November 22, 2017




RAF EPSTEIN: No matter what happens with your electricity in the future, you just kind of want it to be cheaper and you want the lights to come on when you flick the switch. Now cheaper we will get into after 5:00pm, the Essential Services Commission here in Victoria is slamming the people who sell you electricity for the way it is sold to you. Let’s look though at reliability and emissions; batteries and other ways to store electricity that is going to be crucial. Now Labor wants to get to 50 per cent renewables. They’ve been endorsed in a report released by, not written by, but released by the Chief Scientist Alan Finkel. To talk about what Labor could and shouldn’t do we have on the line Mark Butler. He is a Labor MP from South Australia and he is the Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy. Mark Butler, good afternoon. 




EPSTEIN: 50 per cent renewables by the end of 2030. That report released yesterday talks about getting there without significant requirements for storage. Do you agree? Can you do most of it with houses or do you have to have something like pumped hydro, don’t you?


BUTLER: We think we will need some additional storage but the report that was written by the Academies of Science, which band together to form the rather grand name of the Council of Learned Academies. Now these are the nation’s best scientists reinforcing some of the work that the CSIRO did for the Energy Networks Association over the last year or so which also said that the spread of renewables to the point of 50 per cent by 2030 would require some additional storage but not the sort of scale of storage that we are seeing reported in the media and some political quarters. I think that is a pretty orthodox position.


But building renewables is not really a question of choice. What we are increasingly coming to grips with is that our existing generation fleet is ageing very fast and becoming increasingly unreliable. We see that now in Victoria. We have a unit down at Yallourn, a unit down at Loy Yang A, and we’ve had Hazelwood close, a piece of kit that was built in the 1960s. Building new generation infrastructure is not an option – it is an absolute necessity. The longer we continue to have this political fight about a National Energy Guarantee, or some other acronym at a national level; we are going to see reliability problems emerge.   


EPSTEIN: Can we talk about the fighting. Both you and the Energy Minister reference it. The woman who chairs the Energy Security Board, people don’t need to know what that is but they are kind of in charge of the whole network across the country; Kerry Schott said yesterday that we have to have a way through this, “I wish the politicians would stop behaving badly and behave like diplomats, which they can do on occasion.” Is any of the fight on energy policy Labor’s fault?


BUTLER: I think this has been one of the biggest public policy failures of the last twenty years. There is no one who is blameless in this. I think we’ve been pretty honest about some of the mistakes we made in government around climate change and energy policy. I think we did some very good things but we made some mistakes in the design of our reforms, in the presentation of our reforms. But we have been working very hard over the last couple of years to try and reach a consensus with the Federal Government.


This is not an academic issue, your listeners know we are in the deep throes of an energy crisis, and it is self-inflicted. It is not the product of some energy shock from the Middle East as was the case in the 1970s and 1980s. This is because we can’t get our act together in the Parliament to deal with the renewal of our fleet. We’ve made a number of offers to the Government about various iterations of policy, including the Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s report that was on the table until it was unceremoniously pushed off the table a few weeks ago.


EPSTEIN: Can I ask you about the latest iteration of the government’s plan which is something called a National Energy Guarantee. Now I am personally not a huge fan of redrafting and redrawing but the Energy Security Board are behind it, the people who are currently in power want to go ahead with the National Energy Guarantee, wouldn’t it be better if you in Opposition and the state Labor governments said okay yes, let’s all agree on the mechanism and then keep the fighting to the settings on the mechanism?  


BUTLER: The levels of ambition, absolutely, and that is what we did with the first policy they had last year, an Emissions Intensity Scheme. Then we said the same thing about the Clean Energy Target. The problem with the National Energy Guarantee, Raf, is all we have is an eight page letter. 


EPSTEIN: I think the modelling is released on Friday?


BUTLER: We might get some modelling later to have a closer look at it but compare that with Alan Finkel’s report, the Chief Scientist. That was the subject of months and months of public submissions, public hearings, consultation with industry and states. Alan Finkel travelled to other countries around the world that are grappling with these challenges as well. We all had a very good look at the detail of that. An eight page letter cannot be compared to the level of evidence-based work that went into that. What we see in the future, who knows? We certainly understand the view from industry and from other stakeholders that they recognise that Labor and the Liberals are not going to agree on every fine detail. We have a very clear position of having a high level of ambition of renewable energy. But that doesn’t mean we can’t agree the framework. That is what we have been trying to do for the last two years.


EPSTEIN: The Essential Services Commission here in Victoria, forgive the pun, they are essentially saying that discounts that are offered aren’t worth anything because you have to have the equivalent of a university degree to understand them. Can anyone do anything about that federally or is that a state government issue? 


BUTLER: It has traditionally been a state government issue and I think the state government that is ahead of the game on this is the Andrews Government here in Victoria, who as you know Raf, had John Thwaites conduct a very comprehensive inquiry into this.


EPSTEIN: Yes I’ve spoken to John on this.


BUTLER: That really looked into the retail arrangements more deeply than I think any other report has done. I think what it shows for states like Victoria and South Australia that had absolutely wholesale privatisation of our system in the 1990s of the generation, networks, and the retail market. I think it is clear that privatisation has not delivered for consumers. The promises of better competition and lower prices for consumers have just not come to pass. Not just in Victoria but all throughout the country where there has been privatisation. So I’m looking forward to the Victorian Government’s response to the Thwaites inquiry. I think it is the deepest piece of work that has been done around the country into retail markets. There is a lot of interest from other states in the report and also in the government’s response to it. I understand that they are working through it, as you would expect, in a pretty deliberative way.     


EPSTEIN: Mark Butler is with me, he is the Shadow Energy and Climate Minister, part of Bill Shorten’s Shadow Cabinet. Mark Butler, are all Labor MPs going to Canberra next week? The Government is no longer having the House of Representatives sit next week so are all of your ALP lower house MPs going to Canberra?


BUTLER: This is something we are still working through with the rest of the House of Representatives that have had their work program cancelled by the Prime Minister this week. This was an extraordinary decision I think by Malcolm Turnbull.  


EPSTEIN: It would be a waste of money if you would all go, wouldn’t it?


BUTLER: Certainly Shadow Cabinet is going. We have a meeting scheduled and important business to do. We don’t meet according to the whims of the Prime Minster. So Shadow Cabinet will certainly be there. As for who else will be there, I think that is still the subject of some work between the Labor Party and other crossbenchers.


EPSTEIN: You can’t, even with everyone getting together; you can’t force the House of Reps to sit. You would be better to cancel the flights and save the money wouldn’t you? 


BUTLER: We’ll certainly make the best use of our time and the resources that taxpayers put behind Members of Parliament next week. Certainly Shadow Cabinet will continue to meet, as to what happens with backbench MPs that is still to be determined. We still would hope that Malcolm Turnbull would have a change of heart on this, or a change of mind. Bill Shorten and the crossbench today have, as I understand it, written to Malcolm Turnbull urging him to reconsider his position to cancel Parliament. I accept that marriage equality won’t be finished in terms of Senate debate next week but as I understand there were 53 other pieces of legislation up for the Parliament to debate.


EPSTEIN: Yes that was the point I was arguing yesterday. Can I ask you Mark Butler, if they are down a MP or two because of constitutional issues; is it the ethically correct thing to do to push a vote through? That is not a situation that is going to endure for some time. Is it the right thing to do to try and force a vote on banks or penalty cuts in not an illegitimate Parliament, but it is not a complete Parliament?  


BUTLER:  You take the Parliament as it comes. There are arrangements between the major parties around what is called pairing. So if someone is not able to turn up to Parliament because they are sick or because one of their loved ones are sick -


EPSTEIN: But you are not offering leave to Barnaby Joyce while he is off trying to win his seat?


BUTLER: That’s right,  because he didn’t do his paperwork. 


EPSTEIN: And I think that is legitimate, I’m asking you if you think it would be seen as the right thing to do by the country, to force a vote on the banks while Parliament isn’t full?


BUTLER: My view is that Parliament should operate according to the numbers that are before it from day to day, subject to the pairing arrangements. If someone is not able to be there for legitimate personal reasons or reasons of sickness, where we would pair them, so we would take one of our votes out to reflect their absence; the Parliament should be a form of debate not to simply suspend business as usual business because Barnaby Joyce couldn’t get his paperwork in order. 


EPSTEN: Do you know who the MP is who has threatened to resign, the conservative MP?


BUTLER: No I don’t, I’ve read about that but I don’t.


EPSTEIN: Do you believe it?


BUTLER: I don’t know what is happening person by person in the Coalition Party Room but clearly there is a deep, deep level of philosophical division within the Party Room. You see it in relation to almost all the controversial issues that are being debate in the Parliament. Certainly in the area that I have responsibility for, climate change and energy, the Prime Minister confronts a deeply, deeply divided Party Room. It is not a division over personalities. It is not Tony Abbott v Malcolm Turnbull; it is profoundly different world views in that Party Room. So it wouldn’t surprise me. Malcolm Turnbull is clearly a person who is not supported at all by sections within that Party Room. As to the individual intentions of Coalition Party Room MPs I’m probably not the best person to ask. 


EPSTEIN: I know, I just thought you might know. Thanks for your time.


BUTLER: Thanks Raf.