Topics: Australia’s steel industry and the impact of the Indonesia-Australia free trade agreement.
Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells: Well thank you very much for joining us this morning, it’s a great pleasure to welcome Minister Karen Andrews here to the Illawarra. Not her first visit, not her first visit I think, in a previous life Karen was certainly down here. Look, can I just say of course BlueScope is synonymous with the history of the Illawarra. I, like many young people who were born and bred in this area – my father worked here at the steelworks – we are the product of this area and we’re very, very proud of the steelworks. We’re proud of the 90 years that we recently celebrated of this great institution and I know that the steelworks will long continue to operate here in the Illawarra and to be very, very successful. Minister?
Minister Andrews: Thank you, and it’s an absolute pleasure to be here this morning with Senator Fierravanti-Wells, and to visit the Port Kembla steelworks today. The steel industry is very significant to the Australian economy. It injects about $11 billion into the Australian economy and employs about 100,000 people across Australia. So it is a very significant industry to us. The Liberal National Government has long supported the steel industry. A number of years ago I represented Australia at the OECD High-Level Symposium on Steel when it was held in Belgium where the topic was the oversupply, overcapacity of steel across the globe. So the Liberal National Government has been very committed to the steel sector and of course with today’s signing of the Australia-Indonesia free trade agreement it’s going to have a significant positive impact on the steel industry here in Australia.
So with the removal of Indonesian tariffs on hot rolled coil and cold rolled coil steel products, it will open up the market for us here so that we can look at exporting more steel product into Indonesia. BlueScope is already on the record of saying that that could provide an additional $10 million-plus in revenue. So it’s positive news for us here in Australia with the signing of the Indonesia-Australia free trade agreement. Today, Senator Fierravanti-Wells and I will be touring the steel works here and talking to management and workers about ways that we can make sure that the Australian steel industry remains strong. We do have in place some 55 anti-dumping measures – 17 of those apply specifically to steel and steel products. By having such a strong anti-dumping system in Australia, we are protecting Australia’s steel industry and Australian jobs. We are very conscious as a government of making sure that where product is being dumped from overseas on Australian shores that appropriate tariffs will be- appropriate dumping measures will actually be put in place. So it is positive news for Australia. We will continue to work with the steel industry to make sure that we are protecting Australia’s industry and protecting jobs for Australian workers.
Question: We recently saw a report after a Senate inquiry that had 28 submissions into the steel industry- 28 sort of recommendations into the industry about ways to go forward – none of them were adopted by the government; why was that?
Minister Andrews: So the Senate inquiry was held 18 months or so ago now. Since then, there have been a number of changes that have been made to Australia’s anti-dumping system to make sure that we are strengthening that, to make sure that where product is being dumped on Australian shores that there are appropriate duties that are going to be in place. My commitment is to continue to work with the steel industry on issues that are affecting it more generally. So we’re looking at free trade agreements. We’re looking at opening up markets. We’re looking clearly at growing the economy here in Australia because we know that when the economy is strong, building and construction booms and that has a very positive impact on the steel industry. So we want to make sure that there are more jobs for steel workers and that our steel industry is strong. So I take on board the comments that were made by various senators in the Senate inquiry and I am absolutely committed to working with them to make sure that we strengthen Australia’s steel industry.
Question: So of the 28, were there any you guys came close to recommending or was it a complete waste of time?
Minister Andrews: It’s clearly not a complete waste of time because the information that is received into Senate inquiries informs government’s decisions more broadly. The Liberal National Government as I said is committed to building the steel industry and making it even stronger than it is. That means that we have to work in a number of areas. So we take on board what the Senate committee has said but we are conscious of working to open up trade opportunities so that we can export. BlueScope is already on the record as saying that the Indonesia-Australia free trade agreement will potentially give them an additional $10 million-plus in revenue. Free trade agreements certainly give Australia an opportunity to improve our market. Strengthening our anti-dumping system has already meant that there’s a level playing field in Australia for our steel products. We’ve cracked down where product has been coming in specifically circumventing the anti-dumping laws and tariff- duties that we have in place here. So I think there’s actually positive news. So I’m not focusing on the 28 recommendations one by one, I’m actually looking holistically at what we can do to support the steel industries here in Australia.
Question: And the announcement today seems to be something that was already going to happen, that was already in play. I’m just wondering does your visit then today mean more about electioneering with the election coming up in a couple months?
Minister Andrews: As the Minister for Industry Science and Technology, I have responsibility for the steel industry. I’ve had a long engagement with steel. This visit was actually planned for some time, we just needed to log in a date. So I’m pleased that we’re here on the day that the Indonesian-Australia free trade agreement is going to be signed because it will have such a positive impact on our steel industry. So it’s not about electioneering. Every day I’m out doing the best I possibly can for Australian industry and steel is a significant industry player.
Question: Part of that inquiry sort of recommended an overarching steel policy. Does the government have one, I guess, in writing? What’s guiding your decisions going forward in terms of the industry?
Minister Andrews: What guides our decisions is input from key stakeholders such as BlueScope. Now a lot of advice was given from BlueScope in relation to Indonesia-Australia free trade agreement. We took that on board. I’ll be listening to what BlueScope has to say today about further improvements that they actually are looking for the Government to make to support their industry and we will work with them where we possibly can. But to the very great credit of BlueScope, they took some decisions a couple of years ago now, which have put them in a very strong position today in terms of the costs of running their plant here. But they have been able to, because of those changes, capitalise on the boom in the building sector so they have grown their capacity here and they’re in a very good place because of those actions over a number of years ago.
One of the key points of my visit today will be to work with them even more closely to find out what we can do to make sure that Australia’s steel industry continues to grow.
Question: So, I guess, is BlueScope’s input on steel policy more valuable than that of the Senate inquiry? I guess, would you take into consideration what they want also in those 28 recommendations- collated all over those years?
Minister Andrews: I have a very strong record of listening to my key stakeholders. I make decisions based on evidence. So today, I’m visiting BlueScope to hear what their views are firsthand on the steel industry and the problems that they see that may be emerging into the future. I certainly am very conscious of the Senate inquiry and the report and our response. I also have responsibility for anti-dumping so I will be making sure that we continue to have a strong anti-dumping system here in Australia. So, it’s not a case of just listening to one stakeholder. I will take advice and listen to the input of the entire sector. That also means listening to consumers. What are they looking in products from steel? Are there issues with the quality of steel coming in from overseas that we as a government should be looking at? Those are the key questions for me when I look at the steel industry so it will be a holistic approach to the steel industry.
Question: And you mentioned the 2015 steel crisis. That was a time when the Government wouldn’t send a minister down here for love nor money. We never saw one for two years. But now things are good we’re getting- Turnbull has been down here. Frydenberg has been down here. You’ve been down here. Now, do you think that leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths that when it was a crunch time, nobody came down but now that things are good, everyone’s here?
Minister Andrews: All I can assure you as the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, I will be here whenever I’m needed and whenever I’m asked. I’m absolutely committed to the steel industry and have been for many, many years. So I’m a mechanical engineer. I love the steel industry. I’m very happy being here and I would never ever want the steel industry to think that I was not supportive of them because I am.
Question: Just one more if you can, I guess as a Wollongong based member of Parliament, I guess, what did you think of the decision not to adopt any of those recommendations? I guess, there was 28 of them, it was pretty broad but not one of those was recommended.
Senator Fierravanti-Wells: Jordan, having spent a lot of time in the Senate – I’ve been a senator since 2005 – Senate inquiries, as the minister said, are often a very good avenue for collection of information from stakeholders. Often, as a consequence of the time lapse between when evidence is taken and subsequently when governments respond- and can I say governments of both persuasion have received reports on a whole range of different matters over many, many years so this is not something that’s pertinent to just one side of the political spectrum as to the other. But things move on, and as the minister said, things have happened and as a consequence of the approach that she and the Government are taking in relation to the response. It’s a holistic response. And things have happened since those recommendations were made, which I think have already been dealt with, as the minister has adequately said. So it’s not often a question of nit-picking of one recommendation over another. It’s having a look at the overall response that was given, but also where you’ve moved on to the point.
I mean, look, I’ve been a senator here since 2005 and certainly, the steel industry has seen its good times and its bad- as Glenn- as you say. But at pertinent times, governments have been here to assist the steel industry – assist with support – and I recall when there was some years ago during the Howard years, a downturn; there were challenges; and the government came in with assistance packages. And so over the time, when it’s been necessary, governments have come in with assistance packages to assist workers, particularly where there have been certain closures. Can I also take the opportunity to commend BlueScope for the work that they have done, particularly in terms of ensuring that the work that they’ve done with the unions in this area has led to effectiveness and efficiency dividends? And we are now seeing the result of that. Today, the steel industry in the Illawarra is viable and it’s viable because of the decisions that BlueScope took at very critical times and also, the willingness of the workers and the unions to work with BlueScope in a very, very cooperative manner.
Question: So in terms of the report, I guess, it was a matter of just being out of date now?
Senator Fierravanti-Wells: No, I’m just saying, as the minister said, many, many reports in the Senate are provided to Government. Government responds accordingly. With something this complex, the Government took time to give a considered response as they should do and have done with many, many other reports. And as the minister said, our response has been one that has been a holistic one. It’s been one that addresses the issues both- not just in terms of the steel industry but more importantly, in relation to the anti-dumping measures. Can I also say on the issue of the free trade agreement with Indonesia, as a former minister in that portfolio, this has been a long time in coming. It’s been 10 years in the making. The relationship between Australia and Indonesia is one that is changing. It’s no longer the relationship where Australia was predominantly an aid provider. It is now changing and that relationship is changing; and today is a milestone in the relationship between Australia and Indonesia as we move to a very, very different footing. Thank you.