Comment piece: Greg Combet on why Labor still stands for manufacturing

Knowing the date for this year’s Federal election is significant for a number of reasons. One of them is the future of our manufacturing sector and the one million-odd hard working Australians and their families it supports.

There is no doubt this year’s Federal election will be a referendum of sorts on the future of Australian manufacturing. Should the Government work with the industry on the challenges it confronts as it undergoes major structural changes? Or should the Government withdraw support and allow manufacturing, and the employees, local economies and communities it supports to wither?

Labor has always been an advocate for manufacturing. We recognise the significance a strong manufacturing sector plays in creating and supporting jobs – and the integral role it plays in our broader economy.

When major economic reforms of the past where heavily criticised or deemed “too hard”, Labor Governments stood up to the sceptics and argued that floating the Australian dollar and becoming an open trading nation underpinned our long term prosperity. These were reforms that improved our competitiveness and helped to boost our productivity.

Years later, with the unprecedented growth of the global economy, and in particular the Asian economy, we find ourselves being confronted by new challenges and a need to undergo structural changes or face being left behind. This is why the Gillard Labor Government has been working with industry and workers to address the pressures impacting heavily on manufacturing, such as heightened international competition and the high value of the Australian dollar.

It is important to recognise that these pressures, including the high dollar, will be with us for some time. That is why it is crucial that manufacturers reassess their business models to accommodate the new economic reality.

I’ve had the opportunity to gain a large amount of experience in the real economy, particularly in the heavy industrial sectors currently under so much pressure. I know their value, resilience and the potential they have to make changes and adjust to these challenges.

This Government has already implemented a range of policies and programs to support industry and to help it adjust.

Last April the Government announced significant changes to strengthen Australian industry participation in major resources projects. These changes are improving opportunities for local manufacturers, construction firms and service providers to win new contracts on these huge projects. We’ve also boosted support to the Buy Australia at Home and Abroad initiative which directly helps firms improve their capabilities to be able to access more work.

The Government’s $1 billion Clean Technology Investment Programs, which are funded by carbon price revenue, are helping many manufacturers Australia wide to reduce their energy costs, boost competitiveness and make the transition to a low pollution economy.

In addition we’re reforming our training system, including co-investing with industry, to improve the skills of the manufacturing workforce. Our workforce building initiatives are delivering greater access to quality training and opening up more training places.

The Gillard Government has also significantly reformed the anti-dumping system. We are establishing a new Anti-Dumping Commission, with increased resources and powers to deliver stronger protection for industry, including manufacturers, against unfair competition from overseas.

One important response to the recommendations of the Prime Minister’s Manufacturing Taskforce has been the establishment of the Manufacturing Leaders Group – a high level industry lead group to help build a future for the industry. Its role is to provide strategic advice to government on ways to best take advantage of opportunities in Asia and other markets, as well as shape productivity growth. The Group comprises 22 leaders from business, unions, the research sector and government, led by Chair Dr Ian Thomas, President of Boeing Australia and South Pacific.

The initiatives I’ve just outlined are delivering change throughout the manufacturing sector but they face an enormously unedifying threat – the Coalition. Despite gallivanting north to south and east to west in hard hats and high-vis vests claiming to be manufacturing’s mate, the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and his Coalition colleagues are on the record spruiking otherwise.

Last year the Coalition voted in Parliament against the Government’s $300 million Steel Transformation Plan, which is helping our major steel manufacturers to improve their competitiveness.

If elected, Mr Abbott would strip $1.5 billion of government support away from the automotive manufacturing sector because he doesn’t believe in the merits of co-investments or the jobs they support.

And Mr Abbott would scrap the $1 billion Clean Technology Investment Programs which are providing grants to manufacturers for new plant and equipment to cut energy costs and reduce carbon pollution.

By contrast, the Gillard Government supports our manufacturing industries and appreciates their importance in a globally competitive, broad-based and sustainable Australian economy. We are already investing heavily in skills and infrastructure, and our Industry and Innovation Statement will identify new ways to tackle the economic challenges in the Asian century.

The economies that will be most successful are those that develop new technologies and processes and drive investments in cleaner energy and productivity. To achieve this we will harness our best research minds and couple them with our most innovative manufacturers.

We already have a world-class research sector however we need to ensure our research efforts are translated into positive business and economic outcomes. We will do that by encouraging business, universities and our best researchers to work closer together and create value out of great ideas.

A large amount of innovation in Australia is driven by small and medium sized businesses, and we will continue to support and encourage this innovation to maximise the growth and job opportunities coming from the sector.

The Gillard Government is committed to the future of Australian manufacturing and the jobs it creates. I believe there is a competitive, prosperous and dynamic future for manufacturing in Australia and I will continue to work hard to ensure this future becomes reality.

 

Later in the week, opposition Industry and Innovation spokeswoman Sophie Mirabella will give her side of the argument: that the industry needs a change of government.