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The Punch: Even with a strong economy, jobs are a top concern

20 Jul 2010

First published on The Punch 20/7/2010

With the major parties flexing their muscles on border protection, the Australian public has sent Canberra a message that it is the protection of Australian jobs that is the real security issue for them.

In what looms as the sleeper issue for the 2010 election campaign, a quarter of all voters placed “Australian jobs and the protection of local industries” as key election issue, behind only economic management and health.

As the latest Essential Report shows that economic protectionism towers over headline-grabbing issues like climate change, asylum seekers, housing affordability, industrial laws and population growth as a priority election issue.

Q. Which are the three most important issues in deciding how you would vote at a Federal election?

Essential Report

Essential Report

What is striking about the high rating for protecting Australian industries is that it comes at a time of relatively low unemployment and a period where there has been little or no media attention on Australian jobs being sent offshore.

Instead the issue is emerging from the grass roots, the thousands of Australians in manufacturing industries – and a growing number of workers in white-collar industries like the banking sector – who see their jobs under threat from lower wage economies.

And while our leaders can crow about “turning back the boats”, 25 years of economic deregulation makes it very hard to turn back the corporate people smugglers.

It is an issue where the Liberal Party, with its knee jerk support for big business, pledges to cut government spending and reductions to the size of the public sector is struggling to gain any traction.  While it leads on issues like managing the economy and asylum seekers, when it comes to Australian jobs, people trust the ALP to the tune of 42 per cent to 28 per cent.

Economic insecurity has been a long-term problem for the Coalition and I have long argued that the Liberal Party’s fixation with asylum seekers is their way of diverting the issue – we can not deliver you economic security in a globalised economy, but we can take a stand for cultural security. This was the logic that drove the Tampa in 2001 and it has worked ever since.

For Labor, jobs should be safe ground and much of its first term success was built on its credentials protecting jobs, with people giving it credit for creating s through its stimulus package, even while questioning whether all of the money was well-spent. The National Broadband Network is another initiative that will create jobs in its construction – and build new industries in its execution.

But Labor is also missing opportunities. Last week it was reported that overseas companies had under-cut Australian solar manufacture Silex in its bid for government contracts to build new solar power plants. It appears to be a classic example of a job-creating project that, if the bean-cutters took the long view, would deliver environmental outcomes and jobs.

Likewise, despite a long-running campaign by the Finance Sector union neither major party has yet to commit to new principles including preventing banks off-shoring work handling sensitive personal information.

These issues are always going to be tough, it requires government stepping into the market place and forcing companies to take actions that may not be in their short-term commercial interests. The mining bosses have shown that businesses can bite back when told to act for a broader good, but these figures also show there are rewards for leaders prepared to stand up.

The battle to secure Australian jobs may lack the drama of high seas confrontations and photo opps on gunboats, but for the voters an increased focus on where the next generation of Australians will be employed could well be a vote-winner.

Peter Lewis, Director EMC