QRC Chief Sketches The Future

Queensland Resources Council Chief Executive Ian Macfarlane sat down with CQ Today at the Boathouse Restaurant on Quay Street in late September for a wide-ranging conversation on developments in the state’s pervasive resources sector.
To begin with, CQ Today pressed the former Howard government resources minister on whether commodities other than coal might one day match coal’s capacity to generate large-scale wealth for Queenslanders.
Mr Macfarlane replied in the affirmative if traditional metals such as aluminium, bauxite and copper were included in the assessment alongside the emergence of critical minerals, or the minerals expected to underpin a global shift towards emerging technologies and renewable energy.
“You are going to see a move towards those critical metals and when you add in their strategic importance, in terms of military and defence and the like, and just general demand in terms of renewables and lowering emissions, yes, it is more than feasible that that will happen,” he said.
Referencing the new vanadium mine in the north-west, Mr Macfarlane said the first steps towards this new avenue of wealth had been taken.
Mr Macfarlane also said it was likely that Queensland possessed sufficient deposits to sustain the industry moving forward.
“We’ve seen an enormous increase in exploration, predominantly in base metals and rare earths,” he said.
“A little bit of brownfields in coal and gas. So people are looking, to see how much is there. And you’d expect based on the geology, that it is certainly there, so it’s just a matter of finding it, commercialising it, processing it, getting it out, so a long way to go yet.”
Mr Macfarlane said promising job opportunities in the critical minerals space centred on developing a native processing and manufacturing capacity rather than simply organising extraction and export.
“And when you talk about jobs, the opportunity with rare earths is that we don’t just dig it and ship it, we actually process it. So some of those jobs that are currently involved in mining, may transition into processing and mining. So again, some good opportunities there.”
The emergence of autonomous haulage trucks on mine sites in Central Queensland hints at an industry disconnected from workers and CQ Today asked Mr Macfarlane whether he believed the advent of automation would entail steep job losses.
“Not necessarily,” he replied.
“The big issue with automation is to ensure that the automation centres aren’t in Brisbane. So Moura, Rockhampton, Moranbah. But to be realistic, you’ve got to look at towns with reasonable capacity.”
“And if you’ve got an automated dozer, it’s still going to need fuelling, servicing, repairs. So the person driving the machine may not be sitting in the mine anymore, and from a workplace health and safety aspect that’s something we aspire to. And secondly, the jobs may be higher paid. They will be sophisticated jobs, some of them will require degrees. The industry is up for that. As long as we manage it and as long as we don’t say, ‘well this is a way of not having people out in the regions.’ And that’s completely doable.”
“I don’t see significant changes in job numbers,” he added.
“And you still need your GEOs and the next opportunity will be for processing. As long as they have the energy. A lot of that processing will be done on-site because it allows you to put your tailings back into your pit.”
CQ Today then directed the conversation towards industrial relations.
The CFMEU has sharply criticised what it sees as an escalation of casualised workplace arrangements in the sector and the Labor Party looks set to make the issue of worker insecurity a key plank of its campaign to win back voters across the seats of Flynn and Capricornia.
Mr Macfarlane said the issue had been overstated.
“The issue that we are critically interested in is safety and there is no correlation between casualisation and safety issues,” he said.
“And that is statistically proven. I think the unions do overstate the amount of casualisation.”
Mr Macfarlane said the handsome salaries that characterise the sector counter claims of exploitation.
“We don’t do industrial relations, but I think the normal forces of supply and demand will look after the situation. In the resource industry in Queensland where the majority of workers earn more than $100,000 a year, you can’t argue exploitation. I’m confident enough that whatever the industrial relations framework is, there will be plenty of jobs for workers and plenty of well-paid jobs for a long time.”
Mr Macfarlane also expressed confidence that the coal sector would thrive under a Labor government.
“I think there are a lot of lessons learned in the last federal election, including by the state government,” he said.
“People like Cameron Dick and his proposal for the Queensland Resources Industry Development Plan, those sorts of things that will give the industry certainty, mean that regardless of which government, or which colour, and even sub-colours within governments at times, I think the industry is on much firmer ground than it was as little as two or three years ago.”
Finally, CQ Today asked Mr Macfarlane whether he had noted improvements in the approvals regime over the last six months, a key area of concern for QRC members.
“I think we have, but it’s still early days,” he said.
“So part of the Resources Industry Development Plan is streamlining those processes, not short-cutting them, but streamlining them. Giving us more certainty around them.”
“I think it’s part of an overall change in mind-set, perhaps reflective of the federal election. But generally, we are making better progress.”