut the cost of power for these firms and, hopefully, that lets them expand.

PHILPOTT: Which, of course, once we get to that level though, that means the poles and wires, the system we have at the moment needs to transform as well, doesn’t it?

WATT: It does. And that’s what I was saying about the electricity grid that we have at the moment and the transmission line, they’re not really built for this kind of new technology that’s coming online. They were perfectly adequate for when all of our power was generated by coal fired power and gas, but things are changing and we need the grid to keep up to date with that so we can take advantage of these things because, as I say, this is the key to making sure we have reliable, secure, cheap power in the future and that’s exactly what households need and exactly what industry needs.

PHILPOTT: That’s the Minister for Agriculture and Emergency Management, Senator Murray Watt.