House debates

Thursday, 14 May 2020


COVID-19: Manufacturing

4:40 pm

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Employment and Industry) Share this | | Hansard source

There is no doubt COVID-19 has been challenging on many levels, including Australians' health, the economy and the community. However, Australians are a resilient bunch, and we know that often in a crisis there is a chance to cultivate opportunities. COVID-19 has shone a light on the manufacturing sector, in particular, which highlights our reliance on a strong manufacturing sector, along with future prospects. Therefore, it's a time to reflect on the state of Australian manufacturing and a reset. In a matter of weeks, Australians faced a sudden restriction of overseas supply chains, combined with soaring global demand for medical supplies and personal protective equipment. At pace, a number of Australian manufacturers adapted their production lines to produce essential items and medical equipment in the battle against the virus, whether it be masks, hand sanitiser, ethanol, surgical gowns or ventilators. The skill, quality and efficiency of our manufacturers is something our nation can be proud of.

I'm sure we've all experienced the same sense of pride and assurance in the realisation that, during a health crisis, there is no other place you'd rather be. A strong manufacturing capability is critical to Australia's self-reliance. If there's anything COVID-19 has taught us, it's that we need a country that is self-sufficient, particularly in times of crisis. But the health pandemic very quickly laid bare Australia's weakened manufacturing capability and unpreparedness for this crisis or any future health crisis that comes our way. The Australian manufacturing sector, as we know, has been contracting not growing. Some of Australia's crucial manufacturing capacity has been displaced completely and thousands of manufacturing jobs were lost over many years. This decline in output and employment is not typical of other industrial countries, but we would argue it is in part a result of the current government. Indeed, the day the former Treasurer dared Holden to leave Australia in December 2013 is etched in my mind—a foolish, arrogant but deliberate move that played a significant role, I would argue, in the departure of local Holden car manufacturing. On the following day, I recall, as the then shadow employment minister, moving a censure motion against the government, condemning their treatment of Australian manufacturers. Since then, it seems as though the government has determined that the more they ignore the issue of what is increasingly a struggling manufacturing industry, all the while taking up the future of the industry, the problem might just go away, but that strategy has now come undone. COVID-19 is a blinding reminder of the errors that goaded car manufacturers to leave our shores: a failed energy policy increasing the costs of manufacturing, the withdrawal of private capital from research and development, the depletion of critical skills and the destruction of the viability of smaller manufacturers further down the supply chain.

COVID-19 firmly highlights the need for a strong manufacturing capability within our country. It offers a once-in-a-generation chance to revitalise an Australian-made market with quality goods, solutions and secure, high-paid jobs as we as a nation recover. Many have described fighting this virus as a war effort. Not only do we need to support our frontline workers but we need to plan for when the virus is beaten too. When Curtin established the Department of Post War Reconstruction it was almost Christmas in 1942, little over halfway through World War II. We need to once again become a country that produces high-tech manufacturing, revitalising Australian manufacturing using our clean energy resources. Indeed, we have many natural advantages, both traditional sources of energy and renewable energy, which should be able to provide great opportunities for our manufacturing sector. With our abundant mineral resources, mining industry and industrial capability, we should be at the forefront of the global competition for jobs and industry.

Lower energy costs will deliver investment in energy-intensive manufacturing, like steel and aluminium, and boost regional jobs and economic activity. More collaboration between universities, TAFE and industry is needed. It is government's role to support these collaborations if we want to see a new era of manufacturing. Manufacturing is the second-highest spender on R? however, the current government has an R&D bill in the parliament taking $2 billion from innovative manufacturers and firms—reducing research and development at a time when we need to be enhancing the manufacturing sector.

We do have these challenges. We implore the government to consider what it needs to do to strengthen and enhance the manufacturing sector. We need to turn this terrible situation into an opportunity for Australian manufacturing and the businesses and workers within it.