Interview with Ben Fordham, 2GB

Ben Fordham
Australia’s trade relationship with China; Lithium resources in Australia; National Reconstruction Fund; Australia’s manufacturing capability; Solar panels

Ben Fordham, Host: This is interesting; we’re warned today that China could be spying on us through our cars. Cyber expert Katherine Mansted says our vehicles are computers on wheels. The data indicates where we live, where we shop, who we visit, and with China building so many of the cars that we drive, they’re getting access to that information. That’s the concern anyway from cyber security experts. 

Last year, 122,000 cars sold in Australia were made in China. The Liberal Senator James Paterson is telling Aussies to avoid Chinese-made cars if you care about privacy. He’s told Sky News Chinese companies are ultimately under the control of the Communist Party, and so there is a risk that your data can be accessed. There’s even a suggestion that they can relay voice data. So someone somewhere else in the world could be listening to what is being said in your car. 

And just on China, we look like we might have a breakthrough happening as far as our relationship goes with China, and I know that a lot of exporters are sweating on this, because they’ve been punished unfairly; coal, beef, barley, wine, lobsters - all blacklisted, and this has had a major impact on our economy. But after three long years, the wheels are in motion. China has hinted that they will lift some of their trade bans, and the first shipments of Aussie coal to China in two and a half years due to arrive this week. 

Senator Tim Ayres is the Federal Assistant Minister for Trade, and he’s on the line right now. Tim, good morning to you. 

Tim Ayres, Assistant Minister for Trade and Assistant Minister for Manufacturing: G’day, Ben. It’s good to talk to you and to your listeners. 

Fordham: Yeah, it’s been a long time coming, but we’re starting to get some movement at the station. 

Assistant Minister: Well, the meeting yesterday between Don Farrell, the Trade Minister, and his Chinese counterpart was a useful and constructive meeting. You know, we have, as a new government, been really clear right from the outset – we are going to calmly and consistently advocate the national interest. We’ve sought meetings between the Prime Minister and President Xi, a series of other meetings at ministerial level, including the meeting I did myself in Europe just a few weeks ago, that are all stepping stones along the way to stabilising our trade relationships with China. 

You know, this is an important market for Australian exporters. It is – the impediments that have been put in front of Australian exports have been very challenging and difficult for those exporters, and, really, they haven’t been in the interests of Chinese consumers either. So, I’m cautiously optimistic. I’ve seen these reports. I’ll wait to see what is actually delivered here, but I’m cautiously optimistic about the progress that has been made thus far. 

Fordham: All right. If coal is on the way, you know that all of those other industries like beef and barley and wine and the lobster industry are all going to be saying, “Are we next?”- any news for those industries? 

Assistant Minister: Well, we haven’t made progress here by jumping to conclusions or making claims that we can’t back up. What we have done is, as I said, calmly and consistently advocated in Australia’s national interest. There are signs of progress here, but I wouldn’t put it any higher than that. It is good news that there’s some progress that appears to have been made, but I want to see all of those impediments removed and a resumption of stable, normal trading relationships. 

Fordham: Well, our farmers are certainly cheering that on. Now, can I ask you about something else? A new lithium mine is up and running in the Northern Territory. It started shipping lithium to China, and lithium is a key component in electric cars and the batteries used in things like laptops and mobile phones and cameras, and I’ve got no issue with exports, but are we missing a massive opportunity here? Because we’ve got the ingredients – why aren’t we kickstarting local manufacturing and using that lithium right here in Australia? 

Assistant Minister: Well, Ben, you’re absolutely right. This is – this is a core part of the government’s approach. Anthony Albanese said during the election campaign, and we’ve said consistently, our approach here is, number one, what I’ve outlined – calm, consistent advocacy of the national interest; number two, diversifying Australia’s export markets. You know, China will continue to be an important trading partner for Australia, but we need to make sure that we’ve got a diversity of export markets. 

And then thirdly, the point that you’re making – and I’m really glad that you’re making it – we need to lift Australia up the value chain and start making more things here. We have got – you know, the future for the car industry globally is in electric vehicles. The whole market is shifting. That means battery technology is absolutely critical. We’ve got vast lithium deposits in Australia. We should be making the lithium batteries of the future right here. 

That’s why the National Reconstruction Fund - $15 billion – there for investment in new technology and new manufacturing capability. Most of these jobs, Ben, will be in the outer suburbs and in our regions and in the bush. 

Fordham: All right. Well, when do we start making solar panels? Because Chris Bowen says we need 60 million of them by 2030, but nearly all of them come from China? 

Assistant Minister: Yeah, 85 per cent of global solar cell production is in one country, you’re right. And – you know what – solar PV was invented in Australia at the University of New South Wales. We have to make sure that the next waves of solar research and development - commercialisation of new solar PV cells - that we capture the value of that in Australia. We’re really good at research in Australia. We’ve got some of the best universities and research institutions in the world. What we haven’t done as a country is commercialise that research very effectively. 

Now, we’ve seen what happened over the course of the last decade. You know, you were talking about the car industry a moment ago – 40,000 jobs flooded offshore because the auto industry, you know, met Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey’s intransigence on building effective industry support for that industry. We lost 40,000 jobs - a massive amount of industry capability. You know, we don’t build cars anymore. 

Fordham: Well, the challenge for your government is to turn that around, because by the time we come up to May 2023, you would have been in government for a year, and people will be saying, “All right, what’s happening with lithium? What’s happening with cars? What’s happening with solar panels?”, and it sounds like we’ve got a lot of that stuff to talk about, and as you know, I think people are going to be a lot more willing to get on board with net zero if they knew it was supporting Aussie manufacturing. Why don’t we leave some of those other conversations for another day? And thank you so much for jumping on the line.

Assistant Minister: Love to talk about it again, Ben. Thanks very much. 

Fordham: Good on you. The Assistant Minister for Trade, Tim Ayres.