March 30, 2021

PAUL TURTON, HOST: Yesterday we had the Nationals on spruiking their vision for the Hunter. They were talking up jobs in the coal industry. Today it’s Federal Labor’s turn. They have promised to establish a $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund if they win the next election. They reckon that COVID-19 highlighted significant weaknesses in Australia’s manufacturing industry and say that billions needs to be spent to ensure the nation can support itself in the future.

So what might it mean for us here in the Hunter? Pat Conroy is the Member for Shortland. He’s here with me now to explain. Pat Conroy thanks for doing that and good afternoon.

PAT CONROY, MEMBER FOR SHORTLAND: Good afternoon to you.

TURTON: Can we start with what we learnt from COVID-19 about our independence?

CONROY: What we learnt is that we have the least self-sufficiency of any developed nation in the world. According to the OECD which measures these things, we have the lowest manufacturing self-sufficiency in the developed world. That means we’re able to manufacture the least amount of goods that we need compared to other advanced nations, and we saw that as we scrambled to get goods through the country when COVID closed the borders.

TURTON: Is that the product of China making hammers for $2 and saucepan sets for $99? Is that what’s driven our local manufacturers out of business?

CONROY: It’s not just that. We’ve lost advanced manufacturing to Europe, we don’t do enough pharmaceutical manufacturing or medical device manufacturing. So it’s a whole range of things from labour-intensive manufacturing that has gone to China and South East Asia, to really advanced things that we should be making in this country. And that’s why our announcement of a $15 billion fund to rebuild manufacturing is so useful for the Hunter.

TURTON: Okay $15 billion won’t all come here. It will be up to an independent board. What sort of a case do you believe we are able to mount here in the Hunter Valley for serious funds?

CONROY: Well what we’ve announced is that we will prioritise certain industries that we think are in the national interest to have in this country, and those industries include rail manufacturing, shipbuilding, medical device manufacturing, pharmaceutical manufacturing, defence manufacturing, and energy-related industries. And in most of those industries, the Hunter leads the country, so we are in a great position. 

For example rail manufacturing - obviously we still produce rolling stock here for the private sector. We’d love to do it again for State Governments. We’ve obviously got a good defence manufacturing base. Medical device manufacturing – my local companies like Ampcontrol and Safearth produced a ventilator for NSW Health within 11 days of the COVID crisis starting. So the sectors we’ve picked, the Hunter is in a great position to take advantage of that funding.

TURTON: Doesn’t industry and manufacturing mean bad news for the environment Pat Conroy?

CONROY: Not at all, because modern manufacturers are very environmentally sensitive. It’s bad for the bottom line to be wasteful of resources and a lot of these industries actually produce positive environmental outcomes. For example, the clean tech industries where we’ve got the great research base at Newcastle Uni and CSIRO and our local engineers - that’s a win-win. If we can lead the world in clean tech manufacturing, whether it’s related to hydrogen for example, that will allow us to clean up the environment and grow jobs. We’re leading the country building hydrogen related batteries which could be the future so it’s a positive on all ends.

TURTON: Yesterday we asked Nationals Senator Matt Canavan about the link between coal and climate change. This is what he told me:

MATT CANAVAN: This area here is essential to reducing emissions. The coal from this area is so much better that the world would be a better place if we mined more coal from the Hunter. And if we don’t mine and export our coal, as I said the best quality coal in the world, they’ll use other coals which are lower quality, will produce more carbon emissions, will produce more air pollution, more smog, and that will be worse for the world’s environment. So if you care about the environment, if you want to get carbon emissions down, you want to see more Hunter Valley coal get onto the world market.

TURTON: Pat Conroy, isn’t there an element of truth to that? If China have opened up 34 new coal-fired power stations, shouldn’t they be burning the best quality coal?

CONROY: Well it’s certainly true that Hunter coal has less contaminants in it like sulfur than coal from other countries like Vietnam and Indonesia, and it’s generally got a better calorific value which means you get more energy from burning it compared to other coal. My view is, I welcome the jobs that the coal industry provides. I acknowledge the sacrifice of coalminers and I welcome the wealth that’s built our region and that will continue for decades. But the truth is that the world is decarbonising and global demand for thermal coal peaked a couple of years ago and it will decline. 

That said, I want the last tonne of coal dug on our planet to be Hunter coal and I want those jobs for as long as possible. But we have to face reality, and the reality is that the world is decarbonising. They are reducing their demand for fossil fuels as they try to reduce their carbon emissions, and people like Matt Canavan just live in an alternate reality if they pretend anything otherwise.

TURTON: Does Government have to worry about what’s happening? It seems that industry is driving industry change in regard to protecting our environment more than Government is doing.

CONROY: Well you just have to look at our national greenhouse gas accounts. Under this Government, greenhouse gas emissions in this country have only fallen by nine million tonnes since 2013. So the amount of greenhouse gas emissions the country produces is only nine million tonnes less than in 2013. Compare that to when we were in Government and we cut greenhouse gas emissions by almost 100 million tonnes per annum, and we have to continue to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. 

We can’t leave it up to business. There are some businesses that are embracing technology and doing great things, but others aren’t. We need the Government to lead. We need to achieve sensible medium-term targets on the road to being net carbon zero by 2050. Not only is that good for the environment, we need to take advantage of the thousands if not hundreds of thousands of clean tech jobs that we can grow if we embrace the future rather than hide under a doona which this Government is intent on doing on environment policy.

TURTON: In regard to your $15 billion fund, what sort of projects would you like to see here in the Hunter region Pat Conroy?

CONROY: Oh I’d love to turbocharge the hydrogen industry, particularly the manufacturing of hydrogen batteries. This is stuff that companies like R&R Murphy at Gateshead and Ampcontrol at Cameron Park are leading the world in. These batteries have four times the capacity of a Tesla Powerwall for example, so that’s one part of the economy that I’d love to see take advantage of the $15 billion fund. 

Re-embracing rail manufacturing – we’ve announced a National Rail Manufacturing Plan to complement the $15 billion fund. I want this country and in particular the Hunter to be making trains again because we can do it as well as anyone else in the world. 

And thirdly, boosting investment in defence manufacturing. We’re due to spend $270 billion on defence equipment in the next decade. As much as possible should be spent in this country and particularly in the Hunter. 

When I speak to people on the street, they are passionate about manufacturing. Someone bailed me up out the front of Belmont Baptist Church for example yesterday about it. They want a Federal Government that is passionate about manufacturing and has a fair dinkum plan that will deliver manufacturing jobs for our region and for the country as a whole, and that’s what we’ve announced today.

TURTON: Do you see a future in steelmaking, that returning to the Hunter region? I mean it just seems ridiculous to most people that we ship our coal and iron ore halfway around the world and buy steel back cheaper than we can make it for here. It just doesn’t make any sense.

CONROY: Oh I couldn’t agree more, and the Grattan Institute which is a very centre-of-the-road thinktank did a big study into producing steel from hydrogen. This is called green steel which is the future of steel in the next sort of 20-30 years, and they concluded that we could lead the world in that and that Newcastle was the logical place to do that industry because we’ve obviously got great quality coal and we can be the heart of the Australian hydrogen industry and we just need to ship the iron ore around from WA. And their study found that our benefits around hydrogen and coal initially and then switching to hydrogen and our expertise in energy and renewable energy means that we won’t have to compete on wages. We can be the heart of a global green steel manufacturing industry, and that they estimated would deliver 10,000 new jobs in steel manufacturing alone to Newcastle.

BHP at its peak had 13,000 so that is a comparable industry, but we need a Government that supports investment in renewable energy to produce the hydrogen and then has a plan with the steel manufacturers to grow that industry. But I am passionate about getting steel back in this country, but it will be powered by clean hydrogen rather than metallurgical coal.

TURTON: Pat Conroy, thanks for coming on today.

CONROY: Not a problem, have a great afternoon.