The Australian Made Week wrapped up last week. The initiative, in its second year, gives exposure to those going against the grain to prove our worth as a ‘country that makes things’.
Promoting the famous ‘Australian Made’ logo, the event works to show we undoubtedly have the ability and talent to be a capable, self-sufficient nation without such a great reliance on offshore supply.
We’ve read encouraging stories throughout the week across a range of industries. There’s FONZ moto, an electric motorbike maker who has re-shored manufacturing to achieve efficiencies. Bubs Australia, a local baby-formula supplier, has tripled production to help fill a shortage in the US. We also leapt at the opportunity to share Black Lab Design’s own successes in designing and manufacturing some particular products that many might automatically assume can only be made overseas.
But undermining all the positivity of Australian Made Week is the tough reality of the current situation that manufacturing and the wider economy finds itself in. Gordon J. Tregoning Pty Ltd, the makers of the iconic Treg Trailers, announced during Australian Made Week that the business is closing down after 75 years. The downfall of the business has been ‘cheap and nasty’ Chinese imports, some of which have been openly selling in Australia using – illegally – the Treg brand.
“While the focus is on defence, space and medical devices, it is the Tregs that turn out the thousand and one basic, necessary products of an advanced economy, innovating and adapting to our unique market conditions and needs, and employing and training our young people. No-one else will do that for us.” – Peter Roberts, AuManufacturing.com.au
From Australian Made Week to Australian Made Decade
A google search for ‘Australian Made products’ results in images of Ugg Boots, Vegemite and all kinds of homemade soaps. All terrific products, but this is a summation of how the wider Australian population perceives ‘Australian Made’ today.
There is a glaring need for a broad shift in the way we educate and shape perceptions of the local buyer to truly understand the value of our national ability to produce the goods we use. There is a disparity between what we can make here, and what is being made here. Changing this will take a lot more than a week of promotional product features, it will take a decade of home-grown innovation, investment, and seizing the opportunities before us – an Australian Made Decade.
The next decade will prove vital to restoring economic complexity, which has dwindled during a long period of dutch disease and outsourcing. Our systems of supply, heavily dependent on international procurement, have been exposed by the pandemic and a barrage of supply chain disruptions.
Driving change will start with boosting and maintaining the supply of skilled workers, and building industries that can capitalise on our competitive advantages and contribute to the world’s continued pursuit of sustainability.
Recently, the new Labor government was warned about the worsening skills shortage and the threat it poses to economic recovery. Australia is experiencing the second most severe labour shortage in the developed world, according to the latest OECD economic outlook. Understandably, negative migration over the last couple of years is a major driver of this. But it shows that we aren’t producing an adequate supply of skilled workers locally. We can only rely on migrant skilled workers to a limited extent, and if we don’t foster the industries that can offer rewarding skilled work then there’s no reason for them to migrate here.
The responsibility for formulating pathways out of this situation does not solely rely on the government, despite what the outcries for help suggest. Whilst government intervention in the form of education reform, incentives, immigration policy, and grants is certainly essential, businesses and the buying community also share a duty to drive skilled worker development and retention.
Businesses, such as Black Lab Design, have the ability to establish working environments that power the desire for people to learn valuable skills and knowledge, in our case that’s in engineering, industrial design, fabrication, computer and machine programming or logistics management.
Customers, and the wider community as a whole, can encourage growth in the supply of skilled workers in Australia through the demands they make for the products they buy and services they use. This starts with a shift in the perceptions of manufacturing’s importance to the economy and the intrinsic benefits of buying and consuming locally. According to Roy Morgan polling for Australian Made this year, 89% of Australians believe more manufacturing should be undertaken here. That shows a notable improvement in perceptions from previous surveys, but it must be backed up by buying behaviour and demand.
Australia is uniquely positioned to contribute to the world’s continued pursuit of sustainability, and in doing so, drive the creation of value in a diverse range of industries making the products that accommodate the green future. Rather ironically though, it is our critical mineral supplies that have the potential to create the most value in the push towards emissions reductions – meaning more mining will be required. Electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines – they all require significant amounts of critical minerals to work and Australia has rich deposits of these. The opportunity here though, is not to just focus on the extractive exercise for wealth, as was seen during the iron ore boom, but to create a whole new industry that can process the metals right here in Australia. From this, we can own the entire value-adding chain all the way through to final manufacturing.
Young mining company Cobalt Blue Holdings is showing how this can be done in the extraction and processing of cobalt, a material required for the lithium-ion batteries that power EVs. Seeking to commercialise their Broken Hill mine site, Cobalt Blue has created the world’s first process that can extract the cobalt and create a commercial, battery-ready product on site. The value adding process is thus being kept in Australia and with the addition of an onshore battery manufacturing plant, the entire process could be completed within our borders. That’s just one example of an entire industry being established to capitalise on the push for emissions reductions.
An Australian Made Decade lies ahead, where we can invigorate complexity in our economy to create a rich, rewarding and sustainable future. Wide recognition of the importance of ‘Australian Made’ beyond patriotic promotion and instead for the environmental, economic and quality benefit is imperative. A skilled workforce will carry the transition to a sustainable ecosystem of businesses collectively enhancing our national capability to ‘make things’.