If there is one thing in the election campaign that attracts broad agreement, it is that Australia needs to diversify its economic base to secure future jobs growth.
With the decline in the investment boom in the mining sector, Australia needs to fill the gap by creating new, 21st century industries as well expanding traditional industries such as food production.
That’s why research and innovation, education and high-end manufacturing are essential components of a future agenda.
Infrastructure is central to this debate.
If we are to create new industries that produce new exports, or if our agricultural producers are to expand their exports to meet the growing food needs of Asia, we must ensure our transport infrastructure has the capacity to support those industries.
We need efficient roads, rail freight, ports and intermodal connections. And they all need to fit together seamlessly. An efficient transport network boosts productivity, creates jobs and, by its success, continues to drive further economic growth.
Innovation is a great thing. But it means little if we can’t back up our great ideas with the means to turn them into great export industries.
That’s where the government has failed over the past three years.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, public sector infrastructure investment fell 20 per cent between the September quarter of 2013 and the September quarter of last year.
At the very time when capital investment was dropping off in mining, we needed to lift infrastructure investment to generate ongoing economic activity and to prepare for the diversification of industry we all agree needs to occur.
That we failed is a mistake.
A great example is the proposed inland rail project, which would link Brisbane and Melbourne and expedite movement of goods, particularly agricultural exports, up and down the nation’s eastern coastal hinterland.
It’s an essential piece of infrastructure if we are serious about boosting agricultural exports. That’s why the former Labor government engaged in the necessary planning and allocated $300 million to get the project going — money that was in the budget at the change of government in 2013.
The former Labor government also spent $600m upgrading part of the existing rail network that would be part of inland rail.
In the 2013 election campaign, the Coalition vowed it would fast-track this important project. But in its first two budgets, the Coalition did not allocate any new money to the project beyond the $300m provided in the former Labor government’s budget.
It finally allocated some funding in last month’s budget. But it has yet to nominate a starting date.
Inland rail should be under construction right now. The planning has been done. It’s ready to go.
The Coalition’s failure to act on this project over the past three years is completely out of kilter with its claimed support for economic diversification.
We also need to ensure our ports have the capacity to handle our exports, which is why, for example, a Labor government would invest $175m to complete the duplication of the Port Botany rail freight line.
It’s also why the former Labor government created the nation’s first National Freight Strategy and National Ports Strategy, both of which were designed to guide the integration of different modes of transport and eliminate bottlenecks.
In the same spirit, we invested more than $1bn in Sydney’s Moorebank Intermodal terminal which will allow for rapid movement of containers between trucks and trains.
It’s also why Labor built or rebuilt 7500km of roads and 4000km of rail lines when we were in office.
That work will reduce the freight rail journey from the nation’s east coast to the west coast by nine hours and the Brisbane to Melbourne journey by six hours.
This investment took Australia from 20th among advanced economies for investment in infrastructure when we came to government, to first when we left office.
New industries also need top-class communications. They need Labor’s fibre-to-the-premises National Broadband Network.
It is absurd to pretend that a forward-looking, innovative nation can prosper with the Coalition’s copper-based fraudband project, which will offer half the speeds promised at twice the price.
While infrastructure and logistics seldom make front page news, this type of investment will underwrite our nation’s attempt to build new industries based on the fruits of our research and innovation.
That’s a process that needs to continue. At this time in our history, a 20 per cent reduction in public sector infrastructure investment is the last thing we need.
There’s one other critical element in economic diversification.
Australia’s greatest national asset is our people. To prosper in the 21st century, the Australian people need the education and skills required in the 21st century.
That’s why Labor wants to invest in needs-based education, including vocational training through a revitalised TAFE sector.
Education benefits the individual. But it also benefits our entire nation.
This Opinion Piece was first published in The Australian on Tuesday,14 June 2016.