Interview with 88.9 FM Tamworth

MATT MACCARTHY (MACCA): Kristy McBain, the Federal Minister for Regional Development, Local Government and Territories joins us this morning. Kristy, how are you? 

KRISTY MCBAIN: Good morning. How are you?

MACCA: Good. Good to have you back on air. It’s been a little while. I was only saying the other day I wonder where Kristy’s got to. 

MCBAIN: Here I am. 

MACCA: But your team of dedicated office professionals have got you back on to us, and we’ve got quite a few questions. As you’re aware, we talk to Senator Tim Ayres every Monday. We also chat to Barney Joyce here, and our local Member is Kevin Anderson. So we’re getting both sides of the coin the best way we can. One of the things we’ve heard about is a little bit of extra money for Commonwealth road funding programs. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but our council last night just increased our rates by 36.3 per cent over two years, with the first one to take effect in the financial year of 18 and a half per cent. But I do believe with Roads to Recovery there is some money from the Commonwealth, is that right? 

KRISTY MCBAIN: That’s right, we’re doubling that Roads to Recovery budget from $500 million a year to a billion dollars a year over the next couple of years, which means that every local council across the country, all 546 of them, will be getting an uplift in their road funding. I’ve spoken to a lot of councils across the country, over 250 of them, and everyone tells me the same thing, that with the heavy weather events that we’ve had, road maintenance is a huge issue. We’re increasing that roads budget for councils. It’s not a beauty pageant contest – every council gets an allocation every year based on their population and road length. It’s a real win for particularly regional, rural and remote councils, who have got such large road networks.

MACCA: My good mate Dobbo says we spend all this time and money making our cars roadworthy; maybe we should start making our roads car worthy, Kristy? 

MCBAIN: That’s right, it’s a big chunk of the council’s budget, which is why we want to help deliver more Roads to Recovery funding to each local council across the country. In this next five-year program of Roads to Recovery work, we are seeing councils with millions of dollars of extra money for road maintenance, which is incredibly important for our communities to get to places safely. 

MACCA: We’re feeling it right across the board in the trolley at the moment, particularly at our big multinational supermarkets. This grocery Code of Conduct, they’re talking about making it mandatory. Has there been any change to I guess whether this becomes mandatory, but also the penalties here? 


MCBAIN: The Code was put in place some time ago by the former government, but it was a voluntary Code of Conduct. We want to make sure that the supermarkets are doing the right thing by consumers, but also doing the right thing by producers. What we have seen over a period of time is our costs going up at the checkout, but our producers not actually earning any more at the farmgate, which is not a sustainable place to be. We’re going to make that Code mandatory, with penalties for breaches up to $10 million. It will be a massive hip pocket cost for any supermarket that is found to be treating their suppliers or producers in a way that’s anti-competitive, or exerting undue influence and pressure on them. The other thing that is really great about it is that you can make anonymous complaints to the ACCC through a complaints mechanism. Lots of suppliers that I had spoken to have said to me that they were too afraid to call out some of the practices by our big supermarkets, because they actually need the money to continue their businesses. This is going to work really well for producers and hopefully it also works well for consumers at the end of the line as well. 

MACCA: What are the KPIs there Kristy? You talk about supermarkets doing the wrong thing, to open up the book on that, what are some of the categories that government are going to be looking at so far as putting the microscope under supermarkets?

MCBAIN: One of the things we are doing is working with Choice, who now provide a quarterly price interrogation of our big four supermarkets, to make sure that we can compare apples with apples. If we are seeing one that is extraordinarily different to the other, we know that there’s a problem in the system. That ACCC complaints mechanism will actually now work in favour of those suppliers and producers, and give them the powers to investigate those complaints more substantially. This is now backed up by those substantial monetary penalties, which weren’t in place before. There will be some pressure on the supermarkets to actually look at their practices and what they’re doing in the system, because otherwise there’s a potential to be hit with quite significant breach notices. 

MACCA: Absolutely. And we’ll certainly keep an eye on that. Nuclear energy, we’ve got wind farms, transmission lines, coal-fired power, Kristy. If the government keeps arguing on both sides about this we’re going to be walking in a blackout.

MCBAIN: I actually understand the frustration of a lot of people out there. We’ve been having energy debates now for well over 15 years, about the best way to move towards an energy transition that’s happening around the world. This isn’t something that is just happening in Australia. What people want to know is that there is a plan for the future, and unfortunately, the other side issued a press release that left more questions than answers. In particularly, how much it's going to cost to buy the land, to build the nuclear reactors, to then run a state-owned electricity company. That’s going to be well outside the ballpark of what this country can afford. If you look at the work that Matt Kean did when he was the Energy Minister, he was open to nuclear, and then we looked at the economics of it he knew it didn’t stack up and would bankrupt the state. There’s some big questions to answer. In the meantime, we’ve got to get on with our transition, which is why there’s been significant investments in green hydrogen as well as renewables, to make sure that we can place Australia at the forefront of this energy transition. You saw that big investment in a Future Made in Australia, to make sure that the minerals that people need around the world to make this transition work are found here in Australia. We need to make sure that we are ramping up our ability to turn those raw minerals into products to sell to the rest of the world. 

MACCA: My concern is the lifespan, Kristy, of these wind farms. At the moment they’re saying 25 to 30 years of lifespan before you’ve got to replace these things, and then the disposal apparently is quite difficult as well. Can you comment on that? 

MCBAIN: If you look at it from a pure economics standpoint, even if you do have to replace them in 30 years, it will still be cheaper to build more renewables than it will be to build nuclear. We still don’t have the issue of dealing with nuclear waste. We can’t even find a waste disposal for low-level medical waste at this point in time. There are going to be some changes in that recycling technology for renewables, whether that be wind or solar. We’re already seeing work being undertaken for the repurposing of solar panels now. That’s a real strawman argument, because there will be recyclable products to come out of those things. There’s not a recyclable product to come out of nuclear waste. If we’re serious about that circular economy and trying to make the most of all the products that we have on the earth, then nuclear still doesn’t stack up. 

MACCA: Speaking of energy – and you may not have this information in front of you – obviously the Narrabri gas project has been in political limbo for a little while. Narrabri being around about two hours from our listening area and impacting a lot of people listening on iHeart Radio online as well as out there. Can you just do a bit of follow-up for us maybe for next time we chat about where that’s up to? I believe it’s been in limbo for a little while? 

MCBAIN: Absolutely, happy to follow that up. I’ve just come out of the Chamber because the Greens have pulled a stunt, suspending standing orders because the Labor Party has just approved a gas project in the country. The Greens want to stand up against it. The fact it is that we are going to need gas and coal in our system for a period of time until there is a proper transition, and gas will play a role. That’s why our gas strategy came out only a couple of months ago saying that gas will be required as a firming technology for a few years to come yet. 

MACCA: Absolutely. And while I’ve got you as well, another local project – we just finished talking to Mayor Russell Webb. An Aboriginal medical centre here, apparently they’re waiting on some federal funding there and we wanted to know where that was up to, because there’s been chats here about possible lack of community consultation. The local paper reporting last week that it looks like this is going ahead, with the community still believing that there should be some more community consultation. But in saying that, apparently local government is saying that they’re awaiting funding on this project federally. Can you follow that up for me as well? 

MCBAIN: Happy to follow it up, but it speaks to the wider issue, right? Communities want to be consulted about a whole range of projects, and they should be consulted because these projects will happen in the communities in which they live in, in which they work in. We want to see Peter Dutton actually go out to the communities in which he’s proposing to have seven nuclear reactors and have conversations with people there. He owes it to them to do that, just like I speak all the time about making sure that renewable energy proponents go and properly consult with the communities that they're going to work in too. That should be the cornerstone of any good project, and something that the Opposition absolutely needs to follow through with. 

MACCA: And while you’re at it, if you can get us a solution for water security as well. Obviously the government took the dam off us being that it wasn’t the most economically viable option, but we still need a drink in drought times. So if you can put that on your to-do list as well, whether it be water recycle or whatever, Kristy, we’d be interested in an answer. 

MCBAIN: Absolutely, I’ll follow that up and I love that you’re giving me homework. 

MACCA: We certainly are, which means we get to chat again, and I love speaking to you. Very pleasant, and you can answer a question, too, which I’ve got to say for the great majority of politicians isn’t an easy job. 

MCBAIN: I take pride in making sure that I get answers for people, so I look forward to chatting to you again. 

MACCA: Very good. Don’t be a stranger. Thank you, Kristy McBain. We’ll talk You soon.