If WA wants to continue reaping the rewards of its abundant bounty, it needs to stay ‘open for business’.
The export of primary resources is the lifeblood of this state’s economy and, no matter how often the doomsayers suggest we need to look elsewhere, it is expected to provide a baseload of activity for decades to come.
Certainly times are tougher for many exporters hit by falling demand amid burgeoning supply, but that is typical of commodities markets, and business in Western Australia has lived through such cycles many times.
It’s important that we do everything we can to ensure obstacles are not put in the way of those who want to take our resources and create value from them.
Leaving resources untouched provides no value to anyone.
Barriers such as opposition to investment by foreign companies, difficult access to the land (or sea), high-cost labour, militant unions, inadequate infrastructure, and any form of unnecessary taxes or fee gouging could mean that WA’s once ‘open-for-business’ status loses its credibility.
Those issues are not just pertinent to proposed export developments and they are not just about commodities.
All too often we make life harder for those already in business, whether they are shipping overseas or not.
In tough economic times, governments and other stakeholders (such as unions) need to be more flexible to make sure WA stays near the top end of the list of jurisdictions that are good for business.
The recent industrial action around Gorgon is a case in point.
Extracting an extra, higher price for the final stage of that development was biting the hand that feeds. The Gorgon project has put billions into this economy, including the pay packets of construction workers during the building phase, and will inject billions more during its long operational lifetime.
Future project proponents will see the recent union aggression not just as another cost in a high-price environment, but also as a cultural conundrum that suggests Australia is not as friendly as we like to think it is.
We rely of foreign investment, yet through such industrial action we appear resentful and ungrateful when it occurs. This minority willing to extort extra money from businesses that have little choice gives the rest of us a bad name and hurt our economic future.
Furthermore, this minority has played a major role in unsettling negotiations around a free trade agreement with China. In order to ensure that they can continue to use such extortion on any Chinese-funded development, they have proved willing to jeopardise the future of myriad exporters who are set to benefit from this deal.
Why do we allow such narrow interests to so negatively influence our national wellbeing?
In a free market, why do we allow monopolistic labour practices to interfere in what would otherwise be a competitive market situation?
Unions are not the only problem for exporters.
As much as food is cited as the next boom for our exporters, it faces many of the barriers mentioned above.
Live animal exporters have been treated very badly in recent years as special interest groups have used ignorance and propaganda to sway public opinion and challenge good policy.
Opposition to live animal exports is not just about animal welfare. It is culturally insensitive and damaging to good relations with our neighbours, which have many flow-on effects for business, the travelling public, and this nation’s long-term security.
Food businesses also undergo more rigorous regulation when they export than went they produce for domestic consumption. Sometimes our food exporters face more stringent controls than products being imported for human consumption.
Why is this so? If food is good enough to put on Australian dinner tables why does it need special inspection to let it leave the country?
Brand Australia is important but individual exporters live and die by the quality of their own produce. Furthermore, what is the point of over-protecting Australia’s reputation if it means only major companies can export.
Potentially we may see a case where our export regulations are creating an export environment so costly that only foreign investors can afford to be in that market.