One of Australia's largest producers of pharmaceutical grade hygiene and cleaning products says the 'hollowing out' of Australia's manufacturing industry has contributed to the shortage of urgently needed medical supplies.
Whiteley Corporation executive chairman Greg Whiteley said despite an exponential increase in output at the company's Newcastle plant, supply chain issues, such as a shortage of plastic bottles, was hampering effective resupply.
"Part of the shortage is the result of a genuine increase in demand but part of it is because imported products have been cut off which means Australia has to suddenly supply itself," he said.
"Because successive government policies at federal and state level have allowed the middle tier of manufacturing to be hollowed out you only have the specialists like us left. The underlying infrastructure underneath is suddenly very fragile and you don't need much to go wrong upstream to have massive downstream issues."
The federal government has established a national COVID-19 Coordination Commission to devise a long-term strategy to create a competitive manufacturing sector as part of the process of rebuilding the economy.
Commission chairman Nev Power, a former Fortescue Metals Group chief executive, said the nation's manufacturing sector could emerge stronger from the crisis by taking advantage of the lower currency and disrupted supply chains.
But he stressed it also needed to be competitive in the long term.
"It needs to be modern, efficient, high-tech and focused on the things we need. A lot of the manufacturing in Australia is very old fashioned, it hasn't had new investment," he said.
The commission will also help "solve problems" in the private and public sectors during the coronavirus crisis and work with chief executives to find solutions, such as "repurposing manufacturing lines", improving grocery supply lines and redeploying workers who have lost their jobs.
Like others, Dr Whiteley predicted Australian manufacturing would undergo a renaissance once the COVID-19 crisis passed.
"We will see a surge in Australian manufacturing because this has been a wake up call to Canberra; you can't let all these jobs go offshore," he said.
"The lessons of World War II have been forgotten by subsequent generations. You need to have sufficient local production that you can be sufficient in a time of crisis and we are threadbare."
Member for Hunter Joel Ftizgibbon agreed and also called for the creation of an economic insurance policy.
"Focusing on economic efficiency is fine but it needs to include an insurance policy," he said.
"Economic independence through our manufacturing base may not be textbook economics but I think it's a great insurance policy against a crisis like this."
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