TRANSCRIPT: ABC Lateline with Emma Alberici

EMMA ALBERICI: Tony Burke is the Shadow Environment Minister and Manager of opposition business. He joins me now from Canberra. Many thanks for joining us.

TONY BURKE: Good evening.

ALBERICI: Let's go to energy before we get onto the politics of the day and there is much of that around. The Government has accepted 49 of the 50 recommendations from the chief scientist. It is important isn't it that any Clean Energy Target be properly thought through to ensure it doesn't further disrupt the energy supply and indeed it doesn't push up power prices?

BURKE: Making sure it is properly thought through is logical. The Government’s argument about 49 out of 50 is like saying that they have built the whole car, they just haven't bothered to put the wheels on it. The Clean Energy Target is what drives a whole series of the other measures that are part of the Finkel report. We will look seriously at what is put. What I just heard in that summery in the cross you just did, I am hearing that for the first time as well. So we will look at the detail of this. We want there to be a bipartisan approach on this and that is why we said we were willing to negotiate with the Government on a Clean Energy Target in the first place. It wasn't our preferred policy but when the Finkel report came out we said okay, we need to have a way of brokering this. It’s got to be something that does in fact reduce emissions as well as providing the future for downward pressure on power prices and for making sure that we have reliability. One of the problems for reliability has been the absence of a mechanism that hasn't been there to drive investment.

ALBERICI: The other problem of course is that the technologies don't yet exist such to ensure wind and solar generation can be backed up and used when the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining.

BURKE: They exist in different ways and certainly not to the extent we would expect they would come online into the future. That is why people look to gas supply as a form of energy supply where you can more easily turn it up and down based on what you can get from renewables at any point in time.

ALBERICI: But of course it was your Government wasn't it that didn't ensure there was a ready supply of gas and let it all flow out in exports? That was a miscalculation, wasn't it? 

BURKE: We knew when the gas export facilities were built in Queensland that Australia would go to the international price. What no-one predicted was that we would go to scarcity pricing. That some of the gas companies, one in particular, instead of using the export facility to export the gas from the additional acreage they had been given, went and purchased directly from the domestic supply. And that is why we have ended up in the extraordinary situation now where Australian gas is cheaper to buy overseas than it is to buy in Australia.

ALBERICI: Will the Clean Energy Target lead to lower energy prices, is that why Labor supports it?

BURKE: We know that there needs to be an investment mechanism. Any investment mechanism that has been spoken about over the years, we have always been told, if you can drive investment, over time you get downward pressure on prices, you get improved reliability and obviously, at the same time, you reduce your emissions, your carbon pollution. Those outcomes have all been part of an investment mechanism. The concept that the Clean Energy Target would put downward pressure on prices, Josh Frydenberg himself argued that. He took the PowerPoint presentation to his party room saying it would lower power prices. There was modelling done by the Finkel report that said it would lower the prices, in the Government's own report.

ALBERICI: So why has it taken them so long to respond?

BURKE: That was the other part of the cross that happened. The individual interventions by Tony Abbott, there is a fair bit of division that has been going on about this the whole way through. We offered bipartisan support for a Clean Energy Target but his own Liberal Party didn't. That is effectively the problem that we now have. Malcolm Turnbull has had to fight his internal war not just against Tony Abbott but a small group that is there that has been dragging him to the right. Their main priority is they want to maintain a fight with Labor on these issues. That is not in the interests of the country, it is not in the interests of anyone wanting to pay a power bill. What people need and have needed for a decade is a bipartisan approach to get the job done.

ALBERICI: We will get back to the politics but I just want to stick with energy for a moment. How do you balance your insistence, this is Labor, but also you personally, given you hold the environment portfolio. How do you balance your insistence on some kind of Clean Energy Target with your support for the Adani coalmine? Which the Greens leader Richard Di Natale points out, if it were a country, it would be the seventh largest polluter in the world.

BURKE: Well none of those approvals that were given out were given under Labor, those approvals have been given under the current Government. The critical decision now in front of Adani is whether or not there is a taxpayer subsidy or a taxpayer funded loan from the northern Australian infrastructure facility. On that issue, which is the only federal decision now standing in the way of Adani, Labor's position has been crystal clear - we do not support any financial assistance being given to the company for that mine. We don't support that at all.

ALBERICI: Do you support Queensland Labor that have given subsidies to Adani in the form of royalty holidays?

BURKE: We have said, I haven't gone through the ins and outs of exactly where their royalty arrangements at, but the simplicity of the position has been we do not support subsidies for that project.

ALBERICI: So you would be against any such measures given over by Queensland Labor?

BURKE: I have just said I am not going to pretend to be across the intricacies of exactly what they have done. What I can say is Federal Labor is opposed subsidies for the Adani project.

ALBERICI: Well if you're going to rail against the federal sphere then surely you would want to be across what your state counterpart is doing to help Adani financially?

BURKE: The decision in front of us has been whether or not there will be a subsidy and we have been completely opposed to that. Bear in mind all of this, when you are concerned about the emissions from Adani, you also need to make sure there is a national policy to deal with all forms of emissions. And you don't want to have a situation, even from the perspective of environmental campaigners, where if they got what they wanted on Adani but you didn’t have a national system on emissions you just lose it all in land clearing anyway.

ALBERICI: Let's move on. This week potentially we will hear a decision in the High Court about seven members of Parliament who have citizenship questions hanging over their heads. Of course the one everyone is looking at is Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. In the event the High Court rules against him and he is kicked out of the Parliament, how will Labor deal with that, will you be conciliatory and give him a pair and cut him some slack?

BURKE: I can't speak for the Senate. But certainly for the House of Representatives, the pairing arrangement is from a letter between the two whips for the Coalition and for us. Now that pairing arrangement does not cover this sort of situation. Let me put it this way, I don't know what the High Court is going to decide. If they decide that Barnaby Joyce should not be a Member of Parliament, they have made a decision that Barnaby Joyce has broken the law. Now, there is no way we are going to reward the Government with some sort of pairing arrangement if Barnaby Joyce is found to have broken the law.

ALBERICI: OK. So, the Senate will also this week vote on the citizenship bill. I think that is coming up tomorrow a separate bill altogether of course. Nick Xenophon now confirming he won't support the changes. It can't get up, can it?

BURKE: I hope not. I have made it a habit of absolutely never predicting the Senate.

ALBERICI: Or Nick Xenophon.

BURKE: That is probably true as well. I won't predict the outcome. What I will say is what is at stake. There are countless Australians who, if these laws were in place, say in the days of the Snowy Mountains Scheme, who have been good Australians, never would have been able to become Australian citizens. Never would have been invited to pledge a commitment to Australia. There is a lot at stake with this citizenship bill and we have made clear, both because of the delay and university level English test, we have been fighting it all the way. If we win this week I have no doubt that the Government will come back and try again and we will continue to defend the concept of multicultural Australia and a nation that doesn't have a permanent underclass of non- citizens where, if you are here as a permanent resident and you want to make a pledge of commitment to Australia, we have a pathway for Australia to say ‘welcome home’.

ALBERICI: One more issue before we run out of time. Tony Abbott says the only way he would return as Prime Minister is if he was drafted. What is your take on the prospects of that happening?

BURKE: If I don't understand the Senate, I’m not going to pretend to understand the Liberal Party party room. I will say with the 21st celebration that Malcolm Turnbull had today that he might not have been celebrating the 21st but I reckon Tony Abbott was.

ALBERICI: And Labor perhaps?

BURKE: Tony Abbott certainly was out well and truly celebrating it. There is no doubt, this is 21, the clock will keep ticking and if it goes through till when we get to 30, Tony Abbott won't be quieting down.

ALBERICI: Do you think you might be drafted, he said that is the only circumstances under which he would come back?

BURKE: I was amazed they chose him the first time. So I won't predict what they will do. Peter Dutton seems pretty keen. If it goes the way it is currently going, then we are going to end up with a Prime Minister with absolutely no authority on his own side let alone the rest of the Parliament. And whether he even has a majority in the Parliament we won't know until later this week probably. 

ALBERICI: Tony Burke, thank you for your company.

BURKE: Great to be back.


Tony Burke