I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet: the Whadjuk people of the Nyoongar nation, and I acknowledge their elders past, present and emerging.
I’d like also acknowledge the Governor of Western Australia, the Hon Kim Beazley AC who spoke here earlier today, along with Bill Johnston, the Minister for Mines and Petroleum in the McGowan Labor government.
It’s always great to be back at In the Zone.
Before I was elected to the Federal Parliament in 2016, I was the chief operating officer at the Perth USAsia Centre that now organises In The Zone.
Before that, I had been the Chief of Staff to the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Australia and it was in that role that I helped put on the first In The Zone Conference in 2009.
So, this is the tenth anniversary of our wonderful ITZ!
A conference that seeks to bring critical discussion on Australia, Western Australia, and the region to Perth: a capital that shares the same time zone with the most dynamic part of the world; that part of the world that will see the greatest economic growth, and has enormous demographic advantages waiting to be unleashed.
It is important that these discussions and debates are held in Perth – Australia’s gateway to the Indo-Pacific.
I want to pay tribute to those who drove the creation of the first In The Zone: Professor Alan Robson AO, Professor Margaret Seares AO, the remarkable Elena Douglas, Shaheen Hughes, and Tim Shanahan PSM.
The theme of the inaugural In The Zone was “Crisis, Opportunity and the New World Order.” It is a theme that remains as relevant today as it was ten years ago when participants from around the world met in Perth to debate Australia's role in Asia, regional financial markets and foreign investment and sovereignty.
Given more time, I could tell you how this conference came to be from general dissatisfaction with how the 2008 Melbourne Economic Forum in 2008 failed to recognise the contribution of Western Australia to the national economy, especially in light of the global financial crisis.
But that is a story for another time.
I was enormously pleased when our very special Perth USAsia Centre took over the running of UWA’s In The Zone.
The quality content and the widespread support it enjoys was without doubt the essential pre-cursor enabling the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to announce – in Perth - the creation of the Perth USAsia Centre in November 2012.
Enough of the reminiscing…
My current role is Shadow Minister for Trade for the Labor Opposition, a position I’ve held since June this year.
I’d like to focus on what Australian governments can learn from this nation’s previous experience in the supply chain of critical minerals and what government might do to support the development of our critical minerals industries.
It is a unique industry. Critical minerals are a relatively low volume prospect, especially compared to one of our greatest comparative advantages - the iron ore of our north.
Critical mineral resources are relatively scarce, with few supply options available for these minerals which are an essential component of technological advances that we all desire, many of which I suspect we are yet to see.
Scarcity of any product – but in particular one nominated as a critical mineral - can be a danger to international markets because of the dominant supplier’s ability to withhold and make political demands.
There will be a temptation to develop industry policy that subjects the supply of critical minerals of Western Australia to conditions, or even restrict its supply, and thereby politicise its participation in the workings of international markets.
Ordinarily, I would think this unlikely to happen.
But in these unusual times, we are witnessing the nation that created the post-war rules-based international trading system seemingly turn on its heels and walk away.
Leaders in this country too are making known their doubts about international institutions. Which institutions and precisely why they offend is not clear but it foments anti-internationalist feeling and increases the pressure to turn to protectionism.
A reminder of the strange times we are in is where we are seeing an Australian Liberal-National conservative government propose interventionist legislation that may seek to force the sale of corporate assets and break up corporate structures when all expert opinion says such force divesture by the state will fail to meet the goal of lowering power prices for consumers.
Given this extraordinary state of affairs in the domestic market, the prospect of interventionist industry policies that affect critical minerals in world markets are not so far-fetched.
In these interesting times, we must tread carefully.
Australia’s economy has thrived for decades in a trading system that embraced clear rules and multilateralism.
This is now under threat as some countries embrace unilateralism and protectionism.
Australia’s critical minerals sectors will only reach their export potential under a trading system that offers the opportunity to access the world’s biggest markets.
Australia has been an important supplier of critical or strategic minerals before.
The urgent demand in the 1940s for the critical minerals in the ore of WA explains this article from the now defunct Western Mail in 1949.
It shows an architect’s impression of a proposed processing facility in Welshpool that would enable Western Australians to participate in the value chain of the scarce minerals that is the natural endowment of this state.
An El Dorado!
But as we know, this did not come to pass. The processing of ‘new minerals for the atomic age’ (as the article put it) did not occur in Western Australia.
As you can see from this declassified CIA report from Dr J.D. Morgan of the US Bureau of Mines (dated 1 December 1983) entitled ‘Strategic Minerals in World War II’, the USA had a significant dependence on the import of metals and minerals in the war years of 1942, 1943, and 1944.
During this time, of particular relevance to WA, is that more than 90% of strategic minerals Beryl (that was processed into Beryllium) and Tantalite (processed into Tantalum) were imported into the US.
I wonder how many people in this room have heard of Dr Buller Murphy? Or of Lady Moulden? Or Lady Moulden-Hackett as she was sometimes known?
But any association with UWA, or The West Australian newspaper will give rise to a recognition of the name, Hackett.
Lady Deborah Vernon Hackett was the wife and then widow of the great benefactor, Sir John Winthrop Hackett. She is also known as Lady Moulden from her second marriage. And sadly, widowed now twice, and eventually thrice, Lady Hackett is also Dr Buller Murphy who owned the Wodgina Mine, 100km from Port Hedland in the North West of Western Australia. Her portrait is in the Chancellors Room of UWA.
From 1905 to 1939, the Wodgina mine enjoyed a global monopoly on the production of high-grade tantalite. As it happened, Lady Moulden-Hackett Dr Buller Murphy also had control of a very light, extraordinarily hard mineral ore, beryl, that could be transformed into the highly desirable beryllium.
Tantalum and beryllium were strategic minerals for the US in the early 1940s. And in 2019, they remain so.
A woman who took the name of her three husbands was the first Western Australian to recognise the importance of the globally scarce mineral resources of this state.
She took the story of the Wodgina mine endowment of scarce and strategic minerals to London. Dr Buller Murphy sought to convince our old friends in England of the strategic importance of her tenement.
She was seeking international investment to support not only the continued extraction of minerals critical to the war effort, but looking to the long term development of processing facilities in Western Australia. The processing facility in Welshpool.
Then, as now, international investment and international economic partnerships were critical to the exploitation of the vast natural mineral resource that is both Western Australia’s endowment and our comparative advantage in a competitive world.
As Dr Buller Murphy sought investment, the war expanded, and the need for resources became urgent to its newest reluctant participant, the USA.
The Commonwealth Government of Australia received a request for “as much tantalite as could be supplied” from the US Government. To meet this request, the Comptroller of Minerals took over the Wodgina mine and its envious supply of tantalite.
The need for this mineral of abundance in north west WA was so urgent, 18 tons of it was airlifted from the desert to the US. And in the US, it was from this Western Australian ore that the “entire requirements of the Allied nation’s for refined tantalum were produced”
Notwithstanding the efforts of Dr Buller Murphy on site at Wodinga and in seeking international investment, it was not enough. Australia was not able to participate in the strategic minerals story of the war beyond extraction.
And then in 1942, the US again sent an urgent request to the Australian government. This time to meet the urgent need for large amounts of beryl (the only mineral used at the time for the extraction of beryllium and which also produced caesium). The demand was able to met from one mine in Western Australia: the Wodgina Mine.
Dr Buller Murphy’s Wodgina mine.
Beryl was mined and shipped from the Pilbara to New York. But only in 70 ton lots in case the shipment was attacked on its voyage and to ensure the entire stockpile would not be lost.
It is likely the Wodgina beryl was destined to participate in the Manhattan Project as pure beryllium is able to moderate neutrons and able to control nuclear reactions and therefore aids the function of nuclear weapons.
A dread cargo.
Beyond this, beryllium has played a significant role in aircraft navigation, and space exploration as the lightweight non corrosive non magnetic and now in personal computers and phone devices because of its thermal qualities. And tantalum was critical for the development of radar technology, and now used extensively in avionics.
The circumstances of the 1940s and the story of the Wodgina Mine are clearly very different to the circumstances of the critical minerals industry today.
We live in peaceful, if somewhat tense, times.
But like Dr Buller Murphy, we also hope for the advanced processing required to make critical minerals strategically useful to take place in Australia.
Like Dr Buller Murphy, we know this will require international economic partnerships and strong investment of financial and intellectual capital into Australia.
The role of governments in this sector will be very important.
Good policy settings for exploration and mine development need to be in place. Infrastructure to support projects will be required. Attracting international investment with laws that are open and transparent is critical. And Australian governments at all levels will need to work with other governments around the world to ensure the development of these critical minerals is in our national interest.
I firmly believe Australia can be a world leader in the exploration, extraction, production and processing of these scarce resources. But it will require all shoulders to the wheel especially in the effort to bring international investment in capital and know-how to Australia. Federal and State Ministers need to work together constructively with local industry to plan and in fact go and seek that critical investment and build solid international economic relationships that will develop an Australian critical minerals industry.
Sitting here calling for it will not be enough. Action will be required lest history repeat itself.
Thanks for your time today.