21 February 2018




ALI CLARKE: Let’s pretend, well, let’s not pretend we haven’t seen it, let’s just have a quick chat about Nick Xenophon’s ad. It’s a bit of a throwback to Labor’s “It’s Time”. So, Penny Wong, if you were asked by the Labor Party to rap for votes now, would you?

SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: You know what I reckon about this ad? I reckon it’s vintage Nick – good at stunts but not much substance.

I was in the Senate with Nick and I was there when he voted with the Liberals 57 times against Labor and other parties to make sure South Australia got the funding which was agreed for our schools and he voted with them 57 times to cut $210 million from our schools.

So he can dance all he likes for how much he is standing up for SA. I look at the substance and I look at his voting record in the Senate

DAVID BEVAN: What was his voting record when Labor was in control?

WONG: I think if you look at what he’s done since the 2014 Budget on the key issues that really mattered, most of the time he’s gone with the Libs.

BEVAN: Yeah, but what was his record when Labor was in power? What I’m thinking Penny Wong is that, okay, he’s a crossbench senator so they have to cut deals. So in the last few years he’s been cutting deals with the Government. When Labor was in power he would cut deals with them, so his voting record back then was probably similar, but that was with Labor.

WONG: How is cutting a deal that delivers a Liberal cut a deal that’s good for the state?

BEVAN: You’re saying he keeps voting with the Liberals. I’m saying when Labor was in government did he cut a deal with you?

WONG: Look, he’s a former Liberal Party member, we know that, he’s upfront about that.

BEVAN: You won’t answer that question. You don’t know what his voting record was.

WONG: I’m asking you how does cutting a deal, backing in a Liberal cut standing up for SA?

BEVAN: Hang on, hang on, Penny Wong – I get to answer, ask the questions. You say he’s a Lib in sheep’s clothing because he’s voted with the Libs over the last few years. But I’m putting to you when you were in power he probably cut a deal with you.

WONG: My memory is a lot of the time he didn’t have the balance of power in the same way for some of the period we were in government. But I do find it interesting David that you don’t think it’s relevant that he’s actually voted with Simon to reduce funding.

Now Simon has an argument that it’s not a reduction, even though it is, and he’s entitled to run that but I find it interesting that you as a local South Australian don’t regard that as problematic.

BEVAN: What I’m asking you is your point regarding his voting record – how does it stand up when you were in power? And you don’t know the answer to that question.

WONG: No. But I know what $210 million does.

BEVAN: Cory Bernardi what do you think? Do you think it’s a good ad or is it a mistake?

CORY BERNARDI, SENATOR FOR SOUTH AUSTRALIA: Firstly, let me say, I’ve done the research, Nick Xenophon voted with the Greens more than any other person in his time in Federal Parliament.

BEVAN: Well there you are Penny Wong, he’s more Green than he is blue.

WONG: $210 million in our schools – 57 times. You can’t run away from that mate.

BERNARDI: What I found about the ad, it’s compelling viewing like a car crash in many respects, and it’s terrible. But what I found galling was the fact that he was saying we’re going to make government live within its means and make sure government doesn’t spend too much money, we’re going to lower the cost of electricity, when his policy agenda and his voting record is quite the opposite. He’s been prepared to tack on his demands which have cost taxpayers billions of dollars in borrowed money to almost every deal that he’s done in Canberra. Plus he supported the 50% renewable energy target until it became like an albatross around his neck and he quietly deleted it from his website and pretended it had never happened.

This is the PT Barnum of politics; he’ll get away with this – its catchy jingle, I found myself humming it yesterday which is just appalling. So I’ve got to come up with my own jingle. But only he can get away with this sort of stunt without the scrutiny I think it deserves.

BEVAN: Simon Birmingham what do you think?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: I think firstly, David, with all respect, we’re playing into his hands and the questions are playing into his hands. He wants people talking about this ad. He’s done a silly ad so people can talk about his silly ad, because Nick likes people talking about Nick.

However the substance of it, it’s two minutes in which he says there are problems with high electricity prices, problems in SA with job creation, problems with our hospitals. But the problem is he has absolutely no policies or solutions in any of those areas, not in this ad and not anywhere else. You look at the health issue; his solution is to outsource it to somebody else for a royal commission rather than actually develop any policy.

This is just another stunt, a stunt from the stuntman to get people talking about him rather than any substance or policy whatsoever.

BEVAN: You say it’s a silly ad, of course it’s a silly ad, but isn’t that actually part of the message that resonates with people? Because, people listening, many of them, I’d say about 30-40% of them, are tired of the brand that you Simon Birmingham and you Penny Wong are presenting. A portion of the electorate are saying we like a guy who can take the piss out of himself and the rest of you.

WONG: Well he certainly got you talking about it, which means he’s got you doing his PR job for him David.

But what I’d say is this – and Simon can speak for the Liberal Party – I got involved in politics because I wanted to deliver change and deliver good policy for the people of South Australia and the people of Australia. I’ve yet to see the policy offering that is actually going to improve people’s lives from Nick Xenophon.

Now others may take a different view about that but I actually think, whatever people think about major parties or individuals, politics is more than personality and politics is more than stunts. We make decisions that impact on people’s lives – whether or not kids go to better schools, whether or not you can get a hospital bed, whether or not there’s jobs and whether there’s infrastructure supporting economic activity. This goes to the reality of everyday life and opportunities for South Australians. I actually think substance does matter.

BIRMINGHAM: On that point David, I agree. I would say the people who are dissatisfied with politics in this election, don’t look at these ads or stunts or taking the piss out of yourself, go and look at the policy agenda. Steven Marshall has released policies to eliminate payroll tax, to reduce the Emergency Services Levy for households, to restore health services to Modbury Hospital, to the Repat site, and there’s actually a long list of detailed policies in the energy space, to build the interconnector to New South Wales that would have got surplus renewables in this state, we can export it. When the winds aren’t blowing we are able to effectively import cheaper energy into the state. Now they’re solutions to the problems SA faces. Nick has none.

CLARKE: We’re talking and focusing on the stunts here of Nick Xenophon, and fair enough but DJ Albo, Shadow Transport Minister Anthony Albanese was reportedly spinning the decks at the King’s Head Hotel in the city on the weekend. We’ve got a caller asking where’s the substance in that?

WONG: That’s a fundraiser. We didn’t bill it as an ad; it was a Labor Party fundraiser. We took our kids, a lot of people turned up and we tried to raise some money to contribute to Labor Party campaigns. I don’t know that it’s anything like the same.

BEVAN: Let’s look at policy then. Simon Birmingham – I’m sorry to our listeners, you’re on the world’s worst phone line – Jay Weatherill wants 75% of South Australia’s power to come from green sources within eight years. Is he on the right side of history?

BIRMINGHAM: Jay Weatherill is really rolling out the definition of madness which is to repeat the same mistakes again and again. Back in 2014 he committed to a 50% renewable energy target with no consideration for how that worked in the national electricity grid or the reliability or the prices. And all we’ve got some four years later is South Australian bills $500 a year higher; higher than they are in Victoria or New South Wales. The most expensive, least reliable energy in the country and I find it astounding that he wants to double down on policies that have got us into this predicament.

WONG: Let’s start by remembering over this last summer the most reliable grid has actually been the South Australian grid. What we’ve seen is the ageing coal-fired power plants in the eastern states, as would be anticipated because they’re either reaching or beyond their design life, falling over. We’ve got a broken national electricity market. Because of the ideological battle nationally over the last decade we haven’t seen new investment. We’ve got highly concentrated electricity markets and what Jay is doing is opening up competition. And this will lead to more reliability and stability and it will lead to prices lower than what they would otherwise have been. The reality is, the cheapest new-installed power now is renewables.

BERNARDI: Well the reality is that both Steven Marshall, Jay Weatherill and Nick Xenophon all supported the renewable energy target to get to 50 per cent that has delivered the most unreliable and expensive power in the country, if not the world, in South Australia. We’re the only party that is committed to completing the investigation into the nuclear fuel cycle, to opening up the possibility of having our abundant uranium resources used for the benefit of generating low emissions power in this state.

We are committed to investigating the nuclear waste repository which would generate billions of dollars every year, which would allow us to abolish land tax, to abolish stamp duty, to remove the Emergency Services Levy, put $500 million more into health care and hospitals and more into our emergency services, and give South Australia the competition edge it needs both for families and for business to make it the best place in the world to live and to work.

BEVAN: Penny Wong, you say there’s been an ideological debate and that’s made it difficult to get good policy, but hasn’t Jay Weatherill contributed to that? Because he’s the one that says you either support coal or you support renewable – it’s black and white. In fact it’s not black and white and his actions speak louder than his words. In the last 12 months since the big blackout, he’s gone out of his way to introduce stability into our local network which suggests that stability was not there earlier which suggests that Labor was focused on the renewable energy but not making the network stable. His actions show that it needs a much more subtle approach.

WONG: Shall I take that as a comment rather than a question?

BEVAN: I’m asking you to respond to that Penny Wong, you know what I’m asking you to do, if you could respond to that?

WONG: Well I’m happy to respond to a question, not to editorialising, but I’ll say this – the ideological debate to which I was referring dates back from the time Malcolm Turnbull was toppled by Barnaby Joyce and others in the Coalition in 2009 when they walked away from the bipartisan commitment to an emissions trading scheme which would’ve given the system, the market, the clear market incentives for new investment.

Since that time where we’ve had a carbon scheme come and go and be abolished because of the fight federally, where we’ve seen Scott Morrison handing around lumps of coal in the Federal Parliament. The market has not had the signals to invest, which is why two-thirds of our current baseload generating capacity is beyond its design life and people are not investing.

So the question is how do you get the market to invest in new capacity because new capacity is what will ensure prices stay lower. There is no policy that I can see federally, there’s certainly no policy from Steven Marshall who says I’m going to give you a $300 saving, oops actually it’s a $60 saving in five years. What we have is a Labor Government that says this is what we will do ensure there is more capacity and this is what we will do to ensure greater reliability and storage, and it is working as is demonstrated by the fact that we had the most reliable grid over summer as compared to the eastern states.

BERNARDI: Thanks to a whole lot of diesel generators that are burning thousands of gallons or litres of diesel fuel every hour to keep the lights on.

CLARKE: Simon Birmingham, you were laughing.

BIRMINGHAM: Well, the idea that this is a policy by Jay Weatherill today. He’s announced a higher target with no modelling, no detail, no story as to how on earth he expects to get there. But of course we know from history that he may well get to the 75 per cent but because he won’t have done the modelling and he won’t have done his research, we end up with the high prices that we have, the highest across the various states. And what the Federal Government’s tried to do at present is put in place a National Energy Guarantee which the State Labor governments of Victoria and Queensland are working with us through. South Australia is the one that continues to play politics, to posture, to grandstand rather than look for solutions.

Steven Marshall has clearly identified policies to put an interconnector through with New South Wales that means all of the wind energy and renewable energy we’ve got here can actually be used for the advantage of exporting it when we’ve got surplus amounts, but when the wind isn’t blowing, you then actually have a solution. Jay Weatherill’s not offering any solution for those issues of reliability.

WONG: Well I’d invite all of you to consider the announcement I think the Premier will be making shortly and perhaps might need to revise your comments.

BEVAN: What’s that?

WONG: Well, just wait for the Premier to stand up. I understand further announcements will be made shortly to add to the announcement which was put in the paper today.

BEVAN: Will that announcement address issues of stability and interconnector?

WONG: I think you should wait for the Premier and I’m sure you can consider your questions thereafter.

BEVAN: What’s the gap that needs to be filled by his announcement? What’s he going to address; I’m not asking you for his press release.

WONG: He’s the Premier and the State Government, but the point I would make is this –who else is actually addressing the issue of a lack of investment and more capacity which is fundamental, it is the principal problem in terms of reliability and price. Which other party is actually addressing it?

BERNARDI: The Australian Conservatives certainly are because we’re committed to…

CLARKE: Everybody is talking at once, so nobody can hear anything.

WONG: I was going to respond to Cory but I’m happy to be arbitrated here.

BERNARDI: I merely make the point that we are committed to opening up the electricity market to new entrants irrespective of how they want to generate it as long as it’s going to be in our state’s interest.

WONG: If I can respond to that, the problem there – and I did look at this when I was Climate Minister because you obviously consider what’s put before you – is the amount of public subsidy that would be required. Leaving aside all the environmental and public support issues, the amount of public subsidy for so many years that would be required for nuclear power renders it unviable. The cheapest new capacity is renewables.

BERNARDI: Unfortunately, the reality is that you’re spending tens of billions of dollars in public subsidies for renewables which are intermittent and unreliable. We’re not suggesting there should be public subsidies but if something stacks up to the private sector and they want to build a coal-fired power station or a nuclear power station or a gas power station, and they want to comply with the environmental standards that are set, they should be allowed to do so. You have the Labor Party, the Liberal Party, others have a pathological objection to this. I think it is nonsensical and the only reason we’ve got electricity during this summer market is because of the diesel generators. So how does that fit in with your strategy?

BEVAN: Hang on, we’ve got to interrupt there because Tom Koutsantonis has sent us a text, he’s the State Energy Minister and he says “Those State generators have not been used once”.

BERNARDI: What a waste of $50 million then isn’t it?

WONG: Because you don’t want back-up?

BERNARDI: What a waste of $50 million.

WONG: You don’t want back-up?

BEVAN: Cory Bernardi, you’re saying we’re using tens of thousands of gallons of diesel to run these things. No we haven’t. We have not used them.

BERNARDI: There’s $50 million budgeted for this summer and $50 million for next summer to keep the lights on in this state, to keep Jay Weatherill in power. Our electricity market in South Australia is a laughing stock. The fact that we had a four or five day blackout a couple of years ago bells the cat on all this. Everyone is rushing around blaming everyone else but the fact is when the wind is not blowing or it’s dark you don’t have power and no matter how many Elon Musks they want to fly out here and build batteries for, it’s still not going to stack up.

WONG: So, when Liddell in New South Wales or Loy Yang – both coal-fired power generators – failed this summer, was that a joke too?

BERNARDI: No Penny, it’s not about being a joke but the fact is there’s this ideological obsession about closing down coal-fired power stations and stopping fossil fuels which is our competitive advantage in this country and it’s been done by both the Labor Party, the Liberal Party and the Xenophon party to the detriment of South Australia.

BIRMINGHAM: Penny wants to talk about long-term investment certainty, well that’s what the ambition and aim and intention behind the National Energy Guarantee is; that the Turnbull Government’s proposed. And the only people playing politics with that are the Labor Party here in South Australia and to a certain extent federally, federally, they’re at least hedging their bets. But we’re getting cooperation from the Labor Party in Victoria, the Labor Party in Queensland, the Coalition Government in New South Wales, to work on a policy that can be implemented that can give long-term investment certainty without playing favourites. Whether it’s coal-fired generation, gas-fired generation, the variety of different renewables, it puts storage clearly on the table by for the first time ever putting a policy structure in place that provides an incentive around reliability and stability of the grid and the dispatchability of energy.

So frankly, Jay Weatherill is a big part of the national energy problem at present because he’s failing to engage in a solution because all he wants to do is play politics and posture ahead of the State election.

WONG: So when Scott Morrison the nation’s Treasurer brings a lump of coal into Question Time in the House of Representatives, what’s that? That’s not politics or a little bit of ideological?

BIRMINGHAM: Well you’re not responding to the policy there are you?

WONG: Oh come on, I’ve been on the other side of this debate for 10 years and to be frank, Simon’s had a better position than most of his party room for most of the last 10 years but the reality is, if you want to listen to people go on about an ideological position against renewables, have a chat to the Nationals party room and the right wing of the Liberal Party.

CLARKE: Well at the risk of us going on, we will have to actually leave it there.