The Australian people have become increasingly conscious of the need for this country to have a robust local manufacturing base. We just need politicians to give it the support it deserves, writes AMTIL CEO Shane Infanti.

Since the very start, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a wake-up call for Australia regarding our attitudes to manufacturing. From supermarket shelves stripped of toilet paper to the mad rush to establish local production of medical ventilators, we all got a clear lesson about the vulnerability of modern supply chains and the need for strong sovereign manufacturing capability, so that we have continued access to all the things we rely on as a society.

As the pandemic has dragged on, one of the few positives to come out of the crisis was the sense that there was at last widespread public recognition that manufacturing really matters.

Now new research has corroborated this, putting real numbers on how far the popular mood has swung in support of our industry. The report from the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC) reveals the general public’s current perception of Australian manufacturing and its understanding of this critical industry.

Comparing data from early 2019 – before the pandemic – to today, the AMGC examined the contrasting levels of public awareness and the changing attitudes toward local manufacturing. It found that support today is significantly higher compared to pre-pandemic times. The study shows that manufacturing is held in high regard by the public, is seen as vital to our nation’s economy, and is critical to maintaining our high standards of living.

Key findings from the report include:

  • 72% (+7% from 2019) of Australians believe manufacturing is important or very important to the economy.
  • The number of respondents who believe manufacturing will get stronger in the coming years has doubled compared to responses in 2019.
  • 79% of Australians perceive the trade and export of manufactured goods are important to the economy.
  • Tasmania, Northern Territory, South Australia, and Western Australia rate manufacturing more highly than the Eastern States.
  • The importance of manufacturing is rated more highly in regional areas, compared to metropolitan areas.
  • 69% (+6% from 2019) of Australians believe manufacturing is important to maintain our standard of living.
  • Manufacturing is perceived as the seventh-most important industry to the Australian economy relative to other industries.
  • The appreciation of manufacturing and its importance increases with age – for example, approximately 85% of Australians over 65 agree manufacturing is important to the local economy.
  • 80% of Australians believe it is important to purchase local products where possible.
  • 63% believe these products are of higher quality and 58% noted that locally made products were worth paying a premium for.
  • Almost half of the respondents view Australian manufacturing as high-tech and globally competitive.

According to the AMGC data, manufacturing contributes more than $100bn to the local economy each year, amounting to 10% of gross domestic product (GDP). That’s significantly higher than the figure we often hear quoted – of 6%. The data also finds that manufacturing directly employs 1.27m Australians, 30% higher than official figures; in addition it creates 3.6 indirect roles elsewhere in the economy for every direct manufacturing role.

The AMGC report is a vital piece of research. It highlights the crucial role played by manufacturing in the Australian economy. In fact, it reveals that our industry delivers even more value to the nation than we had previously believed. But most importantly, it shows that ordinary Australians realise more clearly than ever that manufacturing is a sector that Australia needs, and that we need to invest in making it stronger.

The question now is: are our politicians getting the message? Are they doing enough to support the industry?

To be fair, there are a lot of very good initiatives coming out of government at the moment. The Federal Government’s Modern Manufacturing Strategy contains a whole raft of measures that will deliver genuine benefits for manufacturing businesses. There are plenty of other worthwhile federal initiatives as well – the AMGC being one of them. And state governments also have lots of good policies in place to support the industry.

But there endures a lingering sense that manufacturing remains a “second-order” priority among political circles.

Last month, Christian Porter’s resignation marked the departure of a seventh person to hold ministerial responsibility for industry in eight years of this Coalition Government. Porter followed Ian Macfarlane, Christopher Pyne, Greg Hunt, Arthur Sinodinos, Michaelia Cash and Karen Andrews, and spent a mere five months in the role. Obviously his departure could not be avoided, but the fact is the controversy that drove Porter from office had dogged him from the start. Moreover when he arrived in the job there was the distinct sense that he had been in some way “demoted”, handed a “less important” portfolio to allow him to deal with his personal issues.

At time of writing, Angus Taylor has been made Acting Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, while continuing to serve in the equally important role of Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction. By the time you read this, Prime Minister Scott Morrison may have announced a longer-term replacement. But as things stand, it’s hard to escape the sense that our industry has essentially been left to fend for itself, at a time of when the sector is facing sigificant uncertainty on several fronts – from the recent dramatic overhaul of our submarines program, to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. And all this with only a moonlighting resources minister watching over us from Canberra.

Manufacturing deserves better – ask the Australian public.

The full report from the AMGC can be downloaded here: