The mineral resources industry has remained a pillar of strength in Australia’s economic and social development since the colonial era, and today it resembles one of the most diverse and technologically advanced resources sectors in the world. The industry delivers economic wealth, jobs, high wages, investment and tax revenues to Australians, and accounts for the largest proportion of export revenues in the entire Australian economy. At the heart of this thriving industry is the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), which represents the exploration, mining and minerals processing industry – nationally and internationally – in its contribution to sustainable development and society. RGN’s editor spoke to the MCA’s chief executive Tania Constable about the work of the council in encouraging investment, promoting the jobs of the future, putting back into regional and remote communities and making a difference on a global level.
JAW: Hi Tania. Let me start by asking how the MCA supports Australia’s vast mineral resources sector?
TC: The MCA has a membership of 81 members. We represent 80% of the total value of production in minerals in Australia, from exploration through to development and closure of mines. Our role is to provide policy input and advocacy on behalf of the industry, working with governments and with stakeholders – particularly communities – to achieve that.
JAW: You have been chief executive of the MCA since July 2018. What have been your key focuses since coming into the role and what expertise do you bring to the organisation?
TC: In this role I aim to broaden the MCA’s remit to make sure we are positioning the industry to restore national pride in minerals within Australia. At a global level, I want us to be working with other organisations such as the International Council on Mining & Metals (ICMM), working within broader multi-lateral frameworks such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), within the UN Global Compact network.
The main areas I have been focusing on are: Economic reform, safety and sustainability, energy and climate and also making sure we have the right workforce for the future.
JAW: Can you summarise – using latest figures – just how important the mineral resources sector is to Australia’s economic development?
TC: It’s immensely important to Australia in terms of the economic contribution, but also in the social contribution it brings to communities. We are the biggest employer within regional and remote Australia. In total there are 240,000 direct employees and 1.1 million employees in the value chain – that includes mining, engineering, technology services and more. That means one in 10 Australians are employed in the mining industry.
In 2017/18, the resources sector represented AUS$220 billion in exports. If I put that in the context of the entire economy, 58% of Australia’s exports come from the mining sector.
JAW: How do those revenues plough back into Australian society and help all Australians prosper?
TC: Critically, regional Australia relies very heavily on mining jobs. If I think about even the last election that we had, regional and remote Australia really got behind the new government because it supported resources and that means jobs for the community. The mining sector is also the highest paying sector in the country. These are highly paid, highly skilled jobs and average wage within the mining sector is $140,000 per annum.
JAW: The mining sector is cyclical in its nature and is currently heading into a production boom phase. How sustainable is this upward trend in Australia?
TC: 2017/18 was a record export period for the minerals sector in Australia. We had record prices and volumes of coal, iron ore, LNG, copper and aluminium. Gold saw very high prices, but not necessarily a record on volumes.
We are in a production boom at the moment. It’s not as big as the mining boom of the period from 2007–12, but we are in a new production boom. We have cycles that occur but it’s currently quite sustainable around volume and price in Australia.
We’re seeing higher amounts of volume because we have come out of a production phase. We’re hoping the next investments that occur in Australia will lead to a new construction phase. We are currently doing very well on a global level in terms of being a sustainable industry.
JAW: To what extent is the current growth in the Australian mineral resources sector being replicated in more juvenile industries such as the battery metals space?
TC: There are several new and emerging industries that involve lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper and rare earths. All of these minerals and the associated metals that might come from them are products that are used in our everyday lives: mobile phones, TVs, cars and wind turbines. All of these end use products come from these newer forms of minerals being made into metals. The potential for these industries within Australia is immense.
For example, there’s recently been a focus on critical minerals such as rare earths, and that’s interesting because importing countries like the US are developing alternative markets due to the current trade dispute between China and the US. There is a need for the US to be seeking alternative markets and Australia represents an alternative market for them. While we have a strong partnership with China, we also recognise that the US is the biggest investor in resources within Australia in terms of foreign investment. So, we have an opportunity to develop new markets, in this case in critical minerals.
JAW: How is the Australian resources sector embracing technology and innovation?
TC: What’s exciting for this industry is that we are at the forefront of innovation at a global level. Automation, AI, robotics – that’s all occurring in our industry at a global level, but I would say we are really leading the way in Australia.
We already have autonomous trains at iron ore sites in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. This increased level of automation around major equipment is delivering better safety outcomes and more efficient operational outcomes.
There might be some weakening of jobs in some areas, but you have massive job growth that occurs around the technologies themselves. That’s what we’ve always seen with new technology – it may take away a few jobs in some areas, but it creates massive opportunities in other areas.
Our industry is trying to make sure that we are planning for the workforce of the future, making sure we have data analysts, robotics specialists and drone pilots to name a few. These are all going to be new skills that we need for our workforce.
We’re also partnering with other industries to get a better technological outcome, partnering with space agencies around robotics and AI that will help us to create a better mine site for the future. It really does present an exciting opportunity for the future.
JAW: On the topic of technology and jobs, how are you going to navigate this current period where there is anxiety surrounding how hi-tech advancements are going to impact human jobs?
TC: We’ve seen it in the past, even with the use of phones and smartphones. That fear around technology has been around for a long period and it’s about preparing people for what that future can look like and making sure that regions in Australia have the right sort of opportunity to be able to take advantage of those changes.
Instead of every job being moved and put into a capital city, we want to create hubs within regions in Australia to be able to manage change around AI, robotics and automation. It’s about getting the balance right in how we prepare those regional centres to become a hive of activity for those future skills.
JAW: You talked earlier about bridging the gap between the industry and wider society, so how important is the MCA’s recent 30 Things campaign to raise awareness of the resources sector among Australians?
TC: It’s extremely important Jacob. We did research in 2018 to understand what people knew about the resources sector and we found there was a gap between understanding and awareness, particularly in women between the ages 25-40. Australian youth also saw mining as a dated industry with limited opportunities located in remote areas of the country.
We tried to raise awareness about what we can do in these industries, different types of jobs that might be there, not just in traditional areas such as mining engineering or in electrical trades and diesel fitters.
We wanted to show young people how their skills can be applied in the mining sector. For example, if you’re a gamer, you can be a drone pilot in this industry and you don’t necessarily have to be living away from your family and friends.
The industry also requires a lot of social skills in the shape of environmental scientists and social scientists – these jobs are becoming integral to the mining sector. Those new skillsets are important to raise as opportunities. Women and youth are looking differently now at what the mining industry is all about, because it is an exciting, modern workplace that produces all the modern needs of society.
JAW: Finally, what are the key challenges that are facing Australia’s mining and resources sector?
TC: There are a few key challenges. We need to make sure we are preparing not just for a new mine opening, but for the environmental and social needs of communities to be taken into account when we are planning for mines sites. That’s extremely important for the industry to maintain a social licence to operate.
Communities want more of a say in what happens in their regions and they want to know that the mining industry is going to be a great community contributor and will leave a positive legacy for the future. The mining industry needs to coexist with these communities, whether they are Indigenous people or farmers, in a much more sustainable way. That’s a challenge for us at a local level.
We are also a global industry and need to be thinking about how our approach fits with global society and the changing needs of a global society in areas such as climate change and social issues such as modern slavery and stewardship.
These are challenges at the forefront of the mining industry and they inform how we go about our long-term plan, not just as an organisation but as a contributor to the broader industry.