After two months of restrictions, which have presented the biggest challenges to our social structures and our economy since World War II, it’s understandable that getting back to normal, to the way things were before COVID-19, is the immediate aim for many. However, we must acknowledge that COVID-19 will change the economy and the way we live permanently, and, as a nation, we must look for the opportunity in these changes. If we don’t seize the opportunity, other nations will, and we will find ourselves less resilient and less competitive.
I am proud that our Prime Minister and our government have stood firm in the face of recent inflammatory comments from the Chinese ambassador threatening economic consequences because Australia has made the obvious and commonsense point that the origins of the coronavirus must be independently investigated. This virus has killed hundreds of thousands of people worldwide and devastated our global economy. An investigation into its origins is a necessary and sensible step to enable the world to prevent future pandemics. We should never reach the point as a nation where we’re not able to speak freely about what is right and what is in the global interest, or where we give in to unreasonable demands and threats of economic payback.
In an age of globalisation, the current crisis has brought home how important it is for us to be as self-sufficient as possible in the goods and services that we need and that we produce. A nation which can supply itself with food, energy, medicine, timber, steel and manufactured goods is in a much better position to face future global crises than one which cannot. In the areas where we do not have the current capability to produce for ourselves such things as medicines or transportation fuel, the old assumption that we can rely on international imports must be challenged. Challenging these assumptions creates an opportunity for Australia to consider how we can grow these industries locally, both creating jobs here and shoring up our local and national supply chains.
In the area of food production, in an overall sense, Australia produces much more food than we consume, and this provides us with excellent opportunities to export our produce. But it does not escape attention that Australia still imports hundreds of millions of dollars worth of fruit and vegetables from other countries each year. Growing the capacity of our agricultural industries to produce that which we are currently importing is another opportunity to employ more Australians and grow our economy. The work currently being done on new irrigation schemes in Tasmania, enabled by hundreds of millions of dollars in joint investment between the coalition government and the Tasmanian Liberal government, is a great example of how we can further support growth in our agricultural sector.
Australia is, of course, a trading nation, and much of our wealth is created from selling to the world—and that won’t change. But that shouldn’t mean that we accept that, just because a product can be imported from overseas, we needn’t produce it here. We will continue to create high-quality products and we will continue to create jobs by making these products available to the world. But we won’t trade them for our right to stand up for our national interests and our national sovereignty against foreign threats.
Australia must also recalibrate its thinking on how we attract and encourage new business and industry. The effort that is put into opposing new businesses and trying to bring down industries that employ tens of thousands of Australians is frankly obscene. Of course, we’re a democracy and everybody should be able to freely speak and put their views forward. But this doesn’t mean that vocal minorities should be able to prevent, delay, hold up and deter businesses that have a legal right to operate. In Tasmania, we are all too familiar with the efforts of this minority to oppose any major industry or development. They oppose fish farming, forestry, tourism, mining, urban development, heavy industry, energy developments, including wind farms—the list is endless—and the message that is sent to people who want to start a business is disastrous for Tasmanians, who just want to be able to have good jobs so that they can provide for their families.
The laws and bureaucracies in this country give far too many weapons to these minorities to hold up and prevent major projects. If we are going to bounce back strongly from coronavirus, every jurisdiction should be looking at whether their laws are enabling investment or empowering minority groups to prevent major projects and job creation. If it is the latter, those laws must be changed.