30/07/2008 - 22:00

Local experience reflected in the US

30/07/2008 - 22:00


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A booming economy creating staff shortages while young people leave the state for more interesting places.

A booming economy creating staff shortages while young people leave the state for more interesting places.

Sound familiar?

No, it's not Western Australia; it's Iowa in the US mid west. A thoughtful reader of this newspaper passed on a recent article from The New York Times highlighting the problems in Des Moines, the capital of Iowa, and the rest of the state.

For much of the article you could have replaced the word Iowa with WA and not missed a beat.

Like WA, Iowa is out of step with the rest of the country, which is suffering from a downturn.

Staff shift jobs over small things like the availability of a coffee shop or gym, and generally anyone who wants work can get it.

But, partially, that's because not many of the young people want to stay in Iowa because it's perceived to be boring. That image problem hampers recruitment elsewhere as well. Hmmmm, we've heard this before too, haven't we?

It's fascinating to discover WA's issues mirrored elsewhere, especially in a microcosm such as a mid-sized state in the middle of the giant US economy.

I'm sure there must be other pockets of the world in similar circumstances. In the past there were good examples. Ireland for example was booming in the late 1990s while the rest of Europe was stagnant, benefitting from European Union funding and special efforts to attract certain industry sectors.

Currently, some of the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, such as the United Arab Emirates, are enjoying booms on the back of high oil prices and efforts to reinvest the profits into more sustainable industries.

Of course, none of these, including Iowa, is a mirror image of WA. Iowa, for example, has attracted many national employers, such as the insurance industry, because its wages are low.

That is certainly not the case in WA, where our wages discount to the rest of the country evaporated earlier this decade.

Commodities, rather than a structural difference in costs, lead the WA economy, although both are subject to supply and demand.

Iowa has also experienced a jobs boom in value adding to its massive farm sector through biofuel development.

While Iowa and WA share a common interest in broadacre grain production and both have developed biofuel sectors, our state has not benefited from the national focus on oil substitution that has occurred in the US.

Arguably, in that regard, Iowa is winning from a false economy in the US, which is using the guise of energy security arguments to encourage the transfer of food production to fuel production when many believe that this policy is simply another way of subsidising the nation's farmers.

Whatever the differences, the similarities are strong. Perhaps when our politicians next look at doing some globetrotting at taxpayers' expense, unsexy Des Moines should be on the itinerary.

Missing in action

OCCASIONALLY I like to play media observer, given the lack of regular scrutiny in WA. So, with that in mind, did anyone notice a sudden interest by The West Australian newspaper in the story about fuel technology group Firepower?

Until the past week, many people have commented to me on how quiet our state's daily paper has been on the story, which has been the talk of the town for at least a year and half.

It's odd, really, given the profile of the Western Force, which was sponsored by Firepower and, more importantly, the fact that mums and dads have been caught up as investors.

I just can't imagine the same lack of interest if this was a sponsor of the West Coast Eagles.

By searching a well-known news database last Thursday, I counted just 14 articles written by journalists from The West since January 2007 that cover off on Firepower and its founder, Tim Johnston. And the first of those was a puff piece on the company.

Several of those articles have been in the past week or so, after the Australian Securities and Investments Commission started its civil legal action.

That may have been a catalyst for The West getting interested, but there's been a lot of bad news about Firepower for the past two years. Here at WA Business News, we've done 17 stories spaced out over a much longer period starting in May 2006 when we named Firepower as the mystery company likely to be behind the funding of rugby star Matt Giteau's contract.

We then covered a legal action between Firepower's early shareholders, which we revealed in October 2006. The West's journalists didn't appear to write about this case until February 2007.

I'll let the readers be the judge, but story for story I reckon we've covered off a lot more of the controversy, with our editorial staff of 11, than The West has with its army of journalists and photographers supposedly covering everything.

Furthermore, my research shows me the Sydney Morning Herald has written 63 articles on Firepower and Tim Johnston since June 2006 - that is a lot more than The West and most surprising given the SMH and The West have a copy sharing arrangement, which means they can use each others' articles.

It is possible The West has published some of these articles and not been credited for them by the news database I used, but as a follower of the Firepower story I know that many of the SMH pieces were never offered to readers in WA.

That seems strange when not only was it an interesting story, but the work was being done for them.

Hopefully readers of our paper got a clearer picture of what was going on at Firepower last year and stayed away from any 'opportunities' to blow their money.



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