ABC Afternoon Briefing

  • Transcript, E&OE
29 September 2021

MATT WORDSWORTH: Dr David Gillespie, Minister, thank you so much for being with us today. Firstly, can I just start by getting your reaction to the New South Wales Coalition Government plan to cut emissions by 50 per cent of 2005 Levels by 2030?

MINISTER GILLESPIE: Yeah, well, look, it's a uber ambitious policy. I'm sure they've thought through the consequences of it because we have at the national level, but I'm not going to second-guess them. But you can appreciate New South Wales being a very big industrial power and a city of over 4 million people in Sydney, they must have some plan to keep base load energy going, because otherwise, they'll have a lot of blackouts if they base it totally on pumped hydro and variable renewable energy.

MATT WORDSWORTH: Yeah. Malcolm Turnbull touched on this at the Press Club and he said that New South Wales essentially is going to do it by bringing forward the retirement of coal-fired power stations. Is that what makes it so thorny for the Nationals at a federal level?

MINISTER GILLESPIE: Well, it's thorny for a lot of people that run businesses that run on 24-hour energy, rain, hail or shine, like Tomago's aluminium smelter in my electorate or anyone- cities run 24 hours the day with electricity pumping through all the wires that run electricity through high-rise buildings, through traffic systems, through sewerage. All that stuff that major cities in the world run on is a huge amount that's constantly- that's what's called baseload. It's not a different type of electricity, it's an amount of electricity under which you get blackouts because you have to have a matching between what's coming into the electricity system with what's being drawn on; otherwise, you'll get brownouts or blackouts.

Like what happened in Adelaide when they didn't have any baseload power behind their intermittent sources because this giant extension cord called an interconnector clicked out during the middle of that storm.

When the voltage and frequency went through the roof, admittedly, some poles and wires got knocked down too, but they had nothing behind that. Once the interconnector was gone, they were in black territory, and to start up an electricity grid from nothing without a power station is what happened in Adelaide. Now, look, if we were going to do that around- if the whole of the country followed what South Australia has done and just rely on extension cords into the state next door, well, it gets to be a very fragile system and that's what a lot of our concern is about, this roadmap. We want to know the details of how we'll do it and keep our country an industrial, modern, 24-hour economy.

MATT WORDSWORTH: I guess what people who are looking on might wonder is, why are you so reticent? Why are the Federal Nationals so reticent about a plan like this, when the New South Wales National Leader, John Barilaro, is so enthusiastically supportive of it?

MINISTER GILLESPIE: Look, I'm sure he's negotiated systems so that that won't happen in New South Wales.

MATT WORDSWORTH: So therefore it could happen elsewhere as well, by that logic?

MINISTER GILLESPIE: Well, if the plan is- you know, we have no details of this plan. We need to see the details.

We have got a really good record, Australia-wide, of delivering reductions in greenhouse gases. We have got a better record than Japan, New Zealand, Canada, America, better than the OECD countries' average of reducing greenhouse gases by 6 per cent. We've done 20 per cent.

So we have a realistic plan coming up to 2030, which we fully support. But to give a commitment to a plan that you haven't seen the details on, out 30 years, it is a big ask. So, we will engage in a very important topic. Everyone knows it's a, you know, it's the issue that everyone wants to know what we're doing on but we can't just give a carte blanche without knowing the consequences and the details.

MATT WORDSWORTH: Okay, let's talk about a plan that's already been announced, the deal to look into buying subs from the US or the UK because the former prime minister - you know him well - Malcolm Turnbull was at the Press Club, quite critical of how it transpired. He said that the PM had deliberately deceived France, saying right up until the end, everything's fine, and then surprising them with the cancellation of the contract. He said it was deceitful and it was humiliating for France, and this should not be the ethical standard for Australia. Were you worried at all in how the Australian Government conducted itself ethically?

MINISTER GILLESPIE: Look, the decision to change the submarine procurement was a contractual matter. You saw what we all saw. I was not privy to that. But to look back in retrospect, when Malcolm Turnbull was prime minister, it was a totally different situation. The world, the geopolitical impurities have changed. The behaviour of state actors in the Asia-Pacific has changed, and we need added much greater capability. And the contract that has been ended was a series of contracts, and the decisions were made on the basis of a new geopolitical reality.

MATT WORDSWORTH: And you're the Minister Assisting-

MINISTER GILLESPIE: I'm sure France is still up-

MATT WORDSWORTH: Sorry for interrupting you there. Carry on.

MINISTER GILLESPIE: I'm sure France is disappointed in losing the contract, but that is what happens when the situation changes. As you know, it's been a rocky delivery so far, with changes in staff and background and demands by the Australian Government to increase, in a material sense, the Australian content. But look, from the outside, as I'm not in the defence or the contractual part of the Government - that is for people much higher up in the Government - they have to make decisions based on what is best for the national security of Australia.

MATT WORDSWORTH: Yeah, so you're not at all concerned that being tagged with being deceitful will not hurt us down the track when we go to negotiate other things with other countries, because they can point to this deal and go hey, we can't trust Australia.

MINISTER GILLESPIE: I think everyone knows Australia's intent in going with the decision to get nuclear capable propulsion for our submarine fleet. It's a much better strategic option, and no-one would begrudge a country changing their minds and concluding a contract when the situation's changed.

I understand the Prime Minister tried to contact the French Prime Minister about that very matter, but he was tied up, and the decision had to be announced. So that was unfortunate. I do acknowledge that. But the decision had to be kept the way it was managed, for obvious reasons.

MATT WORDSWORTH: So you're the minister assisting the Minister for Trade, so I'm really interested in your opinion on what this might do for our negotiations with the EU for a free trade deal.

MINISTER GILLESPIE: With regard to France, the dynamic has changed considerably, but we're dealing with the whole of the EU, and as the Head of the EU said, you're not comparing apples with apples. It's apples with pears. It's a different issue. Sure, all these considerations do colour negotiations, but I think EU wants to do business with Australia, and Australia wants to do business with the EU. Like we do with all our trading negotiations, the more trade we can do as a trading nation, the better. And the EU realises we have resources and products that are beneficial to their citizens too. They're not anti- trade. I just think obviously France will still be very disappointed in the way it's turned out, but they too want to do business with everyone around the world, including with Australia in the Asia-Pacific.

MATT WORDSWORTH: As Minister for Regional Health, I'm sure you're worried, and as a physician, you're worried about the record cases in Victoria, ongoing lockdowns, and new lockdowns New South Wales. Are you convinced that supply issues of the vaccine have been solved, particularly in regional Australia?

MINISTER GILLESPIE: Yeah, I am sure we have resolved the supply issues. We can only distribute what we had available, and it wasn't just in regional Australia.

As I pointed out in other venues, our agreements for vaccines total 258 million doses, but like New Zealand, like Singapore, like other people that had contracts with vaccine producers overseas, you only got them when they were available.

And the demand on vaccines in Europe when they were going through a raging pandemic with catastrophic numbers of cases, high mortality, health systems overwhelmed, the EU pulled 3.5 million vaccines from coming to Australia. Likewise, the whole Pfizer output in North America was kept for Americans first. So we had to bide our time. Our success in suppressing the curve and keeping house cases down and deaths down paradoxically harmed our ability to make the moral argument that we need it quicker than, say, America or Europe. But we got our own onshore making capability through CSL, and we have got, as I said, millions of doses on order. Between now and Christmas, the Moderna will add in total another 10 million doses. It's being distributed through 3600 pharmacies. The GPs are getting more Pfizer. We've got AstraZeneca still available, and we have all the jurisdictions; even Melbourne is getting a couple of hundred thousand extra of Pfizer to help in the coming weeks. So I think by the end of the year we will be reaching our targets. Everyone that is willing to get a vaccine will be able to get a vaccine, and the whole of Australia is looking forward to opening up in a strategic, safe, progressive, COVID-safe way on a background of high vaccination rates.

MATT WORDSWORTH: There's been a lot of COVID disaster payment relief handed out and a lot of people still relying upon it. Was this the right moment for the Treasurer to start talking about taking it away?

MINISTER GILLESPIE: I think he had to start telling people what was going to happen, otherwise you'd be criticised the other way - that you announced it without giving people any warning. We have got a plan. The states have agreed to the opening plan, and it's just to put them on notice too that once the vaccination rates start getting above 70 per cent, everyone will have to apply for the COVID-19 disaster payment week by week. It's not just automatic anymore.

And then once it reaches 80 per cent, after a couple of weeks that program will cease and people will either be back in their regular employment, or, if unfortunately their business is not able to provide that, they will have to seek income support like other people do- have, through Newstart or the new JobSeeker provisions.

MATT WORDSWORTH: But it is entirely conceivable that once you hit 80 per cent and you've started taking away the support, people will still be in a pandemic crisis.

MINISTER GILLESPIE: I don't think so. Other countries have been able to manage it. We are doing it at vaccination rates higher than what they've done in comparable countries. Most of America was in the 50, 60 per cent range, and you got the result that they got because they didn't have enough people vaccinated. We've been guided by the best epidemiological advice. If we can get higher than 80 per cent, that'd be great. It would make it even less dangerous to the broader community if you had higher vaccination rates. But realistically, with vaccine hesitancy and some anti-vaxx sentiment in the country, if we get to 90 per cent in double vaccination, that would be a great outcome.

MATT WORDSWORTH: Alright. Dr David Gillespie, Minister for Regional Health, thank you so much for your time today.

MINISTER GILLESPIE: My pleasure, Matt.

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