Address to the Master Builders Australia National Leaders Summit

Parliament House Canberra

ED HUSIC, MINISTER FOR INDUSTRY AND SCIENCE: Thank you very much for the invite. It does mean a great deal to me, I was very keen, Denita, as I said, that in terms of engaging with the Master Builders. I was very keen to do so. And when I was heard this was coming up I wanted to participate. So thank you to all of you for the invite. 

I’ll obviously start by acknowledging we’re on Ngunnawal land and pay respects to elders past and present and any First Nations people that are here today. 

Besides Denita I just wanted to thank Craig and other board members as well and to thank you for your broader advocacy and contribution. Clearly what you do in the wider economy, but also for communities’ matters, and we’re not going to agree on everything, but we’ve got to keep finding ways to talk, get decisions made, get things moving. And that’s very much my approach in the portfolio, is being able to bring people together in the national good is really important. 

In my role as Industry Minister, I’m not just responsible for some of these big projects that we’ve got underway with the establishment of the National Reconstruction Fund, which I’d love to talk to you about today, but also as I chair the Building Ministers meeting, and we had to get through one very quickly after the election. I didn’t want to keep putting it off, so we got the one in August done, and clearly there are a number of you in here that have got an interest in some of the decisions that are made through that forum. But I would like to be able to work with the Master Builders and others in the sector about how we engage leading up to those core or key meetings finding ways to work with you is really important. 

And the reason I referenced some of the conversations Denita and I have had is I’ve watched other things in your space that I know cause you a lot of, if I could put it lightly, angst around. As we’ve seen, supply chain issues leading to massive increases in costs. I’m very much aware that some of your members, you know, have gone out and given quotes for things and then had to requote based on price increases that you’ve experienced given the way in which supply chains have been acting, particularly for 18 months I’d say, and you may say it’s longer to me. And, please, feel free to educate me, as it were, on the reality that you’ve had to confront. But it is really important that I have that dialogue with you. 

You’ve obviously heard from Julie Collins my colleague on things like the National Housing Supply and Affordability Council that’s being set up, all the things that we’re doing to boost the supply of housing, which is really important. There’s probably something to be said around, in particular, I come from a part of Sydney, Western Sydney. As you mentioned, Denita, North West Sydney is going to welcome 200,000 residents. That’s going to be great for yourselves in terms of building new homes, but as you know, too, there’s an interplay between homes and infrastructure. It drives me nuts, if I can use the formal term. And getting investments right in infrastructure in Western Sydney, really important – road, rail, also planning the growth of the outer suburbs is a big thing too. And that has as much an impact on housing costs as does some of the issues that keep you all awake at night at various points. Well, you may be very cool about these things and you’re not kept awake at all. In which case if you’ve got an answer to how to deal with that, please let me know, because there’s a lot of stuff in my portfolio that keeps me up at night. Especially around supply chains, too. Because the Office of Supply Chain Resilience has been moved out of Prime Minister and Cabinet and gone into the Department of Industry, Science and Resources. And so I’m keeping an eye on shortages, and being able to work with you on alleviating some of those are important. 

Clearly, we want our buildings, apartments, our dwellings to correspond to bio-aspirations – energy efficiency is one thing. I know that there’s different views about how we sort of work down that path of net zero and contributing to the renewable energy transition, and we do need to keep talking about that. But the building industry is going to be a key player in that. And I’m also very much aware you’re always thinking about doing things differently. Innovation is hard wired in your thinking for a number of reasons. One, obviously because it helps respond to customer demand but, two, if you’re doing much more in terms of improving building efficiency and the way in which construction occurs there’s obviously a downstream benefit in terms of cost. So, clearly, from our point of view, a healthy and sustainable building and construction sector is going to be vital for the economy and for our communities longer term. 

And we are certainly committed to addressing some of those challenges. Capacity restraints, particularly around skills, you know, we’ve started on that with the Jobs and Skills Summit. It doesn’t end there. We do need to invest in skills, but the other thing that I’ve argued, again, coming back to supply chains, I saw longer term coming into government, I said the lead in our saddlebags was around energy prices, and I’ve had a thing or two to say about that, supply chains and also skills and making sure that you’ve got people to undertake work. 

I have seen in the construction space there are a number of players that are looking at, for example, the use of robotics to help – and automation to help you in your sector. One of the ones that stands out to me is Perth-based Fast Brick Robotics and seeing what they’re doing, robotics off the back of a truck, literally, to build homes from the ground up.

I think that type of approach and what you’re seeing is scaling up, and it’s rolling out into cross sectors. That whole additive approach to 3D printing, the concept of it being expanded out in construction, I think more and more will happen. Not necessarily in the sort of direct or dramatic ways people think. A lot of those technological improvements start to get embedded in time. If you think about all the talk around autonomous vehicles, they were supposed to be here based on predictions a few years ago. They’re not. But some of the elements of autonomous vehicles and some of that technology is already being embedded. That’s how technology works. It’s not necessarily a big bang; it will be bits and pieces being added on. 

I see that happening in your sector around robotics. And it’s why I kicked off the development of the National Robotics Strategy. It may sound weird that a Labor MP is talking about robotics and automation, but the reality is if we continue to have supply chain issues that are triggered as a result of skill constraints, your businesses need to keep working. And if you can’t find people, you will find other ways to get the job done. And if we think ahead and we plan ahead, we can potentially smooth out the sharper edges that come with that. It’s really important we work early on that, and so I am focused on that. 

So, that’s my time – thanks for that music. It seems like a wind up at the Academies. But, yeah, I am thinking a lot around that. 

The Building Ministers meeting I mentioned, I chaired the first one in August. And the ‘22 edition of the National Construction Code begins in May this year, requiring, in particular, new houses and apartments to be more energy efficient. The transition period for that, we obviously tried to set in place some of that particularly around 7-star rating, the developers, buyers and builders are going to need better insulation, higher quality glazing, smarter floorplans and paying greater attention to the efficiency of fixed appliance use in new homes. And to consider obviously rooftop solar and batteries early in the design phase. 

We think those reforms will deliver long-term savings for home owners and investors, driving down energy bill in new homes and improve amenity. And, clearly, bring us to the goal of net zero. And the implications of climate change continue to work their way through the broader economy and the response to it is continually being shaped up. 

One of the areas I’m also looking at is about how we integrate, for instance, charging for not just EVs but having dual use for the energy that is stored in the batteries of EVs to come back into the grid to provide grid stabilisation. That will be important. But, again, if I can assure you, I’m not interested in rushing anything. I mean, obviously we want to work as quickly as we can. But my commitment to you all, which is now going to be on camera, is that I’ll work with you. And I’m very committed to doing that because you will have a lot better approaches to how we can manage this, and I want to be able to take on board your advice on that. 

So we’ve obviously got a lot in the National Construction Code, we’ve been covering off on energy efficiency. Clearly on the side in relation to design, to factor in people with a disability and also the elderly is becoming something that we do think increasingly we need to focus on, not just in your space but elsewhere. And that work based on stuff that I saw Bill Shorten do in the last Labor Government around some of the self-regulatory approaches, we’ve obviously now made a lot more of that mandatory just because we’ve got a sense of urgency about shifting the design to improve liveability for people with a disability and the elderly. 

We are certainly, if I can say – there’s a whole lot of stuff going back to energy efficiency that I think we’ve discussed, so I’m just tearing parts of my speech out because, frankly, you don’t need all that again. The big thing on supply chain disruptions and what’s happening in Ukraine and the impact longer term, on that, I am very keen to talk with the sector about some of the things you’re experiencing, whether or not - we're detecting that there’s a bit more improvement, particularly around the drop in shipping costs. I think we’ve charted it over the last six months or so a drop in shipping costs of about 24 per cent. That may not be even – some may be slower, some may be better. But we’ve noted that that is something that we need to be very conscious of that there’s some movement on. 

On National Reconstruction Fund, if I can say and the way it affects supply chains, what we have been about is that the National Reconstruction Fund has been about rebuilding capability. We learnt through the pandemic the goods that we needed, at the times we needed them, not being available and our dependency on just one or two countries for a lot of this stuff, we just cannot keep that going. I’ve just come back from the US meeting with my equivalent over there, Secretary Raimondo. Big thing for the US administration as well about what do we do to strengthen supply chain resilience. 

I know that there are a lot of dependencies on timber but also there are a number of players in your sector that are increasingly looking to steel for frameworks or frames. Being able to encourage investment for onshore manufacturing to meet your needs at a price and a supply volume that meets – that also satisfies you is a big thing that we do need to explore. 

So, making sure that those funds are available. These will be loans, guarantees, equity, based off the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, so it’s a model that’s worked. We want that to be able to apply to address those supply chain vulnerabilities, build capability onshore and meet the needs of other industries is really important to us. And we’re going through the legislation at the moment that’s going through parliament. We’re hoping to have that done by July. It will be run by an independent board with an investment mandate. There will be no politician with a colour-coded spreadsheet making calls on investments. And the expectation is that it will deliver a return for taxpayers. 

But, importantly, we want co-investment plans. So you wrote to me back in June saying that you wanted sector-specific work. And I’m saying to you I’ve listened and we will make sure that we have that. And I’m grateful for the Master Builders raising that with me. And we will have in sectors co-investment plans designed to drive that. And where there are particular supply chain challenges, I want to make sure that’s available as well. So, again, I’m not just saying that I want to work with you. I’ve already responded in part on that. 

And I also want to line up some of the other avenues within our department, for example, the Cooperative Research Centre network that we’ve got. For example, last month we awarded 1.2 million in a grant to develop low-cost, non-corrosive alternatives to steel reinforcing bars, because steel corrosion, concrete structures costs about 13 billion a year. Big issue. And so we’re looking at that. There’s a glass fibre polymer reinforced material under development at the University of Southern Queensland. It’s got twice the strength of steel and a 100-year lifespan. So using some of the elements of my portfolio to think ahead about materials development is also something I’m deeply interested in. And, again, there’s a role for you to play. 

But anyhow, I can go on about all – as you can imagine, I can spruik all our wares for as long as you like, and you will probably lose interest very quickly. So I’m more than happy to do the Q&A and go through that. But I again emphasise to you my commitment to working with you, and look forward to the discussion. Thank you.