Building a secure future for Australia's suburbs

Sydney Institute Dinner Address

It is a pleasure to be back again at the Sydney Institute. An important institution in this city, and a great forum that Gerard and Anne have created - to test ideas, outline policies and engage in respectful public debate. I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we gather.
Tonight, I want to start by doing two things that I suspect one doesn’t often hear in speeches to the Sydney Institute. I want to tell a family story and I want to tell a Western Sydney story. I was raised in Blacktown in Sydney’s western suburbs.  I went to school at Mitchell High in Sydney’s western suburbs. I studied at Western Sydney University, in Sydney’s western suburbs.  I worked in the region I grew up in, well before my political career.

Since 2010, I’ve represented the seat of Chifley, in Sydney’s western suburbs. To the rest of Sydney, Western Sydney too often seems to be amorphous mass. Parramatta seems a million miles from the CBD or that it might be right next door to Penrith, just over the road from Blacktown, and down the street from Liverpool and Campbelltown. 

Whereas in reality of course Parramatta is 37kms from Penrith and Blacktown is 44km from Campbelltown. That is as far as Manly is from Cronulla. While to other parts of Sydney, Western Sydney is an homogenous “out there” - to me it’s home. As it is to 2.7 million people – contained within nearly a dozen federal electorates - living in a diverse range of communities, suburbs, but all sharing a Western Sydney pride. 

And every part of my being lives and breathes that part of Australia. 

I grew up in a single income family. Dad the sole breadwinner. He was a blue-collar worker, making his wages from welding and often travelling different corners of the country, weeks and months at a time, to find work where he could. 

There are things I vividly recall about those days - I remember how tough the job was for him. How often mum would have to patch up dad’s burn-pocked work uniform or how often dad would come home sporting gauze over eyes injured by flash burn.  It was a very tough job indeed.  But it was also a job that brought great satisfaction.

A sentiment shared by manufacturing workers: satisfaction in a job well done. Satisfaction in physically seeing the fruits of his labours. Satisfaction in knowing that someone, somewhere had their life made easier, made better, made richer, by something that he had done with his own two hands. 

And the places my dad worked were ones that were the backbone of the community.  I remember like yesterday, visiting Dad when he worked at the company that was the proud product of other migrant families: Transfield in Seven Hills.

As a child looking at colossal structures housing scores of metalworkers, clocking on at 6am, finishing at 4pm before heading home to rest weary bones. But while I remember those things, I also remember the darker side of factory work. I remember how often my dad would be out of work and then back into a job as booms and busts messed with his employment.  

The fragility of our economic system laid bare around a kitchen table.  In my own career journey I was one of the first wave of graduates to secure a degree at Western Sydney Uni. 

When I grew up there was very little expectation or very little opportunity that people like me would get a higher education. I was proud to have earned the title “first in family” to get into uni.

When Western Sydney Uni came along it was a godsend. It wasn’t just a place where people who lived where I did could get a higher education in our local community. It was concrete validation – we could and should aim for university. 

Yet people growing up in suburbs today like mine still have diminished opportunity. The tyranny of distance too often still prevails in higher education. 

We still need to press for better, to find ways to make it easier for suburban kids to get to uni.  Build physical spaces for university study in one part of the suburbs, open up new avenues even closer to home.

Which is why our government’s recent investment in suburban university hubs matters, to put them in easy reach of people in our outer suburbs, especially when we want more kids from low socio-economic neighbourhoods.

There’s an urgency about this: 50% of jobs in the future will require a university degree – so investing in universities equips young people for those roles is an investment in their future wellbeing.  

Especially as technology continues to reshape the nature of work, here and abroad. It was a realisation that stuck with me from the time I represented communications workers as a union official in workplaces in suburbs like the one I grew up. 

Technology could both open up new work or consign to memory old roles.  The key to healthy transitions was planning, giving people a chance to move with the times.  

It's why I’ve made technology a parliamentary obsession of mine, because of the way new ideas can shape societies for good or otherwise.

Last week I had the opportunity to represent Australia at the UK’s global AI Safety Summit.  27 countries were represented, alongside CEOs from all of the major players in AI and civil society.  What we witnessed was a shift in views about the role governments should play in shaping the use of technologies. Gone was the sense of inevitable tech scale and disruption.

Fundamentally the views expressed at the summit coalesced around the notion that you can ensure appropriate safeguards and innovate, as opposed to seeing those two things as incompatible.  

Throughout the Summit, protecting workers, creating new jobs, and ensuring local cultures could survive and thrive were topics brought up regularly. Technologies should lift up societies.  They should work as well for the workers of our suburbs as our cities.

My background is why I care so much about Australia’s suburbs. It’s why I care so much about good jobs for people living in our outer suburbs. Suburbs like Blacktown but also Werribee in Melbourne, Elizabeth in Adelaide and Logan outside of Brisbane, and Clarkson in Perth. 

These are personal experiences but they’re not the only reason I care about Australia’s suburbs and the people who live in them. We know that many of our outer suburbs suffer from greater socio-economic disadvantage than other areas of our cities. Worse health outcomes, worse unemployment. 

And again, the tyranny of distance.  As a recent Deloitte study pointed out, every day some 300,000 people in western Sydney leave home for jobs in the east of our city.  

Stuck with outdated infrastructure that hasn’t kept pace with past growth.
And while educational attainment is rising rapidly in the west many of the jobs on offer don’t match the skills of western Sydney’s inhabitants. I have constituents telling me their line of work only exists in the CBD, not in the suburbs – but they can’t afford inner city homes and are forced to contend with chewing up large parts of their day travelling to work on roads and rail.

The same story across all our outer suburbs across our entire nation. These are stories that we as a government are working hard to turn around - to create jobs and build homes in places people want to live. And in my patch as Industry Minister there are things we are doing. 

Because there are some bright patches. Our outer suburbs and regions are where the bulk of our manufacturing jobs are.  And importantly our manufacturing jobs will be the ones that help us meet some of the big challenges we face as a nation like the net zero transformation. And increasingly those manufacturing jobs will provide sophisticated employment. 

Since 2022, I've been Australia’s Industry and Science Minister.  And I bring to that role, my experience, from Sydney’s Western suburbs. Those formative experiences I outlined have shaped how I think about my role as Minister. For me this is not a job, it’s something deeply personal.  Underpinned by a belief in the positive role of government, working with industry and academia.

Because Industry policy is jobs policy.  

That’s why we need governments that lean in and help, rather than stand back and hope.
Time after time, successful industries around the world have been built by the ingenuity of their founders, the hard work and skill of workers, the patience of their investors – and by governments willing to step up and do what they can to create and support the ecosystems that businesses need to succeed and thrive.

I’ve watched this for years, here and overseas. Our industry policy framework has been recast and modernised – giving it purpose, attaching it to national challenge, especially the challenge of net zero. 

The Prime Minister has often said that he wants to see a future made in Australia. The portfolios of science and industry deliberately joined up: making new discoveries to help make new products in this country. 

For me that means a future made in our suburbs and our regions. Because it is in the suburbs and regions that the jobs which will transform Australia’s economic future reside. 

But there’s a task ahead of us to reach that future.  

Over the last decade alone, national manufacturing output has declined by more than 4 per cent, compared with a 26 per cent rise in the broader economy. Australia has the highest dependency on manufactured imports and the lowest level of manufacturing self-sufficiency of any OECD country, indicating deficits in Australia’s sovereign capabilities.

Over 30 years we’ve seen our nation fall in economic complexity index. Manufacturing jobs are good jobs. Secure jobs. Well paid jobs. But as Australia has fallen in economic complexity, we’ve seen opportunities in jobs like this drying up. 

We’ve seen some of the opportunities for those Australians who want to work and build better lives for their families disappear. The countries that occupy the top spots on the economic complexity index have taken a different path to Australia. 

They are the countries that actively focus on industry growth, not by what’s often derisively called “picking winners:” but by creating the conditions in which winners can compete. After a decade of neglect and hostility, the Australian manufacturing industry finally has a government that believes it, that supports it and that wants to see it grow and prosper. 

Because it’s important for longer term economic growth and prosperity – countries that have got their act together, revitalising manufacturing have reaped a dividend.  There are so many reasons to invest in Australian manufacturing – the pressing need to reach a net zero future, the lessons we learned in the pandemic and the over concentration of global supply chains to name just a few.

And as the American think tank the Brookings Institution has argued, manufacturing is important because it provides “high wage jobs, commercial innovation, … and a disproportionately large contribution to environmental sustainability.” And we can do this. We can help grow our manufacturing future. 

Our suburbs have always been the heart of our manufacturing industries. And it’s in our suburbs that some of our great manufacturing success stories reside. 

In 1948 the Australian multinational cardboard box manufacturer was born with a £1,000 loan from Richard Pratt's aunt, Ida Visbord. Modest beginnings, but by the 1970s Visy had manufacturing plants in Warwick Farm on the outskirts of Sydney, and in Victoria and Queensland.  It had also become one of the largest employers the regional communities of Tumut in New South Wales and Wodonga in Victoria. 

I probably don’t need to tell you the heights to which Visy has risen.  

But last month when I opened their most recent factory in the suburbs of Brisbane the change in the condition of the factory floor when compared to my father’s day was stark. 

Automated vehicles, automated conveyer belts moving at warp speed.  It was testament to rapid technological advances that one factory could produce one million boxes a day.  Astounding.  

A brand new Bluescope steel factory opening in Western Sydney - replacing the old one.  It will produce 240,000 new Colorbond steel rooftops per year or 80,000 new steel house frames.  It will boost domestic manufacturing jobs, help people who live in the area get jobs – at the same time it will help provide much needed housing for those in the suburbs and around Australia.  

Or what about Australasian Fresh in West Melbourne that’s exporting dumplings to Hong Kong, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, and Singapore.  And then there’s Vaxxas in Brisbane manufacturing needle free vaccines. 
This is what a Labor led Australia is about.  Growing the factories of the past into advanced manufacturing centres of excellence.  

So, I know we have the strengths to do this. And it’s why this government is determined to back these and other companies like them who are pursuing a future made in Australia. 

Through the $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund, our soon to open $392 million Industry Growth Program, and our soon to be released National Battery Strategy and fund we will be backing the industries of today and the industries of the future.  

Our factories look different to the past - they’re safer, they’re cleaner and greener, but they still provide the secure jobs Australians need. The places that make things here in Australia are rapidly changing. 

There will always been a place in Australia for women and men who want to make things - jobs for people who are good with their hands. We need assembly line workers, production hands, machine operators working on ever sophisticated machinery but there are new jobs emerging that require more advanced digital skills. 
And this government wants the men and women in our suburbs, our outer city suburbs to consider heading off to TAFE to get skilled up for these jobs. 

That’s why, last month, I was so pleased our government announced a $5 billion investment from Microsoft into the Australian economy.  

Next year a new Microsoft Data Centre Academy will open in in Western Sydney in partnership with TAFE NSW.  It will teach crucial data and, cloud skills. We’re hoping to get to people who might not previously considered tech jobs. 

You see, we want to skill up the digital tradies of the future.  

The Albanese government has committed a target of 1.2million tech jobs in Australia, but the real growth area for these jobs isn’t in the tech sector per say, it’s in techie jobs in existing businesses like manufacturing and other industries. 

This is why the government is heavily investing in fee free TAFE because we want all Australians to have the opportunity to get those skills. 

We want to make sure the folks in the outer suburbs of major cities have the right skills to access this growing set of jobs in industry and manufacturing.  

It is absolutely no exaggeration to say that the transition to Net Zero is critical for Australia’s future.  Critical for our environment, critical for our economy and critical for our way of life. We are trying to fashion a new energy system, doing something in one generation that previously took generations to achieve.  

It’s a big job: and one that can create a lot of jobs in the process. We need to mobilise Australian industry in this effort. And in meeting our national challenge we can create new industries, capabilities and more importantly jobs in our suburbs and regions. 

The demand for things like steel, aluminium, fertilizers, cement and so many of the products we take for granted will still be there in the future. We need to ensure these existing industries can still make great products while reducing their carbon emissions.

For some industries, that pathway is clear, for others work is still ongoing to identify the best path to net zero. But what will be needed is a government willing to put its shoulder to the wheel to help identify those paths.

There are new opportunities to grow our industrial contribution to the global effort to reach net zero. In a land with more solar and wind energy than we can use and access to a wide range of minerals, these comparative advantages offer us the opportunity to go after things like green iron, steel and alumina – not to mention critical mineral processing. 

There are numerous opportunities for Australia’s regions and suburbs to be the winners in a new world driven by renewable energy.

I started this speech by mentioning my father and the fact he’d worked in many different places. One of the places he worked work was on one of Australia’s first renewable energy projects the Snowy Hydro Scheme. It has always remained a source of great pride to him and to us his family, that he worked on something so nation building. 

We stand on the brink of seismic change. Of new nation building. Of the global transformation of our energy system.  Of new technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum computing which will define this century like cars and personal computers did in the last.

And of a post-pandemic world that recognises our supply chains are not as strong as they need to be.  To meet these transitions, we will need to create secure, well-paid jobs in growing industries.  Not just a job to support a family, buy a home and enjoy the best our country has to offer.

But a sense of pride in making things here, using Australian know-how and Australian resources.  When I was growing up in Western Sydney, factories doing just that were a lifeblood for countless families, including my own.

But the factories of the future won’t look like the ones I grew up with, greasy concrete floors soaked with machine oil and littered with offcuts from the lathes and presses.  And the jobs won’t look the same either, calloused hands cutting and turning sheet metal.

Robots, advanced materials, and artificial intelligence are already transforming almost every global industry.  These changes play to our advantages, with our abundance of renewable energy and critical minerals and our world leading know-how in science and technology.

Getting a job in these sectors shouldn’t depend on your postcode. No doubt I wasn’t the only person to do a double take hearing Peter Dutton claiming that: The modern Liberal Party is all about the Australian worker, about families, about people in suburbs, in regional towns.

Tell that to the suburbs that the Liberals have let down through their decades long neglect of Australian manufacturing.  Labor has built industry – the Coalition closed it. The Liberals chased the car industry out of the country, an industry Ben Chifley created, and Bob Hawke expanded.

Every Labor member feels viscerally in their bones the closure of the car industry in Australia – the callous disregard, the hubristic taunting, the lack of foresight. The Liberals would rather import skills, jobs and products than make them here. 

And in opposition they’ve systematically voted against our Gas and energy caps that not only deliver cheaper prices for consumers but for manufacturing businesses too. They voted against many of the cost-of-living measures I previously outlined, and they voted NO to our investments to grow manufacturing.

That has a direct negative impact on the people who live in our suburbs and regions.  But this moment demands more than the negativity of our opponents. If we shrink from this moment, as the Liberals would have us do, we’ll have blown the chance to set our country up for the next generation.

The chance to give working families of tomorrow what families had in the past, a secure future rooted in a well-paid job in growing industries. And a sense of pride at seeing our know-how being put to use on home soil.

For Labor, where you live, is where you grow. 

And that's at the heart of the way this government approaches decision making. The suburbs are not just places to live but places to grow. Places to raise families. Comfortably.  Places to educate. Right from Kindy to Uni and everything in between. 

Places with strong healthcare systems. With GPs. Local medical centres. And world class hospitals. Places with real employment and career opportunities. That don’t require a 90 minute each way commute every day. 
Everyone in this country deserves to live meaningful, secure lives. With affordable childcare. Access to quality education. Local jobs. Because when you build local jobs, you build local communities. 

And you build a better future for the whole of Australia.