Anthony Albanese says postponing this week’s national cabinet meeting with the premiers will not delay power price relief for Australians, because the proposed changes will not take effect until next February.
The prime minister was due to dine with premiers and chief ministers on Tuesday evening to try to broker a cooperative regulatory intervention in the energy market. Wednesday’s national cabinet discussion has now been delayed until Friday.
The prime minister returned a positive test for Covid-19 on Monday night, and went into isolation at his Sydney residence, Kirribilli House. Albanese said Friday’s meeting with his state and territory counterparts would now be virtual, and he would remain in isolation until he was asymptomatic.
After the deputy Liberal leader, Sussan Ley, criticised the delay, saying households and businesses battling exponential price increases had no time to wait, Albanese told the ABC on Tuesday delaying the conversation would have no material impact on the timing of the regulatory intervention.
“National cabinet will be on Friday, but the idea that you make a decision and it has an impact immediately on prices is not right of course,” the prime minister said.
He said a new default market offer for electricity users would probably be in place in February “so what we are looking at is trying to act before Christmas, which is what we said we would do”.
“There’s no actual delay in anything except the formal meeting that will take place now on Friday,” he said. “We had to make a call pretty quickly because the positive test came through at five o’clock [Monday] night.”
Albanese was asked why he didn’t persist with national cabinet on Wednesday as a virtual meeting given he was well enough to do a “proof of life” radio interview by telephone on Tuesday.
Albanese said the circumstances called for a snap decision on Monday night and the prime minister insisted it made no material difference. “The impact, apart from people who want to speculate in the media, is zero.”
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Albanese was asked when he would share key details with the premiers about how the proposed intervention would work. The prime minister suggested his state and territory counterparts had those details to hand, and some of the public positioning in recent days was about maximising their own bargaining position.
“You’ve got to draw a distinction between what premiers … say in public in order to promote their own position and what is actually happening, and what’s happening is very constructive dialogue,” the prime minister said.
“People have been given a whole lot of detail about what is proposed. People have also been given the legal advice, and bureaucrats have been working this through for weeks, and I’ve had discussions with the premiers over the weekend and again [on Monday] and last week.”
“These things are being worked through constructively and I will continue to work this through with them in constructive fashion”.
Guardian Australia revealed last week the Albanese government may struggle to provide comprehensive energy price relief unless NSW and Queensland were prepared to cooperate with a plan to temporarily cap the wholesale price of coal.
During a briefing in a federal cabinet meeting last Monday, ministers heard the commonwealth has the regulatory levers to reduce gas prices for industrial users, but there was concern a replica intervention in the coal market might be more complex for Canberra to execute and could open the possibility of legal challenges, given producers will resist.
The NSW government has rejected this, saying it has a legal opinion that suggests Canberra can impose a cap on coal prices. The state energy minister, Matt Kean, has urged quick action.
Last week the Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, declared the Albanese government needed to keep its “hands off our generators”. Palaszczuk then doubled down on Monday.
She told reporters in Brisbane there would “have to be adequate compensation” if she were to agree to Albanese’s price cap proposal.
“As I said in the parliament last week, and I’ve stuck to my guns in relation to this, we would have to be very, very convinced that no Queenslander would be worse off,” the premier said.
The Albanese government has been indicating it will intervene significantly in the energy market since budget week in October, when Treasury forecasts predicted power prices would increase by 56% by the end of next year.
The government has been pursuing price caps for coal and gas, and the intervention will also include making the gas industry code of conduct mandatory.
Albanese said every political leader in the country had an interest in landing the regulatory intervention because the alternative was more pain for households and existential pressure on manufacturing businesses.