Industrial Policy-Making After COVID-19: Manufacturing, Innovation and Sustainability

by Mark Dean, Al Rainnie, Jim Stanford and Dan Nahum

As Treasurer during the 1980s, Paul Keating lamented that Australian governments had for decades been allowing the country’s sophisticated industrial base to fall apart as unsophisticated raw materials came to dominate the nation’s exports and as a result, its economy slipped into developing-world status. Keating’s famous warning of Australia’s looming ‘banana republic’ status spurred the Hawke and subsequent Keating Labor governments into action on economic restructuring, which included considering a range of industry policy intervention options to put Australia on a track to advanced, industrial status, as had been the aim of post-war nation-building that helped to institute an advanced manufacturing industrial base in Australia.

But since the 1990s, the ‘default’ economic and industry policy setting of government has ultimately been to favour resource extraction as our national strength. Even despite the growing threat of climate change and global economic crises that make a shift to ‘green’ industrial transformation a pathway pursued by many other nations, current Coalition government policy continues to reflect deliberate, calculated emphasis on the extraction and export of raw materials. Australia risks cementing its developing-world economic status if we do not consider important industry policy challenges.

The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to opportunities for Australia to not only rebuild, but reconstruct our economy in a way that capitalises on our national manufacturing potential and their ability to contribute to a sustainable recovery from the economic and social crisis that has culminated in lockdowns and recession. The future development of Australia’s manufacturing industry must focus on the opportunities presented by renewable energy to drive innovation, industrial transformation and a green future shaped by a skilled manufacturing workforce.

Researchers from the Centre for Future Work, Mark Dean, Al Rainnie (Centre for Future Work Associate), Jim Stanford and Dan Nahum, have co-authored a new scholarly paper which will be published in the academic journal, the Economic and Labour Relations Review and is currently available as an online-first publication at their website.

The article analyses Australia’s opportunities to revitalise its strategically important manufacturing secor in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, considering Australia’s industry policy options with reference to both advances in the theory of industrial policy and recent policy proposals in the Australian context.

To examine the prospects for the renewal of Australian manufacturing in a post-pandemic economy, the article draws on recent work from The Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work – specifically, Dan Nahum’s research into manufacturing and sustainability in Powering Onwards and Jim Stanford’s research on post-COVID-19 manufacturing renewal and Australia’s record on robotics adoption, in synthesis with analyses from published and forthcoming research from Al Rainnie and Mark Dean relating to critical evaluations of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its implications for the Australian economy.

The aim of the article is to contribute to and further develop the debate about the future of government intervention in manufacturing and industry policy in Australia. Crucially, the argument links the future development of Australian manufacturing with a focus on renewable energy. The purpose of this article has been to interpret the decline of manufacturing in Australia over the last generation and to identify the core principles and policy levers that would facilitate a revitalisation of our domestic manufacturing capabilities. The paper considers the history of half-hearted attempts by Australian governments and industry to spark a recovery: these attempts have largely lacked any critical consideration of the structural factors that inhibit a full-scale transformation of Australian industry. Such a transformation would in fact require consistent and systematic policy settings.

The Coalition government’s evolving policy framework – focused on tax cuts for high-income households and companies, subsidies for further fossil fuel use, and further interventions to weaken industrial relations practices – reflects its attempt to use the pandemic as an opportunity to reinforce its previous commitment to a business-dominated economic strategy. But Australia can, and must, do better than this. The article analyses the possibilities and the challenges of developing a new industrial policy that is informed by modern understandings of technology, sustainability and social cohesion.

A modern, sustainable industry policy is not a catch-all solution to addressing climate change, economic crisis and pandemic recovery – but it does hold great potential to help redirect Australia’s lurch further towards the banana republic status first identified nearly forty years ago.

You can access a pre-publication version of this article below and those with access can read the article publication on the Economic and Labour Relations Review website.

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