Interview with Nadia Mitsopoulos, ABC Perth

Future Made in Australia Act, the cost of manufacturing in Australia, incentives for businesses, the Productivity Commission’s view of assistance, battery technologies.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: I want to go to Madeleine King who is the Federal Resources Minister and, of course, the Member for Brand here in WA. Good morning, Minister.  

MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Hi, Nadia. How are you?

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: I'm well, thank you. So, Minister, just to recap. For those who missed what the PM said yesterday, can you just tell us what this policy will do?

MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Yeah, well the Future Made in Australia Act is the Government's drive to bring together all the work we've been doing already over the last couple of years, but to make sure Australia is well placed to seize on the opportunity before us, because we are on the cusp of a global transformation in energy and in the things the world wants and underlying all this is the things we have.

So in Western Australia, in particular, but also right around the country, we have these extraordinary natural resources that are the ingredients that go into whether it be electric vehicle batteries, but also other storage batteries for towns, as well as the batteries in your laptop and your phone. We also have all the things that go into the high-powered magnets that you need for wind turbines and also to move the wheels on electric vehicles. So we want to be part of that. So we want that part of the future made in Australia because we have those natural resources and we really need to capitalise on it, and the issue we have with some of these minerals is that they exist in very thin markets, they're not what we're used to in the traditional resources sector of large-scale, super high-volume commodities like iron ore and coal and even gas. They are low volume and they need to be refined and the proposition that the Government is putting to the people, and will present in the budget in the Future Made in Australia policy, is that we want to make sure we're competing and making those things clear so that it can go into the decarbonisation plans, not just for Australia, but for all our partners around the world.
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Minister, as you would be well aware, we have a long history here in WA of being very good at digging things up and shipping them out. I know Richard Court always used to talk about, when he was Premier, downstream processing. But isn't the problem the cost? Isn't that why we've lost so much manufacturing because it is just so expensive here?

MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Well, and I have to contest the idea of dig and ship. And I know it's a popular thing and I've got to say my colleagues use that language, too, and I've been working really hard to move them on from it. But even the iron ore industry is much more complex than that. It's some of the biggest logistics challenges on the face of the Earth, is what gets dealt with in the Pilbara. So while we might just think of it as just digging and shipping, it's much more advanced than that. I mean, the iron ore industry has the largest robots in the world. So just to make sure I'm clear about that.

But I mean, there is expense. We're an economy that has a high standard of living and we want to keep that. We want people to be well paid, to have good conditions, and we want a bright future in these new industries. But the thing is, we do have these comparative advantages, like the geology and the resources themselves and we have the know-how as well. We have a highly skilled work force, and we have entrepreneurial businesses that do the exploration and that are trying to break into this industry and to make it all happen here. But they are struggling against the tide of market manipulation by others. So that is why the Government stands ready and is working on the Future Made in Australia Act to make sure we can support that industry to grow and to thrive into the future.  

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: So what sort of businesses would you be giving incentives to? How are you going to work out what deserves an incentive, a financial assistance from the Government and what doesn't, and I sense your dog has a bit to say about this.  

MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Sorry. Yes, sorry, I am at home and there's people walking down the street. You know, I mean, from my part, I won't speak to the whole package because it is a whole-of-government approach where we're taking to Future Made in Australia, but for critical minerals, it's like what we've already done with support through the Critical Minerals Facility, or the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility.

Companies come to us, to the government, because they need to crowd in private investment and they need to demonstrate that the government supports that industry because they just can't get investment from other places and the reason for that is that other countries are producing such an oversupply in some parts of the critical mineral space that prices plunge and that means it's really hard to get investment from private sources to start these operations and that's where with the Government can take an active role in stepping in and, you know, we have extraordinary assessment processes and I dare say if there's anyone in the critical minerals industry listening today, they could back me up on that, where the due diligence is undertaken by government and by government departments and facilities to make sure that there is a good prospect, in fact, an excellent prospect of the loans that we make are being returned back to government. So we're not - we need to support, we need to be able to put these loans and other facilities and centres in place so we can start an industry.  

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Okay, but the Productivity Commission has long been critical of industry assistance, and it says that this law could create a class of businesses that relies on government handouts?

MINISTER MADELEINE KING: I mean, and the Productivity Commission has always been useful in its participation in economic debate, and I really do have a lot of time for many of the reports they've made. But the truth is, in many - at every moment within Australia we've set out to create a new industry, it has required government involvement but also national leadership. If we think about growing our iron ore industry with China, you know, Bob Hawke really led the opening of the investment ties with that, but also opening up the economy. John Howard was very proactive in seeking investment and creating an investment for the LNG development in the north of this State as well.
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: So are you saying the Productivity Commission is wrong? Its concerns are out of date?

MINISTER MADELEINE KING: No, I think they're wise to point out that, of course, we need to have strategy around this and it's not just handouts. There has to be, you know, firm objectives and there has to be limits on everything. That is, I would say, a very obvious statement but well made by the Productivity Commission and I would agree -

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: How do you address that then? How do you stop creating a group of businesses that are always going to rely on government handouts?

MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Well, and they're not government handouts, I want to say. This is a structured program that we're developing and have been developing through this budget process of incentivisation and some of this is not any kind of handout. It is on success as well, right? So it's not necessarily a wide sweep of, you know, money for nothing. That is far from the truth, right? This is about making sure Australia can compete in an international market where other countries are taking action, and I am a free marketeer. Like, I really believe in free markets. But the problem is in critical minerals and rare earths, that the market is not operating very well internationally, and, in fact, I think it's been manipulated.

So we can either stand back and let that happen and we miss our opportunity, or the Government, which this Government, the Albanese Labor Government, and I as the Resources Minister, will stand up and say hang on a second, we will not let our critical minerals industry fail because other countries want us to fail. We will participate in this and we will show leadership and we make sure that it is targeted, specific, and leads to success, and we're determined to do it and I think there will be a lot of support for Australia being able to have an independent critical minerals sector that can help us deliver the things we need to deliver in terms of battery projects, offshore wind, onshore wind, storage, all these things that go towards the decarbonised world.
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: People want more cars built. People want us to build cars again, Minister, that's what they're telling me. Cars and tractors like we did 50 years ago.  

MINISTER MADELEINE KING: Well, I mean, I would like to still be making cars, I sure would. But, you know, that has - that ship's sailed under the former government, and Joe Hockey when he dared the industry to leave. But what we can do now is make sure we do either processing and the refining for those parts of lithium-ion batteries that can go into the giga factories in America and so forth.  

But also remember, we have other capacities in battery technology as well, like vanadium batteries. I mean I went to a workshop in Wangara where they've got the first kind of vanadium flow battery up and running and that is the kind of battery that supports suburbs and towns to store energy overnight from their solar panels. So, you know, this is stuff that Australia is building. We have the resources, that's Australian know-how and intellectual property in vanadium flow. Great prospects in Queensland and in Western Australia for vanadium and those types of batteries. So, you know, it's not just about EVs, although that's really important, there's all sorts of battery storage that we have a great role to play in.
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Alright, I'll need to leave it there and move on. I appreciate your time, Minister. Thank you.  

MINISTER MADELEINE KING: No worries, Nadia. Thanks for chatting.
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Madeleine King there, she's the Federal Resources Minister.