ABC News Breakfast

Interview

DCI083/2017

16 October 2017

Subjects: Energy, newspoll, Melbourne marathon

Michael Rowland: Let's take you straight to Canberra now. We're joined by the Federal Transport Minister, Darren Chester, ahead of a busy week in federal politics. Minister, Good morning to you.

Darren Chester: Good morning, Michael.

Michael Rowland: Now we have this ACCC report out this morning on energy prices, showing that over the past decade in real terms, after inflation, prices have gone up 63 per cent. When you see a figure like that, what does that mean to you?

Darren Chester: Well, I think it will come as no surprise to Australian mums and dads who have been battling with this energy affordability issue now for several years. So, it reinforces the Government's view that we need to be working harder to drive down, as much as we possibly can, the price of energy. So it is about affordability, but it's also about reliability. People want to know when they go to turn on their lights, they're going to come on. This issue of energy affordability and reliability is a critical one for us, not just from the cost-of-living aspects, but also from a jobs basis, where in our manufacturing sector or energy-intensive industries that require a strong, reliable base load form of energy—we need to make sure we can provide that for them. So I think it's one of the most important issues, if not the most important issue that Australians are confronting at the moment. I look forward to having a closer look at the ACCC report this morning.

Michael Rowland: We'll get to where energy comes from, be it renewable or coal-based. But this report also makes it very clear the big energy companies—the AGLs, the Energy Australia's, the Origin's—have simply too much power. Is that a fundamental problem, I guess, with the energy sector?

Darren Chester: The issue of competition in the sector, I think, is one that will get a fair bit of discussion in the days ahead. I understand it is put forward in the ACCC report. Michael, from my perspective, I represent an electorate in Gippsland and La Trobe Valley where, without wishing to be a pun, we are really at the coalface of the energy issue. I have got coal-fired power stations in my electorate. A lot of jobs depend on the generating capacity and the opportunity to continue to provide that reliable base load energy from my community. So, we're very much attuned to these issues of where the energy comes from, what it costs, and how we're going to provide for base load reliable, affordable energy into the future. So, it is an important debate and one I look forward to further discussion on during the week.

Michael Rowland: Okay, based on what you just said about the coal stations in your electorate and also, Darren Chester, as a senior member of the National Party in the Cabinet; where do you stand on a clean energy target?

Darren Chester: Well my view, Michael, quite simple is that we need to look in the longer term in the sense that we're going to need an energy mix. It's going to be, I believe, for several decades at least into the future, we are going to have a mix of base load energy coming from coal. We have enormous coal resources here in Australia but also recognising that there is an opportunity for renewables to play a bigger role in the market in the future. But renewables have got to be affordable, they've got pay their own way into the market as well. So I guess it's a matter of it not being all or one. It's about the economics and the engineering solutions rather than ideology. I'm quite pragmatic when it comes to that, that we need to make sure the lights stay on at an affordable price for households, but also to make sure our industries can remain competitive on the world markets.

Michael Rowland: Is the clean energy target dead and buried?

Darren Chester: Well there's a discussion obviously coming up in Cabinet this week, which has been widely canvassed in the media. I won't be commenting on that discussion, obviously, until it occurs. Then the normal process is, for us as a Government, we then take our policy positions to the joint party room for further discussion. So, it's a big week in terms of this whole energy affordability and reliability issue, and I want to congratulate the Prime Minister and Josh Frydenberg for the leadership role they have played in what has been a difficult issue. I think we're making good steps in the right direction. I want to reassure Australians that we are working to get pressure off their cost of living.

Michael Rowland: You say there's a role for renewable energy, Darren Chester, as you'd argue, more gradually than others would want. But at the same time, we have that Newspoll figure out this morning showing that 63 per cent of Australians polled—including, in that figure, 59 per cent of Coalition voters—want renewable subsidies continued. So how does that fit with the view that you've just expressed?

Darren Chester: Well, the same Newspoll, Michael, indicated people didn't want to pay more for their electricity. So that is the difficult balancing act that governments face on a daily basis. The Australian people have certain expectations in relation to certain policy areas. They don't necessarily want to pay more for their power and I can understand that, and they don't want to see more subsidies necessarily for renewable energy if it impacts on their cost of living. So it is a difficult balancing act for governments to work through and Newspoll, as you are well aware, Newspoll is a sample of time and it doesn't actually apply to the full policy explanation. People are asked to respond to a simple question, and then given further opportunities to explore that question, they may have had a different answer. So, you know, polls are a snapshot in time and I understand that people are concerned about energy and the cost of living, but they don't necessarily want to be paying more for renewables.

Michael Rowland: Well you say polls, in particular the Newspolls, are snapshots, but they're a very important performance indicator for politicians, including, as you well know, the Prime Minister, who used the Newspoll as the benchmark, one of his benchmarks, for toppling Tony Abbott. This is the 21st Newspoll where Malcolm Turnbull has been, or the Coalition, has been behind the Labor Party. Is the Coalition locked in a death spiral here?

Darren Chester: No. I think that's a ridiculous proposition. We are in government, we're delivering everything we said we'd do at the last election.

Michael Rowland: What's it going to take to—you had all that good news at the end of last week—in the period where this Newspoll was in the field—the good news on health insurance premiums coming down, the Prime Minister made an announcement on more money for medical research and still you have this yawning gap in two-party preferred terms.

Darren Chester: But the point I'm making, Michael, is we are in government, we have got at least 18 or 19 months until the next election. We are in a position to keep on delivering everything we said we would deliver. Now, there's an interesting dynamic, I think, in Australian politics these days, where being in government is not necessarily the greatest advantage to have, incumbency is not always the greatest advantage to have because you're having to make some tough decisions from time to time. We accept that responsibility and it is a great privilege to be in Government. But also within the culture of politics right now, I think the Australian people are quite happy to give their Members of Parliament a clip behind the ears to make sure we stay on our toes. They are not going to let us get complacent, so they are holding us to account during these Newspolls. But when the time comes to actually cast their vote in 18 or 19 months' time, they'll carefully evaluate: well, have we done what we said we'd do? Do they trust us to keep on delivering? Do we deserve their vote into the future?

So Newspolls are a snapshot. I don't necessarily believe it reflects exactly a voting intention in 18 or 19 months' time. So I'm pleased with the way the Government is working diligently on everything we promised that we would do at the last election. In my portfolio in particular, we are rolling out $75 billion worth of infrastructure investment right across Australia. I get the great privilege of travelling around Australia and seeing thousands of Australian men and women working on new roads, new bridges, projects that are going to make a real difference in those communities. So, I think we will be judged at the time, at the right time, which will be the lead to the next election.

Michael Rowland: Well Minister, I want to thank you for joining Breakfast this morning, particularly as I guess you're feeling a bit sore and sorry this morning. You ran and completed the Melbourne Marathon yesterday—we are showing our viewers the tweet you put out—in what I'd say is a pretty impressive time. Congratulations.

Darren Chester: Thanks Michael. Look, I just happen to have my finisher's medal here with me. It's a great community event.

Michael Rowland: Hold it up.

Darren Chester: It is a great community event, the Melbourne Marathon. It's the biggest running festival in Australia and I want to actually thank the volunteers and the people who line the course. They cheer us on, it's a real carnival atmosphere. I must mention also though, Michael, that Matt Thistlethwaite, the Labor member for Kingsford Smith, he beat me by the best part of an hour. He ran an incredible time, he was 2 hours, 59. So it's a bit of a great sport, the marathon, for people who can't necessarily compete in other sporting events anymore. Being able to go for a long run in the morning sometimes clears your head in this place.

Michael Rowland: Indeed. It was such a beautiful day in Melbourne yesterday. I did the half-marathon two years ago and it nearly killed me. So, anybody who does the full marathon has my full support.

Darren Chester: Well, you'll see me walking down stairs in Parliament House today with very sore quads and hamstrings.

Michael Rowland: But feeling very good in the process. Hey, Darren Chester, thank you very much for joining Breakfast.

Darren Chester: All the best. Thank you.