It’s a great pleasure to be with you.
It’s the first time I’ve had the chance to talk to you as Deputy Prime Minister of Australia.
It’s the busiest time of my life right now.
But I wanted to come here today and speak to all of you about some of the challenges your industry is facing and what the Government is doing about them.
My colleague, the Industry Minister Kim Carr is also joining you during this conference so I will let him to bring you up to date on the changes affecting your sector.
That frees me up to speak more generally about broader matters of interest and some of the more critical priorities of this Federal Labor Government in the lead up to the election.
WHERE WE ARE NOW
Let’s begin with the fundamentals.
Despite the screams of doom from the Opposition, our economy is in pretty good shape.
Late last week, the international ratings agency Standard and Poors reaffirmed our AAA credit rating.
Standard and Poors is in good company with the other two global rating agencies – Moody’s and Fitch – who have also granted us this AAA star-billing.
It’s the first time in Australian history that this has occurred.
And we are one of only a handful of countries in this enviable economic position.
As the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said recently:
The global ratings agencies aren’t sub-branches of the Australian Labor Party. Their mission in life is to make governments around the world look anxious to the point of anxiety-led political depression.
The fact is the Australian economy is now 14 per cent bigger than it was when Federal Labor came to power in 2007.
Taxes, interest rates, unemployment and inflation are all lower under this Labor Government.
Despite the Global Financial Crisis, we stayed free of recession and added almost a million jobs to the workforce.
Compare this with the 30 million jobs shed across the rest of the world.
We did not reach this enviable position through economic austerity.
We did it through economic responsibility.
By radically increasing investment in human capital – in early childhood education, school standards, school infrastructure and funding, and uncapping university places.
By record spending on infrastructure.
The National Broadband Network, the greatest investment in nation building since the Snowy Mountains Scheme half a century ago.
New roads and rail links.
We have rebuilt one-third of our freight rail network, creating jobs and improving the quality of our supply lines, so critical in getting our products to national and international markets.
Putting historic levels of investment into public transport.
We have committed more to urban public transport than all other Federal Governments combined since Federation.
We are doing it because we know that high-quality reliable public transport is key to reducing the congestion afflicting our big cities in this 21st century.
Our enlightened Leader of the Opposition confirmed a few weeks ago that, should he be elected, he would cease investing in urban rail.
In his words, the Federal Government should “stick to its knitting and its knitting is roads”.
Of course we need roads.
That’s why Federal Labor has doubled the roads budget with the biggest road construction program in 40 years underway right across the nation.
But we also have to think of the weary city commuter who, year after year, is spending ever more minutes and hours each day inching through traffic, trying to get home to read a book to the kids before bedtime.
Delegates, while the economy might be robust, it’s no secret that Australian manufacturing is going through a period of immense change.
Changes in global markets, lower wages in competing countries and the high Aussie dollar have placed your sector under real pressure.
Across the world, we have seen a flow of manufacturing jobs from west to east.
The slowing of the China resources boom and the glacial pace of recovery in the global economy is further dampening demand for our products.
Let no-one in this room be under any misunderstanding.
This Government believes that a strong manufacturing sector is absolutely core to the economic future of this country.
We must be a country that makes things.
They might be different things to those we produced in our factories 30, 50 years ago.
But we will continue to produce products for Australia and the world.
Labor has a comprehensive agenda of support for Australian manufacturing, such as the $1 billion jobs plan which backs Australian firms to win more jobs at home.
Any project worth above $500 million now requires an Australian Industry Participation Plan outlining how local companies will be given a fair go in winning work.
And, if the project is above $2 billion, companies must employ an officer to monitor purchasing, to make sure Australian-made products are considered first.
But as Minister for the National Broadband Network, let me talk briefly about the NBN’s capacity to transform the landscape for Australian manufacturing.
To build jobs and compete effectively at home and around the world, manufacturing must continue getting smarter about the way it does business.
I can think of no better tool to help this happen than the National Broadband Network.
It truly is a game-changer.
Businesses in regions already connected are grabbing the opportunities it offers to jump ahead of their competitors.
A couple of weeks ago I was in Bendigo to meet local businesses including manufacturers who are preparing for the arrival of the NBN in coming months.
Close to 10,000 people are employed in manufacturing in Bendigo.
One of the employers is Keech Australia, a traditional foundry company which is also investing heavily in the future through its development of additive, or 3D, manufacturing.
Keech produces high-integrity steel and it patents its products for use around the world including China, Japan, Russia, Sweden, Canada and Brazil.
The company employs 120 people in research, design, pattern-making, casting, finishing and distribution.
It has so much work that it has commissioned a second foundry.
One of its current jobs is building rail parts for Kazakhstan.
Until now, Keech has had to transfer all the sophisticated electronic plans and models for the parts onto CDs, which they then send via mail for customer for approval.
The files are simply too vast for the existing broadband service.
It’s a slow process and means big delays as the CDs wend their way, snail-mail, to Kazakhstan.
Once the NBN arrives in Bendigo, all this will change.
Keech will be able to do everything on-line, from concept to design to refining the product, to simulation, to creating the final blueprint for construction.
They can talk in real time to their clients overseas, explain the process, refining as they go, reaching the production point quicker.
As Keech CEO Herbert Hermans told me, the lack of proper broadband has been a real impediment to progress for his company.
It’s a similar story in Bendigo at Thales which has just built its one thousandth Bushmaster for the Australian Defence Force.
It is building the prototype right now for the next generation of Bushmaster, the Hawkei, with the help of $65 million in development money from the Australian Government.
Thales employs around 300 people and is another great example of Aussie manufacturing.
It is also keenly awaiting the NBN so that it can share its very large files instantly with its interstate offices and customers around the world.
The NBN opens up a world of opportunities for companies like Keech and Thales.
To help manufacturers across the country make the most of the NBN, a couple of weeks ago I announced a $500,000 grant to the Australian Industry Group for a digital business kit.
The free kit will guide manufacturers in preparing for the arrival of the NBN and then making the most of it when it when they get connected.
ABBOTT AND THE NBN
Let me outline the key differences between Labor’s National Broadband Network and what the Coalition is proposing.
We are nation building.
We are building a network for the future, a network that will meet our needs now and for decades to come.
They want to build a network that relies on last century’s copper, a network that will be obsolete by the time it is built.
We are investing $30.4 billion on a network that can deliver 1,000 megabits per second and an upload speed of 400 megabits per second, a network that can be easily upgraded in the future.
They plan to spend $29.5 billion and can only guarantee 25 megabits per second—and cannot guarantee any upload speed at all.
Labor’s NBN treats regional Australians as equals, with a universal price guarantee built in.
This means that you pay the same wholesale price for the same broadband service, whether you live in Dubbo or the middle of Sydney.
The Coalition will abolish this guarantee, meaning people in rural and remote Australia will pay more for broadband than people in the cities.
Under Labor, there is no charge to have your business or home connected to fibre.
Under the Coalition, you will pay up to $5,000 to be connected to fibre, or you’ll be left with copper.
We believe that you should do it once, and do it right.
Do it with fibre.
On every measure—on speed, on cost, on fairness, on building for the future—the National Broadband Network is superior to the Coalition alternative.
FRINGE BENEFITS TAX
I wanted to say something today about the recent changes to the Fringe Benefits Tax as it applies to cars.
There’s been a lot of misinformation, pushed by the usual suspects with the most to gain by scaring people.
It will not end the car industry in Australia as we know it.
The only threat to that is the Coalition which has said that, if elected, it will cut $500 million in auto industry assistance.
Our changes to the FBT are quite small.
We are simply stopping people claiming a deduction they are not entitled to.
As a Government, we have an obligation to make sure that general taxes are not subsidising people’s private car use.
It is no more complex than that.
We will continue to promote policies that assist the automotive sector.
EMISSIONS TRADING SCHEME
On another front, we’re replacing the carbon tax with an emissions trading scheme.
This will ease the cost of living pressures on Australian families.
It is an economically responsible measure from a Government that is committed to taking positive action on climate change.
Tony Abbott might describe climate change as ‘crap’ and carbon as just an invisible gas.
We in Labor are doing the responsible thing – bringing Australia in line with our international obligations, cutting our emissions and creating the green jobs of the future.
Delegates, I am sure some of you have been following with interest the reforms to the Australian Labor Party announced recently by Prime Minister Rudd.
The direct election of the parliamentary leader and Federal intervention in the NSW branch, are all about returning the Party to its membership.
Labor is nothing without our members.
They are the people who work their guts out at election time, who make sure we get elected and who advocate for Labor in local communities.
These are the most far-reaching reforms in 40 years.
They are not the end but simply the beginning of the further democratisation of our great party.
Giving every Member a say in selecting the Labor Leader will re-energise the party.
In the last session of Federal Parliament, we passed legislation to ensure that employers fulfil their obligations and try to fill Australian jobs locally.
It’s been too easy to hire workers from overseas on 457 visas, keeping Australians out of work and stopping young job entrants getting the training and experience they deserve and need.
Employers must now show that they have tried to hire locally.
It’s not a big ask.
Delegates, Labor is facing the fight of its life.
We’re heading into an election where there is a real possibility of Tony Abbott emerging as this country’s next leader.
I am doing everything in my power to make sure this does not happen.
The Union movement will be doing the same.
Tony Abbott is the most conservative Liberal leader in Australian history.
Every molecule of his DNA is negative and regressive.
The great social reforms that every member of the Labor Party should be so proud of are all under threat with an Abbott Government.
He’d stand tall with employers who want to cut costs by attacking wages and conditions.
He’d take that easy Tory low road.
With us, there is a high road.
Engaging with all sectors, listening to working people and business leaders, having a proper debate about how we continue along the road to greater productivity.
One that involves high value, high wage jobs, not a race to the bottom.
Manufacturing is central to this country and it will continue to thrive if we stay clever and adapt.
Your new report – A Smarter Australia – is all about working better together.
We know that the high-performance work places are where the workers are directly involved in the decision making.
Yet all too often workers are not consulted, they are not asked to be part of the solution to build a more adaptable, productive workplace.
Ask that your employers listen to what you have to say.
Demand they invest more in the training that’s needed so you can grab the opportunities of the future.
Each one of you has a right to be heard and to be part of that future.
Together, both wings of our great labour movement – the political and industrial wings – can work to ensure Labor’s vision for the future can be achieved.
A stronger Australia.
A fairer Australia.
A sustainable Australia.
And as your report says, a smarter Australia.