October 11, 2021

PAUL TURTON, PRESENTER: Pat Conroy is the Member for Shortland and joins me now. Pat Conroy, thanks for coming on.


TURTON: What sort of a difference would buying Australian products make to communities like ours in the Hunter?

CONROY: It can make a massive difference. For example over the last three years, the Australian Government spent $190 billion on goods and services, and if we can lift the amount that’s spent locally just by a tiny percentage, that’s literally billions of dollars that’s going into the local economy. And the Hunter’s in a great position to grab some of that work because lots of things the Government spends money on include things like defence, manufactured goods, clean tech equipment and projects, infrastructure rollout of roads and rail, and they are things that the Hunter specialises in. So we are in a great position if we can change attitudes in Canberra.

TURTON: We’ve heard of our governments encouraging the use of Australian providers in the past, has it ever been mandated? Has it ever been legislated before?

CONROY: Previously it has, but unless you get a change in attitude at a public service level, you can have the best laws in the land but they won’t actually deliver things. And what we see is often Australian producers being discriminated against in really informal and subtle ways, for example constructing packages that are so big that no Australian company could bid for it because it’s just too big for them, or writing standards in foreign standards for steel for example rather than Australian standards.

So those informal rules get around the best wishes of any government to increase local content, and that’s why what we announced on the weekend really goes to those behavioural changes, really focusing the bureaucracy on saying ‘if Labor is elected, we want you to change the culture in Canberra so that you buy more Australian made goods’.

TURTON: Pat Conroy, has the game changed entirely? Because before we’d do comparisons, you know, where buying a fleet of trains for example we’d say ‘okay well they can be built in Vietnam or Korea for this amount of money but it’s so much more expensive in Australia’. But of course we discovered during this global financial, or global pandemic and the financial implications of it, that if we need the money we can find it. So should we be finding it every day for Australian products?

CONROY: Well we should as much as possible, but we should go one step back from what you just said, which is if we actually calculate a full life of cost for a product, we’ll find that Australian made goods are competitive with international examples. So the example that you used around trains, the EDI Downer railyards in my electorate, they lost the opportunity to build the new trains, but they’re spending lots of time doing rewiring and fixing up faulty welding and manufacturing done in China. If the State Government had just ordered the trains to be built at Cardiff in the first place, those trains would have been cheaper.

So it’s not even about having to pay more. It’s about comparing apples with apples and saying the Australian made product will be cheaper over the life cycle, and by the way it will lead to more Australian jobs and more income tax in this country, therefore the Australian Government would be better off.

TURTON: So what is this Fair Go Procurement Framework that Anthony Albanese’s been talking about?

CONROY: So there’s 10 points. Some of the really big ones are establishing a Future Made in Australia Office within the Department of Finance to really drive the change in culture in Canberra. Enshrining in law the procurement rules so that departments can’t ignore them. Establishing a Secure Australian Jobs Code - so one of the problems we’ve got is even when the Government buys Australian, they might be buying off someone who doesn’t employ Australians. They might be employing people on backpacker visas or are not paying the right award wages, so changing that. Breaking down the packages – so instead of going out to the market and saying ‘we want this product that’s worth $5 billion’ saying ‘well if we change the tender specs slightly, this is three products worth $1.5 billion’ which might mean that it’s more attractive to Australian companies. Establishing a preference for small businesses, and establishing a preference for companies owned and run by First Nation Australians.

So they’re really some of the key parts of it, but it really just goes back to changing the culture in Canberra because you can have the best will in the world, but unless you actually get the public service to listen to the government of the day, we won’t get more Australian jobs. And that is what this is all about. This is about increasing jobs in areas like the Hunter.

TURTON: Do we also need to clarify what ‘made in Australia’ means? Is it from imported and local ingredients and all of that crap they carry on with?

CONROY: Well that’s absolutely right, and that’s what a Future Made in Australia Office will help with. Because to give you an example in the defence area I work with, the French submarines that we are no longer buying, the current Government tried to argue that French business executives staying in Adelaide hotels or having English lessons was Australian content. That’s not Australian content. They might be spending a little bit of money in Australia and employing people, that’s great, but that’s not establishing Australian companies, transferring skills, and building capability in this country.

So measuring it is critical. We’ve spent, as I said, almost $200 billion every three years is spent by the Federal Government, and we still don’t measure what is Australian content properly. And if you can’t measure it, you can’t set goals that can be enforced.

TURTON: Pat Conroy, I appreciate you coming on, thank you.

CONROY: Not a problem, have a great afternoon. Bye.