Reckless rhetoric must stop to protect coal exports and jobs


Reckless and undiplomatic rhetoric about China from a number of Coalition MPs are putting needless pressure on coal jobs at a time of uncertainty in our trade relationship.

China buys about $15 billion worth of Australian coal every year. That doesn’t mean we should never criticise China. We need a robust relationship that acknowledges our differences.

But a relationship of this complexity and importance, at a time of such global uncertainty, must be responsibly managed by senior ministers and not left to headline-grabbers like Eric Abetz, George Canavan and Matt Canavan.

I wrote to Resources Minister Keith Pitt to express my concerns and ask him to pull his colleagues into line to protect Australian coal jobs. Here’s my letter:

Dear Minister,

I write requesting your urgent attention regarding the most serious and immediate threat currently facing Australian coal jobs – the undiplomatic, reckless and sometimes bizarre anti-China rhetoric from a number of your colleagues in government.

As you would know, Chinese steel mills and state-owned utilities have been ordered by the Chinese Government to stop buying Australian coking and thermal coal. This is no idle threat. BHP and others have confirmed to us that Chinese customers have asked for deferrals of their coal orders.

I know there are some suggestions in the media that China’s shift away from Australian coal is being driven more by market factors rather than politics. This is, as I imagine you recognise, nothing more than self-delusion by those who seek to wish away the acute importance of coal to China’s energy and steel-making needs.

On a pure market basis, Australian coal presents as the most efficient and attractive option to Chinese buyers. But as has been made abundantly clear, the Chinese Government is willing to direct Chinese coal customers to accept less attractive options if it believes this will serve a national ‘face saving’ purpose.

It is, of course, impossible to quantify the precise value of ‘face saving’ to the Chinese regime. What is abundantly clear, however, is that aggressive and intemperate anti-China sentiment from figures in the government are tilting that equation hard against the interests of Australian coal jobs.

Examples of this in 2020 are numerous and I will not seek to list them here. But in just the past few days I note, for example, that Senator Eric Abetz has refused to apologise after bizarrely demanding three Chinese-Australians publicly condemn “the Chinese Communist party dictatorship.”

Some of those Coalition MPs who represent coal regions and claim to support coal jobs, like Mackay-based MP George Christesen, are the most vocal in their attacks on China. I noted over the weekend that your predecessor Senator Matthew Canavan is suggesting that China’s rejection of our coal is a positive because it will encourage the construction of new coal plants in Australia. I know I don’t need to explain to you the stupidity of this argument. No number of new Australia coal plants could come remotely close to replacing the $15 billion annual demand for Australian coal that China creates.

To be clear, I am not suggesting the Australian Government adopt a supine position in relation to China. Our nations have always had differences of opinion and these differences should be expressed robustly and constructively.

What I am suggesting, however, is that the complex matter of the ‘national interest,’ as it relates to China, should be left to those senior enough to operate effectively in the space – namely the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, and the Trade Minister. Those government figures seeking to generate cheap headlines and name recognition from antagonising our most important trading partner should be pulled into line.

If this does not happen promptly the result will be devastating and ironic. Your government, which has claimed to champion Australia’s coal industry, will have done more to damage it than any other Australian government in history.

The threat to Australian coal jobs from the reckless undermining of our trade relationship with China is immediate and dire.
I hold serious concerns that thousands of coal miners could lose their jobs before Christmas.
Please urge your colleagues to immediately drop the pointless machismo on China and leave the diplomacy to cooler, more senior, and more rational heads in the government.

Yours sincerely,
Tony Maher
General President
CFMEU Mining and Energy Division


Back to issue: October 2020