Well, look it’s really great to be here at Northparkes Mines, the world’s most fully automated, underground, block cave mine. This is a copper mine and, as I say, it’s not only fully automated but, when it went fully automated, it lost no jobs. Three hundred people work this mine.
This very much underpins the economy here in Parkes. Three hundred people work here and, as the Small Business Minister, that is very much critical to this area, for both indirect and direct jobs flowing through the economy in all sorts of areas: hospitality, food, you name it, these sorts of small businesses are underpinned by what they do here at Northparkes Mines.
It’s great to be here with Justine Fisher, and it’s also great to be here with Jim Fowler, the New Managing Director of Northparkes Mines, and he’s here from Phoenix, Arizona, and he took over from Stef Loader. Stef leaves a legacy of real achievement. Last year Northparkes Mines won a significant national award for its health and safety aspects, so that’s significant too.
I am really pleased to be joined by the Resources Minister and Northern Australia Minister, Senator Matthew Canavan. It’s his first visit to Northparkes. I am sure he will be very interested in going almost 550 metres under the ground and, more importantly, talking to the employees here, the 300 workers at Northparkes who not only contribute so much to the economy but also do a marvellous job for our mining industry. That cannot be understated just what Northparkes does, not just for the local economy but indeed for the mining industry in general in Australia.
And of course Parkes is very much not just in the Central West but it’s central, and very much the central focus of mining, very much the central focus of agriculture. It is – as Ken Keith, the Mayor of Parkes always tells me, the centre of the universe. Today, we’ve announced two important rail bridge structure replacements on the Parkes to Narromine line to future proof that line, you know getting ready for the inland rail and of course visiting here in the mine today. It’s really important that ministers see these sorts of facilities, that ministers understand just how important the Central West is, and more specifically, how important Parkes is to the overall Australian economy. I might just ask Matthew to say a few words and then we’ll be happy to take questions.
Well thank-you very much Michael. It’s great to be here with Michael and, as he said, this is my first visit here to Northparkes. I am here because I have heard two great things about Northparkes: I’ve heard what a great job it does as a leader and a contributor to your regional economy. And also it’s very innovative and forward-thinking techniques in mining.
It’s very important as a country that we stress those two things to the Australian people, that mining produces so much of wealth so many of our jobs, particularly for regional towns and communities. There are no mines in Sydney or Brisbane – they are out in the regions, and country towns in particular rely heavily on the mining sector for employment and for services in the town.
We’ve just been to your bakeries and wholesome foods in Parkes, and they would require that businesses like this operate so that there are people who might want to have a cup of coffee in the morning or to get an apricot Danish in the morning, which was particularly nice. We might get another one at the French Taste bakery. We rely on money to spin around the town that comes from operations like this and that’s why it’s so important to have a strong mining sector in our country.
Now I hear from Northparkes Mines – I heard here today and I hear from your community – that they are a major contributor to the local community, to sporting events, to community infrastructure, and that’s my message as Resources Minister to the mining sector: that we need the sector to play its role, play its traditional role, of helping to spread the economic benefits of mining across the local community, because so many of our historic towns have had their platforms of growth from mining and from the investment that comes from it.
So, I applaud Northparkes for what they are doing. They are an exemplar to the rest of the resources sector in that regard. The second great thing that I mentioned we are here for is the innovation that this mine exemplifies – the first automated block cave mine in the world is something we can be very proud of. It’s something that keeps our mining sector strong and it’s something that is under-appreciated, that our mining sector is not just about digging things out of the ground; it takes an enormous amount of intellectual capital, of skill, of innovation, to keep us at the forefront of the world in mining technologies – and to make sure that, while we are a long way off from industrial centres of the world, that we have a competitive mining sector, because we are good at what we do and we do so at a competitive price.
So, I applaud what they do here, all those automated jobs have been kept here in regional Australia. That is fantastic to see and it’s just great to be here and see what is a shining light in our resources sector and what is such an important business in the town of Parkes and the Central West.
In your tours of mining companies such as Northparkes, what kind of things do they want to see from the federal government to help them flourish more?
Well, I think there’s a few different things of course, as you would appreciate. One of the larger frustrations for the mining sector is making sure they receive approvals in a timely fashion. There have been a few high profile and long delays in approving new mines and expanding mines along the country and that does delay jobs and investment.
That’s why, on coming to Government, we established a one-stop-shop for environmental approval at the Federal Government level. What that means is that for mines or other projects seeking environmental approval they can go through one system, one system, through State and Federal Governments for their assessments, rather than going through two different systems, two different sets of bureaucrats that delay these projects and make it costly. That is a major thing the mining sector is interested in.
Another major issue for us as a country is making sure we continue to find new mineral resources across our country. It’s not commonly understood that most our minerals we have today, most of our mines we have today, came from finds that occur because you have out-cropping. You see rocks, and you say “Yep, that rock looks like it should have some copper in it”, so we drill here – when in fact there is no reason that the copper might be there where there are no rocks, where there is no out-cropping, but we just can’t see under it. So, that’s why last year the Government put aside $100 million for the Exploring for the Future program, which is using the latest aero-magnetic and seismic testing so we can see under the ground.
The fascinating thing for me is that we probably know more about space sometimes, we know more about distant planets from things like your Parkes Radio Telescope than we do about what’s under our feet, because it is very hard to see that, and the more we can discover new fields, new areas the more we can attract exploration to this country and get exploration investment going.
Look, the final thing our sector needs, our mining and energy sector needs, is access to growing attraction to investment and opportunities that’s why we have signed trade agreements with countries in Asia – Japan, China and Korea – that’s why we are working very hard in establishing a strong relationship with India with our resources sector. That is a growth opportunity for us. We should be very proud as a nation at what we have done in helping Japan, China and Korea all grow in the last 50 or 60 years. That’s a great benefit to us. And the next cab of the rank, if you like, is India and it’s so important we establish a strong relationship with that country and take the jobs and growing trading relationship with them.
And what role do you think hi tech metal such as cobalt and scandium will play in the resources mix? We are seeing in the rest of New South Wales a few different proposals, even near Condobolin. Does that show some signs of hope?
Well, I am aware of that project and the Federal Government, the Prime Minister, announced last year at the Minerals Council dinner that we are doing some work on lithium and rare earth metals to see what the market is around the world and to see what we need to do to try and attract that investment to Australia. They are growing in demand, especially with the emergence of battery technologies and some other renewable energy technologies that use these metals as well. The smart phones use those. The modern world would not exist without those resources. We are lucky in this country to have an abundance of many of those resources of rare earth metals. So, it’s a huge opportunity for our country and there’s a range of projects going on around the country.
I understand the opportunities here in the Central West. There are opportunities in Western Australia. There are opportunities in South Australia. So, we are very lucky as a country and we are trying to do our best as a Federal Government to attract that investment, to put up in lights the opportunities that exist here and try to get projects like those going on across our country.
Just one other question: I guess there’s talk about a potential new coal-fired power station. I guess there hasn’t been much talk about whereabouts it’s going exactly, but would you look at maybe putting it in Lithgow, given the need for employment in Lithgow and its history of coal-mining there?
Well, look I am open to all suggestion on producing cheap energy for our country. So much of our manufacturing sector relies on access to the very good high quality energy resource we have here as a country. And I certainly am not putting up the white flag like the Labor Party and the Greens are on our manufacturing sector. If you listen to the Labor Party and the Greens , their view is energy prices will only get higher and jobs in our manufacturing sector will increasingly come under risk, and we won’t therefore have those high-wage jobs that we need in this country to give people a go in life.
So, there’s no reason why this country, given the coal and gas resources in particular it has, that we can’t use those resources, and then take the minerals we’ve got here, the copper, and the rare earths we’ve got elsewhere, to process them into higher-value-added products . But to do that we need cheap energy, because if we don’t do that what will happen is, if we don’t use our coal resources, here our coal will get shipped to Asia, our copper concentrates and other mineral concentrates, and they will combine those two there to produce the refined products that go into those modern technologies. I’d like to keep as much of that value adding here in Australia, to create those jobs and wages opportunities here. But, to do that, we need cheap energy, we need baseload energy, and coal-fired power has to be part of that mix.
So we are looking as a Government about what we have to do to attract and build a coal fired power station here in Australia and I would certainly be interested at any investment in Lithgow or anywhere else. We have the resources but we do need to make sure we have the business and investment to go along with that.
Just one final question: just back on the tech-metal stuff, what specifically is the Government trying to do to attract investment?
We’ve got a body called the office of the Chief Economist within the Department of Industry that covers resources in our country and they are doing some work for us at the moment on the world lithium market. There was some work they did roughly 20 to 25 years ago – or a predecessor body, the Bureau of Resource Economics – on the world LNG market and what the possibilities were for Australia’s LNG exports. At that time we had a nascent industry in Darwin and the North-West Shelf, and since that work was done we have been able to attract $200 billion of investment in LNG facilities in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and in Queensland, and we are about to become the world’s largest LNG producer. Now, that hasn’t all stemmed from that work, but it was a key contributor to it, and that’s what we hope to replicate in the rare earths and tech-metal sector by doing some ground work, basic research to look at what the market is and what role we might play as a country in this emerging world market in rare earth metals.
Could Australia be a leader in that space, given some of the ethical issues with it being produced in Africa and other places at the moment?
Look, I am not going to comment on other countries directly, that’s not my role. My role is to promote our sector. I certainly think we have a proven track record in the resources sector. We are the world’s fourth largest exporter of copper. We have the skills and expertise, the attractive investment environment for people who are looking to expand in these sectors to come here to this country. Now, as you say, a lot of these metals or the extraction of these metals have been concentrated in certain countries in the past.
I do think there is an emerging opportunity for us as a country, as we see these industries grow, that there will be an assessment by investors to look for new areas, new opportunities right around the world and spread their risk if nothing else. Australia is a key possibility in those discussions. Now, who knows how that might play out but we are doing what you would expect a good business to do by doing the underlying work to sell our industry to the world, and show the investors and the mining houses what we’ve got and try and attract that investment here to Australia.