Australia has lost much of its manufacturing industry, including the ability to produce essential strategic materials, and has become far too dependent on imports which are subject to disruption from pandemics, wars and foreign political threats.
COVID-19 has exposed some of these vulnerabilities. In re-development of the economy, post-COVID-19, new directions are needed to make Australia’s economy independent, self-reliant, and sustainable.
Successive Australian governments have followed a short-sighted policy of allowing our manufacturing capability to decline to the point where we are now dependent on imports to a degree which, in the event of these imports being disrupted by war, pandemics or political pressure, would cause economic collapse and severely affect the well-being of the Australian people. The economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has shown how dependent Australia is on imports and the serious dangers this poses for the Australian people.
Among the imported goods on which Australia depends are refined petroleum, telecommunications equipment, medical supplies and even defence force equipment. For example, during the COVID-19 crisis, it emerged that even surgical face masks had to be imported. In addition, being highly dependent on imports from any one country adds to the risks of supply disruption or loss due to foreign political pressures, threats or wars. The run-down of manufacturing industry has led to huge job losses, de-skilling, and lost work opportunities for the young, who are among those hit hardest by the economic crisis.
Another critical weakness of the Australian economy is our massive over-reliance on exports of unprocessed minerals, energy resources and agricultural products. A sound and sustainable economic policy would place the emphasis on value-adding and diversification of export products.
Australia is rich in natural resources and, with a population of 25 million and a well-developed educational system is certainly capable of achieving a high degree of self-reliance and thus eliminating the risks to which our present over-reliance on imports exposes us.
These critical weaknesses and vulnerabilities were highlighted in a confidential report commissioned by the Defence Department before the outbreak of COVID-19 and publicised by ABC News. The report, which Ms Durrant, Defence Department Director of Preparedness, commissioned, lays out a timeline of how Australia’s essential services would collapse within three months of a crisis worse than COVID-19 which would put a halt to global trade. It states that ‘with at least 90% of Australia’s medical supplies imported, specialist medicines may be exhausted within days with severe repercussions for public health’. According to the report, the first casualty after health care would be sanitation and water treatment, creating risk of disease. ‘We found that like our medical supplies, most of the chemicals (for sanitation and water treatment) were sourced offshore and that we had only a limited supply.’ According to the Defence-commissioned report, ‘Australia has only enough liquid fuel to last just over two months, if global supples are cut off. This would have a devastating impact on all Australian industries, including trucking- and with no way to move them, Australia’s plentiful food supplies would begin to run out in the first month of the crisis’. ‘Almost all of our trade – 98% of our trade, imports and exports- depends on foreign-owned shipping systems, so we are actually in a pretty weak position’, says John Blackburn a former Air Force Deputy Chief. The Maritime Union of Australia has drawn the government’s attention to this vulnerability for some time but to no avail.
The Defence – commissioned report warned that Australia’s problems would go far beyond fuel. It predicted that within three months, the nation as we know it would cease to function. Australia would be racked by social unrest and widespread unemployment. Essential services including electricity and telecommunications would be falling apart because both industries rely on imported parts
As we emerge from COVID-19 and begin the task of re-starting industry and the economy, serious consideration should be given to eliminating the vulnerabilities resulting from our over-reliance on imports. We should start moving towards an independent, self- sufficient and sustainable carbon-neutral or zero-carbon economy based on the renewable energy resources we have in superabundance.
This new direction would require strong government intervention and encouragement, and in some cases may require the government to establish and run new industries, such as electric vehicle production and take control of Australia’s energy resources. And further, there would have to be a degree of bi-partisanship politically, as the COVID-19 crisis showed, with bi-partisan support much more can be achieved, and the nation can be united to enable that achievement.
The transport industry is one that needs strong government involvement and cannot be left to the vagaries of the market. Re-establishing local production of public transport vehicles, and rebuilding of the local car industry based on production of electric vehicles would provide much needed employment opportunities for our young people.
Telecommunications, a national strategic communications facility must be restored to government ownership and an industry developed to service its needs for new developments and maintenance. This would give a much-needed boost to research, development, manufacturing and opportunities for Australian engineering and technical workers.
A campaign to urge the government and opposition to embrace a program of new directions in the redevelopment of the economy to give Australia an independent, self-reliant, and sustainable economy with redevelopment of our manufacturing sector, is urgently needed. It would receive support, I believe, from many people, including trade unions.
Bevan Ramsden is an ex-telecommunications engineer and a long-time peace activist and advocate for Australia’s independence. He is a member of the coordinating committee of the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN).