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Business Envoy December 2019 - Celebrating Australia’s diversity in business banner

Australia advances through International Trade

The re-emergence of trade protectionism in some regions of the world and economic populism are a major concern for open economies like Australia. We rely on trade and investment to grow our economy and improve living standards and since our major economic reforms of the 1980s, we have enjoyed almost three decades of economic growth without a recession.

But whilst the big picture of Australia’s economic success is well known, I have become increasingly interested in the micro side of the story, particularly our 50,000 exporters in the business community who, on average, are high performers, good employers in terms of wages and conditions and good corporate citizens. They are particularly important in regional Australia where 1 in 4 jobs are dependent on international trade, compared to 1 in 5 overall.

In the making of The Airport Economist Australia TV special for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I travelled the length and the breadth of the nation and visited these exporters, particularly in regional Australia. I was struck by their confidence and resilience and capacity to be optimistic in the face of what can often be an uncertain global economic environment.

For instance, in Kempsey on the mid-north coast we visited Akubra, who manufacture the iconic Australian hat and employ over 100 people in the town all on a four-day week. In Launceston, Tasmania, I met beekeeper Lindsay Bourke who exports honey to Asia “with the help of the free trade agreements which has seen a massive increase in sales to South Korea and Japan” he says. We visited Ferrero, a major employer in Lithgow, in the New South Wales who make Tic Tacs and Nutella and replant hazelnut trees in the Riverina as part of their commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility.

In Rockhampton, Queensland, we met Ashley Kirk, a third-generation cattle farmer who uses drone technology to herd his brahman cattle, showing that all IT doesn’t have to come from a black skivvy wearer in Surry Hills.

And in the heart of the nation, in Uluru, we met Brett Graham, an outback tourism operator in the red centre. Brett takes tourists from all over the world – from internet billionaires to backpackers – and shows them central Australia including the traditional lands owned by local Indigenous Australians. The traditional owner of Uluru and chair of the national park, Sammy Wilson works with Brett to show visitors 60,000 plus years of continuous Indigenous culture amongst the breathtaking physical surroundings. Although classed as a tourism exporter, Brett also points out he’s an importer as his four wheel drive vehicles are made by Mercedes Benz in Germany. “Isn’t it terrific that I can use German vehicles to take German tourists around the outback!” he says.

It was an honour to meet these great Australian exporters across regional Australia and see firsthand the benefits of international engagement, not only to their business bottom line but also to their workforce, their customers to their local community. After all, global engagement is not an end in itself, but a means to an end, to ensure that Australians can enjoy better living standards.

*Tim Harcourt hosts The Airport Economist TV series on Qantas and Channel 7 and Podcast and books of the same name. He is the J.W. Nevile Fellow in Economics at the University of New South Wales Sydney.

Image of a farmer staring at his livestock.
Credit: Pinstripe Media.
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