Treasurer Jim Chalmers has called for Australia to become “a country that makes things again”, as he announced a Federal Budget aimed at building a more resilient, more modern economy.
Central to this vision is a $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund, to be invested over seven years in priority areas such as transport, renewable and low-emission technology, defence and enabling capabilities.
“A better future for Australia must mean a future made in Australia,” Chalmers said.
“[The fund] will help finance projects that expand our industrial base, diversify our economy, create sustainable, well-paid jobs, and grow our regional centres … so that we can be a country that makes things again, so that we can add more value to the things that we sell to the world.”
Engineers Australia CEO Romilly Madew AO HonFIEAust welcomed the commitment, which aligned with the policy goals the association has been advocating for.
“Sovereign capabilities broadly and manufacturing jobs are key to the Australian economy’s future growth and resilience,” she said.
“Through increasing Australia’s engineering and manufacturing capability comes increased research and development expenditure and greater innovation.”
Steady infrastructure spending
Madew also welcomed the transport infrastructure commitments laid out in the Budget, totalling $55b.
Major infrastructure highlights include:
- $2.2 billion for Melbourne’s suburban rail loop
- $866 million for Bruce Highway works
- $634.8 million to upgrade the Alice Springs to Halls Creek corridor
- $500 million for Sydney-Newcastle high-speed rail
- $400 million to upgrade freight highway infrastructure
- $350 million to seal Tanami and Central Arnhem Rds
- $78 million for Tasmanian roads.
Other notable non-transport infrastructure projects include $107.5 million for a water security project in Cairns and $100 million for the third tranche of the Tasmanian irrigation pipeline project.
“Addressing the engineering skills gap will be important for the successful delivery of these projects and Engineers Australia looks forward to working with the Government to overcome this challenge,” Madew said.
“Collaborative long-term planning of infrastructure is vital to economic prosperity.”
Growing the workforce
A smaller but potentially significant measure is a $76 million commitment to implement outcomes from the recent Jobs and Skills Summit.
Most of these funds will go toward boosting the skilled migrant intake by more than 20% and slashing the visa processing backlog.
“By expanding Australia’s migration program and targeting engineering disciplines facing the greatest skills needs, we can ensure the right people are coming to the country with the capabilities to fulfil the jobs most needed,” Madew said.
“Infrastructure Australia predicts between 2021 and 2024 we need more than 41,000 engineers to meet demand. This is a gaping skills hole.
“With the increase in infrastructure and other construction projects around Australia, and the lag in migration, this need is likely to increase.”
Madew said Engineers Australia was already working to improve employment outcomes of migrant engineers in order to ensure Australia is seen as a destination of choice.
“This is particularly critical as global demand for engineers increases and other developed nations start to rely more on migrant engineers to shore up their supply.”
More than $485 million has also been promised in the next four years to supply 20,000 extra university places for skills in high demand, including 1738 additional engineering places.
Rewiring for renewables
The Government confirmed many previously announced commitments to reforming Australia’s energy grid, including $20 billion over a decade for its Rewiring the Nation program.
The funding will be used to provide concessional loans for transmission infrastructure programs that help transition our electricity grid. Already, $6 billion has been earmarked for the Kerang link between Victoria and New South Wales, and the Marinus link across Bass Strait.
“Our plan drives investment in renewable energy – which is cheaper energy – and delivers thousands of new jobs in the coming years – many of them in our regions – by leveraging our existing traditional strengths and creating new ones,” Chalmers said.
An extra $275 million over six years has also been promised for cheaper and cleaner transport. Key projects include:
- A $146 million funding boost for the Australian Renewable Energy Agency to co-invest in low-emissions transport projects
- Almost $90 million to create hydrogen refuelling stations on our busiest freight routes
- Building 117 fast charging stations for EVs.
Madew said these investments would serve to propel Australia’s most challenging modernisation.
“The need for reliable and affordable energy means high-quality engineering skills will be critical in the design and deployment of the scarce capital required for climate solutions,” she said.
“Cleaning up the grid and electrifying everything cannot be achieved without engineers. They are fundamental to the energy transition, particularly given the system engineering needs of our complex energy system.”
A total of $47 million has been budgeted to help develop talent and leadership in STEM, including a targeted investment to support women in the sector.
“Engineering is the largest employer of the STEM professions, yet has the lowest number of women at just 13 percent of Australia’s engineering workforce,” Madew said.
She said the Budget’s cost-of-living relief measures, including the Government’s upgrades to parental leave and childcare subsidies, would also assist women who are assessing the financial viability of remaining in, or returning to, the engineering workforce.
Up to $200 million a year has also been committed to disaster prevention and resilience through the new Disaster Ready Fund.