Topics: Flammable cladding, union legislation, economic growth, energy costs
Chris Kenny: Now a slowing economy and high electricity prices is just two of the big problems confronting Australian industry at the moment and they’re probably linked of course with flammable cladding and unsafe high rise buildings. Our construction industry crisis and the Government is also trying to tackle, unions and unionists as we just heard who break the law. The Federal Industry Minister is Karen Andrews, from Queensland, and I caught up with her on all of this just a little earlier from Canberra.
Karen Andrews, thanks for joining us.
Karen Andrews: It’s a pleasure.
Chris Kenny: First up, I wanted to ask you about the construction crisis. The problem with high rise residential buildings in Sydney in particular but also with flammable cladding particularly on buildings in Melbourne. Is there a role for the Federal Government, and here some of the unions are suggesting that the Federal Government ought to be involved in these issues?
Karen Andrews: The role of the Federal Government is a coordination role, to hopefully get the States and Territories working together to make sure that they’re in the discussion that we’re having now in regard to flammable cladding and the systemic issues with non-compliance and enforcement in the building sector to make sure the States and Territories are working together to implement the recommendations of the Shergold Weir Report. That’s the role of the Federal Government. Now clearly the States and Territories are responsible for building regulations in their respective States and Territories. They have taken the responsibility for that. They have agreed that they will work together so that there’s a consistent approach to implementing the recommendations of the Shergold Weir Report. That is a massive and significant step forward. But we can’t take our foot off the accelerator now because building issues are important to all of us each and every day.
Chris Kenny: Well clearly the State Governments though have failed both in terms of flammable cladding and in general construction standards.
Karen Andrews: Well the issue is clearly one of lack of compliance with State and Territory regulations and the lack of enforcement of those regulations. So what we need to do is make sure we improve the system for the future. There’s undoubtedly a number of problems that exist with existing buildings and their structures. We don’t know what they are yet. That will be uncovered over time and of course that is concerning. But it is important that every State and Territory works together to make sure that the system going forward is one that is going to deliver greater confidence to the community about building and construction standards and their implementation across Australia. And give people some comfort and assurances that we do have a strong building sector and largely the people who work in it are doing the right thing. But there are some operators who should not be in the system and they need to lift their game if they’re going to remain.
Chris Kenny: Just getting onto the unions now, and you must be pretty confident of being able to get your new legislation
this bill to crack down on union leaders who break the law. Because Jacqui Lambie is, I read, suggesting that she’ll back these laws now unless John Setka quits. She’s putting pressure on John Setka to quit. Do you want him to quit or would you rather him to stick around to increase the chances of these laws getting through?
Karen Andrews: Well look quite frankly there’s a couple of issues tied up in what you’ve just said. It is very important that this legislation is passed. We want registered associations, registered organisations whether they’re unions, or employer associations to abide by the law. That’s what they are required to do. This legislation will go a long way to ensuring that happens and that strong actions can be taken in instances where that is not the case. In the case of the CFMEU, it’s very clear that they’ve racked up 16 million dollars’ worth of fines for activity that’s just not acceptable. Many people have called on John Setka to resign and I’m sure there’s quite a strong push in the Labor Party to have him removed but they have not been able to achieve that. That’s why our legislation is so important. Look if John Setka was heading up an organisation, a business organisation, then quite frankly, as the leader, as the person in charge of that, he would already have fallen on his sword. But he hasn’t. Now there’s a lot of problems with the CFMEU, but clearly it starts at the top.
Chris Kenny: Well, how confident are you of getting these laws through? I mean Jacqui Lambie, I suppose, she’s saying that she’d back these laws if John Setka doesn’t step down. But I mean if he does step down, it hardly solves the problem more broadly. I mean if she’s sympathetic towards these laws, she ought to pass them regardless, surely?
Karen Andrews: Well I know that Christian Porter is working very hard with the crossbench and making sure that everyone understands the importance of the bill that’s currently being considered by a Senate committee and will be debated at some time in the future by the Senate. So Christian Porter is working very hard to make sure that people understand the significance of this bill. I would ask that Jacqui Lambie also make sure that she is looking at the content of this bill, understand what she has asked in respect of John Setka. But this bill is very important and we do want the crossbenchers to look at this bill and judge it on its merits.
Chris Kenny: Karen Andrews, as Industry Minister, I’m very keen to get your thoughts on the sluggish economy. Obviously, economic growth is not what the Government would like to see. Obviously, you’re hoping it’s going to pick up. But just how much of a handbrake on the national economy are high energy prices. We don’t seem to have enough focus on this. They must be a real dead weight on the economy, the energy price increases over the past decade. And obviously, extremely high input costs for small business and larger industry.
Karen Andrews: So again, a couple of things in the question that you just put to me, Chris. Look, firstly in relation to Australia’s economy, I’m seeing it in a positive rather than a negative format, particularly when we compare it to other countries around the world. So our economy is still growing. Is it where we would like it to be? No. But it’s still in positive territory, and that is a good thing. So I certainly want our businesses, our industries to understand that we are performing well given the very difficult international circumstances that we find ourselves in.
Now having said that, I think there are some real opportunities for us to grow our businesses here in Australia. When I speak to businesses, and particularly when I speak to manufacturers, they talk to me about the high input cost of energy is one of the significant input costs for them. So I’m working with Angus Taylor as the Minister responsible for Energy to look at what we can do nationally to make sure that input costs for our businesses are as low as they possibly can. But I’m also very conscious that our manufacturing industry also has to make sure that it is competing on value rather than just competing on cost. So I’m working with our manufacturers to make sure that we do exactly that. That we make sure that we continue to have high quality products that we open up export markets so that we have the opportunity to build the base in Australia. And by doing that, we will lift the economy and we’ll also create more jobs. And both of those things are vitally important to us.
Chris Kenny: But the energy costs are just crippling. They’ve more than doubled over the decade and yet the Coalition has been in power for six years, you haven’t been able to push them down. What’s the point of handing out tax cuts if the energy cost increases suck up all of that additional cash?
Karen Andrews: Look, clearly energy is one of the most significant input costs for our businesses. So we do have to do everything that we possibly can to make sure that we are getting fair and reasonable energy prices for our businesses, and of course, for our consumers, our residential consumers. No one wants to keep paying high power prices. But I am very confident that the action that Angus Taylor has taken as the Minister responsible for this, and particularly working with the States and Territories, is going to have a positive outcome on those energy prices.
Chris Kenny: It has to, doesn’t it? Are you happy to say that this is an issue on which the Government must be judged at the next election? Unless you can get power prices down, then you will have failed over three terms?
Karen Andrews: Look, I’m more conscious on what we can do proactively to bring prices down, but also more broadly, what we can do to make sure that our businesses, our manufacturing businesses in particular, are competing on value rather than on cost. So I want to look at the overall picture and how we position our businesses, how we open up export opportunities for them, how we focus on our strengths and maximise what our strengths are going to be with our various industries. Capitalising on where we’ve got core industries that we’ve done very well in, in the past. For example, in agriculture and in the mining and resources sector, as well as focusing on the industries of the future, which includes space, it includes waste recycling. They’re some of the key areas for this Government to be working on. Energy is a key part of that but we are looking very broadly at all the things that we can do to increase opportunities for Australian businesses, improve their productivity, and for more jobs to be created.
Chris Kenny: Karen Andrews, thanks for joining us.
Karen Andrews: Pleasure.