Interview with Greg Jennett, ABC News 24 Afternoon Briefing
GREG JENNETT: Madeleine King, good to have you back on the program. Now you'll be running this task force along with the US National Security Council, because Australia's been deemed a domestic source for critical minerals. How powerful is this listing? What does it under US law enable the White House or the administration to actually do in relation to critical minerals?
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Well it's great to be back, Greg, and thanks for having me along. It's a really important step and what Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and President Joe Biden have achieved last week in reaching this Compact on climate change, critical minerals and clean energy is a really very important step in strengthening our alliance, this third pillar of the alliance on top of our work together in economic and defence corporation. What it will do, it will be a task force that's going to work to unblock some of the blockages in relation to the development and processing of critical minerals, because what we know is that Australia has vast reserves of all sorts of critical minerals as well as rare earth elements, more so than America does. And they need to create a stable supply chain, as do we. This unlocks connections, whether it's barriers to capital investment but also investment into processing facilities and getting things done to make sure critical minerals are processed here under good ESG regimes.
GREG JENNETT: Yes.
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: And so they're needed for the American industrial base, just as they're needed for Australia.
GREG JENNETT: Can it issue government loans to American investors, and why would that be necessary if this is the boom industry of the decade, why don't they stand on their own feet commercially?
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Yeah, it's a good question and it's a reasonable thing to ask. The thing about critical minerals is there is some market instability with them. Because they're not like iron ore where it's vast volumes and established over many years. We need to power this industry up really very quickly because of the green revolution the whole world wants to undertake, and right now we know that most of those supplies are cornered coming from one country and we need to be a competitor and America's going to help us be that competitor.
GREG JENNETT: Yeah.
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: And that's really important. So the reason that we want and will need a government assistance, and it's not always through cash or hand outs.
GREG JENNETT: Sure.
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: It can be through ‑‑
GREG JENNETT: Removal of regulatory barriers.
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: ‑‑ making things more efficient, land provision, you know, environmental works. All this sort of thing is to make sure it gets done and we remove some of those market distortions that are around critical minerals and rare earths.
GREG JENNETT: Would it enable a US Government via a US company that had received support, perhaps under the Inflation Reduction Act or some other mechanism, to commandeer or order a consignment of processed lithium, for example, even when that wasn't in Australia's interests?
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Yeah, absolutely not. There's no commandeering of any of Australia's reserves of anything let alone critical minerals and rare earths. This is about cooperation, as it always has been with the US. We work together. And I would point out we've got a lot of American investment in this country in the energy and resources sector, and it's been very important to the development of the nation, and quite frankly our budget bottom line. This builds on that. It supercharges it, which we need to do, but it is about working together and having American Government investment and American corporate investment in our critical minerals industry is something that is unequivocally a good thing for the nation.
GREG JENNETT: So we find unpalatable the current Chinese dominance of Australia's lithium exports running at about 96 - 97 per cent. Do you have a benchmark in mind as that falls for where you want US interest to sit in this? Is it 50, is it 70, is it back around 90, effectively replacing China?
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Yeah, look, I do think we need to be ambitious but no, we haven't set benchmarks yet and we've just agreed the Compact and I'm about to start discussions with the US on this, so we'll naturally have those discussions on what our targets should be. But, you know, it's right to point out that as of last year 96 per cent of our lithium was exported to China for processing, and what we want to create is a more diverse supply chain. And that's good for everybody, like everyone needs spares, so to speak, and we need diversity in our supply chain. Right now there are a number of lithium hydroxide plants coming online in Western Australia and that will boost our share of that production up quite substantially in the next few years, and we want to get to build more of those lithium hydroxide plants so we can do more of that processing here. But we will need investment. Indeed, we have American investment through Albemarle which has committed another $2 billion to the plants in Kemerton and that's exactly the kind of investment we want to keep encouraging for Australia.
GREG JENNETT: And there are other plants coming online potentially around Kalgoorlie too?
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: In Kalgoorlie we have the Lynas Rare Earths elements which is a different kind of plant, but it is an absolutely essential part of the mix and Lynas Rare Earths have done a terrific job getting that process facility up relatively quickly. And we've got Wesfarmers and SKM building another lithium hydroxide plant in Kwinana in my electorate.
GREG JENNETT: Now some of the designations that were agreed to by President Biden and Prime Minister Albanese are subject to Congressional approval. What is Ambassador Kevin Rudd doing to smooth the way there? Do you see any obstacles?
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: I don't see any obstacles and I've had ‑ I was in touch with Ambassador Rudd last night and I'm very grateful for the work he's doing. He's certainly hit the ground running as Ambassador, our representative in Washington. So I'll continue to work with him and his team. There's bipartisan support for the American‑Australian relationship in the Congress and I am confident there'll be no barriers to us proceeding with the Compact and all that we want to achieve under it.
GREG JENNETT: Okay, so that's one side of the ledger. Then there's what do the Australian people make out of the lithium and critical minerals boom. Daniel Walton, soon to be outgoing National Secretary of the AWU, has regarded it as catastrophic if Australia took a lazy approach to taxation, as he says it did with iron ore and gas booms previously. You're a proud Western Australian and you've pointed to the royalties that that State has benefitted from, from lithium.
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Yes.
GREG JENNETT: But you're only pinpointing the problem there, aren't you? What's in it for the nation beyond Western Australian royalties?
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Well there is other deposits around the country too and each State has its own royalty regime. And that's the nature of mining in Australia, is each State has a set, a regime over the Crown land that it has care for. So we don't intend to introduce any kind of double royalty, so to speak, or an extra taxation. What we do know is that these lithium ‑ oh, and other critical minerals mines, they create a lot of jobs, they bring infrastructure to the area, and they provide export earnings for the country. So there's a [indistinct].
GREG JENNETT: But why wouldn't you examine that? I mean it has been flirted with and abandoned before, super profits tax. If this is every bit as powerful into the future as you expect it to be, why not examine it?
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Yeah, and the thing is, and I went to this earlier, is that there are some market distortions in critical minerals and rare earths because of their low volume, high power needs, high refining needs and chemical processes that have to be applied. It's not as simple as iron ore, and I'm not saying iron ore extraction and [indistinct] export is a simple thing, but this is more complicated and so to seek to put a tax on something right at the start when we're not sure where the market's going, and we've lithium stocks rise and fall really frequently, and no matter what the market says about its value on any given day, what we absolutely know is that we absolutely need it. That's why we need some government work done around making sure we can extract it and use it for all the needs that we will have in clean and green energy technologies.
GREG JENNETT: All right. Much more we probably could and should talk about, but I think time's going to beat us today, Madeleine King, which means we'll get you back before too long.
MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Thank you so much, Greg.