When I was in my mid-twenties, I had the chance to work for the late Western Australian Senator Peter Cook. He was then the Shadow Minister for Trade – a perfect policy area for a Western Australian.
Peter taught me a great deal about politics, and about Western Australia. I enjoyed travelling with him through places like Kalgoorlie, Karratha and Carnarvon, talking with mine workers and farmers, local business leaders and politicians.
Peter was an instinctive internationalist. He took the view that you couldn't be a social democrat without believing in an open Australia – and you couldn't believe in openness without a proper social safety net. He was a yachtsman, with a yen for open waters.
For many Western Australians, internationalism is instinctive. The Swan River Colony began exporting wool to Britain in the 1830s and sandalwood to Singapore in the 1840s. The Free Trade League, established in 1871, is thought to have been this state's first political organisation. At the time of Federation, Western Australia lined up on the side of free trading New South Wales, opposing protectionist Victoria.
Today, Western Australia accounts for over two-fifths of the nation's exports. In a few years, Australia will ship out iron ore at a rate of 25 tonnes per second.
The advances in mining technology over the past decade have in some cases been nothing short of extraordinary. We need to keep the partnerships between public and private researchers that encourage this to continue. Australia has the potential to take global leadership in some technologies, such as carbon sequestration and floating LNG.
The same is true in agriculture.
Western Australia is one of the oldest supercontinents on earth – around 3 billion years old. As a result, the soils are some of the least fertile on earth. They have less phosphorous, nitrogen and copper. So technologies have had to be better – using the right fertilizers and choosing the right seeds. Western Australian farmers have had to be more ingenious than farmers in other parts of the world who started with better soils.
But Western Australia isn't just a quarry and a farm – important as quarries and farms are.
This is also the state that produced Nobel Prize winners Barry Marshall and Robin Warren – who were willing to give themselves ulcers to transform our understanding of that condition.
It's the state that gave us Fiona Wood, whose breakthroughs with spray-on skin have made lives of burns victims more bearable.
It's the state that produced great economists like Nugget Coombs and Ross Garnaut.
Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Assistant Treasurer. This is an edited extract from a speech delivered to a business breakfast in Perth.
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