‘One Million Jobs’ – a fascinating input from a think tank - The Good Oil by Rod Brown

In late June, the Energy Change think tank, Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE), released a very cogent and timely document called the Million Jobs Plan. Every local council should make itself aware of it.

The Plan aims to invigorate the economy through investment in zero emissions industries. When I first heard of it, I thought ‘here we go again’. But the Plan is sensible (though not without some big dollars) and was released by serious players like Mike Cannon-Brookes (Atlassian), Kevin McCann (ex-chair Macquarie Bank; now chair Origin Energy) and Deanne Stewart (CEO of First State Super). The inference is that the corporate sector could open its wallet on the Plan.

The rationale is that Australia needs the best solutions to unlock productivity and growth, and BZE is thus bringing together leaders in investment, business and industry to get those ideas scoped and built. There is an emphasis on nation-building, transformative projects. The key elements are:

  • new energy transmission and storage projects
  • national housing retrofit program to cut emissions and power bills
  • 150,000 zero-energy social housing dwellings
  • electrifying transportation systems based on Australian manufacturing
  • electrifying and expanding our manufacturing sector,
  • restoration of land and
  • upgrading the aluminium industry to utilise renewables (I’m fence-sitting on this).

Example – Revegetation:
One project of particular interest to local government is the plan to revegetate 55 million hectares of land (equivalent to 30 percent of our existing native forests) - 38,000 jobs over 10 years, with a cut in emissions of 10 percent.

The project would also require the training and employment of 5000 Indigenous Rangers. This struck a chord because we’ve been kicking ideas around in Canberra about ways of creating sustainable indigenous jobs – in the context of bushfire remediation and the Black Lives Matter agenda. The indigenous population has a competitive advantage and an empathy with land management. Contacts have said that ‘we’re already doing this’, but this would be a boost to current efforts. And a Cairns-based Cockatoo member says we should also be thinking about employing not just individuals but families, since that is the indigenous mindset.

Example – Social Housing:
Australian super funds invest in affordable housing overseas, but not in Australia! So the Plan is pushing the envelope with a proposal for 150,000 zero-energy social housing dwellings. That is a lot of housing, probably $50 billion of private/public funding over say a decade. This is peanuts compared with new Defence spending currently being touted.

Remember it all gets back to priorities. Are we comfortable seeing large numbers of disadvantage citizens sleeping on the street? Or women being trapped in relationships that lead to domestic violence? Social housing in Scandinavia specifically addresses these problems. Or do we prefer a Defence system armed to the teeth to repel unforeseen invaders? The BZE Plan could be an indirect way of addressing the current imbalance in policy settings.

Related angles:
All in all, we should applaud the BZE. There is a sense of frustration that governments aren’t taking the lead on nation-building projects, ‘so let us have a go’. And the really interesting angle is that if the institutional investors, which include the cash-rich super funds, get behind this Plan, then whole new funding scenarios open up. Could there be an end to submissions to laborious and highly-competitive federal/state grant programs? The BZE approach might involve institutional investors scoping the projects on their own behalf. Where there are public good elements, I presume federal/state funding would be sought for that share. The scoping studies
would determine that share.   

Former PM Turnbull’s name is on the Plan which is nice, although it could cause a bit of blow-back.  But if the institutional investors can really drive the Plan, we can hope that governments plural will be dragged along for the ride.

Homebuilder scheme
The recently-announced Homebuilder scheme provides for $688 million to provide $25,000 mainly towards home extensions. Recipients need to spend $150,000 to be eligible. The scheme requires the agreement of the states and there are numerous conditions attached. An army of bureaucrats will be needed to keep this on track.

But let’s step back here. The primary aim is to sustain the employment of tradies during the economic impact of COVID-19. OK the theory is right, but the tradies in Canberra and Sydney are telling me that they’re absolutely flat-out. And why spend public funds on inherently private sector assets? Surely the smarter option would be to spend public funds on public housing (as above) and restrict it to regions where tradies are under-employed.

I rang the office of the federal Housing Minister, Michael Sukkar, and the sweet lady suggested I speak to Treasury or the Department of Social Services (social housing). I racked the cue at this juncture because I remembered there’s no longer a housing ‘industry’ function with real expertise. Master Builders and the Housing Industry Association are consummate lobbyists and must be having a field day.

Andrew Liveris, the former Dow Chemical chief, who helped write manufacturing policy for Obama and Trump is now doing likewise for PM Morrison. ‘Australia drank the free-trade juice and decided that off-shoring was OK. Well, that era is gone’ he said. He is keen to really look at on-shoring key capabilities. More next month.

Rod Brown is a Canberra-based consultant and lobbyist specialising in industry/regional development, investment attraction and clusters, and accessing federal grants. He also runs the Cockatoo Network.
Phone: (02) 6231 7261 or 0412 922 559
Email: apdcockatoo@iprimus.com.au