02 July 2021

When Scott Morrison next visits Western Australia on one of his rare excursions  across the Nullarbor, he will claim he cares deeply about our state and the hundreds of thousands of people employed in the resources industry.

When Scott Morrison next visits Western Australia on one of his rare excursions  across the Nullarbor, he will claim he cares deeply about our state and the hundreds of thousands of people employed in the resources industry.

But we now know he’ll be making it all up.

This week, in one of the more inexplicable decisions to come out of Canberra in a while, the Prime Minister was forced by  Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce to dump the resources portfolio from his Cabinet.

The portfolio that is responsible for half of Australia’s export earnings no longer has representation at the Morrison Joyce Government’s Cabinet table, where all the big decisions are made.

An industry that has been central to our prosperity during the COVID-19 pandemic has been relegated to the outer ministry.

It’s a slap in the face to mining and resources communities all around Australia. 
But it’s a particular blow to those workers in WA who toil on resources projects on remote sites many thousands of kilometres from policymakers in Canberra.

They have shouldered the load in helping to generate the billions of dollars that flow into government coffers via taxes and royalties.

In recent months, iron ore prices have broken through the US$200 a tonne mark. 
This valuable iron ore is, of course, mined in WA’s Pilbara region – a place many east-coasters (and some Cabinet ministers) might struggle to find on a map.

In an ironic stroke of timing, the Government this week released a report forecasting the resources sector will have generated a record $310 billion for Australia last financial year. 
The industry directly employs more than 260,000 people in Australia, while supporting more than one million other jobs across the economy.

The demotion of the resources portfolio means that its economic importance is not being taken seriously by this Liberal National Government.

When Cabinet discussions take place on crucial related issues such as skills and training, regional development, infrastructure, trade, and industrial relations, the Resources Minister won’t even be in the room.

Mr Morrison’s Liberal colleagues know this is a stupid idea.

WA Liberal senator Dean Smith said: ‘Any economic conversation around the cabinet table without a voice for the resources sector will be an incomplete one’.

The industry has been left bewildered, although its leaders have been diplomatic in their language.

Association of Mining and Exploration Companies chief executive Warren Pearce said he was ‘disappointed’ by the decision.

The Minerals Council of Australia said it ‘looks forward to the return of resources to cabinet’, noting the sector made the largest contribution to Australia’s GDP.

APPEA noted in response that that the oil and gas industry was doing the heavy lifting at a time of great economic uncertainty arising from the pandemic.

The political machinations behind the move are clear. 
When Barnaby Joyce knifed Michael McCormack as Nationals leader last week to become Deputy Prime Minister, he promised a ‘laser-like’ focus on mining communities. 
But that focus only lasted a few days.

He then set about rewarding his friends and punishing his enemies.

Resources Minister Keith Pitt did not vote for Joyce, so he was demoted, along with his portfolio.

In other words, Joyce decided that his short-term political interests were more important than the national economic interest. It is all a game to Joyce.

The interests of Western Australia were not even considered because the Nationals are seeking to win votes at the next election in regional Queensland and NSW. 
They don’t care about WA because they know they’re unlikely to win any federal seats here. 
In fact, state Nationals leader Mia Davies said last week she was disappointed Mr Joyce had been returned to the party’s leadership after he resigned three years ago following revelations of an affair with a staffer and sexual harassment claims (which he denied).

Making matters even worse, Pitt was replaced in cabinet by Senator Bridget McKenzie, who was forced to resign 18 months ago over the disgraceful sports rorts scandal. 
It is a shameful approach to government. 
While the resources industry is a stellar performer in the national economy, it does face some significant challenges.

In the absence of government leadership, the sector is grappling with the challenge of meeting net zero emissions by 2050. 
The industry has taken on the challenge seriously, with our biggest exporters committing and actively working toward achieving this goal.

Although the Government has its head in the sand, the industry knows that its exports depend on aligning their operations to meet the climate change goals of their international customers. 
The fly-in-fly-out aspect of the resources industry is also in the spotlight, after revelations of sexual assaults against women in remote camps. 
The industry itself has actively backed an inquiry by the WA Parliament into the harassment and sexual assault of women in the industry and apologised to all victims. 
Addressing this situation requires leadership from government, which the WA State Government has shown, and the Federal Government has gone very quiet on. 
Leadership in the resources portfolio is required and essential in the Cabinet of the Government of Australia to work with the industry to meet its biggest challenges. 
And to ensure it continues to provide hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions in export revenue. 
Right now there are emerging opportunities beyond our traditional industries of iron ore, coal and natural gas.

There is great potential for the hydrogen industry in Australia, and while there is some way to go in its development, it could be a game-changer for Australia’s low-carbon emissions future. 
The future of the critical minerals industry is bright as it will help to store energy in batteries and play an unmatched role in addressing global climate change. 
It is these future parts of the resources industry that a Resources Minister in the Cabinet of Australia should be fighting for. 
Sadly, that role no longer exists.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Friday, 2 July 2021.