Interview – ABC News Breakfast
LISA MILLAR, HOST: Welcome to News Breakfast.
BRENDAN O’CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: Good morning, Lisa.
MILLAR: I want to kick off with that news that there could be shortages in gas supply this winter, extending for several years. Is that a sign that the transition to renewable energy supplies is not happening fast enough for Australia?
O’CONNOR: Well, it’s a massive transformation of the energy sector, and therefore a lot of work needs to be done, and we’re doing it as quickly as we can. I think it’s fair to say we, as a nation should have moved quicker to transform the sector in order to provide secure and certain energy, but also reduced prices. But we know also some of the more recent, very significant and really difficult increases in energy costs are a result of other factors, including the Ukraine war, the invasion by Russia, of Ukraine. And that’s meant that there has been very significant price increases across the world, including Australia, but we put something in place as recently as late last year to put downward pressure on prices, and that has worked, but it’s still really difficult for households and businesses.
MILLAR: And Minister, I just want to stick with gas, because we’re going to be speaking to an expert very shortly, and others concur. You know, this, we don’t have a shortage of supply in this country, it’s being exported. So, when does the domestic market take the priority? When does the government have to actually pull that trigger to ensure that the domestic market is served?
O’CONNOR: Well as a responsible country, of course, we need to fulfil our obligations insofar as contracts we’ve entered into. Some of these go back many, many years and are ones that we must honour. But I agree, we need to examine the domestic consumption of gas and make sure that we are able to provide energy to households and businesses and they’re the sort of things we can look at. But we can’t do that at the cost of breaking contracts that have been entered into many years ago.
MILLAR: So, the international market takes priority over a domestic market being told that at the moment with the cost of living that they’re already facing for the next three years, they’re going to be facing a supply shortage of gas?
O’CONNOR: No, I’m saying that contractual obligations need to be honoured. And we can’t be a country that tears up contracts unconscionably, that would not be an acceptable way to approach things. But I do agree we need to examine how we can ensure that we have more domestic supply of gas, and that’s something we will be looking at. But really right now we have done what we can to put downward pressure on energy prices, including most recently recalling the parliament in December last year to legislate – legislation I might add that was opposed by the Liberal Opposition.
MILLAR: Let’s turn to Paul Keating’s comments yesterday, he says that he believes the majority of rank-and-file Labor members would back his concerns, to put it mildly of the AUKUS deal, is he right?
O’CONNOR: Well, I don’t think so. Look, 18 months ago, the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party made the decision to support the in principle position of AUKUS. This is not new, the AUKUS proposition was put in September 2021, and I have to say the briefing to Caucus was one that was overwhelmingly supported at the time. And indeed, the Shadow Cabinet supported it at the time, without dissent. So, there’s been strong support within the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, and I would believe within the Labor Party generally because of the need for us to build capability to protect our interests, and to make our region more stable and secure. And I think for that reason, we have made the right decision and I have enormous respect for Paul Keating. But on this occasion, I don’t agree with him. And as I say, it’s not anything new, it’s something that was in principle supported a year and a half ago.
MILLAR: What did you think about his comments about Penny Wong saying that she’d been running around the Pacific Islands with a lei handing out money?
O’CONNOR: Well, I fundamentally disagree with that description. Penny Wong has really been mending our relationships in the region and beyond. In a very short space of time, the Foreign Minister has been working assiduously with not only Pacific Island countries, but countries across the world in order for us to stabilise and improve our relationships. I think it’s fair to say that some of the relationships Australia had with other countries wasn’t in the best possible shape. And I think there’s been enormous effort by the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and others, to ensure that we have very good relationships, and we do engage both bilaterally and multilaterally. And I think therefore, the criticism is unwarranted, and in no way accurate.
MILLAR: Are you disappointed that a former Labor Prime Minister would speak like that about your colleagues?
O’CONNOR: Well, Paul Keating, when he decides on a particular view may say things that we don’t always agree with. But he’s got every right to say what he wishes. But I would actually, I believe most people would agree that the government has done a very good job in the foreign policy space, improving relationships, mending I would argue, relationships with some countries, within our region and beyond. And that’s been critical in terms of our standing in the world. So, I would have to disagree with him. I am somewhat surprised by the tone of his comments, but he’s got the right to say what he said yesterday, but I disagree with him entirely.
MILLAR: Minister, it’s national Closing the Gap Day, and sadly, what we’re seeing is that not only are the gaps not closing in some areas, they’re getting worse. Well, what’s your response to that? I mean, it seems to be a repeating story that we’re doing.
O’CONNOR: Absolutely, we have not done enough to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, whether it be in infant mortality, or whether it’s education attainment, so many other areas, including in my area in terms of skill acquisition, and education. So, I would like to think that we could do much, much better. And one of the ways to do that, I believe, is listening more to communities, both within urban centres and regional and remote communities in order for us to work with the communities and not tell them but talk with them about what are the best approaches to dealing with these really challenging issues. And I think that also goes to ensuring that we do set up a Voice to Parliament to allow a conversation between government and Indigenous people in order for us to have better policies in place that will work on the ground. I think there’s been too little listening and decisions being made without the genuine engagement of communities directly affected, and I think we need to do a lot better. And I think it’s really important to have a Closing the Gap day to really shine a light on the inequities, the inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and really put pressure on governments to do better.
MILLAR: Well, the Voice working groups meeting in Adelaide today passing on its draft proposal and final draft proposal. We’ll see where it all goes. Minister, thanks for joining us this morning.
O’CONNOR: Thanks very much, Lisa.