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Following his November 2023 announcement to retire from Cabinet, Mining Magazine sat down with former Western Australian Mines and Petroleum Minister, Bill Johnston, to reflect on his time in the role and what’s in store for the resources sector.

Mining Magazine (MM): Can you give us a bit of insight into what led to your decision to step down?

Bill Johnston (BJ): After the 2021 election, I spoke to thenPremier McGowan and explained that I thought that seven years was plenty of time to be a minister, and I wanted to step away from Cabinet before Christmas 2023 so that I could return to the back bench and see out my term in Parliament. In that role, I thought that was the best way forward for myself and for the party.

When Roger Cook took over in June of last year, I met with him and explained that was my intention. I feel that I’ve made a significant contribution and it was time for somebody else to have a try and for me to get ready for the next phase of my life.

MM: How have things changed over the decades your political career has spanned?

BJ: I’ve been thinking about that quite a lot lately. Over the last 25 years, social media has changed the landscape of politics. It encourages extremists and unfortunately, the media follows the social media line. It’s harder to explain complex issues in the public arena now than it was 25 years ago and because of the reduction in the number of journalists, there’s less analysis of politics and more opinion. I think that’s been the biggest change.

Bill Johnston in Perth, WA. Photographer – Travis Hayto

MM: Have your expectations of politics changed over the course of your career? And if so, how?

BJ: My expectation of politics hasn’t changed. I’ve always thought that politics is about achieving the best outcomes for the community and in particular for working people. But I do think there’s less rigorous analysis of politics now than there was in the past.

MM: The mining and resources industry has played such an important role and will continue to play an important role in the state economy, and the nation’s economy. With this in mind, how did it feel to take on the role of Minister for Mines and Petroleum back in 2017?

BJ: It was an extraordinary privilege to be given that responsibility and I felt the weight of needing to provide proper leadership to the industry. I know how important the industry is to all Australians, even if they don’t necessarily understand it themselves.

Who wouldn’t want to be the Minister for Mines and Petroleum in the world’s number one mining jurisdiction? I always had the view that it was a rare privilege to have such a fabulous job, and I wanted to make the most of it each day.

MM: It has been a big year for the Western Australian resources industry, with the environmental approval system being overhauled and the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act being repealed. What challenges do you think lie on the horizon for the state’s mining and resources industry?

BJ: When I talk to people, the number one thing that they raise at the moment, of course, is skilled labour. Making sure we’ve got enough people to execute all the projects that are out there is very critical. But the number one issue for the mining sector is always exploration. That’s why, as Minister, I always gave strong encouragement to the exploration sector because if you don’t make new discoveries, you won’t have future mining.

Along with the Government of Western Australia, we’ve always tried to strongly support the exploration sector. That’s why we invested strongly in pre-competitive data projects and also in the exploration incentive scheme and the co-funded drilling activities. Continuing to support exploration activity is going to be the number one thing here in Western Australia.

MM: Other than exploration, what are you hoping to see more of in Western Australia and Australia’s mining industry in the future?

BJ: I’m really looking forward to continued expansion of the downstream processing of battery minerals here in Western Australia and nationally. This is a real opportunity as the demand for these new materials grows. We’re not competing with other existing jurisdictions. It’s all about where the growth in the processing infrastructure is built.

Whilst there are many challenges here in Western Australia, I’m confident that we’ll see continued success in the midstream sector of the battery and critical minerals industry.

MM: What impact are you hoping that your time as Mines and Petroleum Minister has had on the industry?

BJ: I’m not too concerned about legacy. I just hope that people respected the fact that I wanted to listen to the needs of the industry and respond to the things that are occurring.

Obviously, we had the global pandemic during my time in the role, and government and industry worked very closely together to make sure that the industry here in Western Australia was able to continue to operate. At a time when we thought that there was going to be a major economic dislocation, we were able to keep the industry strong, which kept Western Australia strong, and that supported Australia’s rapid return from the impacts of COVID-19. That was a really critical element that the government and industry executed together. I think everybody in the sector can be proud of the work that was done during that time.

MM: What are some of the biggest challenges you faced throughout not only your time as Mines and Petroleum Minister, but your years in politics and Cabinet as a whole?

BJ: The COVID-19 global pandemic was extraordinary. I think when we were in opposition thinking about what it would be like to be in government, we ran a lot of scenarios, but we did forget to run the global pandemic scenario. But politics is a complicated business. It’s about compromise, and you can’t do everything that you’d like to do. So over the last 25 years with my involvement in politics, I’ve been very pleased to work with some outstanding Western Australians and support them in their work like Dr. Geoff Gallop, Alan Carpenter, McGowan and now Roger Cook as Premier for the state.

That’s been a rare privilege to be able to work so closely with these outstanding Western Australians to try and make the state an even better place to live.

MM: What do you think your biggest achievement during your political career has been?

BJ: I think that’s for other people to judge. I’m very proud of the work that I’ve done alongside the mining industry to keep the industry strong and to develop the exploration sector. When I came into the job, just over half of exploration activity in Australia was being done here in Western Australia and now nearly two-thirds of exploration activity is here in Western Australia. And in 2022, we had a record high level of employment.

I support the mining industry because it supports the global transition to net zero and allows people in other parts of the world to move out of poverty. But it also provides 135,000 high-skill, high-wage jobs, which is exactly what I got involved in politics to support.

MM: The mines and petroleum portfolio has been taken on by David Michael; what advice would you give to him as he takes on this new responsibility?

BJ: I’m really pleased that Roger Cook gave the portfolio to David. I think he’s a great guy. We’ve known each other for a long period of time. I think he’ll do an excellent job because he’s prepared to listen. The advice I gave to him when we met up just after Christmas was that he should pay attention to what people are saying and listen. I think that’s what I’ve tried to do in my time. I think that if David takes that approach of listening to people in the sector, making sure he understands what the challenges are, I think that will set him up very well for the future.

MM: What are you hoping to achieve as you finish your term as Member for Cannington?

BJ: In the Cannington community, it’s really pleasing to see a number of projects coming together at the minute. One of those is the Lynwood Senior High School refurbishment. It’s an older school. We’ve had nearly $20 million spent on it. Of course, the big issue at the moment is seeing the massive new rail infrastructure going in that’s improving the connectivity in the Cannington community, particularly removing three level-crossings that used to divide the suburbs and cause traffic chaos. That’s a great personal achievement.

There’s always more to be done, but I’m very pleased that the plans for the community here in Cannington have been working to improve the community’s situation.

MM: Is there anything you’d like to add?

BJ: I just want to emphasise again that I’ve considered it a rare privilege to be able to be Minister for Mines and Petroleum. I’ve enjoyed every part of it. I shadowed for four years before I became Minister, so I’ve worked very hard to listen to the industry and make sure that I understand, to the best I can, the industry’s needs. I know that I don’t always do exactly what the industry wants, but I hope people understood that all my decisions were designed to improve the outcomes for Western Australians.

 

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