The Slow Lane

Most economic pundits talk of a 2 speed economy in Australia. In the fast lane is Queensland and Western Australia, while the south eastern states are in the slow lane. The fast lane is being driven by the mining boom, but that boom is also creating two economies in those states as well. The eastern states are experiencing significant hardship, especially in the manufacturing sector, where many businesses are struggling to stay in business. That being said, manufacturing enterprises in the fast lane states are also finding the going tough, unless they are servicing the large mining companies, for the same reasons.

Considering the demand for our resources will continue to grow, and that those resources are not in Tasmania, and as such that investment will p[ass us by, the question arises: what do we need to do to benefit from the boom.

One approach is to seek federal support for not having those resources, to gain some form of compensation in federal payments for not being able to keep up with the growth states. In fact it is a traditional response, and one Tasmania has argued for some time now.

However, it may not be the best response. The mining boom is sucking a lot of capital and a lot of labour from other areas of enterprise. Unemployment in the growth states is low, whereas in the slow lane it is high.

So what is it that we have or that we can produce that is needed by the mining giants.

In terms of facilities, mining towns are in dire need of housing and associated services. Have we as a community given any thought to becoming the principal supplier of prefabricated housing, to ship as panels and erect on site. It happened once before, when a Tasmanian architectural firm developed a novel design for providing temporary housing in the harsh environment of tropical Australia. Storage tanks and electricity supply modules should be a doddle for Tasmanian businesses, and a golden opportunity for some co-ordination from government in making the pitch.

If there is such a shortage of skilled labour, so much so that imported labour is now under consideration, why not be the pre-eminent training provider of trained personnel for the industry. Whether that labour decides to be “fly-in fly-out”, or to move to the mining centres for a period, Tasmania could be a beneficiary from providing a skilled and focused workforce and training environment. In welding, electrical, boilermaking, and all the other skills required, we could even obtain company support for the development of such a facility. As we were able to lead the way in Maritime Studies, so we could also do so for the mining sector.

To those who might argue that we are training our people to lose them, my response is simple. We are going to lose them anyway. Better that they leave prepared than underprepared. And not all will leave, and many will come back. In the meantime Tasmania gets a fantastic reputation for providing a world-class training environment, together with all the social and economic flow-on effects.

Such ideas will obviously require some negotiation with the mining companies involved, but I suspect no such conversation has yet occurred. And better to have those conversations than to tell stories of woe.

While on this soapbox, I am intrigued that the low level of defence activity in Tasmania does not raise more questions. In this regard, the issue is not so much operational bases, as they need to be more strategically placed, but in the area of maintenance, refurbishment and general overhaul, Tasmania could be ideally situated. All other States, including the fast laners, enjoy high levels of defence expenditures and activity, and Tasmania should be in for its share. A naval support base would be an ideal fit for Tasmania, especially as we have the Maritime College in Launceston, and are promoting ourselves as a gateway to the Antarctic and a base for southern fisheries.

Add a floating dock facility and we could have a strongly integrated marine centre of excellence. It would also fit in neatly with the skills-based training facility suggested for the mining industry, as the skill base and the materials used would be similar.

I am the first to acknowledge such an idea requires more than one player, and it may not be the only path to follow, but at least it is a path, that can unite us moving forward, and with a growth strategy that will bring social and economic benefits to the state.