The volume and velocity of dollars being sprayed by the Coalition at industry development programs from space to critical minerals to artificial intelligence in the past several months has been ferocious. Billions of dollars signed and sealed.
Given how fast the spending announcements were coming from government early in the year, you could be forgiven for thinking this aggressive pace could not last. But of course, it has, and even accelerated in the first two weeks of the election campaign.
Forget that most of money had already been earmarked. Some funding programs appear to have been held back so that announcements could be made in the context of the election.
And others have been rushed so that announcements could be made in the context of the election.
Billions of dollars, signed and sealed in a blizzard of announceables in which the industrial policy narratives are entirely obscured by the politics in which they are framed.
But not as embarrassing as Labor’s response, which in the first two weeks of the campaign has been to do precisely nothing. On industry policy, the opposition has been as quiet and meek as a church mouse. Eek, eek.
What on earth is going on? Keeping the powder dry? For what? The 2025 election?
There was a time when conventional wisdom would tell you that industry policy and industry development programs would always be stronger under a Labor government than under a conservative government.
Well that time is over apparently. Shadow industry minister Ed Husic is nowhere to be seen. Ditto the opposition science spokesman Richard Marles (unless we’re talking headlines about accusations of being soft on China, in which case Marles is Mr Everywhere. But on science, nothing.)
It is an extraordinary thing that Labor, having successfully prosecuted the case in the first year-and-half of the pandemic of Australia’s urgent need to build sovereign capability in areas of strategic importance has now vacated the field.
It was Labor that was driving the original conversations about supply-chain risk and the specific need to use industrial policy to build capability and capacity. In terms of industrial policy, Labor first started talking in terms of ‘sovereign capability’ before the pandemic.
But now that sovereign capability is a part of the mainstream lexicon, and an election campaign is in full swing, it has decided that running deep and silent is the best strategy. We know they’re out there somewhere on industry policy, but they are choosing to stay hidden.
The government now owns the conversation about sovereign capability and capacity development across any area with a Defence/national security element absolutely – from space and earth observation to artificial intelligence to critical minerals. And even advanced manufacturing.
That’s a bit embarrassing, don’t you think?
But there is plenty of embarrassment to go around. If it were capable of being embarrassed, this government’s brazen politicisation of industry support spending should be more than enough.
Anyone who has been involved in any of the consultation or application processes for various of the Morrison government industry grants programs will know how whacky the timelines and processes have been. They’re all over the place.
Program applicants have often been given just a few short weeks to put together a complex business proposal involving multiple companies seeking tens of millions of dollars, only for the government processes to go utterly silent for six months, eight months and more.
That either means they are badly organised or highly politicised. Or most likely both.
What is amazing, however, is the military precision with which the announcements of billions of dollars of industry grant spending and initiatives have been made, across multiple states and multiple sectors. Hey presto – an election – and it starts raining money.
There’s nothing like an election to focus the mind on industry spending announcements. Someone should tell Labor.
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