Peter Dutton has confirmed that his frontbench pick for the opposition’s climate and energy portfolio signals he is up for a debate about nuclear power in Australia.
In Sunday’s reshuffle the Liberal MP and nuclear power advocate Ted O’Brien was appointed to the shadow cabinet in the crucial portfolio.
On Monday Dutton told ABC Radio National he was “not afraid to have a discussion on nuclear”, confirming he had considered O’Brien’s support for the form of power in deciding to take the fight to Labor on electricity prices and emissions reduction.
In December 2019 O’Brien chaired a parliamentary committee that recommended the partial lifting of the moratorium on nuclear energy to allow for “new and emerging nuclear technologies”.
The report won plaudits from some other Liberals in the party room and Nationals in the Senate, although O’Brien has reportedly said the ban should not be lifted without bipartisan support.
Dutton said O’Brien was a “very considered person”, praising his work on the latest generation of nuclear power – “the small modular nuclear generation which can power up to 100,000 houses”.
“If we want to have a legitimate emissions reduction, if we want to lower emissions reduction, that’s exactly the path President Macron has embarked on in France, it’s what prime minister Johnson is talking about in the United Kingdom,” he told Radio National.
“I don’t think we should be afraid to talk about any technology that’s going to have the ability to reduce emissions and electricity prices. That’s something we can consider in time. I don’t think we should rule things out simply because it’s unfashionable to talk about them.”
Labor has long called on the Coalition to rule out the “fantasy” of nuclear power, and threatened to campaign against it in communities where plants had been proposed, such as Townsville.
A nuclear reactor is expected to take at least 15 years to build. Although small “modular” reactors show promise, the CSIRO science agency has suggested they won’t be affordable until 2050.
The Australian Nuclear Association has said nuclear power would only be cost competitive with gas and coal generation if Australia adopted a price for carbon emissions, an anathema to the Coalition since its repeal of Labor’s interim carbon price.
The conservative thinktank the Institute of Public Affairs released a poll, taken in April, finding that most Australians (53%) agreed with the proposition that “Australia should build nuclear power plants to supply electricity and reduce carbon emissions”. About a quarter (23%) disagreed, and 24% neither agreed nor disagreed.
On Monday the Liberal senator Hollie Hughes, the shadow assistant minister for climate change and energy, said she was “not personally in favour” of extending carbon emission reduction targets.
Hughes told ABC News Breakfast that Australia “could shut everything down tomorrow and all go live in trees” and the impact on total global emissions would be negligible. She suggested Australia should consider small modular nuclear energy.
The Coalition reshuffle also saw Julian Leeser, an advocate of an Indigenous voice to parliament, appointed to the role of shadow attorney general and Indigenous affairs minister.
Dutton said the Coalition was “very open to the discussion and what the government has to say” on the voice. “In principle, do we support anything that’s going to improve the situation of Indigenous Australians? Absolutely.”
But he warned there “are things that can be done now in those communities that don’t need to wait for a referendum, and I would like to see those actions”.
“Every government that I’ve been in, that I’ve witnessed … Liberal or Labor, has had good intention … of closing the gap.
“There have been some successes and we should celebrate those successes, but that we’re still talking about sexual assault of women and children, now, and the domestic violence incidences at a record rate is completely and utterly deplorable.”
Dutton also signalled greater efforts to recruit women to the Liberal party but ruled out the use of quotas.
The shadow cabinet now contains 10 women, three in the Nationals and seven in the Liberals, with Sarah Henderson joining as shadow communications minister but Marise Payne stepping back into the cabinet secretary role.
Dutton said the Liberals were “at a disadvantage” because women in the labour movement could run for office, then work for unions or industry super funds if they lost.
“Business won’t do that for the Liberal party. A small businesswoman who is juggling an overdraft and trying to get her business up and running can’t afford to take six weeks off for a campaign, because her business goes broke.
“So we need to come up with a different model, and that in my mind is the biggest inhibitor.”