Transcript of Interview: 5AA Mornings with Leon Byner

Interview

BPC030/2015

15 June 2015

E&OE

Leon Byner: Now yesterday and today, one of our expert economic commentators from Adelaide Uni has made a point that what South Australia's got to do—because our unemployment rate, which is even worse than Tasmania, which is quite extraordinary, where we've got more than double the population…but anyway. The premier I note yesterday had a press conference and said he was going to bring forward some infrastructure projects and try and get them on the table sooner rather than later. So, I thought it would be most relevant to talk to the person in the Federal Parliament whose job it is to scrutinise these projects, and that's the Assistant Infrastructure Minister Jamie Briggs. Jamie, thanks for joining us today.

Jamie Briggs: Always a pleasure, Leon.

Leon Byner: Jamie, does the Federal Government—given our unemployment stats yesterday and the state of our economy at the moment in this state compared to the rest of Australia, who are under the same government, of course, are you enthusiastically looking forward to the government as soon as possible presenting you guys with an infrastructure brought-forward plan, so you can have a good look at it and say yes we'll do it?

Jamie Briggs: Well, we've been having enthusiastic conversations already with Stephen Mullighan. In fact, in the last two or three weeks Minister Mullighan and I have had several discussions about what additional projects we could do on the South Road Corridor. Mr Mullighan's presented proposals in relation to an upgrade to the Strzelecki Track. These are projects that we're talking to the South Australian Government about. We recognise that South Australia is in a difficult situation, and infrastructure is part of the way to help address the struggling nature of the economy here in South Australia. It is very sad, and I'm very disappointed about the decision that Alinta made yesterday. It ought not to be this way Leon. The reality is that many policies have been put in place by this state government in particular, who have pursued coal fired plants out of existence for many years. And this is a result really of this very focused pursuit of the coal industry and of a power source been delivered by coal. I think it's a very sad situation that this decision's been brought forward some 15 years because of the economic reality that it is so expensive now to run these operations that they are forced to close. And I feel deeply sorry for the people involved. We do need a plan and I think the state budget next week is an opportunity for the South Australian Government to outline a plan for the economic future of this state. It's not just good enough to say, the Bart Simpson-type defence Leon, ‘it wasn't me, it's all the Federal Government's fault’. This is a government that's been in power for over 13 years.

Leon Byner: Now Jamie, I need to ask you this. I know the government has already in South Australia said that they're going to talk to you about the special case with Leigh Creek, and Port August, and the northern regions of our state, which are terribly important to us as you well know. But I just point out that in amongst this you've got companies like Sundrop, who have got a desalination plant which is solar powered, and from the water they get they actually do some wonderful agriculture and aquaculture; why can't we do more nurturing in that area so that rather- I mean look, we all need to ensure that people get their just entitlements and so on, but just giving handouts is not the answer. What we've got to do is increase economic activity. And if we're into the business of not using fossil fuels, solar is a good option. California have led the way. Is there more we could do Jamie, as Assistant Infrastructure Minister in this state, with solar?

Jamie Briggs: Well, the issue with solar clearly is the capacity to capture the solar power and to store it for use across the grid. And that is technology which is developing, and developing quite quickly.

Leon Byner: Yep.

Jamie Briggs: And I'm sure in the future we will see increased investment. And you've seen private sector companies, as you say Leon, invest increasingly in these areas.

Leon Byner: Sure.

Jamie Briggs: Now the federal Government is involved to the extent that we have put in place the Renewable Energy Target, which of course Premier Weatherill has made great stake in the fact that South Australia is a very large participant in the renewable energy area. That in reality has changed the way that our power structure works in the state, and that has made businesses like Alinta unviable…

Leon Byner: [Interrupts] Alright. I've got to ask you; it appears that the Prime Minister is not exactly a great fan of wind farms. So okay, what then?

Jamie Briggs: Well, I think the point he made is he doesn't like the way they look. I'm not sure he made any other judgment upon wind farms, because they are a reality of the power system. I think he was commenting on the aesthetics of them rather than the contribution they make.

Leon Byner: But nevertheless, what are the other alternatives the Coalition would be pursuing?

Jamie Briggs: Well, you made the point earlier on your program today that when governments intervene in markets you sometimes have perverse outcomes. And that's been the case with the Renewable Energy Target. By forcing in renewable energy into the power grid you have made some more marginal fossil fuel burning plants- you've put them out of existence, and that's been the case with Alinta. I think people need to understand Leon. Alinta's situation really is a direct result of government policy in the end. Government has over time, and the Gillard-Rudd Government put in place the carbon tax pretty much for this purpose, pretty much to get rid of coal fired generation. I mean, this is the outcome of…

Leon Byner: [Interrupts] It was to nurture people. It was to nurture people who were in the fossil fuel business of providing energy across to other means to do it. Now, I've got a question here from Alex of Birdwood. Alex, meet Jamie Briggs.

Caller Alex: Good morning. Yes, I have a question for Jamie Briggs.

Leon Byner: What is it, Alex?

Caller Alex: Last year, in the Adelaide Hills Magazine, there was a lengthy interview with Jamie Briggs, and in that interview he said that he was lobbying hard, along with his South Australian colleagues, to try and get the submarine contact in South Australia; I'm just wondering, has all that lobbying stopped, or is it still being done, or is this all a done deal?

Leon Byner: Great question. Jamie?

Jamie Briggs: Well, there wasn't actually any mention in the Adelaide Hills Magazine of that issue. But to the point Leon, the government has got a process underway; we've had several discussions with South Australian members with the Prime Minister and with the Minister of Defence. Matt Williams particularly has been very vocal about the capacity it can deliver down at the ASC. I think you'll see in the next few weeks some announcements in respect of the continual ship building program for the future, which will be very positive announcement for South Australia. We know the work done at the ASC is world class. We know that there's been some problems in that past in the way that some of the projects have had cost blowouts, and there's been a lot of work done by the ASC management to improve the systems in that respect. But the work done by the workers is first class, and they will have an enormously important future in Australia's shipbuilding …

Leon Byner: [Interrupts] There is- well, as long as we're talk- well remember Jamie—I don't mean to interrupt you—but there are 2000 or so staff there, right?

Jamie Briggs: Yeah.

Leon Byner: Now, the only thing I've heard that's been of any specific nature about the submarine issue has been 500 jobs. Now, that's 1500 short of what we need. But look, can I make another point with that…

Jamie Briggs: No, no, no, that's 500 in addition Leon to what is already there.

Leon Byner: Yeah.

Jamie Briggs: Because the government's committed to building more than the existing fleet of submarines, so the very nature of…

Leon Byner: [Interrupts] Yeah. I'll tell you where the problem occurs where the public might have some doubts.

Jamie Briggs: Sure.

Leon Byner: There was a senate inquiry recently where it was revealed that even after the competitive evaluation process the company or companies that might come out the winners would not necessarily get the contracts. Point one. Point two; defence expert Rex Patrick, who I'm sure you know, has been on this program and writing a lot about this, has said that under the system of competitive evaluation the government still have the right to do whatever they want irrespective of what is in that competitive evaluation.

Jamie Briggs: Well, Leon, to the extent that you have an elected government, you want the elected government to be making the right decisions…

Leon Byner: Sure.

Jamie Briggs: …in the interest of taxpayers.

Leon Byner: Sure.

Jamie Briggs: So, the government's getting itself the best advice, it's opening up the process through the best possible competitive process, so you've got genuine competition. Remember, the defence industry worldwide has one client Leon, and that's government.

Leon Byner: Yeah.

Jamie Briggs: And so it is a difficult and complex industry, and these are very expensive and long term purchases.

Leon Byner: Yeah.

Jamie Briggs: Which you don't try to….

Leon Byner: [Interrupts] Yeah, you can see that Alex is on the money, because a lot of South Australians—including myself—think that we must maintain the ship building capacities of South Australia, because…

Jamie Briggs: And we will Leon.

Leon Byner: Yeah.

Jamie Briggs: And I think you'll find in the coming weeks there'll be some very positive…

Leon Byner: Alright.

Jamie Briggs: …news respect of the ship building of South Australia. So, this is not just about submarines; there's a broader issue here which is…

Leon Byner: [Interrupts] Alright, but on the business of the unemployment rate right now.

Jamie Briggs: Sure, yeah.

Leon Byner: I just want to clarify that you're looking forward to hearing from the government for extra projects shovel-ready that can be invested and virtually struck up straight away?

Jamie Briggs: Well, let me make two points. We're already talking to them about an additional pipeline of work we could do. The shovel-ready projects we would be happy to contribute money earlier to get those projects happening earlier—that's the Darlington project…

Leon Byner: Yeah.

Jamie Briggs: …that's the Torrens to Torrens project. And I've made that point to Minister Mullighan, and he's always [indistinct] very hard. We have a good relationship, and we're continuing to work on how we fund the additional upgrades of South Road…

Leon Byner: Alright.

Jamie Briggs: …so we can get that complete corridor done.

Leon Byner: Let me ask you this. As a local member, when you found out the unemployment numbers yesterday, where we even beat Tasmania, what did you think in your mind, with the knowledge you've got as Infrastructure Assistant Minister and the…

Jamie Briggs: Yeah.

Leon Byner: …people you talk to and the advice you get, from your perspective why are we in that position right now?

Jamie Briggs: Look Leon, I'm raising three children in the Adelaide Hills. I want those kids to get jobs in Adelaide and be around us the rest of their lives. Of course, like all South Australians…

Leon Byner: Yeah.

Jamie Briggs: …I want Adelaide to be successful; I'm on Kangaroo Island today in my electorate and there's a lot of good things happening here.

Leon Byner: Yeah but…

Jamie Briggs: And can I say this…

Leon Byner: [Interrupts] But why are we in that position though, in your view?

Jamie Briggs: Well, look, I think the fact of the matter is we are over-taxed and we are over-regulated. Investment in South Australia is more difficult than other places. We've got a government which is 13 years old, it's frankly long in the tooth on policy ideas, what they've done in the past has not worked. Unemployment results remember are a lag indicator; they reflect how the economy has been. So, we are enduring now the consequences of bad policy over a long period of time. I think we do need to cut tax, I think we do need to create an investment climate in South Australia which is a lot more certain and a lot more encouraging for business to try and invest and grow. And that's exactly what the Federal Budget was all about, trying to encourage small business to spend money on their business, incentivise them investing in their people so they can grow. And I think Australians…

Leon Byner: Yeah we're going to build an airport at KI that actually works better than the one we've got?

Jamie Briggs: Well, there's an application as part of our Stronger Regions Fund and I'm very hopeful it'll pass. There was certainly some discussion last night at a dinner with the business community here on KI about that.

Leon Byner: Good.

Jamie Briggs: There's a lot of exciting things happening on Kangaroo Island, I must say. There's a very positive attitude over here…

Leon Byner: Well, getting a runway that can take a 737 would be a help.

Jamie Briggs: It would certainly be a benefit to the economy, and having some competitive tension on how you can get to and from the island would certainly help benefit the island, that's for sure.

Leon Byner: Jamie Briggs, thank you. That's the Assistant Infrastructure Minister. I thought it would be helpful to pick his head on a few of these issues today, which are very front of mind for South Australia.