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Monday, 19 September 2011
Page: 10566


Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (20:23): It is a very special level of punishment to have to follow the member for Indi in any debate. Her capacity to spend 15 minutes criticising, spewing vitriol, misrepresenting people's positions and failing to put forward any alternative has a special level of achievement in parliamentary debates. I would simply say to her that I cannot even be bothered responding to most of her arguments because they are so lacking in foundation anyway. I would be interested to know whether the member for Casey has a particular view on the member for Indi's approach to manufacturing and whether there is an interest in a more market interventionist approach more generally on the benches on the other side.

Quite contrary to the member for Indi's complete misrepresentation, the member for Throsby and I do visit many of our local manufacturing businesses and talk to them on a regular basis. Indeed, I have done so for all the years I have been in parliament and my colleague the member for Throsby has done so since he was elected. I could hardly think of a more inaccurate criticism to be made of the member for Throsby for bringing this motion forward to the House.

It is indeed an important recognition that the Wollongong and Illawarra area more broadly does make a substantial contribution to the Australian economy. Like the member for Ballarat at the table, our region makes things, it exports things and it provides services. Over the last 30 years our region, however, has been diversifying its economic base. The Illawarra region used to be based around two major employers: steelmaking and coal producing. One fed the other. I come from five generations of coalminers and certainly am well aware in my own family of the close relationship between those two industries.

Although steelmaking and coal production are still very important to the Illawarra, the region has diversified to include a world-class and nationally significant research university and TAFE institute, a growing health and community sector, and a property and financial services sector. Our big employers were once BHP and coal companies. Today that is shared between the University of Wollongong and our TAFE campuses, our hospitals and aged-care facilities, our banking and superannuation fund administrators.

Our region has been through tough economic times before. In 1982-83 the then 'Big Australian', BHP, threatened to walk away from steelmaking. BHP threatened to close its works at Port Kembla. It took a Labor government then, the Hawke government, to design what came to be known as the Button steel plan to save the steel industry in Australia. During the implementation of the Button steel plan, which began in 1984, both the company and combined unions went through a process of modernisation, work practice improvements, capital investment and an investment in people. BlueScope Steel today—today's incarnation of BHP—operated a world-class, low-cost and competitive, modernised steel plant. The Port Kembla steel plant located in our area is a product of that Labor government's steel plan.

On 22 August this year BlueScope Steel announced that it needed to restructure its operations because of the higher exchange rate, the higher cost inputs from iron ore and coking coal, and the sluggish steel demand across the globe. Unfortunately, that decision involves substantial job losses in the Illawarra—not only for BlueScope Steel workers but also the company's supplier-contractors. The very same day of the announcement, the Prime Minister and other senior cabinet ministers announced a $140 million assistance package for the Illawarra region. This is one of the largest regional structural adjustment packages introduced by a Commonwealth government to assist in the economic transitioning for a region.

It is important to place on record the difference in assistance provided to Wollongong and to Newcastle, when its steel industry was affected in 1997. The Howard government at that time provided $10 million in adjustment assistance for BHP workers. This was matched by the then Carr Labor government. I do not criticise the assistance provided by the Howard government or the Carr government, but I think it is important to recognise that this Labor government did provide an important and significant assistance package to the Illawarra.

The package has three elements. First, the bringing forward of $100 million under the Steel Transformation Fund, which will help BlueScope Steel implement a new business model and help it to produce new products. It should be emphasised at this point that the opposition has indicated, even prior to the BlueScope Steel decision on 22 August, that it intends to oppose the Steel Transformation Plan. As I said in my contribution to the carbon bill debate, I believe that is hypocrisy at its most flagrant. They are weasel words from the opposition—to express concern about the BlueScope Steel situation but not indicate they will support the Steel Transformation Plan.

It is not only the importance of supporting the steel industry because steel is so important to our region, but it should be acknowledged that the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow minister for industry have told us that they will oppose the $300 million fund to help the steel industry transition to a low-carbon economy. I note my colleague the member for Gilmore is in the House and I would hope that she and perhaps Senator Fierravanti-Wells will, in arguing to their own side, convince them to support the steel bill because it is important support to our local region. This is no longer a theoretical or conceptual debate; it is real time and the workers in the Illawarra depend on this fund, BlueScope Steel depends on the fund. We should stop playing politics, be responsible and support the bill. Secondly, the government has announced a $10 million employment assistance package to help displaced workers find other jobs, to retrain for other industries, to up-skill and to relocate if they need to. Later this week, a jobs market—a Commonwealth government funded initiative—will be held at Unanderra where under one roof over two days affected workers from BlueScope and their supplier-contractors will be able to obtain advice and assistance, including meeting potential employers in the mining, resource and engineering sectors.

Thirdly, the government has established a $30 million Investment and Innovation Fund to help local businesses innovate and expand their operations in the region. This fund is a co-investment fund. At the conclusion, we should have been able to secure a doubling of the Commonwealth's investment to create a $60 million injection in the region's economy. At the same time, the Prime Minister has announced the establishment of the Illawarra Stakeholders Task Force, chaired by the Secretary of the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Dr Don Russell, to co-ordinate that response.

In the few minutes left to me, I just want to mention some other Commonwealth investments in our region that have proved significant to manufacturing. We have contributed $43.8 million to build the Australian Institute for Innovative Materials at the University of Wollongong's innovation campus. This was showcased on 29 August at an Illawarra manufacturing expo following the visit to Wollongong by the Prime Minister. Senator Kim Carr, the minister, opened the expo, which brought together a range of Commonwealth agencies to assist manufacturing companies innovate, demonstrate their capability to be involved in big investment projects—such as those outlined by my colleague, the member for Throsby—and to export. Over 100 manufacturing representatives met with these Commonwealth officials and, importantly, researchers from the institute to foster new relationships. Given the new Research and Development Tax Credit program introduced by this government and targeted at smaller businesses, the institute will become a very important partner for the manufacturing sector in Wollongong.

I also highlight the Commonwealth's investment of $25 million to build the new Sustainable Building Research Centre, located next to the institute I have just discussed at the innovation campus. This new research centre has a fantastic partnership with the Illawarra Institute of TAFE and BlueScope Steel to introduce innovative building materials and building skills for clean energy workers into the future. They will design and create new products and services dedicated to improving the existing built environment. It will be the first in Australia to be assessed under the Living Building Challenge initiative.

The future of manufacturing can at times appear gloomy in Australia, particularly at times when the dollar is at the level that is at, but I am and remain an optimist about the future of the sector. Around one million Australians are employed in the sector. This has been consistent across the last decade. Treasury modelling suggests that manufacturing output is projected to grow by 70 per cent to 2050. The latest national count shows that manufacturing in general is actually growing in Australia. Metal products rose 14 per cent for the quarter and 16 per cent to June. However, we acknowledge that the manufacturing sector does face challenges. But it is resilient and one of the most creative of our economic sectors.

The government has already introduced a number of initiatives to help in this transition. All of the programs that we have introduced will be cut by the opposition. Importantly, we have introduced and approved the Australian Industry Participation Plan for all new Australian government contracts worth more than $20 million. Indeed, as the Prime Minister has indicated, we are considering publishing plans and outcomes for the AIP. I commend the fact that my colleague has introduced this motion to the House and reaffirm our ongoing commitment to the manufacturing sector. (Time expired)