The public wants us to make things, but how is manufacturing going to reassert itself?

Comment – and a call to action – by Peter Roberts

With supermarket shelves still bare of toilet paper, hand sanitiser, pasta and a dozen other essentials, the Australian public has well and truly woken up to the value of making things locally.

It has taken this tragic public health crisis for the country to snap out of its generation-long apathy, even hostility to Australian manufacturing.

But the important question is whether our $100 billion manufacturing sector can take advantage of the opportunity to reassert itself and regain its position as a trusted, desired and even loved sector of the economy.

The biggest question is who will speak up for manufacturing as we move forward?

Manufacturing in the past had a seat at the top table with friendly politicians and our industry associations and individual industrialists consulted and influential, and we had industry departments that were influential in government as they developed policy.

Today there is no Essington Lewis of BHP, the head of world war two industrial production, who can command the public’s respect and attention.

There is no-one in the media who really cares about manufacturing, other than those in outlets with limited circulation such as @AuManufacturing.

And at the national political level I can’t think of any champion of manufacturing, and certainly not anyone in the mold of the last great Australian industry minister, John Button.

Even the old warhorse Kim Carr has been sidelined. Carr was often criticised, but we all knew that he started his thinking from a good, supportive place.

Today the federal industry department is a shadow of its former self, still staffed with good people but now fighting an uphill battle against the spending cuts and the policies that have systematically denuded Australia of its industrial capacity.

Fortunately at the state level there is far greater capability and an ability to influence.

As for our associations…it is a long time since the Business Council of Australia represented manufacturing, and a long time since most of the larger associations became mainly member service organisations.

I just looked back at the media releases made this year by our peak manufacturing group, the Australian Industry Group.

AiG has a laudable business agenda, but it is a general one about lower taxes and less red tape. We all want that but absent is a real manufacturing-first agenda

It is true AiG has been involved in a number of top level meetings during the course of the pandemic, but you will have to look elsewhere for real leadership or for a way forward for manufacturing other than calls for government support.

The real spark lies with our many smaller industry associations closer to the company coal face that have long been genuine champions of our need to be a manufacturing nation.

I take my hat off to them – but really they lack influence and are too small to have impact.

So I can’t answer my own question – who will emerge to champion manufacturing, what can we do to take advantage of public support and change the debate?

Ideas anyone?

Picture: Quickstep Holdings

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