In our times of crisis, the Prime Minister has developed a habit of pushing the term “Team Australia” – a vague nod to patriotism that comes with no solutions attached. In a period of unprecedented social and economic upheaval, surely, we can do better than that?
Without wanting to upstage the self-professed marketing genius, I have a suggestion - a term that does mean something. A term that is more than a slogan, and the answer to most of our problems:
“Made in Australia”.
I’ve spent over two decades working and learning across our manufacturing industry. Working first on the factory floor as a Fitter, and eventually becoming the State Secretary of the Union that represented me through my time on the tools – the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union.
I have been on the front lines as our domestic manufacturing sector has been crippled by state and federal governments from both sides of politics, having bought into the fiction of free trade & globalisation – that being able to buy a fridge, a vacuum, or a washing machine for $60 cheaper is a fair swap for the loss of tens of thousands of Australian manufacturing jobs and the family incomes that went with them.
Here in NSW, successive state governments have also sold off contracts to build our trains, buses, and ferries to overseas bidders, in the hopes of saving a few dollars at the point of sale. In exchange, we receive poorer quality and less reliable products, and lose thousands more well-paid local jobs.
This is more than just selling off a contract or a factory – we are selling off our industries, our skills base, our intellectual property, and our capacity for innovation – to the lowest overseas bidder.
Combine this with the privatisation program of selling off our public assets and services into private hands, the ultimate example of long-term pain for short-term gain, and you have to ask: what is left of our future to make and to own?
Is reversing these decisions what our Premier, Gladys Berejiklian meant when she told a room full of CEOs in London that she would make NSW “the manufacturing capital of Australia”?
Now, in a time of unprecedented crisis for our society and economy, we are reaping what we’ve sown.
Our supply chains are crippled as overseas factories and cargo ships cease to produce and transport goods we need, because we can no longer make them for ourselves. Workers in their thousands are joining Centrelink queues, while our factories struggle to produce enough face masks and respirators to protect our health care workers.
The damage to our domestic manufacturing capability has left us exposed to the currents of the global trade market and to the massive supply and quality issues we are experiencing now. COVID-19 isn’t the first major disruption to global trade, and it won’t be the last.
“Made in Australia” means taking back control. It means security for industries, workers, their families – all of us. It means ownership. And yes, it means pride.
“Made in Australia” means reshoring our manufacturing and supply chains so that we once again have the capacity to build things here. Not just everyday products and parts. Not just emergency and medical supplies like respirators and hand sanitiser that we desperately need for this crisis. But our public transport needs, our defence needs, our domestic shipping needs, our infrastructure needs and our energy supply needs, both now and for the future.
Above all else, “Made in Australia” means good Australian jobs. We know that our economy won’t be fixed by bigger private profit margins and bonuses for CEOs. We need to abandon the focus on private profit. These things are not in the national interest. Good economic growth comes from working-class people having more money to spend in our local markets, and this comes from secure, permanent, well-paid Australian jobs.
Tied to this is the idea of “Australian owned”, including keeping our public services and public goods in public hands. Particularly in times of crisis, we see the huge benefits of keeping our essential services open and running for the public, and the massive pitfalls when these services are sold off for private, and usually overseas gain, at our expense.
Despite sustained attacks, manufacturing continues to provide more than 250,000 jobs throughout NSW. Imagine the industries we could build if we allowed ourselves to think beyond the small future we’ve been sold. This could be so much bigger.
As this crisis forces a shift in our accepted economic narrative, there is also a slower shift in our politics. We’ve already seen prominent voices on both sides call for a rethink of our approach to trade, and a refocus on our domestic capabilities and supply chains.
This is encouraging but it’s not enough to lead our workers and industries through this crisis or build an Australian-made future that will safeguard us from another one. Now is the time for big and bold leadership.
If we get this right, we can steer our country through this crisis and build a future for all of us – a future that we own and that we can be proud of.
How do we solve all our problems? A future that is made in Australia.
Steve Murphy is the NSW State Secretary of the AMWU