Doorstop interview at Bluescope, Coniston, NSW
Tim Ayres, Assistant Minister for Trade and Assistant Minister for Manufacturing: Terrific, thank you. Thanks, John [Nowlan, Chief Executive of Australian Steel Products]. It's a real pleasure to be down here in Port Kembla to first of all to talk with the management at BlueScope, to understand what their plans are for the future of their business. And it's also a real pleasure to be here to make the announcement that will be just so critical for the future development at this NCAR investment in making Australian manufacturing in the Illawarra.
55 million dollars from the Commonwealth that's going to go into upgrades to the plant mill, extensions in BlueScope's investment in advanced manufacturing capability. That's going to achieve two things for the Illawarra and the country.
The first thing is we've got big ambitions for Australia to grow manufacturing and build manufacturing capability and it's impossible to imagine achieving those objectives without BlueScope being a core part of that proposition. They employ 6,000 people around Australia, many of them in the Illawarra. Tens of thousands of people in BlueScope supply chain and contractors rely upon BlueScope continuing to manufacture steel in the Illawarra and improving the efficiency and quality of their product.
The second aspect of this that I'm excited about is what it means is BlueScope's taken another step into the future. More investment in being able to manufacture steel, for example, for wind turbines that are just going to be - wind towers and turbines that are going to be just so vital for our clean energy future, being able to manufacture plate steel that's going to be critical for our investments in Defence technology and Defence capability. So this is a win/win in my view. It's an investment in jobs and industrial capability but it means that as a nation we're building that industrial capability to secure a prosperous and safe future for Australia. I'm happy to take any questions.
Journalist: I guess given the company recorded $2.8 million profit, do they still deserve a $55 million grant?
Assistant Minister Ayres: Well, what we want to see in Australia is profitable manufacturing companies. We want to see companies and firms in Australia that are making profits. We want to see good collective bargaining relationships with their staff, so staff are sharing in the growth in profits, growth in wages, lift in productivity. It's actually a good thing that BlueScope has made a healthy profit and I look forward to hearing from them more about how those profits are going to be reinvested in Australian manufacturing capability.
Journalist: But given the nature of the extraordinary profit, and there are other companies in Australia who are looking at this kind of work, are they deserving of $55 million?
Assistant Minister Ayres: The question isn't whether a company deserves an application. The application's been made on the basis that it's going to secure, more advanced manufacturing capability, that it's going to make Australian steel making more efficient and it's going to secure jobs and this grant has been assessed to do that. And I think people in the Illawarra will be celebrating this grant today when they hear about it because they know what this means. It secures jobs, it secures industrial capability, and it secures, you know, those jobs that are so fundamental to the economic development of this great region. [Inaudible]
Journalist: Given the next step is possibly manufacturing the wind turbines that these steel plates will make, your eyes on sort of that and securing that manufacturing in the Illawarra, if not, in Australia?
Assistant Minister Ayres: It's one of the things I'm really keen to discuss with the company today, is about what this means for BlueScope but what it means for the supply chain. I want to see an Australian wind tower manufacturer in the Illawarra. I want to see more firms in the supply chain using BlueScope products to make the advanced manufacturing products of the future because I know what that means. It means girls and boys in high schools in the Illawarra now, can really look forward to decent job opportunities, good opportunities with BlueScope, good opportunities with BlueScope contractors, and good opportunities with Australian manufacturing firms who, when they see an efficiently made, high-quality plate steel product, that they know that they can securely invest in the future and that's the kind of certainty that future manufacturing investments need to deliver good jobs.
Journalist: Mr Ayres, [indistinct]. On the grants review, you've announced, or Mr Husic's announced, they will all be honoured but we're coming up on nearly two years since the program was announced, a year since applicants like BlueScope put their applications in. How damaging to Australian manufacturing has this delay been and has Labor contributed to that delay in uncertainty with the internal review?
Assistant Minister Ayres: Well, I can't imagine how much stress this has - the long delays in the delivering of an announcement this grants program has created for manufacturing firms who have made these applications. You know, Australian manufacturing needs good, stable government, that makes decisions on the basis of the public interest, and what Scott Morrison and the previous government did was announce this round of funding and delay and delay and delay until just on the eve of the federal election and then made a series of announcements.
Now it's the right thing to do for the Albanese Government to take just a few weeks, really, 8 to 12 weeks to review these grants carefully because the history and the track record of the Morrison Government on grants expenditure has been shameful. It's taken away the trust that Australians should have in government and it's the right thing for us to do to just be careful and prudent about this.
We have reviewed this round of grant funding carefully. We're satisfied that it meets the tests and we're absolutely delighted now to be able to come and announce today in BlueScope that this grant funding will be applied here and there will be many other firms around the country who, of course, will be sighing a sigh of relief because they know their future is secure and the future investment plans that they've made can rely upon support from the Commonwealth and from the Albanese Labor Government.
Journalist: How are you going further from the previous Government? What are you doing differently to, you know, secure jobs here for the Illawarra region?
Assistant Minister Ayres: I'm really grateful for the question. There is so much more to do. The program that we came to Government with, the National Reconstruction Fund, $15 billion for Australian manufacturing, is the largest public policy offering in industry policy in Australian history. Together with the $20 billion Rewiring the Nation Fund, which will all be about lowering the cost of electricity, lowering emissions in the electricity system, building the capability for batteries, making Australian industry more competitive, those two funds together are the biggest boost for Australian manufacturing in our history. It's ten times the size of what the Morrison Government offered in this grants scheme.
So I'm looking forward to working with Ed Husic to deliver this program, the National Reconstruction Fund, and there will be so many more opportunities to work with firms like BlueScope to make the investments in modern manufacturing, in advanced manufacturing capability that are going to secure good jobs. And that means boys and girls in school, all around Australia, should be thinking about apprenticeships, they should be thinking about trade training, they should be thinking about doing engineering at university because that's where some of the great jobs of the future are going to be in a modern Australian manufacturing capability that's going to mean that we take our place in the region as one of the great manufacturing nations.
Journalist: And you know, we do talk about all these younger high school kids moving into the manufacturing space, too. Is the Government also supporting, you know, skills and training? We do have a lack of skilled workers at the moment. Is that something you're looking at?
Assistant Minister Ayres: I don't need much encouragement to talk about the Jobs and Skills Summit which will be happening at the end of next week. We are, as a Government, we say what we mean and we mean what we say on these questions. We want Australian industry and unions, employers and workers, the university sector, the TAFE sector, to be all working together on solving these big national problems. We do have significant steel shortages, some of them are very sharp in some areas of the economy. And we're going to have to work together to solve those questions.
It's true that fixing our migration settings is going to be part of resolving these issues, but the big question is how we make sure we resolve these in a way that means our skills and training requirements match what industry needs and that we're producing good jobs in the economy, good, stable jobs, that young families can rely upon, that young workers can aspire to go and do and that they're going to make their own investment in the time to go and do the training courses that are going to make a difference and establish them in good careers for the future. That's the challenge for not just the Government, it's the challenge for industry and it's a challenge for the trade union movement.
And what Anthony Albanese means when he says that he wants to see Australians working together, yes, it's about government consulting across industry, and across the trade union movement, but also we're saying to industry and in the trade unions and Australian institutions, step up and be part of the solution and bring forward the kind of solutions that are going to mean that we can chart our away through these challenges.
Journalist: So the ACTU has been talking about minimum wage of $91,000 for skilled migrant workers. Is that something that Labor would support?
Assistant Minister Ayres: All of these questions are on the table at the Jobs and Skills Summit. All of them. We are going to listen carefully to what the ACTU and the trade unions have to say on some of these questions, whether it's in relation to immigration, in relation to the bargaining system, in relation to vocational and educational training system. We're going to listen closely to industry, to the peak councils, but also directly to employers like BlueScope who have made a big contribution in the Illawarra and will continue to make a big contribution in terms of engineering cadetships, skills and training opportunities for apprentices.
We've just got to focus on rebuilding the way we do these things. We've lost the muscle memory in Australia of how to cooperate. You know, we've had a government for nine years that's been all about trying to find the vision to try to eke out some small political advantage. Well, actually what we need is a government that's committed to getting Australians working together.
We're not always going to find agreement but we've got to learn to cooperate and we've got to learn to build the kind of relationships that mean we can solve problems together. I'm really excited to be part of that in a small way, in the manufacturing sector, working with manufacturing firms and working with manufacturing unions, but we've got a big job to do as a country and [the] Jobs and Skills Summit will not be the last time that the Albanese Government ask Australians to work together in the national interest. Let me finish there, Kelly.
Journalist: We've heard today that Wollongong resources is looking to expand the life of Russell Vale mine, is that something that you guys support? Is that key to ensuring that steel industry can continue as well?
Assistant Minister Ayres: Yeah, we've got to make sure that BlueScope Steel has got the feedstock to make sure they continue to operate and that it's done in an efficient way. Of course we've got big challenges in industry. We've got to lower emissions, to increase efficiency, to move towards green steel production, investments in hydrogen, all these sorts of questions, but the bottom line, we need to make sure that BlueScope Steel has got, you know, a low-price, efficient feedstock and that we've got security around those questions.
Journalist: Do you personally support the [indistinct] $91,000 minimum [indistinct]?
Assistant Minister Ayres: You know what I won't do when I'm doing a press conference in the Illawarra just a week ahead of the Jobs and Skills Summit is indicate what the views of ministers are about each of these propositions. There is, I would say, some work to do in terms of skilled migration and the mix of temporary and permanent migrants coming into the country. Australia is a great immigrant nation. The Illawarra is a great immigration region. The history of the Illawarra steelworks is built upon migration. Much of that permanent migration.
We're going to have to get these questions right. We're going to have to get levels of compliance right. We're going to have to work through these issues but I'm not going to pre-empt the actual outcomes of the discussion by telling you what the right, you know, what the right level is for these payments today. But I look forward to the debate next Thursday and Friday, and I look forward to coming up with some common sense solutions that are actually in the interest of Australian workers and Australian industry and making sure, I have to say, lastly, Kelly, that when people come here for temporary work opportunities, that they have a really good experience of working here and that they take something back to their countries when they return home, where they say they've had a really good experience of working in Australia. They make a contribution while they're here. I hope that many more of them stay here as permanent migrants but I also say that I want people who come and work here, whether they're working in skilled occupations or whether they're working in our agricultural sector, to be able to say they've had a really good experience of working in Australia and tell their friends and families all about it. Did you have one last question?
Journalist: Yes, just on the Jobs and Skills Summit. What sort of representatives from the manufacturing sector will be there? And understand you have held some round tables with heavy industries and manufacturing, quite a few players there but was there a sort of common message or something that they want you to take to the Jobs and Skills Summit?
Assistant Minister Ayres: So, first things first, there is not just the Jobs and Skills Summit itself, it's not the only place where these discussions have been held. Up to date I think there have - Australian ministers, ministers of the Albanese Government have held 60 summits across the country in early childhood education, in the aged care sector, and, as I and Minister Husic have been doing, across Australian industry.
I did hold a summit of heavy manufacturers. It was very well attended at a very senior level. Not everybody got to go there, of course. It's the nature of these things. There is going to be a strong position taken from heavy industry and from manufacturing at the summit itself.
What was interesting, of course, is while there are some issues in common that industry has got, you know, it's a complex web of, you know, different regional experiences and we've got to work through the solutions to these questions really carefully.
I can draw out just two themes that I thought were pretty helpful that came out of that discussion earlier in the week. Number one, of course, those skills shortage questions that Kelly and I were talking about a minute ago, are absolutely crucial and industry recognises that some of this is going to be dealt with in terms of the migration program but we've got a shared commitment to lifting the training and the capability of young Australians to go into these jobs and many young Australians want to work in an industry that's all about lowering emissions and contributing to a modern climate future for Australia. Like they see that opportunity and they're excited about it. And industry sees that if they want to attract people into these jobs, young Australians into these jobs, are starting to make sure that we're talking about the climate challenge in manufacturing is a core part of that.
The second thing that's just so crucial in Australian manufacturing is increasing the number of girls and young women who want to come and work in manufacturing. This is an industry that has suffered from being an industry that is just dominated by men in our workplaces and we need to broaden out and make sure that there are more young women coming into apprenticeship opportunities, coming into engineering cadetship opportunities and doing engineering at university. This is an exciting part of the Australian economy. It's where there's good jobs and good opportunities and I want to see thousands more young women walk into Australian manufacturing workplaces with real confidence that there's good training opportunities and a good, stable career in front of them when they do.
Journalist: Just to be clear on this summit next week, is there a dedicated representative from the manufacturing sector?
Assistant Minister Ayres: There will be dozens of people who have a manufacturing background and engage with the manufacturing sector, you know, right across the industry. I don’t have a copy of the attendance list in my hands, I can't go through for you who's there. I'm not sure that the attendants' list has been released but I can tell you there will be a very strong input from Australian manufacturing.
Journalist: Can we ask Mr Nowlan some questions?
Assistant Minister Ayres: Yeah, of course.
Journalist: The grant was announced in March has this delay impacted any of your plans?
John Nowlan, Chief Executive of Australian Steel Products at BlueScope: Kelly, I wouldn't say it's impacted our plans. We've been working on a study and the work for the plate mill upgrade since then. The other piece of this, of course, is getting a wind tower manufacturer. What we're trying to precipitate, at least on the wind tower side of things, is the supply chain into the renewable energy zones in New South Wales so that Australian steel goes into at least a reasonable proportion of those wind towers. So we've been working both on the plate mill furnace, the plate mill work to get ready for this but also we're working with various parties on trying to attract a wind tower manufacturer to New South Wales as well.
Journalist: How close are you?
Nowlan: Well, the affirmation of the MMI grant, that's a really important piece of this, Kelly. I mean, we've still got work to do on getting a commitment from someone to come and actually manufacture wind towers in New South Wales. So that's work that's in progress at this point in time.
Journalist: Given your record profit, do you deserve a $50 million grant?
Nowlan: Well, if you look at the program of work that we've got in front of us at BlueScope, we've got quite a significant amount of work that we're working on, not the least of which, of course, is the blast furnace here which is a billion-dollar investment. We're working on a metal coating line, an additional metal coating line, we've actually pretty much got approval, subject to getting planning approval, for putting a heavy pipe and tube mill in here in Port Kembla. So we've got a raft of projects that we're progressing with and working to put in place.
Projects like this one are projects that are difficult just to justify on a pure economic basis and I guess that's the reason for the grant and, actually, I mean what we're trying to do is establish a supply chain, as I said, for wind tower manufacturing in New South Wales and that's bigger than BlueScope.