Exporters punching above their weight

Written on the 11 August 2009

The contribution of Brisbane-based exporters to the Australian economy could be likened to that of Queensland swimmers to the Olympic medal tally last year – a high proportion given the state’s population. As part of this month’s export feature, Austrade chief economist Tim Harcourt confirms the smart state’s proven track record of staying ahead of the pack and finding foreign markets.

IT was very fitting that Anna Bligh created history as Australia’s first elected female premier, in a state that tops Australia for having the highest proportion of women CEOs in the exporter community. But according to KPMG demographer Bernard Salt, many of the female CEOs are actually divorced Victorians who moved north to the smart state to start a new entrepreneurial life in the sun. In any case, the migration north of many successful people — to add to the pool of home-grown success stories — points to the economic vibrancy of Queensland and Brisbane in particular.

They say that Queenslanders ‘punch above their weight’ for Australia on the international stage and you hear this assertion time and time again around the country. When I was speaking at a conference on Hayman Island, Anna Bligh herself gave a very amusing speech about Queensland’s contribution to Australia’s Olympic medal tally at the Beijing Olympics and how it related to Queensland’s similar contribution to Australia’s export haul. She thought there could be a link between the success of Stephanie Rice in the world of international swimming and the success of local women in the world of international business – after all, natural talent, hard work and determination are factors for success in both spheres of life.

Brisbane’s economic success is a testimony to these values, with ties to Asia, the Pacific and now Latin America as well-known examples of how the state got in early when it comes to exports and foreign direct investment.
Trade was mainly with the US, UK and Japan 25 years ago and it was Queensland that broke ranks ahead of the pack to trade with Tokyo. Since then it is no surprise that China and India are more important now but maybe five years ago India wouldn’t have been on the list – this goes to show how quickly emerging markets can grow and how vital it is to identify them early.

Brisbane has a strong agribusiness and tourism focus, but it’s also grown in services. LNG will be important I think and in China there are increasing energy needs as they expand – it is natural that they might want to set up other supply chains for their resources in South America or Africa, but in Australia we have a comparative advantage in that we have reliability, stability and a proven track record. Our mining services are in high demand around the world and we’ve always been open across many fields.

Another large export sector for Queensland is education, which is not only relevant as a business itself but for developing an open-minded, highly skilled and educated workforce now and into the future. For instance, Griffith University was the first university in Australia to establish a school dedicated to Asian studies – what this brings is graduates who have an understanding of the region which will benefit our export potential. It is a focus that many other universities have adopted as well.

You need an education revolution to have an export revolution – the fact is that the human capital aspect will contribute to exports now and in a generation we will start to see the effects of internationally-minded education. It all comes back to punching above our weight – we have the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the Governor General don’t we?

It’s also great to see that emerging markets like Brazil, India and the Middle East are being treated as partners rather than competitors, as we also look to other markets like Africa where there have been some good mining projects, but stability is always an issue there. Another emerging market to keep an eye on is Russia and the Caucus regions, not just in terms of raw materials and mining services but as a consumer base as well.

A real standout emerging business for me is a Brisbane company called Standfast (see story page 14), which manufactures safety products to more than 70 countries and has set up an office in Chicago — they are advancing occupational health and safety in the US and have benefited greatly from President Barack Obama’s stimulus package. CEO Cameron Baker says that after the Free Trade Agreement in 2004 Australia’s profile improved even more in the US. Many have said that staying open will be the way to dig ourselves out of the financial crisis and the success of Standfast illustrates how important it is not to slide into policies of protectionism.

The main challenge now will be adapting our needs to climate change and balancing the implications of the ageing population, for down the track when Generation Y will be running the show. We won’t have as many young people but countries like India will, so that’s a lot of consumers and opportunities for exporters. But when it comes to tapping emerging export markets at the moment, we’ve already done it – we’re ahead of the game.

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