The Future of Australian Manufacturing

Forty years ago, a quarter of Australian workers were employed in the manufacturing industry. Today, the figure is less than ten per cent. 

As manufacturers across the country continue to battle crippling costs, La Trobe University posed the question – does manufacturing in Australia have a future and if so, what does it look like? 

In response, a panel of distinguished experts in the fields of economics, industry policy and trade unionism attempted to answer the question at La Trobe's leading intellectual forum for debate, the Ideas and Society Program.

Leading economist Professor Ross Garnaut, UTS Sydney's Professor Roy Green and Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Secretary Dave Oliver discussed the current climate in manufacturing along with Ideas and Society Program convenor, Professor Robert Manne. The discussion was chaired by Professor Jane Long.

Watch the discussion

The Future of Australian Manufacturing

What the speakers said

Manufacturing in Australia is in a dreadful position, according to Professor Garnaut. However, he said it is the same position as much of the Australian economy. The Australian economy began as one of the strongest in the world but gradually declined until significant reforms in the 1990s. Following a boom in productivity, the nation entered what Professor Garnaut called the Great Australian Complacency of the early 21st century. Professor Garnaut discussed the boom of the mineral resource industry and the repercussions of that.

Automobile manufacturing has been in steady decline since 1990, Professor Garnaut said. The biggest problem for the manufacturing sector is part of the general problem of competitiveness following the resources boom. We let the exchange rate rise and it is difficult to bring it down again. Professor Garnaut believes the Reserve Bank must bring down the interest rate to match other developed countries, which it is disinclined to do due to inflated housing prices.

Dave Oliver believes Australian manufacturing could have a bright future, as long as the right settings are in place - including strong support from the government. He said despite promising to create one million new jobs over a five-year period, the Abbott Government has contributed to the demise of the automobile industry. He discussed the future of Holden and SPC Ardmona, as well as the rising unemployment rate in Australia. The government needs to invest in skills training to encourage employers to hire locally and to stop penalizing job seekers. 

The government's failure to commit to clean energy technology, Mr Oliver said, will mean Australia will miss out on gaining a slice of what is a multi-trillion dollar industry. Quashing the hysteria surrounding the carbon tax and entering an emissions trading scheme would not cut jobs, it would in fact create tens of thousands of them.

Mr Oliver said the solution to saving manufacturing is smarter management and increasing skills, rather than cutting workers' pay and conditions.

Professor Green discussed the Australian manufacturing industry's "predicament" in relation to the global context. For manufacturing to survive, he said, the industry needs to engage talent more successfully, re-invigorate the sector and transform to prepare for rapidly changing markets and value chains.

More about our speakers

Ross Garnaut

Professor Ross Garnaut is a Professional Research Fellow in Economics at The University of Melbourne. His career is built around the analysis and practice of policy connected to economic development and international relations in the Asia Pacific. He has authored or edited 47 books and numerous articles on international economics, public finance and economic development.

Roy Green

Professor Roy Green is Dean of the Business School at UTS Sydney and in 2012 was part of the Prime Minister's Manufacturing Taskforce report Smarter Manufacturing for a Smarter Australia. He was recently appointed to the new Manufacturing Leaders Group and also led Australian participation in a global study, Manufacturing Matters for Australia – just how productive are we? 

Dave Oliver

Dave Oliver has been Secretary of the ACTU since 2012. After 10 years as a union site delegate and activist with a passion for safety and asbestos issues, he became an organizer with the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) in 1988. Dave led campaigns to protect workers' entitlements as a NSW Branch official before becoming Assistant National Secretary and then Victorian Branch Secretary in 2002.     


This event took place at on Wednesday 3 September 2014 at the La Trobe University John Scott Meeting House.