Union wants Australia to do more with critical minerals

·3-min read

Almost 60 years after Donald Horne coined the term, Australia continues to be a lucky country reliant on a hoard of rare minerals from which it derives its wealth.

But one of Australia's biggest unions is calling for a "carrot and stick" approach to knock the country out of economic complacency.

The Australian Workers' Union will move a resolution at the ALP national conference in August that would commit Labor to introduce a tax on unprocessed exports of critical minerals.

To complement it, the AWU will recommend establishing a production subsidy scheme to foster domestic refining, processing and component manufacturing.

National secretary Daniel Walton, who on Tuesday announced he will step down from the role after seven years in charge, warns Australia risks wasting an economic bonanza by continuing to ship raw materials to China instead of building up an industrial capacity of its own.

"Australia has been blessed with the world's most enviable supply of critical minerals, but simply digging these precious material up and loading them on ships is an incredibly limited way to view the opportunity," he said.

Critical minerals such as lithium, cobalt and rare earths are labelled as such because of the vital role they play in the global transition to renewable energy.

But while Australia produces more than half the world's mined lithium output, the country lacks the manufacturing capacity to turn the raw material into higher-value products.

As a result, economic output and jobs higher up the value chain are being ceded to competitors who can capitalise on our lost productivity, such as China.

This also poses strategic risks at a time of heightened geopolitical tensions.

"Do we really want to assume that we can keep digging up critical minerals, shipping them to China for processing, and China will just keep shipping them back to us to manufacture batteries?" Mr Walton said.

"It's not a bet I'd feel confident about."

The US is attempting to rise to the challenge of global competition for critical components by pumping trillions of dollars into its economy to revive its manufacturing capacity.

While Australia lacks the same financial heft to throw around, Mr Walton argues the country should not squander the leverage raw mineral deposits provide.

"We know demand from the world for our critical minerals is astronomical," he said.

"We have the power to create the rules under which they can have them.

"Treasury doesn't have access to enough carrots to encourage the change we need here. We need to get out the stick."

A spokeswoman for Resources Minister Madeleine King said the government was developing a critical minerals strategy to be released later this year.

"The strategy will outline the government's priorities for the development of the critical minerals sector, including how Australia can create economic opportunities across the nation, seize the opportunities of the net zero transformation and establish robust, sustainable and diverse supply chains," she said.

"The government is grateful to stakeholders who participated in consultations on the critical minerals strategy, including the AWU."