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COLUMN-Australia, Indonesia, Mozambique's take different commodity paths: Clyde Russell

Thursday, 24 Oct 2013 | 11:25 PM ET

Clyde Russell@

--Clyde Russell is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own.--

By Clyde Russell

LAUNCESTON, Australia, Oct 25 (Reuters) - Australia, Indonesia and Mozambique appear quite disparate countries, but they all have one thing in common insofar as they want to supply Asia with large volumes of coal and liquefied natural gas.

But the paths being taken by the three governments in pursuit of this are vastly different, and will ultimately decide which nation is most successful in using its natural resources to its best advantage.

Perhaps the most stark contrast is between neighbours Australia and Indonesia, which are pursuing almost polar opposite policies.

Australia's new Liberal-led government introduced legislation on Oct. 24 to scrap a tax on super profits from mining coal and iron ore.

This was part of a pledge made before the September general election that a Liberal administration would get rid of the Mineral Resource Rent Tax (MRRT), the carbon tax and cut red and green tape for natural resource projects.

It's part of new Prime Minister Tony Abbott's message that Australia, the world's largest coal, iron ore and soon to be LNG exporter, is once again open for business after six years of Labor Party rule that saw a raft of new taxes introduced.

In Indonesia the debate isn't about scrapping taxes, it's about how to raise them higher.

The government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono plans to introduce higher royalty charges and an export tax for coal miners next year, as well as restrictions on the export of unprocessed mineral ores such as nickel and bauxite.

Unsurprisingly, the mining industry is opposed to these new charges and regulations, with coal producers saying output could plummet by as much as 40 percent next year.

Indonesia is the world's biggest exporter of thermal coal used in power plants, shipping about $2 billion of the fuel every month, mainly to China and India.

Like the former Labor-led government in Australia, Indonesia is seeking to retain a larger share of its mineral wealth.

In both countries left-of-centre politicians found policies aimed at taking money from large, global mining corporations and ostensibly giving to the people in the form of state spending were popular with voters.

The problem was that in Australia it simply didn't work, and it's unlikely to work in Indonesia either.

Instead, what happened in Australia was the government ran headlong into weaker commodity prices, which blew away the forecast revenue, thereby hurting the fiscal position as it had already spent the anticipated windfall largely on welfare.

It also found that Australia's political risk ratcheted up, and this, along with other factors like a strong local currency and high labour costs, resulted in a swathe of project delays and cancellations.

Former Labor prime minister Julia Gillard introduced the MRRT and the carbon tax, the former aimed at harvesting revenue from the China-led commodities boom and the latter at cutting carbon emissions in one of the world's highest per capita polluters.

However, the MRRT collected just A$126 million ($121.6 million) in the first six months after its introduction in July last year, well short of the budgeted A$1 billion.

While a recovery in iron ore prices has helped boost its take since then, depressed Asian coal prices have meant the tax is still raising a fraction of what it was supposed to.

In other words, Australia ended up with the worst outcomes, since it didn't get the revenue from the new taxes and it damaged its investment-friendly reputation.

INDONESIA TAKES ROUTE AUSTRALIA ABANDONED

Indonesia will probably get the same result if it follows Australia down the road of higher taxes and more burdensome regulation.

Export volumes are likely to drop, even if the 40 percent figure from the Indonesian Coal Mining Association seems a worst-case scenario, and investment in new projects is likely to stall or be scaled back.

There are caveats to mention with the government's policies for both Australia and Indonesia.

The Liberals don't control Australia's Senate, and legislation has to pass both the lower House of Representatives and the upper house.

Labor and the Australian Greens have already said they indicated they won't support the rollback of taxes, so Abbott will have to wait until the new Senate sits after July next year.

Even then he is facing tough negotiations with minor parties and independents, including the Palmer United Party, which is likely to have three seats in the 76-seat Senate.

The eponymous party led by wealthy mining magnate Clive Palmer should support the repeal of the mining and carbon taxes, but Palmer has shown himself to be a maverick and is certain to demand all sorts of concessions for his support.

Even with Palmer's backing, Abbott will have to find three more votes among the independent senators, who range from a anti-gambling advocate to a charismatic Christian to an off-road motoring enthusiast.

Similarly, Indonesia has a track record of announcing major reforms and then watering them down as they draw closer to implementation.

Nonetheless, the trends are clear, Australians voted for a government that plans to make life easier for miners, while Indonesia is travelling in another direction.

And what of Mozambique? It's the new kid on the block, home to the most significant coal and natural gas discoveries of recent years, and has been touted as the next place to undergo a commodity-driven investment boom.

The problem is that the east African country isn't fully reconciled to its troubled past, with the main opposition group last week abandoning the 1992 peace agreement that ended 17 years of often brutal civil war.

The main complaint of the former rebel group Renamo is that the Frelimo government of President Armando Guebuza, which has won every election since 1992 with larger majorities, isn't sharing wealth or power.

While it's doubtful Renamo can go back to being the effective guerrilla movement it was during the war, it can disrupt the economy through targeted attacks and thereby do considerable damage to Mozambique's chances of attracting much-needed investment.

It's too early to say how the Mozambique situation will play out in coming months, but like Indonesia the risks of doing business there are rising for natural resource producers.

Australia's new government is trying to make good on its commitment to make the nation friendlier for mining and LNG companies, but it has legislative hurdles to clear.

And investors also face the near certainty that at some point in Australia's future, a tax-and-spend Labor government, most likely supported by the Greens, will return to power.

(Editing by Joseph Radford)