Pandemic Shows Australia Needs Domestic Manufacturing

by Jim Stanford


Disruptions in global supplies of essential medical equipment have served as a wake-up call to Australians that it is always vital for a country to retain the capacity to domestically produce manufactured products that may be crucial to national security and well-being.

In this commentary, Centre for Future Work Economist Dan Nahum reviews the qualitative reasons why manufacturing retains a special strategic importance to the overall economy, and discusses the potential synergies between the development of sustainable energy resources and a revitalisation of manufacturing.

Rebooting the Australian Manufacturing Sector in the Era of Coronavirus and Climate Change

Since the COVID-19 crisis emerged, Australians have been starkly reminded of the importance of being able to manufacture goods domestically. International shortages of, and restrictions on, the export of medical equipment and personal protective equipment have given us all a fright. While thankfully critical shortages have not yet emerged, the crisis has confirmed that being able to domestically produce a full range of essential manufactures is a matter of national wellbeing.

For many years the conventional economic wisdom was that as a high-wage, resource-rich economy, Australia was unable to competitively manufacture — nor did it need to. Between digging up raw materials and shipping them to Asian trading partners (subsequently paying a premium for reimported manufactures made from those resources) and our pivot to a ‘service economy’, we could somehow sidestep the need to produce what we materially use. Even Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has now conceded that unbalanced strategy is not viable.

It’s true the extraction of our extraordinary mineral endowment made some Australians wealthy, but in a lopsided way: unbalanced reliance on resource extraction, combined with the long decline of manufacturing, has made Australia far more unequal — indeed, we are now more unequal than most OECD nations. Additionally, this myopic economic focus has put us at the mercy of boom-and-bust cycles in global demand for our resources.

There are many core reasons why Australia needs a healthy, proportionate manufacturing sector:

  • Australians are buying more manufactured goods over time; and manufacturing output is growing around the world. The absolute decline of manufacturing in Australia is an exception to the experience of other industrialised countries.
  • Manufacturing is the most innovation-intensive sector in the whole economy. No country can be an innovation leader without manufacturing.
  • Manufactured goods account for over two-thirds of world merchandise trade. A country that cannot successfully export manufactures will be shut out of most trade.
  • Production costs in Australia are not expensive relative to other industrial countries (now that the Australian dollar is once again trading in normal range).
  • Even small remote countries (like Korea, Ireland, New Zealand and Israel) are increasing their manufacturing output, and preserving and creating manufacturing jobs. Their experience demonstrates that we cannot blame geographic isolation for our deindustrialisation.
  • Manufacturing anchors hundreds of thousands of other jobs throughout the economy, thanks to its long and complex supply chain. A myriad of supplies and inputs are purchased by manufacturing facilities.

There’s another key reason to be optimistic about Australian manufacturing — if we create an appropriate policy environment for it. Australia is poised to take advantage of our bountiful renewable energy endowment to reinvigorate manufacturing, on the foundation of plentiful, competitive, and reliable power.

Read The Centre for Future Work’s report Powering Onwards: Australia’s Opportunity to Reinvigorate Manufacturing through Renewable Energy, which considers the potential and actual connections between renewables and manufacturing in detail.

The following core policy levers would help to ensure that Australia’s manufacturing sector thrives in decades to come, enhancing our prosperity and our national security:

Targeted Tax Incentives: No-strings-attached tax cuts for corporations do not stimulate investment, innovation, or employment. Rather, fiscal incentives are more effective when they are linked directly to investment. Examples include accelerated depreciation provisions (allowing companies to write off the cost of new investments faster), investment tax credits, and public co-investments in specific strategic projects.

Investing Public Funds in Key Industries: International experience confirms that public financial assets can effectively lever greater capital investment in key industries. These include state-owned development banks (as in Japan and Korea) or other forms of sovereign wealth (as in Singapore, the UAE, and Norway). Public investment vehicles have been used successfully — indeed profitably — in numerous applications in Australia (for example, the CEFC to finance sustainable energy projects). The same principles can apply in manufacturing investment. Additionally, industry super funds could play a larger role in financing the development of strategic products and sectors.

Innovation: Empirical evidence shows successful innovation must be embodied in the hands-on process of ‘learning by doing’. And there is no other sector more directly connected to the innovation process than manufacturing. Government needs to provide tangible, direct support to innovation in manufacturing. We need better systems for linking public innovation activity with commercial applications. And we can emulate successful public equity investments in innovation-intensive businesses in other countries (like the effective methods for financing innovative firms used in Israel, Finland, and Ireland).

Sector Strategies: Government needs to identify manufacturing sub-sectors with the right criteria for success, and then co-ordinate investment and growth. These sector strategies must engage all relevant sector stakeholders (business, unions, educational institutions, research organisations, state and local governments). Even businesses which compete with each other can benefit when the whole sector succeeds. Criteria for identifying high-potential sectors include innovation, export orientation, productivity, and strong supply chain linkages.

Networks, Eco-Systems, and Clusters: Successful modern industrial policy relies centrally on connections and collaboration among players from different firms, agencies, and stakeholders. Research shows that spillovers among these diverse sector participants, and the sharing of knowledge between them, are crucial to the development of ‘critical mass’ in any high-tech industry. Often, these networks and clusters are geographically concentrated. Government cannot simply ‘create’ clusters, but it can facilitate their emergence.

Industrial Infrastructure: Government investments in public capital assets of all kinds will play a crucial role in fostering manufacturing growth. Infrastructure investments help to offset the sustained weakness of private investment, and improve weak macroeconomic conditions. One key focus of infrastructure investment should include facilities and services which support manufacturing: ranging from transportation infrastructure, to utility connections (especially renewable energy), to modern training facilities (to help better integrate TAFE and university training with industry). We should maximise the use of Australian-made manufacturing content in those (and all other) infrastructure projects.

Connecting Renewable Energy Investment to Manufacturing: Given Australia’s superabundance of renewable resources, Australia should position itself as the world’s renewable energy superpower. Renewable energy is appropriate for most industrial applications, including heavy industry, and now offers lower costs than fossil fuel sources (including gas). To expedite the transition to renewable energy, the manufacturing sector requires stability in energy policy, industrial strategies to take advantage of Australia’s renewable energy endowment, and government partnerships with firms that can benefit from and add value to Australia’s renewable energy endowment.

Skills and Capacities: Enhancing the future skills and capacities of workers must be a vital component of future sector strategies. Consistent funding for skills training at all levels is essential, as are efforts to more closely link training programs with future workforce needs in strategic sectors. Germany’s apprenticeship system is perhaps the most outstanding international role model in this area.

Leveraging Procurement: Australian governments are massive purchasers of manufactured goods. An obvious way to support domestic manufacturing is to ensure those expenditures generate the maximum possible boost to domestic industry. This also helps to reduce the final net cost of the program: since the government collects additional revenues through the new work spurred by domestic procurement decisions, offsetting the public expenditure. Other countries regularly utilise domestic content targets in procurement to support domestic producers. Australia can do the same.

Trade that Goes Both Ways: International trade is essential to the viability of most manufacturing due to the importance of economies of scale in production. Australian trade negotiators need to do far more than mutual tariff reduction to stimulate Australian manufactured exports. And Australian agencies (like Austrade) can be much more proactive in promoting Australia’s exports, through initiatives like expanded credit financing, initiatives to leverage Australian participation in global supply chains, and government support for international marketing.

A thriving manufacturing sector confers important benefits across the whole economy. Even more importantly, a large and adaptable manufacturing sector offers resilience against periodic crises such as COVID-19. If Australia does not add value through the expansion of our manufacturing sectors, we can anticipate that our relative standard of living will decline, and our vulnerability to future supply disruptions and health crises will only increase. We can and must build a manufacturing sector that is economically and ecologically sustainable, and that adds complexity and resilience to Australia’s economy.

See the Centre for Future Work’s previous research on the Australian manufacturing sector:

Manufacturing Still Matters (2016) shows that manufacturing, far from being inherently doomed in Australia, is quite viable. Similar countries manufacture successfully. It provides an agenda of policy recommendations for support of the sector.

Manufacturing: A Moment of Opportunity (2017) demonstrates that while the Australian public underestimate the size and therefore strategic economic importance of the sector, it enjoys strong popular support. Furthermore, the report identifies some promising signs of future growth in the sector.

From Consensus to Action: Report from the First National Manufacturing Summit (2018) summarises the key findings of the first National Manufacturing Summit, including areas of strong policy consensus reached among the business, industry peak bodies, trade unions, government departments, academic institutions and vocational training providers and other summit delegates. The report also identifies several priorities for further policy research.

Advanced Skills for Advanced Manufacturing (2018) argues that Australia’s present vocational education and training system, damaged by years of underfunding and failed policy experimentation, is a weak link in meeting the needs of the industry. High-skilled, high-paid jobs rely on a strong VET sector, and this report identifies twelve key reforms to achieve that.

Auto Shutdown Another Economic Blow (2016) analyses the causes and impacts of the closure of the Australian car manufacturing industry. It notes that secondary job losses will be several times larger than the direct jobs eliminated at the car plants.

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish (2016) analyses the impact of the NSW government’s decision to source railroad rolling stock manufacturing work to Korea rather than taking advantage of the opportunity to procure domestically. Governments need to account for the full range of potential costs and benefits of their procurement decisions (job creation, industry development, government revenues, and so on), not simply minimise the up-front purchase cost.

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