Matt Canavan (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

While we’re used to the Nationals serving policy fantasies about agriculture — Barnaby Joyce’s delusional 2015 agriculture white paper is fondly recalled — they’re now keen to venture into manufacturing, with backbench coal fetishist Matt Canavan unveiling a paper on Australian manufacturing in 2035.

Canavan is nothing if not ambitious. Noting the long-term decline in manufacturing jobs, he says Australia can create 800,000 manufacturing jobs by 2035 — “an ambitious but achievable goal”. Except, there’s barely over 800,000 manufacturing jobs now, so that means a double of the current workforce; to adapt Canavan’s own graph, here’s what Canavan’s proposal looks like:

More correctly, it’s an “ambitious but utterly ridiculous goal”; perhaps it’s a typo and Canavan actually meant 80,000 jobs, reminiscent of Joyce’s trouble with millions and billions.

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To find 800,000 extra workers in manufacturing would involve a massive dislocation of the workforce; to find even 100,000 would be a serious challenge for an ageing workforce that needs hundreds of thousands of health and social care workers in coming years.

How to achieve Canavan’s fantasy for a manufacturing job in every home? Easy: you’ll pay for it.

He wants to ramp up the appalling Anti-Dumping Commission so that it operates right across the economy and imposes tariffs on imports, driving up business and consumer costs and leaving Australians at the mercy of uncompetitive local manufacturers.

He also wants $5 billion in concessional loans for regional manufacturing (remember, concessional loans are either to businesses that should be able to already get finance from a bank, or to businesses that can’t get finance from a bank because they’re not viable). He wants more tax incentives for manufacturing, legislation to prevent governments from using non-Australian manufacturing even when it’s cheaper and better, and yet another TAFE overhaul “to better support skills and training” (why has no one ever thought of that?).

And, naturally, more coal-fired power stations, because not merely are renewables no good for manufacturing, but neither is gas, which “is is unlikely to encourage a manufacturing renaissance in eastern Australia.” Canavan wants not one or two, but up to twelve coal-fired power stations built. You’ll also pay for that, because the private sector has abandoned coal-fired power — indeed, even coal miners are abandoning thermal coal.

While this sort of stuff is so silly even Canavan’s own colleagues are deriding it, it is smart politics. The list of proposals could have come from the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) and the mining division of the CFMMEU. There’s a voter segment that loves the idea of restoring manufacturing and building more coal-fired power stations — particularly in Queensland.

It’s the same voters that One Nation tries to court, and which Labor struggles to attract — mostly men (three-quarters of the manufacturing workforce is male), often in regional areas, usually with limited skills that aren’t readily transferable, who have been left behind by the shift to a service economy over the last three decades.

It’s fantasy that the Nationals are offering, but it’s a potent one for men who feel left behind.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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