It was either fortuitous timing or smart politics that led to Labor to unveil its flagship industry policy less than 24 hours after the Prime Minister buried his most under siege minister in the Industry portfolio.
The plan for $15 billion national reconstruction fund by Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese this week blew the government’s own manufacturing policies out of the water, with 10 times more funding on offer.
It also signalled a willingness and ability of the Opposition to capitalise on the government’s neglect of the tech and manufacturing sectors, which was made starkly more evident in this week’s reshuffle.
The manufacturing policy is the most significant so far announced by Labor and will be a key plank of its election campaign going into 2022.
At this point, the next election likely pits one of the most personable and media-savvy politicians in shadow industry minister Ed Husic against the government’s now invisible man Christian Porter, who will be kept out of the public view.
Mr Porter is currently on mental health leave after strenuously denying historical rape allegations made against him. He has also launched defamation proceedings against the ABC over its airing of the allegations, a move which made his position as the country’s Attorney-General untenable and forced the reshuffle.
In a clear message to the sector about the emphasis – or lack of it – that the government places on Industry policy, Mr Morrison shifted Mr Porter into the portfolio where he will be able to dodge the spotlight and take a step back while he continues his legal fight.
Mr Porter was sworn in as industry minister – the fifth in five years and the seventh since the Coalition won government in 2013 – on Tuesday afternoon while still on leave. He was expected to return to work on Wednesday.
But whichever way the election swings next year, it’s hard to imagine that Mr Porter will remain in the role, creating a level of uncertainty for the sector.
Much has and will be said about Mr Porter’s character and his decision to launch legal proceedings against the ABC, and that commentary is valid and important.
From a policy perspective, his appointment is something Labor can and will take advantage of – and offers a chance for the Opposition to make ground in an area where it is historically very strong.
With this week’s announcement of 10 times more funding than the government’s Modern Manufacturing Strategy (which it has been re-announcing every other week) it raises the question of whether the government will look to provide more support for the sector in the May budget.
But this would mean a significant announcement that would thrust Mr Porter back into the spotlight. Whether it will be willing to do this remains unclear.
And if it does choose to compete with Labor on industry policy, Mr Husic and the Opposition have a lot of ammunition up their sleeves.
The Coalition heralded its own manufacturing funding as an important aspect of Australia’s economic recovery from COVID-19, and now-former Industry Minister Karen Andrews had offered some much-needed stability to the space over the last two years.
She has now been promoted by Scott Morrison, being given the Home Affairs super-portfolio.
While Ms Andrews is a trained engineer with a bulk of experience in the sector and the respect of most in it, Mr Porter is a trained lawyer with experience as a prosecutor. He has shown no vocal interest in or support for industry policy or tech.
There are valid concerns already being raised by women in the industry that a man who is facing historical rape allegations – which he has strenuously denied – will now be leading the government agenda in relation to encouraging women into the STEM sector, and supporting female founders and entrepreneurs.
Mr Husic took on the shadow Industry role earlier this year and will be a vocal presence in the lead up to the next election.
Labor has already signalled it will be on the front foot in the portfolio.
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