15 October 2019

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at the 10th annual In The Zone conference in Perth, with this year's event focusing on critical mineral resources. Members may have heard me outline in a number of speeches that, before I was elected to the federal parliament in 2016, I was the chief operating officer of the Perth USAsia Centre, which now organises the In The Zone conference. It is a source of great pride to me—and, I'm sure, to all involved—that the conference seems to grow bigger and better each year, with the focal point of course that these discussions and debates are held in Perth, Western Australia—Australia's gateway to the Indo-Pacific.

This annual conference seeks to bring critical discussion on Australia, Western Australia and the region to Perth, a capital that shares the same time zone with a most dynamic part of the world—that part of the world that will see the greatest economic growth and has enormous demographic advantages simply waiting to be unleashed. 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 10 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.

In my speech to this conference last week, I focused on what Australian governments now and in the future can learn from this nation's previous experience in the supply chain of critical minerals and what government might do to further support the development of our critical minerals industry. There is no doubt 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 in the north of WA. 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 and 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. I would warn against the temptation to develop industry policy that subjects the supply of the critical minerals of Western Australia to conditions or even restricts their supply and thereby politicises participation in the working of international markets.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 18:33 to 18:46

MADELEINE KING MP: As I was saying, ordinarily, I—and, I'm sure, many members of this place—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 heel and walk away. 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 mineral sector will only reach its full export potential under a trading system that offers the opportunity to access the world's biggest markets.

There are lessons from the past to be learned here. Australia has been an important supplier of critical and strategic minerals before. The urgent demand of the 1940s for the critical minerals and ore of WA explains the 1949 headline from the now-defunct The Western Mail, 'New minerals for the atomic age'. The proposal in 1949 was to establish a processing facility in the metropolitan Perth industrial suburb of Welshpool that would enable Western Australians to participate in the value chain of the scarce minerals which are the natural endowment of that state. But, as we know now, it did not come to pass. The processing of those new minerals for the atomic age did not occur in WA.

A declassified CIA report from Dr JD Morgan of the US Bureau of Mines from 1983 entitled Strategic materials in World War II shows that the USA had a significant dependence on the import of metals and minerals in the war years 1942, 1943 and 1944. During this time, and of particular relevance to WA, more than 90 per cent of the strategic minerals beryl, which was processed into beryllium, and tantalite, which was processed into tantalum, were imported into the US.

Not many people in this parliament, or outside of it, would have heard of Dr Buller Murphy or of Lady Moulden—or Lady Moulden-Hackett, as she was sometimes known. Hackett will be a familiar name to many Western Australians, particularly those with any association with the University of Western Australia or The West Australian newspaper. I would expect it to be unfamiliar to most in this place, but the story of Lady Deborah Vernon Hackett is one of no small significance and one which I believe should be recorded in this place.

She was the wife and then widow of the great benefactor who ensured the establishment of UWA, Sir John Winthrop Hackett. She was also known as Lady Moulden from her second marriage. Sadly, widowed twice and eventually thrice, Lady Hackett was also Dr Buller Murphy, who owned the Wodgina mine, which was 100 kilometres from Port Hedland in north-west WA. Her portrait hangs in the Chancellor's Room of UWA, in Winthrop Hall.

From 1905 to 1939, the Wodgina mine enjoyed a global monopoly in the production of high-grade tantalite. As it happened, Lady Moulden-Hackett-Dr Buller Murphy also had control of a very light and extraordinarily hard mineral called beryl, which could be transformed into the highly desirable beryllium. Tantalum and beryllium were strategic minerals for the US in the early 1940s, and they remain so in 2019.

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 the state. She took the story of the Wodgina mine endowment of scarce and strategic minerals to London. She sought to convince our old friends in England of the strategic importance of her tenement. She was not only seeking international investment to support the continued extraction of minerals critical to the war effort but looking to the long-term development of processing facilities in WA, the facility in Welshpool. Then, as now, international investment and international economic partnerships were critical to the exploitation of the vast natural mineral resources that are 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 from the US government for as much tantalite as could be supplied. To meet this request, the comptroller of mines took over the Wodgina mine and its supply of tantalite. The need for this mineral of abundance in north-west WA was so urgent that 18 tons of it was airlifted from the desert in the US, and in the United States it was from this Western Australian ore that the entire requirements of the Allied nations for refined tantalum was produced. Notwithstanding the efforts of Dr Buller Murphy on site at Wodgina, and seeking international investment, it was not enough. Australia was not able to participate in the strategic minerals story of the war beyond the extraction of ore.

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 to make beryllium and also to produce caesium. The demand was able to be met from one mine in Western Australia, 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 control nuclear reactions and therefore aids the function of nuclear weapons. It was a dread cargo. Beryllium has played a significant role in aircraft navigation and space exploration as it is lightweight, noncorrosive and nonmagnetic. Now it is used in personal computers and phone devices because of its thermal qualities. Tantalum was critical for the development of radar technology and is 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 her, we know that 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.

I firmly believe that Australia can be a world leader in the exploration, extraction, production and processing of these scarce resources, but it will require all shoulders to be applied to the wheel, especially in the effort to bring international investment, capital and know-how into 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. If we learn the lessons of Dr Buller Murphy, we can ensure that Australians are able to share in a prosperous future from the critical minerals industry. If we learn from our past experience, when ore was extracted straight from the Pilbara, put on a plane and sent straight to New York, we might have a chance of developing a critical mineral industry that works for more Western Australians and more Australians and that creates the processing facility that Dr Buller Murphy dreamed of and hoped to establish in Welshpool but was out of our reach because we were not able to attract the international investment that we needed. This is what governments should do and is how they can best help a critical minerals industry establish itself in WA so that we may source those parts of the world that need the minerals in the development of all manner of things that people use every day in this world. I urge the government to continue to seek that critical capital investment and know-how and to continue to seek those relationships that Australia will need with our international partners and to build the economic relationships that will be critical to the development of a critical minerals industry in Australia.