07/05/2008 - 22:00

New location, same old story

07/05/2008 - 22:00


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I’ve been on the road this week but still managed to keep up with the news.

New location, same old story

I’ve been on the road this week but still managed to keep up with the news. I’ve read about unions stepping up industrial action, heard about the miserly state government resisting pressure to cut taxes despite a big budget surplus, and spoken to business people who have battled to start a new project because of opposition from environmental activists.

Sound familiar? Well, the issues may be, but they’re happening a long way from home; in the US, actually, renowned as the home of free enterprise and small government.

I’ve also read about the pain inflicted by high petrol prices – and the quixotic response of policy makers, who pretend they have intelligent responses that will make a real difference to an economic trend beyond the control of any one country or government.

Throw in stories about weak housing prices and the supposedly sinister impact of lobbyists and public relations firms, and the parallels with life in Western Australia are almost uncanny.

Travelling in the US – indeed, travelling anywhere outside of WA – provides a revealing perspective on our home state.

It indicates very clearly that most of the issues facing WA arise in many other places around the world, including the US, which is renowned for being pro-business.

This awareness does not necessarily provide any solutions, but it does indicate that we shouldn’t pretend WA is in any way unique in the issues it faces.

The aforementioned industrial action was taken by thousands of dock workers, who effectively shut down operations at 29 ports along the US west coast.

The strike action on Labour Day was ostensibly a protest against the Iraq war.

It occurred despite an arbitrator’s ruling that the unionists stay at work, heightening employers’ fears about the possibility of increased union militancy, just like in Australia.

The environmental campaign had an Australian flavour.

Its target was a company called Hawaii Superferry, which this year took delivery of a 105-metre vessel from Perth’s Austal Ships so that it could launch an inter-island ferry service.

The vessel, constructed at Austal’s Alabama shipyard, is the largest aluminium ship ever built in the US.

This fact highlights Austal’s status as a global market leader, but also reminds us of the strict trade rules that protect the US shipbuilding industry.

While Austal exports ships from its Henderson yard to most corners of the globe, ships used in the US must be built in the US.

This was one of the more extreme protectionist measures – along with the highly expensive trade barriers protecting US sugar growers – that survived the so-called free trade agreement Australia negotiated with the US a couple of years ago.

The Hawaii ferry service has attracted strident opposition from activists who believe it may kill whales, pollute the ocean, cause traffic congestion and all manner of other problems.

After going to great lengths to address these concerns over the past three to four years, Hawaii Superferry stated operating last month.

It has proved highly popular with the locals, who now have an alternative to the airline services that previously monopolised inter-island travel.

It also means families and businesses can easily take their car between the main islands of Maui and Oahu. The company is planning a second daily service later this month and has ordered a second ferry so that it can service other islands.

To me it sounds like a great entrepreneurial venture. Who would have thought that Hawaii didn’t have an inter-island ferry service?

It has taken a local business owner, and the innovative vessels manufactured by Austal, to provide a solution.

That provides an uplifting business success story to counter all of the negativity surrounding the other stories I have encountered on my travels thus far.


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