Australia’s national science agency, the CSIRO, has responded to growing public concern about the nation’s resilience in the post-COVID world and released a comprehensive report revealing the opportunities for key industries to leverage science and technology and help restore economic growth, national security and resilience.
For many nations, COVID-19 has served as a form of divine intervention, revealing foundations of sand and the frailty of over-dependence on the lowest cost proposition, ailing infrastructure and rapidly declining resilience.
Australia is no exception, and as recent economic, political and strategic tensions have revealed, it is in the midst of this adversity that we can truly chart our own path forward.
Across the globe, the post-Second World War economic, political and strategic order is coming under siege, driven by mounting waves of civil unrest and rising levels of the favourite boogeyman of much of the media, 'nationalism'.
Growing economic stagnation across the West, environmental concerns and the increasing geo-strategic competition between the world's great powers are all undermining the global balance of power.
Adding further fuel to the fire is the global and more localised impacts of COVID-19, which range from recognising the impact of vulnerable, global supply chains upon national security as many leading nations, long advocates of "closer collaboration and economic integration", grasp at the lifeboats of the nation-state to secure their national interest.
While this economic, political and strategic turmoil is in some ways 'unprecedented', the favoured catchphrase of many a media personality seeking to describe anything from the bushfires that devastated swathes of the landmass, the economic impact of COVID-19 or the societal upheaval sweeping the West, Australia does its best work when its chips are down.
Responding to these challenges has pushed the public policy status quo to the edge, as government grapples with how to stimulate the economy, lower unemployment and prepare the nation for the increasingly disrupted and challenging decades to come.
To this end, many across the Australian political, media and public policy realms have provided valuable input into the public discussion, which has grown in importance for the Australian public as the nation stares down its first recession in thirty years and a global order seemingly in its death throws.
While some nations like Australia's contemporary, South Korea have publicly revealed their plans for reigniting the fires of economic growth and development in the post-COVID world, many nations have been slow off the mark, responding to this, Australia's national science agency, the CSIRO has come to the rescue.
CSIRO chief executive Dr Larry Marshall recently released a comprehensive report to serve as a framework for Australian policymakers, titled COVID-19: Recovery and resilience - Opportunities for Australia to leverage science and technology to support economic recovery and resilience, which builds on the growing public debate.
Dr Marshall sets the scene for the basis for the report, stating, "At this pivotal time in our history, the inclination is to batten down the hatches and postpone investments, when actually we need to double down on Australian innovation, because science and technology can drive our recovery from this pandemic-led recession and land us back in a much stronger position."
Innovation is key, but so is playing to our advantages
Despite the concept of the "ideas boom" and an "innovation agenda" driven by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull receiving varying degrees of public support, ranging from derision to broader support – innovation remains one of the nation's key "strategic economic force multipliers", but this goes beyond technological innovation and must also include policy innovation.
Recognising the importance of innovation, the CSIRO report states, "Science and technology have always been vital for Australia’s economy, creating economic growth and opportunity for all Australians. At this pivotal time in our history, the inclination is to batten down the hatches and postpone investments or actioning new ideas while riding out the storm.
"But actually, we need to double down on Australian innovation, because science and technology guide our ship into better waters with sails intact – it could even add an Australian‑invented carbon fibre mast for more speed to outpace competitors."
Harkening back to the early days of Australia as a Commonwealth, the CSIRO expands on the nation's history of focusing on its areas of advantage and strength, stating, "In the past, our Aussie ingenuity has reinvented wool in the face of synthetics entering the fabric industry, it’s reinvented cotton for an Australian climate, and it’s reinvented connectivity with fast Wi-Fi.
"In fact, the same expertise that reinvented wool went on to reinvent carbon fibre, securing Australia’s own secret recipe for the next‑generation material. We’ve supported existing industries to pivot, small and medium businesses to grow, and new start-ups to thrive.
"We’ve created jobs, built careers, and inspired generations to change the world around them through science and technology. We’ve been proud innovators."
Critically, the report highlights long-term job creation and investment opportunities for the Australian economy in the post-COVID world in a series of key economic areas, namely the following sectors:
- Agriculture and food;
- Mineral resources;
- Manufacturing; and
- Digital and high technology industry.
Dr Marshall explains the importance of this targeted approach, stating, "Just as science and technology have been guiding our health and emergency response, so too will they drive our economic response and recovery from this pandemic."
This statement is reinforced by CSIRO Futures lead economist Dr Katherine Wynn, who explained that by acting now, Australian industries could increase productivity and cost efficiencies as well as create additional revenue from products, services and markets over the next few years.
Dr Wynn explained, "Energy-efficient technologies is one immediate way to reduce energy costs, emissions and demand on the grid while creating local jobs, and we see many opportunities for increased productivity, such as energy-efficient appliances in buildings and electric vehicles in transport that use mature technologies that are readily adoptable today.
"The health sector has always been an essential part of Australia's economy and its importance has understandably been further emphasised during the pandemic.
"We also see potential for more efficient healthcare delivery through point-of-care diagnostics supported by bioinformatics and high-performance computing. The manufacturing sector could maximise its local manufacturing capabilities, creating jobs and adding value to Australia’s growth sectors, particularly in pharmaceuticals, food and beverage manufacturing, mineral resource processing as well as in space and defence," Dr Wynn said.
These points are further enhanced by a poignant and timely question raised by senator for NSW, retired Major General and long-time advocate for a holistic National Sovereignty Strategy, Jim Molan, AO, DSC, who recently told Sky News:
"The point that I make is that if we need to put $270 billion over the next 10 years into defence, what other parts of our society, of our nation do we need to address to match whatever this $270 billion is going to buy us in the end?
"The basis for our national security is the economy. The problem I have is how does a government know risks it is taking by not funding certain aspects of national security, if it doesn’t know what we absolutely need?"
What is the economy looking for?
Policy consistency is a key component of supporting economic development and it is something many nations throughout the Indo-Pacific, in particular, excel at. For Australia, now is the time for policy consistency, something a Deloitte-commissioned report titled Footprint 2020: Expansion and optimization approaches for US manufacturers identifies as key catalysts global brand executives look for when deciding where to expand manufacturing bases, including:
- New market opportunities;
- Proximity to existing accounts;
- Talent availability, educational infrastructure;
- Business disruption risk; and
- State technology advances.
It would seem on that basis, Australia is a stand out opportunity, particularly when combined with the nation's wealth of traditional and 'next-generation' raw resources, like rare earth elements essential to modern, value-add manufacturing capabilities.
In order to capitalise upon this shift in manufacturing hubs, it is clear that Australia must begin to plan for the next 15-20 years, not the next term of state, territory or federal government, providing policy consistency and, above all, long-term stability and vision for the public and surety in a period of global and regional turmoil.
This approach requires more than vanity programs, which can be best left to local government or private developers. Rather, it requires a strategic approach to a number of visible, high impact public policy areas, including:
- Infrastructure development: Addressing the critical links between hubs of economic prosperity, including regional hubs and metropolitan centres – including improved, faster and more reliable road, rail and air transport links.
- Water security: Australia is a continent of extremes, “droughts and flooding rains”, yet we do little to adequately channel and store the vast quantities of water that falls – now is the opportunity to promote economic stimulus through infrastructure investment while supporting Australia’s agricultural industry and drought-proofing the continent.
- Energy and resource security: Addressing the nation’s lack of strategic resource and energy supplies has come to the fore during COVID-19. Preparing the nation for such challenges, whether natural or man-made, should be of paramount priority – this requires less ideology and more pragmatism.
- Strategic industry development: COVID has stirred many within the Australian public to question why Australia isn’t manufacturing more of the critical – it is clear that Australia requires a concerted policy initiative in the form of a Strategic Industries Act to develop a robust, globally competitive industry 4.0-oriented manufacturing base.
Each of these contribute to the nation’s sovereignty and security at a time when many of the principles that Australia’s post-Second World War public and strategic policy is based upon are coming under threat – serving to make Australia a more reliable economic, political and strategic partner amid a period of great power competition.
Masters of our own destiny
For far too long Australia has deferred to the leadership and guidance of others, preferring to be shaped by the economic, political and strategic realities of the world.
In doing so, as a nation we have failed to reach our true potential, we have failed to become the masters of our own destiny and we have failed to bend the majesty and potential of the continent to our will, often leaving the nation equally as vulnerable to domestic shocks as it is to global ones.
As Australia and the globe enter what could be the single greatest economic depression since the Great Depression of the 1930s, Australia has two choices: be defined by the global shocks and continue to limp along as our regional neighbours surge ahead, or grasp the reins and drive our own future.
There are some models to follow, ranging from the New Deal of US president and wartime leader Franklin Delano Roosevelt or, looking more closely to our regional neighbours, South Korea's recently announced 'Korean New Deal', which leverages the length and breadth of state power to develop an economic transformation strategy for the 21st century.
In order to achieve this Australia must not only embrace the very real potential of becoming the "poor white trash of Asia" as so eloquently established by Lee Kuan Yew.
But, Australia should also use such an outcome as a rallying call, a wall against our back to unify and pull the nation in a common direction, shaking off one of the very apt criticisms of Australian policy making: the fact that public policy-making decisions are based on the comparatively short election cycles and further impacted by conflicting jurisdictional interests and actions.
In light of this, it is time for Australia to plan for the next 15 to 20 years, not the next term of state, territory or federal government, providing policy consistency, vision for the public and surety in a period of global and regional turmoil.
Each of these contribute to the nation's sovereignty and security at a time when many of the principles that Australia's post-Second World War public and strategic policy is based upon coming under threat – serving to make Australia a more reliable economic, political and strategic partner amid a period of great power competition.
Furthermore, it serves to make Australia more resilient to man-made and natural shocks, resistant to coercion, economically competitive and robust at a time when the Australian public are calling for leadership, forward planning and vision.
Australia is defined by its economic, political and strategic relationships with the Indo-Pacific and the access to the growing economies and to strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the 21st century’s era of great power competition and global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Australia is consistently told that as a nation we are torn between our economic relationship with China and the longstanding strategic partnership with the US, placing the country at the epicentre of a great power rivalry – but what if it didn’t have to be that way?
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation’s approach to our regional partners.