Press Conference

20 Jan 2021
McKinlay, QLD
Prime Minister

Jason Economidis, Chief Operating Officer, South32: I’d like to thank Prime Minister Morrison, Minister Pitt, Minister Littleproud, Assistant Minister Buchholz and Senator MacDonald for coming and joining us at Cannington today, it's been a significant visit for us, it has been fantastic for the team to be able to share their achievements, their innovations and our contributions to the community. Cannington’s been in operation for over 20 years. We're one of the biggest silver and zinc producers in the world. The South32 footprint, we employ about 7,000 people across Australia. Our focus for the last 12 months has been keeping our people safe and well, our communities safe and well. And we'll continue to do that into the future. And we'd like to thank the Prime Minister, Ministers, Assistant Minister and the Senator for taking the time to spend with us here today. Thank you.

Prime Minister: Thanks, Susan?

Senator Susan McDonald, Senator for Queensland: Susan McDonald, Senator for Queensland. I'm just so proud that we've got Prime Minister Scott Morrison and this crowd of ministers here to look at the terrific job that both the resources sector and the agricultural sector has done, carrying on, keeping people safe and continuing to earn royalties and keep the country going through this COVID period. It's another indication of how the Morrison government regards regional and rural Australia that he has spent this time coming through regional Queensland. But to be here, at Cannington at South32, south of Cloncurry. It's been terrific to get to see around the mine site and very proud to have the Prime Minister and all these ministers here in our region. 

Prime Minister: Thank you Susan. Well Jason and Susan and colleagues it is great to be here. This week, we've been looking at the beating heart of regional economies here in western Queensland. We've seen how the agricultural sector is coming back, both from drought and, of course, the devastating floods up here in north western Queensland. And the mining sector has been such an important part of that process as well. When the floods hit here up in the north, it was the mining sector that turned up and supported their agricultural cousins in the way they helped them get through what was one of the worst experiences this part of the country has seen in generations. That is the partnership that I think exists here across Australians in regional parts of our country. They muck in, they support each other. 

And the mining sector has equally played a critical role in the Australian economy, particularly over the last year. It's been their professionalism, as we've seen on display with their COVIDSafe practises and the incredible plans they've put in place with their workforce to make sure the show stayed on the road and the production continued, and the export earnings continue to come into Australia at a time when the global economy was under considerable strain. And so I want to say thank you to the mining workers of Australia, the mining companies of Australia, for the way that they doubled down during this very difficult period. They kept safe. They maintained the outstanding professionalism for which they are well known. Noone does mining better than Australia. No one does mining better than Australia. And mining is very important to Australia. And I'm here today to reaffirm that because it is an important part of our future. It has been an important part of our past. And the technology that is applied in our mines across this country is world class. And they’re things, it's things they're learning, it's our science, it's our engineering. It's the way we do it here, which I think really stands out around the world. And that's going to remain important here as it will all around the world.

And to support this North West Minerals Province, we're going further on the $5 million that we've already invested to prove up the CopperString project. I mean, one of the things that need to be done to ensure more mines are able to be viable and developed here in the North West Minerals Province is electricity costs have to be lower, and the CopperString project has the potential to lower those electricity costs by 40 per cent. And so we're putting a further $11 million dollars into that project to get it to final investment decision stage. Now, this is a, this is a ribbon that will run across this region that will connect from Townsville all the way through to Mount Isa. It's great for Townsville and to Phil Thompson and all the team there who have been working hard on supporting this project, well done. We're absolutely with you and backing you in on this all the way out along this string out to Mount Isa, connecting up with the resources that will come from northern Australia in the Northern Territory and really create another opportunity for these regions to develop further. 

These are the practical things you have to do for Australia to realise its future. And we're very practical about these things. And this project is one of the most practical I've seen. So we look forward to getting to that next stage. It's bringing in investment, private investment to realise it. And it'll connect Townsville up and the rest of the East Coast to what will be an incredible opportunity we think, in the North West Minerals Province, 750 jobs directly, 3,500 jobs that will come beyond that as a result of this project. This is all about jobs. The come back from COVID-19 is about jobs, jobs, and jobs. And here in regional Australia, one of the biggest contributors to that is the minerals and mining sector but, of course, making sure we can connect that sector up to the opportunities they have with projects like CopperString. 

Now, I'm going to ask Keith Pitt to say a few words about the project which he’s also had involvement with and, of course, the great work the mining sector has done over the past year. Keith?

The Hon Keith Pitt, Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia: Well great to be at Cannington, one of the world's largest silver and lead mines. In fact, some 6 per cent of silver and 7 per cent of lead in terms of the world total is produced right here in Queensland and distributed right around the world. So I'm really pleased to be here with the hardworking men and women of the resources sector. And as the Prime Minister has said, we're here to say thank you. Thank you for what you've done during the COVID period, the work that you've done, the sacrifices that you've made in terms of being away from your families, and in particular the fact that you've just got on with business and helped continue to drive Australia's economy. 

The $11 million dollars that we are committing today to the CopperString programme project will get hopefully that project to a final investment decision. That final investment decision will then allow this project to move forward. It's a project which is currently being assessed by the NAIF, that independent body which we put forward. It's got a remaining $2.6 billion available to contribute to jobs and economic growth right across the north. And as Senator Susan MacDonald says to me every single day, this is about a corridor of growth, a corridor of growth from Townsville to Mount Isa. We've invested some $225 million dollars in exploring for the future, for Australia's resources, for minerals reserves and others, including water. And if we want to absolutely maximise the benefit of what we've found, and it's over a trillion dollars worth of resources already, we must have a competitive gas price. We must have a competitive electricity price. And they both have to be reliable sources of supply. This is an incredibly important decision for the North in terms of driving jobs, driving communities, driving our local economy.  

I'm really pleased to be here, to be part of it. And thanks again to the guys at Cannington. You’ve put on a great show for us today and PM we've worked out exactly what happens with moving parts. We have some challenges every now and again with things that may or may not stop, not exactly where they should be, but that is just the experience of working in engineering, working in mining, working in agriculture. We are a practical people. We find solutions. That's what we do as a government. That's what you do in your workforce and your working day. Just really pleased to be part of it and very thankful we continue to contribute to regional economies driving regional jobs and regional communities. 

Prime Minister: Happy to take some questions, of course, Mr Littleproud is here [inaudible].

Journalist: Prime Minister you heard from the CEO earlier today that university students going into mining are being heckled on sight because of their choice of course. What's your reaction to hearing that? Is there something more that can be done by the federal government to encourage people to take up jobs in mining and resources?

Prime Minister: Yeah, well, we'll continue to support the mining sector and the skills they need and the high end skills in particular that is needed through our support of those places in universities, because no one does mining better than Australians. And we want more Australians to understand the opportunities. And it's great to see the diversity of the senior workforce here in particular. And you know I've seen that around the country. And a lot of them were heavier industries. I'm seeing more and more women going to these industries. And I think it's time to sort of, to get over the stereotypes that are thrown about and the misinformation. I mean, you know, the mining sector understands its responsibilities and they work hard at it. And that's important. And that's why you need people who know what they're doing. That's why we want Australians here caring for our country when they're involved in the mining sector. And it's a great industry to be in, it's got great prospects. It's it requires incredible skills and talent and intellect and cracking some of the most difficult problems there are to crack in the commercial sector. And it's not just then what happens in our mining sector and the smart people we need to work in it if we can get more of them going through those courses, it's what they learn in there and how they apply it potentially in other sectors. I mean, one of the reasons we got involved in the in the Moon to Mars mission and why we were invited to do that by NASA is because no one does mining better than Australia. And the science and the engineering experience of our people in that area is world class. And so we're getting invited into these types of projects because of the recognition of that skill set here in Australia. And we've got to keep building on that. And so, you know, we've got to deal with that misinformation and be very honest with our young people. This is a great industry that makes a huge contribution to Australia, massive contribution to Australia and will continue. So I'm very grateful for it. I frankly, I think most Australians are. 

Journalist: What's your reaction though to the heckling, is that unacceptable or?

Prime Minister: Well, I just don't think it's based in fact, I mean, universities are supposed to be about facts, they're supposed to be about science. They're not supposed to be about sledging and misinformed heckling. 

Journalist: Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese has not been to a coal mine since he’s been Labor leader, you’ve not been to one since you’ve been Prime Minister, why have you not visited a coal mine, is it because you’re worried about the political implications in Sydney and Melbourne?

Prime Minister: No. It just hasn't been on my schedule.

Journalist: Would you go to a coal mine?

Prime Minister: Sure, why wouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t I? And if the opportunity presents I'd happily take it. Look I'm happy to meet any Australians where they are working, you know, and doing a great job. Whether that down in Appin - where I was particularly interested to hear about the Appin mines today and met coal and what's happening there. And I bumped into a bloke just last week down at the Shoalhaven Hotel who works at one of the local mines there and we had a really good chat about what was happening up in his mine and the life of that mine. And you know these mines have got, you know, 10, 20, 30 years to run. And that's a lot of opportunity for those communities. And look I think people who work in these sectors know that things change over time. And they understand that. They understand that. But what's important is that we continue to extract and get the value from the opportunity and wealth that's there that really benefits the rest of this country. 

Journalist: So do you think it's the case that while there be an expansion of mining potentially in Australia, when it comes to thermal coal mining are we talking about supporting existing mines or would you support the creation of new thermal coal mines?

Prime Minister: Well, we're not subsidising any mines. So, I mean, the government- that's not what the government does. I mean, people are involved in mining they are viable, profitable, commercially important businesses for Australia. And so long as they comply with all the environmental standards and all the environmental requirements, well, they should get on with their business. 

Journalist: Before the last election the Coalition-

Prime Minister: See we're meeting our emissions reduction targets, we're meeting them and we're beating them, and there are few countries who can say that, and I think Australia can be very proud of that. And we do that while we continue to keep our economy running. And, you know, in a year when the global economy has come under enormous pressure, Australia is in a handful of countries that's been successful in managing and suppressing the COVID virus. But equally, we've been one of the few countries that have been successful in pushing through economically this year of economic crisis. One of the key reasons we've done that, of course, has been the contribution of the mining sector.

Journalist: Before the last election the Coalition committed to the feasibility study of the Collinsville coal mine- sorry coal fired power station, will you commit to seeing that project go ahead? Or will we know a decision as to whether that project will be going ahead before the next election or not?

Prime Minister: Now, I might- Keith might want to comment on that, but look, we committed to support that feasibility study and have, promise kept. Keith?

Minister Pitt: Yeah sure. Thanks. This is pretty straightforward. You don't know if a project is feasible until you complete the feasibility study. This is why we put $3.5 million dollars on the table. We think it's an important project. And we just announced another $11 million towards CopperString. If you want to deliver power into the North West Province, well, you'll need power generation, batteries are not power generation, batteries are buckets. So we need generators as other generators come offline when they reach the end of their natural life. That's what we're looking to do, whether it's through gas or other mechanisms. We'll continue to use technology to ensure we meet our commitments around emissions. But in terms of Collinsville, we have money on the table and we are looking to get that feasibility study put together through the proponent. And the feasibility study will determine whether that project is feasible or not. And then we can work our way through any follow up process.

Journalist: It’s been more than a year so far, how long do you expect it to come through? Can we see the results of that study before the next election?

Minister Pitt: Well, that's up to the proponents and how quickly they move. That agreement is being done through Minister Taylor’s section of the portfolio. I'd expect that we'll see that come to fruition at a time based on what they come up with themselves. I mean, they are the proponents. They are the ones who are putting together the engineering. They are the ones who are putting together the feasibility study. I look forward to seeing the outcome, as an electrical engineer I'm genuinely interested.

Journalist: Prime Minister do you think it’s possible for Australia to hit our Paris targets, while building a coal fired power station? Is that [inaudible]?

Prime Minister: We're going to meet and beat them.

Journalist: Could a new coal fired power station be part of those plans? Or would that be-

Prime Minister: We're going to beat them. We’re going to meet and beat them. And we're going to keep running the country and we're going to keep running mines. These things are I mean, the project you're talking about in the grand scale of energy production, it's not a very big project. And so, no I don't think that will have any impact because we're going to meet and beat our targets. We have targets, by the way, the government has a target for 2030, the opposition doesn't but we do. And we're going to meet it and we're going to beat it just like we did 2020.

Journalist: Just on that, you say that, the government predicts that you will hit 29 per cent emissions reduction by 2030 but the official government estimates are 22 per cent, where does that difference come in?

Prime Minister: We’ll meet our Paris targets in 2030.

Journalist: But what's the evidence you’ve got for that?

Prime Minister: The modelling that has been done.

Journalist: And can you release that modelling? 

Prime Minister: You've already got it. 

Journalist: The official modelling, of the government says 22 per cent. 

Prime Minister: No, I think you might be looking at the wrong set of numbers. 

Journalist: Anthony Albanese today has been critical of you for being too close to Donald Trump. And saying that’ll hurt your chances with the next administration, what’s your reaction to that? And what are your hopes for the relationship with Joe Biden? 

Prime Minister: Well, personal attacks are not foreign policies, and if the leader of the opposition thinks sledging me is some sort of foreign policy well, he just doesn't get it. And it is the job of every Prime Minister of whatever political persuasion you are and every President of the United States, whatever political persuasion they are to continue to steward this very important relationship. And that's what I've been doing with the current President. That's what I'll do with the incoming President. We’ve already had a very warm conversation, following the election with President elect Biden. And looking forward to a very positive relationship with with President Biden once he's sworn in and his administration, we had very good dealings and very good relationships with the current administration. The relationship is bigger than the sort of petty politics and point scoring that I think we're seeing played out today. And look, I just think that's disappointing. The US alliance with Australia is incredibly strategically important. It's not a political plaything. And if you think it is, you don't get it. 

Journalist: But obviously Albanese’s trying to link you as much as he can to Trump, don’t you- haven’t you opened yourself up that political attack by failing to directly condemn President Trump?

Prime Minister: No, and I don't pay much attention to Anthony Albanese's political sledges. If the media want to, well if that entertains you that's fine. But it's ill informed. 

Journalist: What do you think Donald Trump's legacy, main legacy as President will be? 

Prime Minister: Well, look, we worked with the administration, I think, to establish, I think, strong stability as best as possible in what is a very dynamic region in the Indo-Pacific. I mean, the work we've done together with India, with Japan, this has been very important I mean for three years running now we've been invited to participate in the G7. Sadly, the G7 didn’t go ahead last year and that was an invitation from President Trump, the previous year it was President Macron. This year it's Prime Minister Johnson. And, you know, we have been very much part of this like minded process, working with countries which we share outlooks with, and the US has played an important role in that. Of course, our defence ties, our intelligence ties, all of these sorts of things have been maintained and gone to new levels over the last 4 years. And I expect that to continue. So I don't think the US Australia relationship is conditional on the politics. It's not. It's bigger than that. And it's disappointing that the leader of the opposition would want to drag something so important into petty political sledging. 

Journalist: You’ve talked about negative globalism, under the Trump Presidency obviously, the world will change under a Biden Presidency, he’s likely to use multilateral institutions a bit more, will you- will that force you to change your tack, will you be more engaged with multilateral institutions?

Prime Minister: Well, no one's been more engaged in that than us. I mean, we're in the middle of actually seeking the Secretary Generalship of the OECD. I mean there’s negative globalism, there’s positive globalism. I mean, I think it's important that we don't see things in just, you know, a one sided way and we've engaged proactively, we're looking to reform the World Trade Organisation, the World Health Organisation. We've been heavily engaged with the ASEAN forums. We've been heavily engaged in many multilateral fora. But what I've simply said is that in all of these forums, we have to respect that it's nation states that are the members and they're the ones who set the agendas by working together and that things that at a global level don't just sort of get handed off to some sort of internationalist, faceless bureaucracy. You know, Australian decisions will be made in Australia, not in Geneva, not in New York. They'll be made here in Australia about Australia's national interests. And that's what we will always do. We have been enthusiastic and constructive participants and contributors to multilateral fora for decades and decades and decades and have been under my Prime Ministership and will continue to be.

Journalist: A major customer of Australian resources is China, obviously the relationship is troubled, was it a mistake in retrospect, for your government to call for a- to go ahead of the pack and call for a probe into the origins of the coronavirus, shouldn’t this have been done with, in unison with other nations?

Prime Minister: Well we did do it with the European Union, that was the motion that went forward to the World Health Assembly, and we-

Journalist: But Australia announced it first?

Prime Minister: We did it on the basis of a European motion. So no I don't accept that. See Australia is honest in our dealings and we honestly want to know how this started. That's all it's about. I think Australians want to know. And so you would expect a forthright Australian government that is just interested in understanding the truth of what has occurred to be open about that. I mean, why would you, why would you not want to know? And why would you be embarrassed about asking? 

Journalist: As a matter of strategy though, wouldn’t it be,

Prime Minister: That’s tactics though, if you want to talk about tactics you can talk to the opposition. I'm just interested in government.

Journalist: In regard to ag workers, we're still struggling to get enough workers on to farms to get the fruit off the vines or before it rots, do we need to be bringing in and taking more proactive roles to bring in foreign workers given that Australians aren’t particularly known to take up those [inaudible]?

Prime Minister: Well, we already are through the Pacific Labour Scheme and the seasonal workers programme, and we've upgraded that in recent times and we've been doing a lot of work with the states to get more of those workers in. But they won't replace the you know, what is the bulk workforce at this time, which is the backpacker's and the backpacker's are obviously constrained because of COVID, and how many people can come in. And that is what has exacerbated what is always a problem. I mean, it's not a new problem trying to get Australians in the cities to go out and work in the horticulture industry in particular. It's not a new problem, but it has been massively exacerbated because of the COVID crisis. And that's why we've upped our effort with the seasonal workers, and that's why we've been working closely with states and encouraging them to get the arrangements in place that would enable them to come in and do that important work. As I've said many times here in Queensland, their on farm quarantine programme, I think is a very good one. And so we do need innovative ways so we can get those workers in to do that important work while at the same time not preventing the return of Australians who want to come home. But I might let David speak on that because he's done a lot of work on that.

The Hon David Littleproud MP, Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management: Yeah, thanks, PM. And look, there has been a lot of work. This isn't a new problem, even with respect to COVID. We made sure that all the states understood that we were coming to a nexus, particularly as we got into the warmer months around having the supply of labour. We previously relied on a number of working holiday maker, the old backpacker, there’s around 150,000 of those, and now we're down to around 50,000 of those, and we had 8,000 seasonal and Pacific workers in the country. And what we did in March seeing that this problem was going to come about this time this year was extend them the opportunity if they worked in agriculture, to stay a further 12 months. Then in March, we also tried to get the states to all sign up to an ag workers code. So it's great to have these workers here, but we needed to have the movement of them from one agricultural precinct in one state to another. Unfortunately, not all the states signed up and we respect that. That was their sovereignty. We then in August were able to open up the Pacific and Seasonal Worker programme. And I got to say, Marise Payne and Alex Hawke did an exceptional job in pre-vetting 25,000 men and women right across 10 Pacific nations to bring them in, and then through National Cabinet it was agreed and the Premiers in in- and as their right, all agreed that they wanted to own the quarantine protocols in which those workers would come in. And we obviously respected that, and are there to support them and industry was too. And I got to say, the industry themselves have been very mature about this. They were proactive in engaging with Aspen Medical, an internationally recognised medical organisation, not only by the WHO, but by Queensland, they are actually auditing the on farm programme here in Queensland. And they're also doing some work for the Victorian government to run a on farm programme or even create a tent city, a closed loop whereby they could have thousands of workers at a showgrounds in a rural community and have them taken out to properties and do the picking while they're in isolation, in the COVIDSafe way so that those industries have come forward with Aspen Medical. And we are waiting on state governments to take up that opportunity. But we respect the right of the states as they put out in National Cabinet just before Christmas, the Premiers themselves all stood up and said they wanted to own this. The Premiers led it by creating the forum in which for them to take ownership and leadership of this, we'll continue to support them. Aspen Medical is there to support them. Greg Hunt himself has in fact, been in contact with the Victorian Health Minister to give him his personal assurance that there is nothing in that Aspen Medical proposal that would stop us from stamping the visas of those 25,000 men and women that could come in and alleviate this problem. But the problem we've got is we're hitting a precipice now whereby not only in Victoria but in Queensland here, we are going to be short of workers, despite the efforts of us trying to incentivise Australians with up to $6,000 dollars in travel costs, an accelerated pathway for young people to Austudy and Abstudy when they get back to uni. We can't get them excited about these jobs. But farmers don't have the luxury to sit around and wait for someone to turn up when their product is ripe they need to get it from their paddock to your plate. And so we are pulling out all stops. The Prime Minister's done that through a National Cabinet mechanism. The Premiers have responded through National Cabinet and said they'll take ownership of the quarantine. They now need to make the decisions. And we as a federal government will continue to support them. 

Journalist: Do we need to be setting more punitive measures to encourage Australians out of work to take up those farming jobs?

Minister Littleproud: Well, let's let's be honest. The Australian taxpayer has a limit of resources in which they can provide. And you've got to understand that some of the people that find themselves on JobSeeker at the moment are some thousands of kilometres away from where these jobs are. And despite some of the incentives, they aren't inclined to take these roles. And particularly as our economy continues to evolve, some of those that found themselves out of work are looking as we're starting to see the green shoots of the recovery of this COVID recession, that they're obviously looking to the future and they have aspirations. But as I say, we've got to understand, we've got to look at this and treat the problem with what's ahead of us. And what we've done is made sure we've taken practical steps to keep those foreign workers that are here, incentivise Australians, give them first crack at this, but we will also be looking and I've already been working with Marise Payne for long term solutions and understanding how we're going to do this into the future. So we've learnt a lot and we just need now some cooperation from the states to take that final leap of trust and to work with organisations like Aspen Medical and the horticultural industry to take that leap of faith forward and work with them to get this solution. Otherwise, it won't be just the farmers that'll hurt. I can tell you you'll feel it at the checkout every time you go there in the future. 

Journalist: Do you think it’s a cultural problem that some Australians aren’t willing to move, to relocate and do jobs that they might not want to do, but it’s a job anyway- is that a cultural problem?

Minister Littleproud: Well, I think there's this thing called aspiration and as a society, we've moved past it. When I grew up in outback Queensland, I wasn't allowed in school holidays to go and sit on the couch. Mum sent me out to pick rock melons and potatoes, and I graduated to being a cotton chipper. Now young people graduate to being baristas and working in cafes. And I get that, our society’s changed and we're trying to evolve with it and we're trying to put the solutions in front of the agricultural sector and making sure that there's opportunities for young people, not only in agriculture, but right across the economy. And there are opportunities broader in agriculture. I think that's important not to stigmatise agriculture as just low skilled jobs. There are a lot of high skilled jobs using much of the technology that we're seeing here today that men and women from around the country have, in fact, themselves devised. We're leading the world in cutting edge technology because we've got the brightest minds in regional and rural Australia devising it. So I'm confident about the future. We've got a challenge at the moment. We're getting on with the job and we're going to work with the states if they put their hand up and work with us. Thanks.

Prime Minister: Just as we break up, I was really, really encouraged by the tremendous response of the Australian people to the HomeBuilder programme. I mean, this is jobs plus initiative. The initiative had plenty of critics, I remember when we announced it and we had to get the journos off the grass out there in Googong on the day. You’ll recall and there were plenty of critics and we said it would bring jobs, it would kick particularly young people into their first homes. And we're seeing that happen. There's been a lot of heartache and a lot of loss in the last 12 months. But another shard of light here has been that getting those young people into their first homes, building those first homes. This is around $18 billion dollars that's going straight into the residential construction industry in many states, supported by programmes that they've done to back this programme in. And it has been an absolute game changer. And it's going to benefit not just now, but for several years to come as Denita Wawn outlined I think earlier today, they were facing a cliff and now they're seeing work into the future. And that's just one of the many practical things we have done during COVID-19 to keep the Australian show on the road. It's a great show. The come back has absolutely begun and we will continue to move forward in 2021. Thanks, everyone.