Interview with Matt Bran, ABC Darwin

Matt Bran
Critical minerals and rare earth dialogue, Safeguards Mechanism

MATT BRAN: We're broadcasting right across the territory on the ABC and g'day if you are tuning in via the podcast. The Federal Minister for Resources and Northern Australia is Madeleine King and she's in Darwin this week for what is being called a critical minerals and rare earth dialogue. I spoke to the Minister earlier this morning and asked her to explain what this event is about, given a lot of it is happening behind closed doors.

MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Yes, certainly. We're talking about how Australia might seek to develop further into the value chain around processing critical minerals and rare earths. And there's a lot of discussion in wide open spaces as well as these other kind of dialogues. But importantly, it is good to have opportunities for ministers like myself, leaders from the NT, as well as other officials and academics and other thought leaders, to be able to have frank discussions in an unofficial capacity so we can really share some strong ideas and perhaps some strong thoughts. And that's the reason why these dialogues are held in this manner.

MATT BRAN: For you, how concerning is it that China produces most of the world's rare earth and essentially has got the monopoly on processing so many critical minerals and rare earths?

MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Yeah, well, I think COVID taught us a lot of things. One of the things we really have captured our attention is the need to diversify supply chains in all manner of things. But right now, there's a point in time in the world where we really need critical minerals and rare earth elements for us to get to a decarbonised world. And if one country is to hold all of that capacity, well, that's not wise for anyone. So, it's important that we diversify. And we are a very lucky country in as much as our geology means that we have one of the largest natural endowments of rare earth and critical minerals. And until recently, most of those were going to China for processing because, as you say, China does have the capacity to process. But now Australia, and this started a few years ago as well under the former government, we've decided as the country that owns the rock, we're going to start doing that conversion from the ore into the process material. So, that takes time, it can't happen overnight. We need to create the downstream market for those that are extracting the ore to put it into that process. And that's what we are working on right now with a number of different projects right around the country, including Iluka and, of course, Lynas Rare Earths in Kalgoorlie are doing a new processing plant as well. So, the aim of the game is to diversify supply chains for everyone.

MATT BRAN: Do you feel there is a key to more local manufacturing in Northern Australia? Because let's face it, it gets talked about a lot, but we rarely see it in practice.

MINISTER MADELEINE KING: It absolutely is, and it's a critical moment for the Northern Territory along with Western Australia but particularly the NT, you've got Core Lithium has the only lithium mine outside of Western Australia. So, it's a really important asset and making sure we invest in refining capacities of lithium, but also -

MATT BRAN: And it is refining its lithium, but then still sending it over to China. What's the key to making the batteries, making electric vehicles and more?

MINISTER MADELEINE KING: We can always have a discussion about what happened with the car industry in this country, but I don't think we've got the time we need to consolidate on what we can do and do well. So, we do extraction and mining. Excellently. We do processing really well. The Minister for Industry and Science is developing the national battery strategy, which pushes us along that value chain. So, we go up different processes in it and what we want to get to is creating the anodes and cathodes, all the precursors, and then some of those will be assembled in other places. But the aim is that we will end up assembling them here. We just can't do that overnight. So, we really have to make sure we do as much as we can as we can, and that's what the government is determined to do.

A lot of the value add in these processes is getting to the anode and cathode position and different partners around the world are demanding that part of the element, so they can construct the battery where they are, because these things are heavy, they're difficult to transport and that's where the gigafactories are. But the gigafactories need to be supplied as well and Australia can play a really important role in that. And we should absolutely capitalise on each step of this pathway while we move to a full battery manufacturing industry.

MATT BRAN: If you're tuning in, this is the Country Hour and we're speaking to the Federal Minister for Resources and Northern Australia Madeleine King, who is in Darwin this week. If we can move to gas, just wondering what sort of feedback you've had from the gas industry since the safeguard mechanism passed Parliament.

MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Well, the gas industry has had a lot of disruption over a number of years, including very low prices during COVID -

MATT BRAN: LNG companies have made a fortune, though, as well.

MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Yeah, I mean, that's fair enough. And those record sums are on the public record and they have to announce them. And these companies do need to reinvest that money and they do - they also support a lot of jobs in the community here in Darwin, but also in many centres around the country but -

MATT BRAN: Getting to the question, though, I guess the feedback you've had on the Safeguard Mechanism, what's it been like?

MINISTER MADELEINE KING: The thing is, the gas companies - the feedback has been really quite fine. The thing about the gas industry is they're the best place to reduce emissions. So they have had an objective of reaching net zero by 2050 for much longer than the Commonwealth Government has. So, they've been working toward this a lot more actively than many other industries have. And they can do it because -

MATT BRAN: APEA has said that this will deter future investment in the energy industry. Do you agree with that?

MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Well, it's hard to correlate that view with what you mentioned before, with the record profits. I know Chevron has announced that today as well. A huge profit, so I don't think that's actually the case. And also investment in companies like Chevron and Impex. They're also driven by countries and shareholders that also want to reach net zero by 2050. So, it's not necessarily Australian government positions that are affecting everything, it is also their own shareholders that want these goals to be met. So, the gas companies are very aware of this and they're working toward it, and that's why they're investing in carbon capture use and storage and building up a repertoire of offsets that the community can have confidence in. So, the gas companies are way ahead of the game, actually, in trying to reach net zero emissions by 2050. And I've full confidence that all investment will continue.

MATT BRAN: The former government, in response to the global pandemic in 2020, it set up a task force that recommended a gas led economic recovery. That plan by Scott Morrison does that still exist? Is that something that you read and follow, Madeleine King?

MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Goodness, no, because the former government didn't even follow it.

MATT BRAN: So, the gas led recovery is gone?

MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Well, it was irresponsible in the first place. How can one industry be expected to lead the economic recovery of a nation? That's quite a burden to put on any one sector of our whole economy. So that's for starters.

MATT BRAN: So, that plan's in the dust, then?

MINISTER MADELEINE KING: But, also, they had all these pledges about bringing on more supply, but the former government didn't increase any gas supply, so it was all a bit of smoke and mirrors, if you ask me. I think that the gas companies didn't need to have that burden applied to them. Recovering from a crisis such as a pandemic is a nationwide effort, not something to be thrown on the shoulders of one particular industry.

MATT BRAN: Thank you so much for your time on the Country Hour. Enjoy Darwin.