ABC AM: 10/08/17

August 10, 2017




SABRA LANEThe Federal Government has given energy companies a deadline of Monday week to outline how they will explain to their customers when their discounted electricity contracts will end and what other offers are available. The Government argues customers are being ripped off now because they are not being given that information currently and are automatically shifted to higher contracts with no information about cheaper deals. Chief executives of seven power companies met with the Prime Minister yesterday to discuss lowering power bills. Those executives also made it clear they want a Government decision on a clean energy target, to allow certainty for future investment. The Opposition dubbed that meeting a talkfest. Joining me now to discuss power and politics is the Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Mark Butler. Mr Butler welcome back to AM.  


LANE: Information is power, those energy companies have agreed to give it to customers. That is a win, isn’t it?

BUTLER: We welcome any change that delivers a better deal for consumers. But I make the point that I’m going to limit the number of plaudits I give to the Prime Minister for grasping the blindingly obvious. We’ve been talking about this for a couple of years now. Certainly consumer groups have and expert bodies like the Grattan Institute have talked about this. We took a policy to the last election to overhaul these market rules because it has been clear for some time they are operating in the interests of the big power companies who are operating businesses privatised by former Liberal Governments in many cases, and not in the interests of consumers. So we welcome these changes but the proof of the pudding, if you like, will be seen when households come to open their power bills in coming weeks and months and discover if their bills are coming down or if they are continuing to spiral up, and up, and up.     

LANE: As you mentioned though a lot of the responsibility also lays at the foot of state governments. The ACCC Chairman, Rod Sims, says many of them, many of them Labor Governments, have allowed state utilities to price gouge their citizens. They’ve contributed to this mess too.

BUTLER: In many states these are fully privatised companies. Particularly in South Australia, in Victoria, in New South Wales and I think we need to have rules that operate whether or not these are privately owned or state owned companies. That has been the position of Labor for a couple of years now. It is a clear policy we took to the last election. I think the work that the ACCC is doing, which will roll out over the coming months, is important work for us to consider really the structure of the industry now. Whether it is state owned or privately owned, the vertical integration between generation and retail is something that requires an examination. If the decision that came out of yesterday’s meeting delivers real change for consumers we will welcome it, but there are other, more important things to do, more central things to do in energy policy to deliver real medium and long-term price relief for households and businesses. 

LANE: The Government is still considering a clean energy target and once it settles on that, if in theory it allows for a low-emissions coal-fired power plant to be built. Will Labor support it?

BUTLER: We’ve said we are not going to rule anything in or out in our negotiations with the Government because we are very firmly of the view that this Parliament cannot let the opportunity slip that was presented by the Finkel Report. We are in the throes of a deep energy crisis in this country and delivering an energy policy through the Parliament that has the support of both major parties is critical to solving that energy crisis. So we’ve said we won’t rule anything in or out in our negotiations. This is a moving feast if you like and we don’t know what the Coalition Party room, the Prime Minister and Minister Frydenberg are going to deliver, if anything. We are going to keep a very open mind. This is not our preferred position, we’ve been clear about this, but we are willing to sit down and talk through a clean energy target in the interest of delivering some stable policy.     

LANE: Given how high electricity bills are right now, Labor has a policy for a 50 per cent renewable energy target by 2030. When will the Party be clear about what that ambition will do to people’s power bills?

BUTLER: We know now that building new renewable energy is already the cheapest build of new electricity generation in Australia and that is only going to become clearer and clearer. The gap will grow wider and wider over coming years. We also know that we are going to have to rebuild a very significant share of our electricity generation infrastructure; it was built in the 60s and 70s, in some cases the early 80s. So the discussion we need to have is what are we going to build over the coming decade and a half to replace this infrastructure which is already starting to shut down. We say renewable energy will be the cheapest new build. That is the clear advice of all expert bodies. 

LANE: Still this will come at a cost. You’ve been hammering the Government over the cost of power but this will have some sort of cost.

BUTLER: Well maintaining an electricity system will have a cost over the coming decade and a half. It is a question of whether you proceed with this fantasy of building new coal-fired power stations which is not supported by anyone in the industry or anyone in the finance sector; or whether you grasp the reality that the future of building new electricity infrastructure is in renewables with new storage technology. It is going to be the cheapest way to ensure Australia continues to have a reliable electricity system and also coincidentally, and happily, it is going to ensure that we are going to discharge our responsibilities around reducing carbon pollution.   

LANE: You are also the National President of the ALP, will the Party throw resources, money and staff in campaigning for the current postal vote to allow same-sex marriage?

BUTLER: Let’s be very clear, we support a parliamentary vote. We support people in this building being able to do their job. 

LANE: That point has been long and often. But on the plebiscite now, the postal vote, will the party throw -

BUTLER: - In whatever forum there is a debate about marriage equality, the Labor Party will support it. We will be in there arguing for support on equality for same-sex couples to marry, if that’s their wish.

LANE: Will you throw money behind it?

BUTLER: There are still questions about this plebiscite. There is a legal question about the validity of the $122 million, an extraordinary sum, which the Government proposes to spend. We still haven’t seen the Government’s legal advice that they keep talking about to indicate that this is legally valid. And there are other significant questions about this like what franchise will there be for voters that are overseas, or young voters who are moving around, voters in remote communities represented by colleagues of mine like Warren Snowdon?  This is a very vague idea at the moment. As I said, any forum where there is a debate about marriage equality we are there supporting it but this is still a very bad idea.

LANE: Mark Butler thank you very much for joining AM this morning.

BUTLER: Thanks Sabra.