‘Can we really trust China?’: Key union blasts Labor on critical minerals

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A powerful union leader has warned Labor is on the verge of making a catastrophic mistake by allowing China to entrench itself as the dominant export market for Australian critical minerals.

The Australian Workers Union (AWU) will lead a push at Labor’s national conference in August for the introduction of a “significant, punitive tax” on exports of raw critical minerals to raise revenue for domestic manufacturing and processing, a move it says would help define the legacy of the Albanese government.

Australian Workers Union national secretary Daniel Walton says a “punitive” new tax is needed on exports of raw critical minerals.Credit: Jessica Hromas

“We should stop looking at critical minerals as just a cash piñata,” AWU national secretary Daniel Walton will say in a speech to the Sydney Institute on Wednesday night.

“They are a critical global resource which we need to steward not just in the national interest but in the interests of global security.

“If we continue to just ‘let the market rule’ it will mean only one thing: Australia’s raw materials will be shipped off to China and China will be the only player in our region with the sovereign capacity to turn them into anything useful.”

Australia is the world’s leading producer of lithium, which is crucial for manufacturing batteries and solar panels, with 96 per cent of its exports going to China.

Walton will say it was an “awkward dynamic to say the least” for Australia to identify China as a potential national security threat while allowing it to purchase most of its supplies of lithium and other critical minerals such as cobalt.

“Do we really want to assume that we can keep digging up critical minerals, shipping them to China for processing, and China will just keep shipping them back to us to manufacture batteries?” he will ask.

“It’s not a bet I’d feel confident about…Should Australia really be using its dominance in global lithium to boost China’s dominance in battery tech?”

Taking aim at Resources Minister Madeleine King, Walton will distance his union from the government by saying: “Although we are historically intertwined with the Australian Labor Party, we are certainly not one and the same.

“And so when we believe a Labor government is at risk of taking the wrong path, we believe we have a responsibility to speak up.”

The AWU, previously led by Bill Shorten and Paul Howes, is one of the most influential unions within the Labor Party and plays a powerful role in the party’s right faction.

Walton, who will also announce he is stepping down after almost seven years in the job, will say he fears the nation is “miscategorising the critical minerals boom as just another mining boom”.

“My fear is that our government sees its role as just setting basic terms for multinationals to dig these minerals up as fast as they please so they can ship them to wherever they want,” he will say.

“Now during the most recent boom that focused on iron ore and coal and gas – that kind of lazy approach was misguided.

“But it will be catastrophic if we take that same approach with critical minerals.

“Catastrophic not just to our economy and to our national interests, but catastrophic to global security.”

King recently said the government was considering only allowing “like-minded” nations to invest in Australian critical minerals projects, but Walton fears she is “missing the bigger point”.

“Our primary concern should not be who is investing in our mines,” he will say.

“Our primary concern should be where the products of those mines are going and how it is affecting the world.”

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