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Interview with ABC News Breakfast

16 December 2020

Iskhandar Razak and Madeleine morris

Subject: Coal exports, WTO, China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, Banks, insurance and resources projects, emissions targets.


ISKHANDAR RAZAK: Now turning to the situation with coal exports to China, and the Prime Minister says a ban on Australian coal would be a lose-lose situation, hitting both country's economies.

MADELEINE MORRIS: He has dismissed the news as media speculation despite growing tensions between China and Australia, hitting everything from barley to wine. The Resources Minister and Queensland MP Keith Pitt joins us now from Brisbane. Good morning to you, Minister.

KEITH PITT: Good morning to you and good morning to your viewers.

MADELEINE MORRIS: Overnight, we've heard a Chinese Government spokesman defend the ban on coal as legal and good for Chinese consumers. That's a little bit more of an official acceptance that this is going on, but have you yet been able to get on the phone or get official instructions about what exactly is going on with our coal exports?

KEITH PITT: Well we have no official notification from China that they have put in place anything that would reflect what's in the media and in media speculation. We know that we are still exporting coal from a number of locations. We know that there's around 70 ships in what's known as The Stack, so lined up at Chinese ports looking to deliver. But once again, and as the Prime Minister has outlined, Australia's product in terms of coal is very high quality. It's low ash content, very high calorific value. And when it comes to burning coal in boilers to make steam, to generate electricity, well, those boilers are usually tuned to the particular coal and the mine from which it comes. So it's unusual that there would be changes like this.

MADELEINE MORRIS: Okay. Just to be clear then, if you can clarify, we are still exporting, how much have we actually had stopped at the border and how much of our expected export for this quarter or this month are we actually making at the moment?

KEITH PITT: Well, look, that's difficult to determine because there are so many mines, so many companies, so many direct agreements and contracts. But what I would say to all of our trading partners, including China, is we expect them to meet the terms and conditions of our free trade agreements and those agreements we've signed which Australia continues to meet. So we are doing our part. Australia hasn't moved in terms of those free trade agreements. And we will continue to meet what we said we would do, but we expect all of our coal exporters and all of our exporters to have a level playing field, to be treated fairly, and that's what we're looking for.

MADELEINE MORRIS: If you believe China is breaching the terms of that free trade agreement and World Trade Organization conditions, what avenues are actually available to Australian- the Australian Government and exporters under those agreements?

KEITH PITT: Well we've raised these issues at WTO technical meetings. We obviously have an opportunity to put forward something to the World Trade Organization. ChAFTA is reviewed every year. As my understanding, around this time of year, there is a review of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, as there are reviews of our other free trade agreements on an annual basis. But once again, we expect that our trading partners will meet the terms and conditions of those agreements. It's why we signed them.

MADELEINE MORRIS: But what can we actually do? I mean if they aren't meeting them, what avenues are actually open? Can you be specific? And would China even be forced to abide by those terms?

KEITH PITT: We have taken actions through the WTO before for a number of trading partners around the world. And at the moment, we're in discussions around sugar in India, for example, where our producers believe that there's been an unfair advantage applied for producers in another country. That's what the WTO is for. That's why we support a rules-based trading system. That's why we've shifted, since we've come into government, from around 20 per cent of our exports to more than 70 per cent being covered by free trade agreements and multilateral agreements, and they've made a big difference. We've continued to increase our exports because we've got a high quality product, we can deliver it efficiently and effectively and at a price which is competitive.

MADELEINE MORRIS: Can I just ask you, Minister, about another matter that you've brought up? You wanted an inquiry into why financial institutions aren't lending to fossil fuel industries and to the insurance industry. Some people are finding it difficult to get insurance for businesses that are related to fossil fuel industries. Why do you want an inquiry into that? I mean, isn't it just obvious that the financial industry sees that the money, the return from this, is just going to go down? Wouldn't you be better having an inquiry into how you're going to help communities and coal mining companies transition away from fossil fuels?

KEITH PITT: Well firstly, these are law-abiding businesses. They have every right to operate. They employ many, many, many Australians - in fact, some 250,000 directly across the resources industry. I want to ensure-

MADELEINE MORRIS: [Interrupts] But so are the banks. They're law-abiding businesses. I mean, this is just market rules, isn't it?

KEITH PITT: Well, once again, we are having significant problems across the regions for people to get insurance, even if they only have partial work inside the resources sector. Now, if someone said to you, you work at the ABC and we don't support what they do, so we won't give you a car loan, I don't think you'd think that was fair. Now, I don't think there's a reason-

MADELEINE MORRIS: [Talks over] But I don't think- it's about the return. Sorry to interrupt you there, Minister, but it's about the return, isn't it? I mean, at the end of the day, banks and lending institutions and insurance institutions have made a market-based decision. They see the writing on the wall that fossil fuel is not going to provide them with the return and so they're making a market decision, based on the best interest of their shareholders?

KEITH PITT: Well, if that was truly the case, if there was truly a market decision, well they certainly wouldn't offer mortgages to those people who work in the resources sector. They wouldn't offer car loans or personal loans. Now I haven't seen anything that would indicate the banks intend to knock their shareholders around. But once again, we are putting an inquiry across to a joint standing committee. This is the purpose of committees. They will go out and investigate and establish facts, make recommendations, and I've certainly put forward a recommendation for an inquiry including terms of reference to the Joint Standing Committee on Trade and Investment and I look forward to seeing what the results are.

MADELEINE MORRIS: Just one final question to you on that though, Minister. I mean, we are very clearly moving towards a net zero economy. Japan which is the biggest market for our coking coal at the moment, they've got a net zero target 
 by 2050. What are you doing to actively try and help to move these communities that are so reliant on fossil fuel and destructive industries away to adapt for that new economy?

KEITH PITT: Well what Japan has also said is it doesn't mean an end of their coal imports. They intend to use technology. They use high efficiency low emission boilers to reduce those emissions. They will continue to use Australia's products because they're high quality, we're efficient, we can deliver those at a very effective price, and technology will be the answer.

MADELEINE MORRIS: Alright. Keith Pitt, Resources Minister, thank you for joining us from Brisbane this morning.

KEITH PITT: It's great to be with you.