A strange thing happened at the annual Africa Downunder conference in Perth last week, and it had nothing to do with the record attendance of more than 2,500 delegates from Australian and overseas mining companies, service providers, financiers and governments.

It was the vastly different, almost conflicting, messages coming out of senior Australian government ministers who spoke at the conference.In one corner, was Australia’s current Foreign Affairs minister Bob Carr. In the other, was former Prime Minister and subsequent Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd. Both seasoned political campaigners well equipped to speak of the importance of Africa to the hundreds of delegates that crammed into the Riverside Ballroom.

Carr had clearly studied his briefing notes as he lauded the role that Africa has and will play in Australia’s economic and social development, challenging the conventional wisdom that we were all living witnesses to the ‘Asian century’. In Carr’s words, “what we’ve seen since 2000, could well be an African century”. Heads nodded in agreement, media bulletins were issued. Job done.

Rudd, however, appeared far less interested in talking about Africa, focusing almost his entire speech on the continued rise of China whilst launching the release of the “Fuelling the Dragon” report by the ASPI and the Brenthurst Foundation.

In contrast to Carr, Rudd began his speech declaring that “the core question confronting treasuries and finance ministries around the world at present is what is the near, medium and long term prospects for the Chinese economy.” There was less head nodding, more head scratching. Little mention was made of Africa. In fact, in the entire 20 minute speech Rudd mentioned Africa on fewer than four occasions.

One might readily conclude that Rudd’s last minute call-up in place of the ill Resources minister, Martin Ferguson, meant that a ‘revert to type’ presentation was inevitable for the former Prime Minister. Whatever the reasons, the contrast in the political messages from two of Australia’s most senior government ministers at Australia’s largest mining conference, was striking. But were they conflicting?

One conclusion that is easily drawn from the presentations and discussions with participants during the three day conference, is that they are not conflicting messages – that Africa probably needs China more than it needs Australia, but that China needs Australian expertise, resources and know-how to unlock its growing need for natural resources.

During a conference breakfast, hosted by BDO, Herbert Smith Partner, Michael Walter, joined other panellists to discuss and field questions from the audience on the impact that China’s growing need for “rocks and crops” is having on Australian mining companies’ business plans for Africa, and how we can work effectively with China in our collaborative African mining pursuits.

According to Michael, the huge amount of interest in Africa, and relationships with China, was much in evidence in a great turnout for the breakfast briefing and some thoughtful and searching questioning.
Austrade also hosted a luncheon which saw Senior Trade Commissioner for Sub-Saharan Africa, John Madew, speak about the importance of our government’s role in assisting Africa with the three “A”s – access, advice and advocacy. In his speech, CEO of Fortescue Metals, Andrew Forrest, urged Australian mining companies to replicate the high environment standards that they display in their Australian operations across their African operations. He also highlighted the importance of Australian mining companies investing in corporate social responsibility programs that make a sustainable difference to the lives of the African communities in which they operate.

With the impending merger of Freehills with international law firm Herbert Smith due to launch on 1 October, the conference was a great networking opportunity for the respective Freehills and Herbert Smith mining teams and a tremendous success generally.

Herbert Smith Freehills will provide clients with an impressive global mining practice boasting over 30 years of experience advising across the entire continent of Africa in both French and English. With offices strategically placed in Perth, Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing, Paris, New York and London, and an office to be opened on the ground in Guinea, Herbert Smith Freehills’ mining clients will benefit from seamless service all the way from the office in Australia, China or Europe, to the minesite in Africa.


Herbert Smith Freehills LLP is licensed to operate as a foreign law practice in Singapore. Where advice on Singapore law is required, we will refer the matter to and work with licensed Singapore law practices where necessary.