MONDAY, 29 FEBRUARY 2016
SUBJECT/S: Labor’s plan for jobs in South Australia; Whyalla steelworks; VDL deal; foreign ownership.
LEON BYNER, HOST: The future of Whyalla and Port Augusta are under challenge as Arrium and Olinda, a steel mill and power station, are in play. The loss of GMH and the trickledown effect of course are a huge dead throttle on South Australia's future. The Federal Labor Party opposition have announced a taskforce to investigate ways to revitalise our cowering manufacturing industry. Now, the State Government has already done this so on the surface it looks like a duplication of an initiative already in play, but we need jobs don't we? We understand there are buyers seeking to acquire Arrium's generation assets, the generation assets of Olinda but Arrium has been refinanced and that's good for certainly the future and the State Treasurer has already committed to use taxpayer funds to help Arrium get the $60 million savings they're looking for. But one cannot ignore the cost structures – water, power, payroll tax and of course the deliberate undermining of dumped low quality steel flooding our country. SA has been very hard hit by retracting job opportunities and last week Professor Ross Garnaut pointed out again that solar and battery technology which, if we were to embrace, would really the economy and also get us cheaper electricity. Now the centre of economic studies reports continually point to high costs structures in basic utilities which have to be addressed and should we do this every business would benefit and remove the odium of governments picking winners. Now, workers have been asked to take a pay cut should we ask the same of revenue SA?
Well, let’s talk - I caught up with him a few minutes ago just got off a plane Bill Shorten.
Bill Shorten, thanks for joining us. You've announced over the weekend a taskforce to have a look at our jobs crisis in South Australia. The State Government have already got one, what are you hoping to achieve?
SHORTEN: Well, we'll work with the State Government and stakeholders but this is for our federal policy for the next election. Labor's been working hard in its time in opposition to come up with positive plans for the future of Australia. There's no doubt that we need to make as part of the election battle ground who between Malcolm Turnbull and his Liberals and myself and Labor have the best plan to support, not only new South Australian jobs but to fight hard to keep existing South Australian jobs.
BYNER: What do you plan to do to assist Arrium steel? Who at the moment are very much being kicked around by the dumping of Chinese cheap steel.
SHORTEN: Well, I've contacted the Prime Minister, I've said there's at least three categories of action that we could take. First of all, we've got to start encouraging greater procurement across all levels of Government local, state and national of buying Australian steel. Even if we lifted some of that, that would improve the steel market in Australia. Taxpayer, rate payer money, all things being equal should be allocated in preference to Australian production than imported production. Now, there's always commercial considerations but we should be backing in our local steel industry. The second thing we could do is to toughen our regime in terms of dumping. Dumping you know Leon is were countries or companies I should say sell product cheaper in the destination country than it might be available elsewhere. The reason why a company overseas might do that is put the local companies out of business, get the market share and then at some point in the future if you become dependent upon overseas steel well then the price will go up and you become a price taker.
With this anti-dumping debate there's two issues in particular which have got my attention, one is making sure we cut down the lag time between the perceived injustice or unfair behaviour and getting a response. It's no good taking too long in the meantime the company loses the contract and I think there's action beginning to happen in that area, although it should of happened a year or two years ago. But the other issues that I want the Federal Government to focus on, Labor if elected would, is country hopping. This is where perhaps a Chinese steel company mightn’t come directly to Australia with their cheaper steel what they might do is wash it through another nation and then from that nation the steel is then sold into Australia and the problem with that is it just takes that much longer to get the market intelligence, prove the case. So we need to be really switched on to country hopping as well as the time it takes between a complaint being filed and it being resolved.
But I said the third thing that we could do – and I have to take my hat off to Tom Koutsantonis and the South Australian Government, they’re talking actively and regularly with Arrium – is perhaps there’s a role for us to see what Arrium needs in the way of support to get through their immediate cash flow hurdles. What I think the goal of Arrium would be, at Whyalla and elsewhere, is to lift the cash flow, you know, into the positive zone, or break even so they’re not making a loss. There may be a role here – and I’m not saying that this is what we would do, but if the South Australian Government who are most closely on the scene of the action, they might say should we invest in a port facility in Whyalla? And then maybe that would be a job for the Federal Government to help co-sponsor that arrangement for a period of time with the State Government. We’ve got to be innovative to save jobs. I know that’s a long answer, but I think it’s important people talk fact as opposed to just sentiment.
BYNER: I need to ask you this – Jan Cameron last week, who of course is a very successful entrepreneur who owns Kathmandu, she wanted to buy the Tasmanian dairy asset, which is the largest in Australia, and she was prepared to match the Chinese bid – she says she never even got a look in. Now we’ve had a huge reaction to this, what –
SHORTEN: Well put my reaction on that list too. That is incredibly frustrating. I get that people have got a right if they have assets to try and sell them for the best possible price, but it really, really, drives me to distraction when I hear that sort of story – where on the face of it, you’ve got two deals there, both equally good, it is frustrating to see the Australian bidder just not even able to be given an explanation why they weren’t in the ring. I think a lot of Australians will be very frustrated by that bit of news.
BYNER: Bill you say both equally good – I would disagree. One is a strategic purchase, the other – Jan Cameron said she wants to make that business work that hasn’t made money in thirty years, and she’s just the person to do it because she knows about branding. On the other hand the other international buyer really wants to protect their own biosecurity – food security.
SHORTEN: Well when I said equally good, I’m talking about the dollar value.
SHORTEN: You’re quite right. Not everything, not all value can be judged by price alone, and you’re going to the deeper issue. What we want in this country is investors and leadership which will create value. We’re a country who’s got a lot of natural resources, and it drives me to distraction, as I said earlier, when I think that we’re not value adding here, and instead we’re selling off whatever we have at a cheaper price, and when we buy it back it’s several multiples of what we sold it to to other countries.
BYNER: So Bill Shorten what’s your policy position you’re going to take to the election on this?
SHORTEN: On VDL or in terms of foreign ownership?
BYNER: Well both.
SHORTEN: Well I think the VDL deal has occurred, but we’ll certainly want to acquaint ourselves with why – the set of facts that have been put forward – what is the real answer why they weren’t considered, because I think Australians do deserve a straight answer on that. In terms of how we support Australian industry and growth going forward, we’ve got to have local procurement, government has got to be willing to step in and fully analyse each foreign investment deal, not just through the sticker price, but what’s the long-term strategic interest to this country. We’ll have a lot more to say about how we back in Australia, one of the key issues for instance is this debate about home ownership. Now we want to see Australians being able to compete with property speculators, I am concerned that whilst the Government has, you know, ostensibly or superficially cracked down in terms of foreign investors competing unfairly to purchase properties in Australia against home investors – people investing in their first home – I just wonder if the current laws are not already starting to be undermined by trust legal arrangements where we can’t see the identity of some of the speculators buying in the housing market.
BYNER: Bill, thanks for joining us.
SHORTEN: My pleasure, Leon. And I should just say, by all accounts, the workforce at Whyalla – the staff, the unions, all the stakeholders – everyone is committed to trying to keep that mill operating, and make it a commercial enterprise. I can promise you that Federal Labor will not be missing in action on this.