Wade Noonan is the Victorian State Minister for Industry and Employment and the Minister for Resources. He spoke to William Poole.

AMT: Firstly, what’s your view on the state of manufacturing in Victoria.

Wade Noonan: There’s a lot said about manufacturing, and I guess the point that needs to be very clear from the outset is manufacturing is alive and well in Victoria. It’s a big employer. It employs more than 270,000 people. Manufacturing is in essence probably going through a period of transition. Someone said to me last week that advanced manufacturing was “the new black”, and I think that’s a reflection of the proud heritage of manufacturing in Victoria and a desire from those including in the Government to see a bright future for manufacturing in Victoria ongoing.

AMT: What do you think are the great strengths we’ve got in the state?

WN: In the three months that I’ve been the new Industry Minister, I have regularly visited manufacturing workplaces and I have been exceptionally impressed with the resilience of manufacturing, the capacity of large and small businesses to find new markets and new opportunities, the fact that they leverage the great skill base which has been really the foundation of manufacturing in Victoria. And when I talk about that skill base I’m talking about generating new ideas and being able to convert those ideas into something which can be exported to every corner of the globe.

I think the other thing that has struck me very clearly is the advanced nature of research & development (R&D) in terms of those manufacturers here in Victoria that are doing well. And I think broadly you probably can’t move away from the quality infrastructure that sits here in Victoria. The fact that there are some very commercially valuable assets here in Victoria. We have the largest container port, a 24-hour curfew-free airport. And when you pick through what sets Victoria aside, there are also very good collaborations and partnerships, particularly with our academic and research institutions. Which all position Victoria very well in terms of its future. Not that everyone can define what advanced manufacturing is easily, but everyone understands the future of manufacturing here in Victoria is about creating value. Value that can be exported anywhere in the world. And of course the Victorian government is keen to support the manufacturing industry as well.

AMT: What are the biggest challenges for the sector?

WN: I think clearly many people see the decline of auto manufacturing to closure later next year as a challenge, because those manufacturers that I’ve spoken to over the last number of months have wanted to emphasise that the strongest role that Government can play is to talk about manufacturing being alive and well. That is not a challenge that other sectors face.

But it’s one where Government does have a key role in assisting the industry and businesses within the industry and those that collaborate ongoing. That’s why shortly we will establish an advanced manufacturing council, which will be given the task of producing a clear statement to create a positive vision for manufacturing in Victoria at a time where there will be our traditional auto manufacturing base ceasing in Victoria, and throughout Australia.

I think it’s important for Government to play a role with the industry – and the industry is absolutely up for this – to be talking positively and to be setting a clear vision about where we are going, and also matching that vision with investment as well, both investment on behalf of Government but also generating confidence for further investment in Victoria.

AMT: What sort of programs does the State Government have in place to help the sector?

WN: I have some data which is relevant in relation to manufacturing in particular. You’d probably be aware that last year the Future Industries Manufacturing Program was launched, and this was really to drive innovation and new opportunities for manufacturing in Victoria, with a $5m fund as part of that launch. I am very pleased that already six projects have been funded, and we have already allocated $1.2m, and 53 new jobs have been created out of those investments. And most importantly, in terms of the value capture, those small investments that we are making with manufacturers are anticipated to drive about $60m worth of new exports.

We’ll have more grant announcements to make in the coming months, but it’s an exciting endorsement in terms of our Government’s view in relation to the future of manufacturing. We are co-investing, we are looking for opportunities where manufacturers want to invest particularly either driving efficiencies or new opportunities.

I’ll give you just one example – it’s a great story. I went out to a small manufacturer in Melbourne’s west which makes car mats. They make car mats and they’re exporting them to the USA. And you’d think that this would be an area that would be captured somewhere else in the world. They’ve seen an opportunity, they’ve thrown themselves at that opportunity and what they’ve done through a grant from the Victorian government is take a manual process essentially of cutting out car mats, which come in all shapes and sizes, and then invested in a new automated piece of equipment which can take a pattern and cut that car mat out, which then allows them through global buying networks to be able to export those products in a very efficient way; so all a purchaser in the US would need to do is name the type or make of the vehicle, simply indicate how many mats they might be looking for, and we can produce those right here in Victoria.

And again making those sorts of investments will drive those new opportunities. That’s where the Future Industries Manufacturing Program is taking manufacturing in the future. It’s terrific that the Victorian government could be co-investing with businesses large and small in order to facilitate that, in the way that we facilitate large-scale investments through our investment arms of the Victorian Government as well.

I could talk to you about Tyrrells, for example. Tyrrells – if they’re not the largest, they’re one of the largest potato crisps producers. They’re selling on supermarket shelves in Victoria, but they’re not manufactured in our area. So Tyrrells was attracted through our investment offices in the UK to come here and have a look at a joint venture, which was successful. They’ve now set up with Yarra Valley Snackfoods, with 90 new jobs to be created. They will manufacture and use potatoes from Victoria in our food manufacturing area to produce those potato crisps right here in Victoria, not just for Australia but for our region. Victoria is deliberately out there trying to set that sort of opportunity because this is one of the areas where we see real growth opportunities for Victoria. That’s a manufacturing opportunity coming to Victoria, and we will continue to work hard to drive those opportunities for Victoria in the future.

AMT: You mentioned the car companies. What can the state government be doing to ease the impact of their impending departures?

WN: We have very deliberately mapped the supply chain businesses – of which there are about 130 Tier 1 and Tier 2 businesses here in Victoria. We have contacted all of those supply chain businesses. We have also allocated funding out of our $46m Auto Transition package deliberately for supply chain businesses to assist them in the first instance with assessing their businesses, and we’ve already supplied 25 supply chain businesses with grants between $16,000 initially and in some cases a second tranche of money up to $71,000, to essentially have a business facilitation specialist come in to sit down with those supply chain businesses and talk about their future. That has led to many shifting from where they may have been a year ago to where they are today, where they’re actually starting to be much more positive about not only maintaining the viability of their supply chain business, but actually growing because they’ve established opportunities in new markets.

This is one of the untold stories – it’s still an emerging story – but through our own work, we’ve been able to establish that about 70% of the supply chain businesses supplying auto at the moment are likely to remain and in many cases prosper from new opportunities they’ve been able to identify.

An extreme case for example: a small auto component company, which was providing a sealer on nuts used to bind together the vehicles, that company is moving away from that and moving into an organic fertilizer, potentially supplying vineyards across the Yarra Valley in Victoria. This is a company that was, in their own words, going out of business and going out rapidly. Through the support and a small grant to bring in a business specialist, they’ve been able to sit down and talk about the skills that they have and think about and map out where they would go in the future. Based on their entrepreneurial base and their skill capacity, they’ve been able to shift from auto into something very different – the point of difference being that they have already produced prototype fertiliser that doesn’t have high odour level, and they’ve also been able to generate the organic material from a Melbourne-based hospital in terms of food waste product. It’s actually a very exciting story, and it’s just one story out of many that I’ve heard through visits.

I went to another small business in Burwood (Melbourne), which in fact was supplying the plated petrol caps for one of the major auto manufacturers. That company has diversified into plumbing products – taps and other fittings for bathrooms and kitchens. They have become so good at what they’re doing that they have even taken an order from a very well-known Melbourne restaurant to supply black-plated spoons of very high value. So what they’ve done is taken a very low-value product, in terms of tapware, and enhancing it with a black finish, which is really high-value product. Essentially they’re moving away from automotive, and through the business transition support that they’re getting from the Victorian Government, which is $5m in totality, they’ve been able to look at new markets and new opportunities based on the skills they have and based on the entrepreneurial base, in order to diversify. That’s a very positive story and one that is emerging out of the supply chain businesses that we’re regularly engaging with.

There’s also the workforce. The workforce is obviously very important, and the support that we’re providing them in transition is about assisting them with base skills to essentially understand how to prepare a résumé, interview skills, job matching, and obviously job placement. We’re investing very heavily in that regard through our jobs and skills centres – we have four of them – mapped around our larger auto manufacturers. We are also providing additional funding through our Jobs Victoria employment network, which is also very deliberately aimed at helping retrenched auto workers, including those who work for component or supply chain businesses, to also be placed into new future work opportunities down the track.

AMT: Tell us about your professional background prior to taking this role.

WN: I’ve been in the Parliament for nine years. I’m the Member for Williamstown, and I live happily in the electorate with my wife and two sons. We’re all mad Western Bulldogs supporters, and I’m very fortunate to be the no. 1 ticket holder at the Williamstown Football Club as well. The western region of Melbourne has a very large industry base, including a traditional manufacturing base, so I feel very fortunate to have landed in the role of Minister for Industry, Employment and Resources, which I was appointed to in May of this year.

Previously I was Minister for Police & Corrections. I had some challenges in relation to the role and had to have a break from Parliament, but I’ve come back a much stronger and more balanced person, which is very good. In the Parliament I spent some time in Opposition in both the Police Emergency Services bushfire response area, and before that I was Opposition Parliamentary Secretary for Health & Mental Health. Previous to that I was engaged in many Parliamentary Committees including the Economic Development & Infrastructure Committee, the Public Accounts & Estimates Committee.

I worked both in the private sector before coming into Parliament in the travel and tourism industry largely, and I then worked for two trade unions as well. Those trade unions had the absolute majority of their members in the private sector as well. I did some university training through Swinburne University, and was fortunate enough to participate in the Williamson Community Leadership Program as well and became a Williamson Fellow back in 2005.

I think the best and most important skills I picked up all the way through both pre-parliamentary life and parliamentary life is that you need to be a sponge. You need to soak up advice and ask lots of questions. You need not present yourself as an expert because the answers will eventually come in terms of setting policy and making wise investments, ultimately about Victoria’s future in my case in relation to Industry, Employment and Resources. I make it my business to spend a lot of time out in the field, ask a lot of questions, and to seek as thorough an understanding as I can so that, on behalf of the Victorian Government and on behalf of the Victorian manufacturing sector, I can promote the best and most positive agenda I can in the position I now hold.

AMT: And what might an ordinary day on the job look like?

WN: Very long days. You could start the day with an industry breakfast at 7am. Find your way through anywhere from three to eight different meetings or public events each day. And then find yourself at an evening event, supporting manufacturing or another part of your portfolio. Only to find yourself at home at nine or ten o’clock, reintroducing yourself to your family! The days are long, the job can be challenging, but the privilege of representing the Victorian community and working for the Andrews government is enormous and I never get through a day without thinking about the privilege that we all collectively have as Members of Parliament, but in particular when you become a Minister, and also the responsibility that that carries in order to deliver good government.

So that’s what a typical day looks like. They can be long, they can be challenging, but ultimately it’s a privilege to be serving the Victoria community.