Anthony Albanese (Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

Federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese wants you to “buy Australian”. At the NSW state Labor conference this weekend, the Opposition Leader announced a 10-point plan to boost domestic manufacturing. If elected, Labor will establish a “made in Australia” office designed to make it easier for small and mid-tier companies to win domestic procurement tenders.

“Australians do their best to patronise local businesses, knowing our hard-earned money supports the wages of our friends, neighbours and local community,” Albanese said.

“Governments should recognise this principle in its own purchases and activities.”

Albanese’s plan also includes promises to implement “secure job codes”, which would guide procurement contracts toward companies with good employment practices, and crack down on the use of offshore tax havens. Labor will also develop industry plans to boost local manufacturing in sectors like textiles, clothing and renewables and push for Commonwealth investments in job creation and emissions reduction.

More ‘manufacturing fetishism’

If that all sounds a little vague to you, you’d be correct. The “buy Australian” plan is the latest low-key offering in Labor’s small-target, slogan-heavy election strategy.

Chastened by their shock 2019 defeat, where a large and sometimes cumbersome agenda opened up ample lines of attack for Scott Morrison, the opposition have opted for a strategy of policy restraint.

Albanese’s vaguely protectionist list of policies is relatively low-risk because, as independent economist Saul Eslake suggests, there’s a generally bipartisan “manufacturing fetishism” in Australia — one which sees building things domestically as inherently virtuous even when it doesn’t always make economic sense to do so.

“Up to a point, I understand why governments will try to make room for local suppliers for government procurement contracts,” Eslake said.

“Bearing in mind governments are spending taxpayers’ money, there ought to be some upper limit to the amount of preference extended to local manufacturers.”

In reality, Australia’s manufacturing sector struggles because it lacks a large domestic market, is geographically distant from potential export markets and is essentially squeezed out by mining and agriculture, both being substantially larger than is normal in most industrialised economies.

Despite backing away from some of the more ambitious elements of their 2019 agenda, the push for more domestic manufacturing is a return to familiar ground for Labor. Under Bill Shorten, Labor went to two election campaigns with rhetoric about building “Australian first”. In 2017, then-leader Shorten unveiled an Employ Australians First campaign, quickly cancelled for using an advertisement featuring only white people. 

A quiet conference

The “buy Australian” campaign was the major federal policy announcement out of a NSW state conference overshadowed by Sydney’s final weekend before restrictions eased, and the ongoing fallout from former state premier Gladys Berejiklian’s resignation. 

The conference also followed fears Labor’s historically dominant NSW Right could lose key votes after Health Services Union secretary Gerard Hayes promised to split from the faction over Kristina Keneally’s parachuting into the south-west Sydney seat of Fowler.

The state conference did not endorse progressive positions on more contentious policy issues, with resolutions fiercely critical of Israel, and calling for NSW Labor to oppose offshore processing, both failing to get up. 

Meanwhile, resolutions calling for better engagement and consultation with culturally and linguistically diverse communities were accepted, as controversy over Vietnamese Australian Tu Le’s snubbing for preselection in Fowler highlighted the party’s recent struggles to connect with multicultural voters.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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