Bill Shorten has been busily demonstrating that the art of the pork barrel isn’t dead in modern electioneering. Last week Labor got several days of good publicity from the Townsville Bulletin for its appalling commitment to waste $100 million ($100 million!) on a new stadium in Townsville in order to knock off local LNP MP Ewen Jones, one of the good eggs of the current Parliament. Townsville and environs are currently struggling economically with the end of the mining boom, but a new stadium that will be filled a couple of times a year certainly isn’t going to provide much in the way of ongoing economic growth. It might be better, per JM Keynes, if Shorten committed to burying $50 million in a huge pit near Townsville to encourage local businesses to dig it up — at least that would use the existing skills base of the town’s workers, and it would be cheaper too.

Today Shorten is in Geelong, promising $59 million to help workers transition from the end of the automotive manufacturing industry — while also committing to keeping Australia as a “manufacturing powerhouse”. But manufacturing isn’t a powerhouse in Australia. The last time it could have been described as a powerhouse was in 2006, when it still employed 10% of Australians. Now it employs just above 7% of Australian workers, and falling — fast. It’s now only the sixth largest employer of Australians. If you want a powerhouse, try health and caring services, which employ 13% of all workers, or the services sector — nearly 9% — or construction, 9%. Or even retail — just under 11%. Or mining, which hardly employs anyone but generates tens of billions a year in export revenue, or education, which generates nearly $20 billion in export revenue. These are our economic powerhouses.

But manufacturing is a powerhouse inside Labor. The AMWU and the AWU are influential unions and sources of funding for Labor. And for all of Malcolm Turnbull’s rhetoric about agility and innovation, the Coalition isn’t immune from this nonsense. The current government started life promising a refreshingly rational approach to economic policy, under which multinational parasites like the big car companies wouldn’t simply get handouts to prop up local manufacturing, and the massive cost of buying a new generation of Royal Australian Navy submarines wouldn’t be bloated by building them locally. Sadly, electoral pressures saw that approach abandoned, to be replaced, under Malcolm Turnbull, with full-blown defence protectionism under which we’ll be spending tens of billions of dollars more on defence procurement in order to employ a few thousand manufacturing workers locally.

If there are major differences between the parties on tax, or education funding, or climate action, there are none when it comes to worshipping at the altar of manufacturing. And that’s exactly as voters would have it. Australians cling to the belief that manufacturing is somehow a more authentic and more important form of economic activity than services industries, even as they themselves have embraced, and participated in, the massive growth of the services economy in Australia in recent decades. Voters want it both ways — they want a 24/7 services-based economy that delivers both lifestyle and core services (like health and childcare) but also retain a quaint view that making things is more valid, more real as a job than making a coffee, cutting hair or looking after kids or an elderly family member.

Still, as the fate of Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey illustrated, woe betide the politician who decides that that hypocrisy isn’t sustainable.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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