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Advance – we’re right behind you: magazine article

Thursday, 26 April 2007
By Print 21 Online Article

The short answer is nothing very much. Certainly, anybody who was hoping for a sympathetic response to industry concerns on a range of issues – overseas competition, skills shortages, online annual reporting – is likely to be disappointed. The government’s main initiative in the near future is the forthcoming Industry Statement, due some time around Budget time, but the Minister made it quite clear that while there will be some money attached to it, it won’t be a lot and there certainly won’t be anything targeted specifically at the printing industry.

“The key to the Industry Statement will be making sure that industry is able to compete in a global economy, that the opportunities that are there in the future are able to be realised – and that covers issues that are very near and dear to the printing industry,” was the best he could offer.

So, nothing that addresses what is unique to printing, nothing that recognises its central importance to the economy as a whole. The main message to the assembled industry heavyweights was that although the government acknowledges the role of the industry and its contribution to innovation and investment, it’s up to the industry to sell itself better.

“You’ve got to promote your product,” he said in response to questions about local manufacturing shifting offshore and taking the printing with it. “You can’t just say the government’s got to this or its got to do that. The government will work with you, we’ll remove the impediments and look at ways of ensuring that industry is competitive, but in the end the industry has to go out there on its front foot and get into the market and say my product is better than anyone else’s and these are the reasons, and this is the quality and this is the price.”

While there have been industry-specific assistance programs in the past, mainly in the wake of the GST, it’s clear those days are gone. The printing industry doesn’t have the clout of the automotive industry ($540 million of government assistance in 2005/06). Or the TCF sector ($130 million in 2005/06). Or even pharmaceuticals ($23.2 million in 2005/06). Obviously these industries need a little bit more incentive to promote their products and ‘get on the front foot’. In the meantime, PIAA is working hard to keep alive the Print21 Action Agenda but, again, the message here seems to be that it’s on its own.

Where the government does claim credit for helping the industry is in creating the general business conditions in which companies operate – things like the WorkChoices legislation, amending the unfair dismissal legislation, removing red tape for small businesses and ensuring fair trade between countries. The unprecedented economic growth of recent years – for which the government seeks due recognition – has also created a business climate in which enterprises are rewarded for being prepared to invest and be innovative.

“The profits in manufacturing in Australia are going up and are at near-record levels,” said Macfarlane. “There’s record investment in manufacturing in Australia, record investment in R&D and innovation in Australia. The story on manufacturing in Australia is very good and we need to sell it a bit more.”

A man of the land

Sometimes you get the impression that Ian Macfarlane would rather be standing in a paddock somewhere, dirt beneath his boots, than addressing a bunch of printers in the heart of Sydney. His observations are filled with references to his days as a farmer as well as everyday details about life in Toowoomba, ‘the most important city in Australia’ as he describes it.

So, for instance, in response to printers feeling the pressure of overseas competition, he talks about what the famous peanut farmers of Kingaroy did when faced with a similar situation, namely they convinced local retailers that the home-grown product was of a better quality and worth paying a premium price for.

He talks about visiting his local printer in Toowoomba who prints his Christmas cards each year and witnessing first-hand how the industry is investing in new technology. And he highlights his experience in small business, firstly as a farmer and then as minister in charge of that portfolio.

In that respect, his understanding of the printing industry is spot on. After all, as Peter Lane, PIAA national president, mentioned in his welcoming address, printing in Australia is an industry of 5,000 companies of which 94 percent employ less than 50 people. This highlights one of the dilemmas for the industry in that, for all the talk about it being the fourth largest manufacturing sector, it is still largely perceived – even by governments – as being part of the small, local business sector.

If that’s how the Minister for Industry views printing then it’s clear that the industry still has a lot of work to do in order to alter perceptions. Likewise with the Minister’s comments about online reporting which demonstrate just how far the industry has to go in order to establish the environmental benefits of printing, quite apart from all the other advantages it offers.

Peter Lane pointed out that it was the remaining 6 percent of the industry that was chiefly represented at the Forum, the multi-million dollar, trans-national enterprises employing thousands of people. These are the businesses that, in the absence of the industry being able to act collectively, must drive change; not exclusively of course – we’re all in this together – but someone must take a lead.

Unless the industry can convince others that it is a world-leading, sustainable, dynamic enterprise whose success is vital to future of Australia, an activity which we are actually better at doing than anybody else, then it will continue to be treated like the corner store – handy to have but expensive.

Functions such as the Forum are a good start. It was never likely that the Minister would come bearing gifts but presumably now he has a better understanding of some of the industry’s concerns and there is the possibility of dialogue. Responding to a question about the lowering of tariffs on imported raw materials, he commented:

“The industry needs to agree that that’s what the industry wants because, in the end, if the industry agrees then that makes the government’s job much easier.”

So what do we want?

What the Minister said …

On the relationship between the Government and the industry:

“The path forward is for the industry to embrace new technology, involve itself in skills upgrades – it’s doing all those things. The government needs to remove red tape, remove impediments, and ensure that trade is fair.”

On the continuing relevance of the Print21 Action Agenda:

“You’ve got to keep moving forward. A lot of the stuff in that is still relevant and it’s going to be relevant for a long time so it should be a reference document. The industry can revisit that at any time, have a look at it and say ‘OK this needs updating’ – you don’t necessarily need to involve government.”

On assistance to the printing industry to counter the effects of overseas competition:

“The government is working on that in the Industry Statement. We’re not going to single out an industry and say this one needs assistance and this one doesn’t. The Industry Statement will be about international competitiveness, investment, being able to be innovative.”

“If the printing industry is waiting for a big bundle of cash just for them, I mean they can access our innovation schemes now. I wonder how many of these guys do? How many get involved in the Commercial Ready Program, how many get involved in a whole range of stuff, how many get involved in the environmental initiatives when they clean up and just forget to tell anyone?”

“The government will do what we can to remove impediments and provide the economic framework. I mean, if you can’t make a bob when the economy is growing at 3 percent or thereabouts … I think the industry’s got a great future.”

On the influx of private equity into the industry:

“In the end it’s up to the shareholders to decide whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I don’t own a company but I know farmers who sold out to big corporations because they paid them the maximum dollar and the farmers wanted it so they could go into another business or retire. The printing industry is the same. If I said no-one can buy this printing company unless they’re Australian and you can only pay this much money per share, these guys would riot.”

“You need a free enterprise system. You need the correct investment guidelines, foreign investment review boards, all of those things, but when most people reach the end of their working life or they want to go and do something else, they want to be able to get the maximum dollar for their business.”

On addressing skills shortages in the industry:

“In the Budget 05/06 we allocated a record $2.5 billion for vocational and technical education and we’ve announced the Technical Colleges to give employers a choice as to where employees can get the skills they need.”

“A bit of competition in the marketplace never hurts especially when the local TAFE is run by the state government and they tend sometimes to think more about issues relating to state governments than they do about ensuring that they provide workers that are highly skilled and able to do what you need them to do.”

On future Free Trade Agreements:

“We want to liberalise trade, we want to recognise opportunity. The China FTA has some way to go in terms of negotiation and we would only put that in place if it was of advantage to Australia. Of course, it also has to be of advantage to the Chinese and unless it’s mutually advantageous there’s no point in having it.”

“Bi-lateral trade arrangements have been good for us already and they can be even better for us in the future. We’re going to keep working on them and they will always be on the basis that free trade agreements are good for Australian industry.”

On legislation to move annual reports online:

“The decision was made to do this and I accept that consultation should have been had with the printing industry, but it was another portfolio, primarily, that was driving it – Treasury and Finance – and it seemed like a good idea to me.”

“I felt that if people wanted an annual report, the printing industry should go to the companies and say there will this number of people we reckon will want the annual report and read it in detail, not scan through it on a computer, and 10 percent of your shareholders may request that they get an annual report, and talk the companies into printing some annual reports.”

“I don’t know how many annual reports a week come into my office – I don’t hold any shares but companies send them to me – and I just throw them straight in the bin. I’m not interested in reading every annual report that comes across my desk.”

“I think the industry has to get out there and promote the need for some printed reports to be prepared in case.”

“We’re trying to save trees and we’re trying to save energy. We were trying to cut red tape and we should be congratulated for that. We are obviously looking at using new technology but where customers want something else then customers are always right.”

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