17/03/2011 - 00:00

Slow response on industry issues

17/03/2011 - 00:00


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Getting politicians to understand business issues is hard work; getting them to take action is even harder.

SENIOR federal government minister Martin Ferguson was in Perth last week where he, among other events, spoke at a Tourism Council breakfast.

The Resources & Energy and Tourism Minister displayed a solid grasp of issues across his three portfolios, all linked, as he put it, by their export focus.

Mr Ferguson won some kudos by giving refreshingly direct answers, frankly stating that the government would not support the industry on some matters.

The most frustrating part of his talk was the lack of action coming out of Canberra.

The wheels of government turn slowly, even with the professed support of a senior minister.

Mr Ferguson spoke about regulatory barriers standing in the way of new tourist developments, citing examples on Queensland’s Great Keppel Island and the Blue Mountains near Sydney to illustrate his point.

The problem, as he saw it, was local government approvals and environmental approvals.

There are many businesses in Western Australia that would agree that red tape and green tape add enormously to the time and cost of new developments.

The problem is particularly acute when multiple agencies and multiple layers of government – local, state and federal – each imposes regulatory hurdles, sometimes with no coordination or apparent communication.

The solution? Well, Mr Ferguson didn’t offer one, other than to point out that federal government hand-holding has been necessary in some cases just to get a project over all of the approval hurdles.

Hardly a sustainable solution.

Another issue raised by Mr Ferguson and several tourism industry operators at the breakfast was labour shortages.

The minister seemed chuffed that there had been some progress on recognising skills across states. This apparently meant ‘tradies’ who moved up to Queensland to work on flood recovery and rebuilding found it easier to gain official recognition for their skills.

That’s nice, and there is no doubt plenty of scope to improve recognition of skills across states, which should boost labour mobility.

But does anyone really think this will deliver a significant difference to the labour shortages facing industry, especially in WA?

Historical data tells us that very few Australians migrate interstate to WA, even during booms, and that pattern is unlikely to change.

The solution is more likely to come from an increase in overseas migration, but Mr Ferguson was treading very carefully.

His mantra was that the government needs hard data before it can act, and that research to gather data on the supply of chefs, for instance, is under way.

There would be no shortage of industry players who can provide compelling anecdotal evidence of the shortage of skilled chefs, and indeed of other staff for the tourism and hospitality industries.

A minister with his ear to the ground would very quickly learn the true picture.

The Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA this week provided a reform pathway on this issue, proposing a range of changes designed to liberalise migration, for both skilled and unskilled labour.

The CCI’s proposals were a far cry from the government’s very cautious approach, evidenced by the recent pilot program that allowed workers from certain countries to come into Australia for seasonal work in the horticulture industry.

The government’s stance on this issue is no doubt swayed by the influence of unions that want to maximise their bargaining power.

It also reflects a legitimate concern about rogue employers seeking to exploit workers brought into Australia.

What the government doesn’t seem to acknowledge is that if Australian industry can’t bring the workers into Australia, then a lot of the work will be sent overseas where the workers can be found.

That solution is not available to the tourism and hospitality industries, which are left to battle on.

The federal government’s response this week to the Resources Sector Employment Taskforce report served to highlight its very cautious stance on this critical issue.

Tinkering with apprenticeship qualification rules for experienced, mature-age workers is not the sweeping reform that is going to make a big difference.


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