CHRIS SMITH, HOST: Joel Fitzgibbon is about to join us, he is heading underground as well with me tonight for my television show on Sky News. We'll be talking about coal. As you know, Joel has been very vocal on the production and regulation of the coal and gas industries in Australia. And the protracted dispute over climate policy within his own party, the ALP. It actually led to him stepping down from the Shadow Cabinet last year, so it was a bold stand for jobs in his electorate, and of course, jobs in the coal industry. He's on the line now. Joel Fitzgibbon, welcome.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: G'day Chris. Good to be with you. I'm very excited.
SMITH: So am I. Are you claustrophobic, though?
FITZGIBBON: Not at all. I've been underground many times, of course, Chris. Representing the Hunter electorate, you'd expect that, but I never tire of it. And every mine is a bit different and I'm really looking forward to it.
SMITH: You'd almost have your own hi-vis, wouldn't you?
FITZGIBBON: I do. I have got Joel Fitzgibbon MP on the chest plate just in case they don't recognise me, Chris.
SMITH: How tough has it been for you to stay committed to the party that has really been torn apart by one side of the renewable debate that wants renewables and nothing else, and seem to be very absolutist about what should provide energy to us, and those that, you know, like you, who have spent a lifetime in the party looking after Australian blue-collar workers? It has really had you at times quite angry, hasn't it?
FITZGIBBON: It has been a bit tough, Chris, but also I'm energized by the challenge. I think all of us in the party have in our own mind a vision of what we want the party to be. The challenge for the Labor Party, of course, is that it's a very broad church. It's the biggest party in the country with about 50,000 members. And you know, we are trying to represent those who live in Surry Hills, and those who live in the Hunter Valley or in Central Queensland or indeed, Lithgow. And, you know, that's a difficult balance, but we've done it, basically, all of our lives. It's become a little bit more difficult in recent decades as that sort of progressive electorate has risen and grown. But we've done it before, and we can do it again. It's about being in the centre, it's about being sensible and balanced and getting the right weight on public policy so that people do understand that while we do have aspirations to respond to climate change, we also first and foremost stand by the people who we were born to represent, and that is, of course, working Australians.
SMITH: You've been quoted as saying after 14 years of trying, the Labor Party has not made one contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There's, sorry, go on...
FITZGIBBON: ... Well, an enduring...
SMITH: ... They were your words, weren't they?
FITZGIBBON: Yeah, they were my words. I probably should have said an enduring contribution because the architecture Julia Gillard had in place for a few years, which Tony Abbott repealed, was having an impact in terms of reducing emissions. But of course, Tony repealed it, so there's no enduring contribution. And the point I was making there is that if you overreach or you are too ambitious, then you only give your opponents a mandate, potentially to undo all the work you've done. And this is why we have to have a balanced approach, ideally, bipartisanship here in Australia amongst the major political parties, so that whatever we do, it's measured, but it's also engineering. In other words, it stays in place for a long, long time.
SMITH: You see, I think about what India and China are doing right now and I look at their new low emissions coal-fired power stations, which I presume, once they're built will have a 50 year lifespan, which is usually the way they're built and why they're built. Isn't it better for the environment, Joel, that we provide our highly efficient, low emission coal to places like China and India, instead of them using the brown stuff from Indonesia and even from their own supplies? Because at the end of the day, they are going to use coal whether we like it or not.
FITZGIBBON: Yes, Chris. Unequivocally it is true that while ever people are burning coal in other markets, the world is a better place if we are using Australia's relatively clean and efficient coal. And forget all the myths as you've pointed out about other countries winding down their coal generation. They are building them in spades right throughout Asia – coal-fired generators. Including in Japan, by the way. I reference Japan because it's such a modern economy so it's not just the still developing economies like China. So they'll be demanding our thermal coal for a long, long time to come, and it's very smart for us to agree that while ever they want to buy it, we should continue to sell it, and that's a good outcome for the environment.
SMITH: Which is why when Malcolm Turnbull said there is no demand for all of these new coal mines that are waiting for approval, he knew nothing about what the demand was in these countries and others. What was he referring to? That is completely false.
FITZGIBBON: Yeah well, either he doesn't know or doesn't want to know. That, I suppose, is the big question, Chris. But, you know, I get frustrated by all of these think tanks, Chris. All of them funded by someone, and all of them preaching the gospel of those who put money into the think tank. And people quote them as if they are gospel, or, you know, just sharing the facts with us when, in fact, they are, you know, tweaking the figures, making their own assumptions. I mean, these are people who are trying to predict, Chris, you know, what the coal price or gas price is going to be in 2040. It's very difficult to make these assumptions. I always say follow the investors. And in New South Wales, for example, there is $4.5 billion worth of investment in the pipeline waiting for approval to build new coal mines or to expand existing mines. Companies like Pacific National and Horizon who ship our coal to port, are investing heavily in their business. That tells me, Chris, that coal has a very bright future.
SMITH: Yep. You wrote a piece in the Telegraph this week criticising the Federal Government for thinking regulation will deliver cheaper gas, when it should be thinking of producing more gas. Explain to us what you were meaning about that, and explain to us how much you think gas can play in the, you know, the trinity of energy that we need to access for baseload power.
FITZGIBBON: To use a technical term, Chris, we are buggered without more gas. As our coal-fired generators age, they'll come to the end of their physical and economic lives. And sadly, no one will probably build another one because you're looking at billions of dollars and as you pointed out, you need a 50 year return and we don't know what the energy system is going to look like in a decade, let alone in 30 or 40 or 50 years’ time, so I don't think anyone will build one. So we'll have more and more renewable energy. And if we're going to have more and more renewable energy, we'll need more and more firming power. And that's going to come from gas, hydro and battery storage. The only technology really ready for that, to do it to the extent we need, is gas. And guess what, Chris, we have plenty of it. Plenty of it in the ground. Now, Scott Morrison has been trying to improve his popularity by waving a big stick and saying: I'll keep prices down, I'll tell the gas companies what they can sell their gas for. The problem is, Chris, that on the basis of the law of supply and demand, if you tell companies you're going to tell them what they can sell their gas for, then they won't invest. And if they don't invest, then demand outstrips supply and of course, prices don't go down, they go up. So Scott Morrison has to stop doing this. What he does need to do is to facilitate getting more gas out of the ground, and he needs to underwrite gas pipelines so that we get more competition in the gas pipeline system that will drive prices down. And so we can get more gas in the interim out of Queensland. Queensland has got an abundance of gas. They're creating thousands of jobs up there. Farmers are being paid by gas companies, everyone's happy. But we...
SMITH: ... The Northern Territory as well, Joel. The Northern Territory.
FITZGIBBON: Well, connectivity is a problem there too. But we'll need to get more gas out of Queensland because we won't be able to build the pipelines and the connectivity and get Narrabri, for example, out of the ground quickly enough. And the ACCC – this is not Joel Fitzgibbon alone – the ACCC has made this quite clear. So they're the three things Scott Morrison can do. Facilitate more gas out of the ground, more competition in gas pipelines and more gas for the southern states out of Queensland. That's what he should concentrate on doing. Forget all this talk about, you know, waving the big stick at the companies and telling them, you know, what they should sell their gas for.
SMITH: The New South Wales Upper Hunter by-election, May 22. There's a lot at stake here. The Berejiklian government may lose the majority. Governments don't do well in by-elections. How is it shaping?
FITZGIBBON: Well, Labor has never won the seat. So, we have to watch expectations here. Having said that, I believe Labor is a bit of a chance. Obviously the Nationals are going to suffer a bit of a backlash for one, creating a by-election. No one likes being dragged to an additional election, and two, the basis or the cause of the by-election. So that's a bit of an opportunity for Labor. We have an excellent candidate in Jeff Drayton. I mean, if anyone was in any doubt that we back to the coal mining industry, I think we dealt with that when we pre-selected a coal miner and a coal mine official, a union official. So, we made that very, very clear. So you know, the way it stands, coal has been a big issue in this part of the world, but Labor, National, One Nation, Shooters, they're all saying they support the coal mining industry. So that should neutralise that issue, and we can get on to talking about health and education and Tafe, infrastructure, the other things important to people. And on that basis, you know, we're a bit of a chance. But it'll be a Melbourne Cup field. Already nine candidates and nominations don't close for two weeks yet. It's optional preferential at the state level, so people don't have to send their preferences anywhere and that makes it even less predictable. But you know, we're in the race and Labor will give it a good shot.
SMITH: And one last one, how good is your daughter Grace doing as a reporter on Channel Nine News. She must have got those skills from her mother, did she?
FITZGIBBON: That is absolutely true, Chris. Thankfully, she's got her mother's personality and all of her mother's brains and skills, but obviously, we're very, very proud of Grace, as we are all of our kids and may she continue to climb that career ladder.
SMITH: I can't wait until the time that she has to do a controversial story about Joel Fitzgibbon, her father.
FITZGIBBON: Yes, we have, she has occasionally had a photo of me behind her, you know, while she's been reporting which is a little surreal and a bit of a source of humour within the family. But no, we're very proud of her. She's doing well.
SMITH: I bet you are. We will catch you tonight as we go down that mine. All the very best mate.
FITZGIBBON: Good on you mate.