The way forward
All the issues facing regional Australia outlined above, the loss of jobs and industries, unemployment (in all its facets) and underemployment, and significant wealth/income inequality, will continue to accelerate and worsen over the next several decades unless meaningful action is taken now. The only way to address the disparity between regional and metropolitan Australia is for government to genuinely develop and implement policies designed to create new job opportunities, provide energy certainty, rebuild TAFE and address indigenous disadvantage. Government must show that it is serious about ensuring that regional Australians no longer are left to stand and watch as their communities are slowly destroyed by economic forces the government has shown no inclination to oppose. Below are a number of policies that the ACTU strongly encourages the government to consider.
- The Government must work in co-operation with industry and private investors to provide support when this failure in finance markets occurs. Private investment, with outcomes specified by government, can be facilitated through low interest loans, loan guarantees and direct investment. A multi-industry agency should be established to help support investment in strategic industries where private investment has failed.
- Develop a sound national energy policy that supports local industry. Australia is lucky to have large amounts of natural resources (including fossil fuel, solar, wind and water) that can provide comparative advantages to local industry through low cost energy. Unfortunately, this comparative advantage is being wasted through ineffective energy policy. We need policy settings that encourage investments to enhance the capacity of local suppliers of solar, wind, biomass and other renewable energy. This will have the added benefit of helping to lower the costs of transition to low carbon energy system, as well as maximising the benefits for workers in the transition. A national interest test is also needed to ensure domestic producers have access to the energy they need. An energy policy which delivers for Australians is one which creates good quality jobs in the creation and establishment of energy infrastructure and the development of related industries, while also providing competitive power pricing to wider industry (and consumers).
- Government investment in large scale projects, industry assistance, strategic infrastructure development, public sector jobs, education, health and the social safety should be used to help stimulate economic growth and employment opportunities.
- Detailed identification and assessment of regionally-located high-potential export sectors, recognising that opportunities are not fixed, but influenced through investment and industry assistance. Once identified, specific strategies to grow investment, production and exports for these key sectors needs to be conducted as part of broader industry development plans.
- Rebuilding TAFE and enabling it to regain its role of supporting regional areas through reviewing the privatisation of TAFE and VET programs, stabilising core funding for TAFEs (including a role for employer contributions), capping the share of total VET funding contestable by private providers, and re-establishing tripartite structures for governance of the VET system.
- Using government procurement of goods and services from private suppliers to leverage more and better Australian jobs, particularly in regional Australia. The job- creating potential of public procurement must be maximised through adoption of a Buy Australia policy (as proposed by the ACTU and being implemented by a number of governments at a state level), supplemented by measures like stronger Australian Industry Participation rules, better reporting of domestic content in public contracts for both services and infrastructure and long-run supply and purchasing planning (coordinated where relevant with state and municipal governments) to nurture Australian suppliers for more public purchases.
- Expanding targeted public investments in key areas – such as public transit, renewable energy, utility upgrades, and others – to reinforce the expansion of capital spending and accelerate the transition to a higher technology and lower-carbon economy.
- Facilitating increased engagement by super funds in strategic infrastructure investment through new methods and models.
- Australia urgently needs the Federal Government to create an Energy Transition Authority responsible for navigating Australia’s energy transition to a clean-energy economy. As a minimum the Transition Authority needs the requisite powers and resources to plan for, establish and oversee the orderly management of power station transitions, network augmentation and generator closures in order to mitigate the severity of surrounding structural adjustments to workers, their families and communities. The Authority would be responsible for;
o The research, consultation and policy development required to develop and implement effective transition plans including developing plans for regional communities that support economic diversification and encourage new investments in alternative industries;
o Overseeing industry-wide multi-employer pooling and retrenchment schemes that facilitate worker transitions including enabling retrenched workers to transfer to roles either in remaining fossil fuel, renewable or low emissions generators or to other industries;
o Developing and implementing strong labour adjustment packages.
- The Authority would also implement the broader “Just Transition” initiatives needed to identify jobs and industries likely to be affected by future climate change policies and other environmental initiatives, develop a timetable of labour market impacts, and implement a long term strategy, working with State and Local Governments to coordinate assistance packages for businesses, workers and communities that focus on creating new, secure jobs and the skills required to access these jobs.
- The racist Community Development Programme must be scrapped and replaced with a program that empowers indigenous communities to control how government money is spent and which is genuinely aimed at the creation of economic activity in regional communities centred around good, secure jobs for indigenous people.
- An independent inquiry into the economic impact of deregulation / self-regulation policies on regional Australia.
- The Committee should consider examining transition processes in other countries and jurisdictions such as Germany, Spain, Canada and New York.
For more detail on these measures and a comprehensive plan for the development of a stronger economy for all Australians, please see the ACTU Jobs Policy. Finally, while we note that plans for hearings have not yet been published, the ACTU would be greatly disappointed if the Committee was not intending to conduct a comprehensive series of hearings in regional areas across Australia. Any attempt to determine a plan for the development of regional Australia without input from workers and business living in the regions can only be a failure.