Polly Waffle policy

May 17, 2024
China High Resolution Technology Concept

Some readers will remember the Polly Waffle snack bar. This favourite was a hollow crunchy biscuit tube, coated with chocolate and filled with fluffy marshmallow. After a significant break in production, the Polly Waffle has been re-introduced to the Australian market. Many of us waited with bated tastebuds to sample the resurrected Polly Waffle.

It’s an unrecognisable shadow of its former self – a small ball with nougat-like filling. Despite first being produced in 1947, we are told that modern Australian food manufacturing processes are unable to replicate the original Polly Waffle tubular bar.

Australia’s modern manufacturing technology is not up to the task and that tags into a broader issue of the Government’s Future Made in Australia policy- a policy that doesn’t seem to carry the same degree of threat as the Made in China 2025 policy.

The Polly Waffle failure opens the question of just how good Australian manufacturing really is compared with our idea of how good we are. The Polly Waffle gap suggests that we run the risk of making poor replicas when we attempt to reinvent the wheel and that adds up to a significant waste of resources, national capital, and a reduction in economic progress and productivity.

Four examples provide a flavour of these challenges.

We start with the creation of an Australian solar panel industry. Without question, the most advanced solar panels in the world are made in China. They have put decades of research into this area and achieved efficiencies in manufacturing that Australia can never hope to replicate.

In the drive to reach climate goals by 2050 it makes immeasurably more sense to build on the shoulders of giants rather than re-inventing this particular ‘wheel.’

The same conclusion can be applied to other equipment required for green energy, from wind turbines to salt batteries.

The second example is quantum computing. Put aside for a moment the idea that Australian accents coming from a US-based company are all that is required to qualify for Australian taxpayer support.

Australia’s belated push into this area is commendable, but a co-operative approach building on the work already done, particularly in China, would yield better results. Some reports suggests that the Chinese have already succeeded in getting a quantum computer to operate at room temperature, albeit for a short time. This puts their work far in advance of the standards reached by the US, let alone by Australia.

There are advantages in co-operation rather than in attempts to catch-up.

The destruction of Australia’s rare earth industry in the name of patriotism, and in favour of the United States, is the third example. The Australian industry, such as it is, is primarily the result of long term Chinese investment made at a time when Australian and US investors were disinterested. The construction of advanced processing plants relies on Chinese technology but for security reasons, these investments will be hampered by the new FIRB rules. Apparently it’s better to have less efficient plants built by anyone other than the Chinese.

Commercial off-take agreements and the normal use of futures contracts to lock-in prices are all seen as a nasty Chinese plot rather than normal business practice. Perhaps Australia is more easily outsmarted than we would like to admit, but that is no excuse for investing in sub-optimal processes.

The final example is the proposal for Geoscience Australia to lead the effort to help identify opportunities for mineral deposit development or for carbon capture and storage projects, particularly in under-explored and remote areas. This is pointless replication of work already done by each state. The Northern Territory for instance has an in-depth geological survey data base managing and freely distributing a large volume of data and information relating to the geology and the mineral and energy resources of the Northern Territory. Others States have similar resources so there is no need for a new Geoscience survey although the industry could benefit from better coordination.

These examples may seem to be a long way from the Polly Waffle that opened this discussion but the core principle remains; Australia does not have the capacity to quickly develop the technology to match the existing technology available elsewhere. Like the Polly Waffle, the new replica is likely to fall short because we lack the necessary skills base. Australia does have a good range of research skills, as shown by a broad swathe of scientific breakthroughs. Our time and capital is better allocated to supporting those skills and research that build on existing scientific advances.

The barrier to faster progress is China because everything the Chinese do is perceived as a security threat or a threat to our sovereign independent right to choose less advanced products and foist them on the Australian taxpayer.

We do best when we accept our limitations and focus of developing our strengths. To do that requires an acknowledgement that some of our previous strengths have atrophied and cannot be revived. The Polly Waffle is the case in point.

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