LAURA JAYES: I’ll ask you about portfolio-specific issues in a moment, but I want to ask about the Monash Forum, have you been asked to sign up?
STEVEN CIOBO: No, I haven’t. I’ve seen media reports obviously, but look, at the end of the day, what this is about is ensuring Australians have more reliable energy and cheaper energy into the future. And that is what is at the core of the Coalition’s approach on energy policy. Obviously, it’s got to be a blend of traditional, fossil-fuelled power sources, including for example, coal, as well as renewable energy in the future. Now we know renewable is obviously relatively cheap to produce but it doesn’t have the reliability that fossil fuels do.
LAURA JAYES: The Monash Forum has, you know, a two page list of, I guess, principles in their statement and at the top of that is to see Hazelwood 2.0. They want to see a potentially $4 billion of taxpayer funds put towards a new coal-fired power station. Is there merit in that idea?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, I think there’s merit in assessing any idea. I mean obviously everyone brings to the Parliament their views about the best way forward whether that’s in the Coalition, in the Labor Party, in the Greens, in One Nation. I mean, everyone brings their ideas to the Parliament, the Parliament is the right place, of course, to put all of these ideas into play, to have a discussion around these ideas. I mean, as a Coalition, we’re not being prescriptive. What we’re doing is saying ‘the key to Australia’s future energy mix, which is going to ensure more reliable energy, but also cheaper energy, is to make sure that we have a blend of renewable power as well as more reliable, older fuels, like for example coal.’ I don’t think that’s a controversial statement to make and so every brings, as I said, their two cent’s worth to that debate. I think that’s a positive.
LAURA JAYES: Is it just that? Two cent’s worth? Because call me cynical but I gotta look at the timing here. We’re approaching 30 news polls for Malcolm Turnbull behind the Labor Party. That will be in just a couple of days. When you look at the signatories on the Monash Forum, they’re not exactly Malcolm Turnbull fans. We’re talking about Kevin Andrews, Eric Abetz, Tony Abbott, just to name three.
STEVEN CIOBO: Well I tell you what none of them are fans of. None of them are fans of Bill Shorten, none of them are fans of the Labor Party and the fact is that Labor’s proposals with respect to Australia’s energy future is to tax more, to charge more and have less reliable supply and if anybody wanted to see the consequences of Labor’s failed approach, they’d only simply need to have a look at what happened in South Australia. Indeed, it was part of the reason why the former Labor Government in South Australia got booted out at the last State election there. People want reliable, cheap energy – that’s what they’re looking for.
LAURA JAYES: Nice pivot, Minister, but this is surely unhelpful and another unhelpful distraction for your government. An own goal?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, I mean Laura, you’re asking me to run a, provide a running commentary on colleagues. I’m not going to do that. What I absolutely know with absolute certainty is that no one in the Coalition wants Bill Shorten or the Labor Party to come into government. No one in the Coalition wants Labor to get their hands, not only because they’d make an economic mess when it comes to the Australian economy, but also because they would monumentally stuff up energy policy. We’ve seen Labor stuff up energy policy at a state level, we know that they’d do it on a federal level. We’ve seen them introduce the Carbon Tax. Everyone knows it just meant more expensive electricity so we’re all united and pulling in the same direction about make sure that Bill Shorten and the Labor Party don’t come to power.
LAURA JAYES: So just back to this, this idea of a $4 billion coal-fired power station, Hazelwood 2.0. You say there’s merit in every idea, how should the government, how should Malcolm Turnbull be treating this suggestion? Should he be, I don’t know, getting a scoping study done, should the Productivity Commission look at it? How seriously should he take it?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well what I think I said was there’s merit in discussing all these ideas, I didn’t say that every idea has a merit. But, you know, that’s splitting hairs, I mean look, ultimately, the proposal’s been put forward for money to go towards a coal-fired power station. There’s a whole rang of assessments that need to be made around that, including what the aggregate demand projections are going to be in Australia, what aggregate supply projections are going to be in Australia. I mean, let’s not build a house of straw here, and what I mean by that is, let’s actually have a cold, hard look at this. The Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg is doing an outstanding job, Craig Kelly himself acknowledges that this morning in media reports so Josh is doing a great job with respect to the National Energy Guarantee so we’ll look at all of this in the context of that.
LAURA JAYES: Okay let’s move on to your portfolio. China has hit back at Donald Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminium, and has formally put new taxes, China, this is, has formally put new taxes on about 130 American goods including meat, fruit and wine. Is this the definition of a trade war?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, Laura, this is something that I’ve been concerned about. If we see action and reaction that’s happening globally then we know it’s going to present some real choppy waters when it comes to global economic growth and global economic forecasts. Now one thing that I do like is that China certainly hasn’t been over the top in terms of how they’ve reacted, they’ve been very narrow in terms of their reaction. You know, by the same token, the United States expressed their concern about the way that they believe China is flouting some of the World Trade Organisation rules. The fact is though, that on any side, nobody wins a trade war. There are no beneficiaries from trade wars, there are only losers from trade wars. Australia, meanwhile, under the Prime Minister’s stewardship, continues to open up more export markets for Australian exporters, that’s driving economic growth here, it’s driving jobs here, and we’ve seen really strong results off the back of that.
LAURA JAYES: Now Russia, and this is a slightly separate point, has also threatened retaliation after we expelled some of their spies, or diplomats, whatever you wish to describe them as. Do we do much trade with Russia? Is it you know, big enough to hurt us if they started, you know, stopped taking some of our exports?
STEVEN CIOBO: No. Historically Russia used to be a much bigger trading partner for Australia than it has been for quite a number of years now. We have had, as you know, sanctions in place with respect to Russia for many years and these were revisited most recently when we saw the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines aircraft and of course the loss of Australian lives on board that aircraft. So we have had sanctions in place for quite some time, our trade, investment flows are very modest, so no I don’t think it’d have a big impact.
LAURA JAYES: Okay so it sounds like it would be negligible. Now this story caught my attention yesterday and it’s caught Pauline Hanson’s attention as well. This comes to baby formula. We saw these scenes, extraordinary scenes in Melbourne, of a chemist opening up early and there were lines around the street of what appeared to be Chinese tourists or Chinese nationals, potentially students, lining up around the block, pre-dawn, to stock up on baby formula. The inference is, because it’s such a sought-after product in China, and can be sold at almost $80 a tin, that these products are being sent overseas. Now is there anything you can do in your area, your portfolio area, to stop this kind of trade and to stop students, potentially, sending this back home to China?
STEVEN CIOBO: Look, I’ve seen reports about this with respect to infant formula for a number of years now, they’ve been around, they’re not new. One of the areas that I was, and I wanted to make sure I was able to get to the bottom of, was finding out well just how much of a problem is this actually. And Laura what I can say is I’ve spoken with for example, the CEO of A2 Milk. Now A2 Milk are the producers of the biggest, most in demand baby formula from what I understand, with respect to those that get exported. Now A2 Milk has in place a guarantee to Aussie mums. They say to all Aussie mums, ‘if you want formula jump on our website or call our call centre and we will get formula to you within 24 hours’. So the long story short is that industry is responding in a really positive way. Industry is making sure that any Australian mum who wants formula can have formula and that’s the most important thing. But let’s not also lose sight of the fact that we have seen a big increase in exports which is creating jobs here as well.
LAURA JAYES: Yeah, sure.
STEVEN CIOBO: So what we’re actually ending up with is a win-win situation where we’re driving exports but we’re also making sure that any Australian mum who wants formula can have it within 24 hours.
LAURA JAYES: Sure but you look at some of the big retailers like Woolworths and Coles and the supermarkets, some chemists as well, they have a restriction on how much baby formula you can buy at one time so. It’s two tins. So sometimes husbands or very tired mothers are rushing out at midnight when the bay formula’s finished to go an get stuff off the shelves because you cant actually stock up. Do you think those restrictions should be relaxed because it’s kind of having a reverse effect, where it’s punishing, you know, people trying to do the right thing who cant stock up on tins because there’s this threat that you know, other people are stocking up and sending overseas? Are there unintended consequences you can look at fixing?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in terms of phrasing it as ‘unintended consequences’. I mean, you know, you often hear people demanding there be limits put on the number of tins that people are allowed to buy to stop people from buying more than they think that they should be reasonably allowed to be. It leads to the very kinds of examples that you’re talking about Laura. So you know, this just goes to the key point which is whenever you have regulations starting to intervene, nine out of ten times you actually create more problems than you solve. But let’s go back to basics. The fact is that, as I said, in the case of A2 Milk they provide a guarantee to get milk to mums within 24 hours, you know, that’s a very good outcome. Realistically, what are we gonna do? Are we gonna demand people show their citizenship, their passport, or something like that? To show they’re an Australian citizen before they can buy milk? I mean, we’ve gotta be realistic about this. The fact is that we do provide, that is, industry provides that guarantee to provide that formula and, you know, you speak about tired mums. Well, I can’t exactly see tired mums racing into the shop with their passports to prove their citizens, either. So, we’ve gotta be realistic about it.
LAURA JAYES: Very good point. Perhaps a selfish question on my part, you’re probably past those baby formula years, so appreciate your time this afternoon. We haven’t even spoken about the Commonwealth Games but I’m sure you’ll be enjoying it over the next two weeks, thanks for your time Minister.
STEVEN CIOBO: You know, they need to come to the Gold Coast for the Comm Games. Now’s the time to come, it’ll be great.
LAURA JAYES: Okay, you got your plug in, thank you.
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