The Australian resources sector has enjoyed a period of sustained growth for well over a decade, a remarkable achievement that has seen the industry’s contribution to Australian GDP jump from 5% in 2005 to 8.2% in 2017, and total employment figures more than double from 106,700 in 2005 to 255,800 in 2018. These figures come from the country’s National Resources Statement (NRS), a programme announced in February that is the first attempt to reform the country’s resources sector in over two decades.
The NRS features five strategies, covering international investment, regional development, research and development, training, diversity and community engagement, and broadly aims to bring together a range of groups and individuals to reform the resources sector. However, the statement is light on details in places, and is unclear exactly how it will achieve a number of targets, especially with regards to ensuring diversity and developing communities, creating uncertainty as to how effective the statement will be.
Encouraging international involvement
The government’s first priority is promoting the country’s resources sector as “globally attractive” to encourage investment from foreign companies. International involvement is key to the sector, with exports expected to be worth A$252bn in 2019, up from A$79bn in 2005, and the NRS aims to consolidate Australian negotiating power through the creation of what it calls a “national resources brand” which will coordinate the promotion of Australian projects from a central authority.
The unified brand could help streamline the process of promoting Australian interests, especially as larger companies such as BHP and Rio Tinto are moving in similar directions with regards to technology and automation, although companies may see the move as a watering down of their brands, and a reduction in their individual negotiating power.
The government has also devolved some responsibility for ensuring these projects are developed in an environmentally sustainable manner, claiming that it will work with the COAG Energy Council, a ministerial forum founded in 2013 to reform the country’s energy sector. The council will be asked to conduct a review of the 1999 laws that govern the national government’s powers to award mining permits, which could help modernise Australian legislation, but is an investigation that the government will not be leading on.
New industries and new regions
Despite the importance of the country’s resources industry, many of Australia’s mining and processing facilities are centralised in a few areas. Rio Tinto alone has 16 iron ore mines in the Pilbara, a strip of land that covers less than a fifth of the state of Western Australia.
To address this, the government will expand a number of existing programmes, including extending the Exploring for the Future scheme for another four years, and expanding its remit to cover the southern half of the country. The project, which has already received over A$100m in government funding, has identified sixteen sites across three states and the Northern Territory with the potential to have mineral reserves and groundwater resources, or which could be developed into energy facilities.
The NRS also makes a number of specific commitments to developing the value of new commodities, planning to finalise a memorandum of understanding between Geoscience Australia, the organisation behind the Exploring for the Future project, and the US Geological Survey. The ultimate effectiveness of this scheme however, will depend as much on Australia’s US counterparts as their own researchers.
The statement further ensures up to A$20m will be set aside for new mineral research projects funded through the Cooperative Research Centres Project.
The future of research and development
The NRS returns to the idea of unification when discussing the sector’s research and development future, but details are relatively sparse. The statement acknowledges that many of the country’s research groups, such as Geoscience Australia, focus on projects that can improve the sector’s performance in the short-term, rather than ones that address long-term problems, such as the safe storage of mine waste and the rehabilitation of land affected by mining.
While the NRS does not commit to any clear policies to achieve this, the approach is in line with the ideas set out in the Resources 2030 Taskforce, a document with an intentionally long-term view, which argues that ensuring effective long-term research and development is one of the keys to the country’s mineral future. The taskforce also recommends encouraging international involvement in the country’s resources sector, so both of its priorities are echoed in the NRS.
One dedicated policy that is mentioned is the Resources Data Strategy, a project that will collect data, particularly on environmental, heritage and geoscientific matters, and enable leaders from government, private companies and research organisations to make more informed decisions.
Workforce training and diversity
The statement highlights a “skills mapping exercise” coordinated by the national government and industry bodies as the cornerstone of a policy designed to train and retain what it calls “the world’s best workforce”.
However, the NRS is vague on the matters of retraining workers ahead of the rise of robotics and automation in the sector, and diversity in the workplace. The COAG Energy Council will reconsider how best to engage Aboriginal’s and Torres Strait Islander’s in an upcoming review of its resources agenda, but again, the national government will not be directly involved in the scheme.
Australia has historically invested considerably in engaging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the resources sector, with programmes such as BHP’s Reconciliation Action Plan awarding A$350m worth of contracts to indigenous businesses in the sector, so it is possible that the government no longer considers aggressively promoting indigenous participation in resources to be a priority.
The participation of women, however, has long been an issue for the resources sector, with the percentage of women in the workforce remaining at just 16% for the last ten years. The NRS says nothing about how the government will encourage more women to work in the sector, beyond a vague commitment to “[work] with industry to boost women’s participation”.
Engaging communities and investing in regions
Following on from the success of the City Deals model, where the national government works with individual cities to provide them with funding for long-term projects of their choice, the NRS discusses a trial of Australia’s first Regional Deal.
The project will see A$60m invested into the Barkly region of the Northern Territory, one of Australia’s resource-rich areas, to develop the region’s economy, address social issues and protect Indigenous culture, and will be led by a group comprising members of the Barkly Regional Council, and politicians from both the national and territorial government. The national government will also work with the minister for regional services to oversee the investment, and assess whether similar schemes, currently planned for Hinkler in Queensland and Albury–Wodonga on the New South Wales-Victoria border, would be feasible.
The NRS also highlights the importance of the Native Title Act, a 1993 act that ensures Aboriginal and Strait Islander people have the right to claim ownership over lands and waters historically in their possession, as a key piece of legislation engaging Indigenous Australians. However, the statement concedes that many of these communities in mineral-rich areas remain politically and economically marginalised, and suggests no plans for how this imbalance can be addressed in the future.