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Finding ways to build a better future

By Graham Cooke - posted Thursday, 8 August 2013

There is now general agreement among politicians, economic forecasters and business leaders that Australia's mining boom is over. Chinese growth is slowing and will slow further; its demand for our mineral recourses has levelled off and because successive governments operated on the assumption China's appetite was insatiable and there was no need to diversify into other markets, we squandered the opportunities it presented to save for a rainy day.

But that's another story. The question is what, if anything, can replace mining as a main driver of Australia's future growth.

Well, the ideas being bandied around seem to be coalescing on that old favourite, the construction industry - and indeed it has been a bulwark of the economy in the past.


Construction is labour intensive; it creates jobs in the non-academic sector and has spin-offs that benefit other industries ranging from building suppliers to sandwich bars. But unlike mining, it does not bring in vast revenues from overseas. Rather it liberates funds locked up in other areas within the domestic economy, including personal savings and future earnings through mortgages in the housing sector; company profits, and government taxes in commercial building and infrastructure. As such, construction 'booms' can be illusionary and have to be carefully managed if they are simply not robbing Peter to pay Paul.

The other more immediate problem is that at the moment construction is not in a healthy state. The Housing Industry Association (HIA) paints a bleak picture of the residential sector – 25,000 fewer homes being built every year than a decade ago; an industry that has shrunk every month for the past three years; thousands of jobs at risk; a tax regime that is making the building of new homes unaffordable.

The news in the commercial sector is not much better. Property Council Chief Executive Peter Verwer says that vacancy rates across the nation's office market rose from 8.4 per cent at the beginning of the year to 10.1 per cent in July.

"There is no surprise that weak office space demand mirrors Australia's lacklustre economic performance," Verwer says.

"The decline in white collar jobs growth to a third of the level experienced before the Global Financial Crisis has severely blunted demand and business expansion plans."

HIA Managing Director Shane Goodwin says that Australia has a growing population and logically there should be significant demand for new housing.


He cites red tape, an inflexible industrial relations system and disproportionate levels of taxation as choking off what should be natural growth - and certainly the reliance of state governments on construction as a revenue raiser has been a persistent HIA grouse over many years.

But even at these lower levels, the construction industry generated $305 billion in total income, contributed $99 billion to the Australian economy and employed close to a million people during 2011-12, according to figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

ABS Director of Integrated Collections William Milne said that the industry employed hundreds of thousands of tradespeople – carpenters, bricklayers, electricians, plumbers and so on.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.

He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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