In addressing this question we must first be clear that our history of manufacturing has seen industries and their workers contribute positively to our economy. They have done so in different ways, but ultimately they have allowed our economy and our standard of living to thrive. These industries have not only built things, but in doing so many of them have advanced how we do things. They have, to use an often over-used expression, been innovative. And in doing so, they have contributed to the standard of living we enjoy in this country.
The benefits of maintaining a successful manufacturing industry in Australia are numerous. It is about more than protecting jobs for today. It has to be about improving our skill base, becoming leaders in innovation, and embracing and adopting new technology.
Certainly competitive pressures from countries where labour is cheaper, and cycles of low commodity prices, or high input costs have disrupted much of our manufacturing. It is difficult to compete with high volume, low skilled manufacturing. But then I don’t believe that Australia’s vision for itself is one where cheap labour provides the nation with a competitive advantage. Sacrificing our standard of living simply is not on the agenda.
Today our challenge is to determine how we can embrace the manufacturing of the future. How we can deliver high tech, complex and even advanced manufacturing – to deliver products that we need, infrastructure that our country demands, and ultimately create industries that successfully export to larger markets.
I don’t believe as some have proclaimed that all manufacturing must be subsidised in order for it to compete. Many commentators express outrage whenever a Defence contract is awarded where the build is done locally, and question why this was not done offshore for a cheaper price. This reflects a misunderstanding of the nature of the often complex, and technical work that is required for many defence programs. Not just for the build, but for the decades of work that goes into maintaining equipment or technology, and the multiple upgrades that are required to ensure our assets remain competitive in an ever progressing world. Contrary to the view of the many, it is my firm belief that complex and advanced manufacturing can be done in Australia in a way that is cost effective and that is competitive with global standards. It can be done in Defence and it can be done across our industrial landscape.
In the defence industry, in medical technology, and more and more in the resources sector, much of the work today requires deep engineering and technical expertise. A growing proportion of the workforces in these industries today are highly skilled. Much of the workforce that my company will require will come from individuals with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Many of them will work on projects that we are just starting to talk about today, and have not fully imagined. And, many of these workers have not been born yet.
Unlike our country’s history of making cars, Australia’s history of advanced manufacturing often goes untold. But in the defence industry, thousands of highly skilled engineers have worked on numerous projects over the past century that has delivered technology that has helped keep Australia safe. The Nulka Active Missile Decoy Program is the best example of this. A technology unknown to the layman, but which was developed in Australia, helps protect the US Naval Fleet and remains today the nation’s most successful defence export program.
And, today, Australia’s engineers are working on new defence export programs that will continue to strengthen the capability of ourselves and our allies, and at the same time contribute to the future growth of our economy.
The opportunity for the future is in the hands of our leaders today. We have the choice to continue to invest in tomorrow’s industry. And we should take it. It will look different to the one we know so well, but it has the opportunity to make a lasting and positive impact on the lives of our future citizens.
Chief Executive, BAE Systems Australia