Thursday, 4 February 2021
This is an important time in Australian history as we emerge out of the coronavirus pandemic. I know it's sometimes tough in modern times to unify the country, but there has been a level of unity in the nation in response to the pandemic. I think there's also a level of unity around what we need to do in the future. One of the most common refrains I have heard over the past year is the need to restore Australia's manufacturing strength, that we need to get back to making things in this country so that we can respond better to crises like those we've seen over the past year, and also respond to new crises that may emerge, particularly as the security challenges in our region increase.
We also must face the fact that over the past generation our manufacturing strength has fallen considerably, and this fall has only accelerated in the past decade. Indeed, late last year a new record low was set for the number of Australians who work in manufacturing. Just 840,000 Australians are now employed in manufacturing, down from almost 1.2 million 30 years ago. So 300,000 manufacturing jobs have gone in the space of a generation. More worryingly, the last decade has been the first decade on record where our manufacturing output has fallen. So we produced fewer manufactured goods in 2020 than we did in 2010.
To reverse that trend is going to be tough, it's going to be challenging. I think the causes of our manufacturing decline aren't that controversial. We've seen a massive increase in energy prices over the past 10 to 15 years. Electricity prices for manufacturing businesses in Australia have gone up 91 per cent over the past decade. That doesn't help matters; it's harder to make things when our energy costs are higher. And over the last 20 years we've seen an explosion of measures to protect industries in other countries, especially given the emergence of China since it joined the WTO. China has massively subsidised its industries, which have taken jobs from other countries, especially industrial economies, around the world. One estimate, which was produced by the American steel institute a few years ago, was that Chinese steel firms have 80 per cent of their profit subsidised by the central government.
To reverse this trend, over the past year I and my Nationals colleagues have been working on policies and ideas to bring manufacturing jobs back to Australia. We have a proud history in the Nationals Party of supporting manufacturing and we think that as a nation we must return to support that great sector again. We should deal with these two issues that have emerged to reduce our manufacturing strength. I firmly believe that we have to reinvest back in cheaper energy; we have walked away from using the natural resources that we have—especially in coal in which we used to have, and gas. We should not just simply be exporting these products to the rest of the world so that we can buy back the manufactured goods made with them from Coles, Big W and Kmart.
Instead, we should be using our coal. There is no reason why we shouldn't be building some coal-fired power stations in this country. We learned today that in 2020 China brought on 30 gigawatts of new coal-fired capacity. That's more than all of the coal-fired power stations in this country. Why aren't we building some ourselves? And we should be trying to get cheaper gas, but the way to do that is to find oil. We need to find oil if we want cheap gas, and our oil self-sufficiency has crashed from almost self-sufficiency 20 years ago to less than 50 per cent today.
We should also protect our jobs. We shouldn't allow our jobs to be stolen by other countries through unfair competition. We recommend investing back into the Anti-Dumping Commission so that we have the evidence under international trade rules to take countervailing action to protect Australian jobs in manufacturing.
I don't have time this evening to go through many of the other policy ideas that the Nationals have put together, but our policies are available on my website and links are available through social media. We want to see investments in skills. We think that tax incentives and low-cost finance should be provided, especially in regional areas, to attract investment in manufacturing. And we think we should strengthen procurement rules as well so that government funded contracts use more Australian content.
We believe that the Australian people are united in wanting to see a strong manufacturing industry, but we have to take action to protect that great industry and to make sure jobs come back to Australia.