Demonstrating Western Australia’s technological, industrial and research capacity outside of exporting raw commodities and energy resources is looming as the top priority for the state’s first Minister for Asian Engagement.
Speaking exclusively with Australia China Business Review, Asian Engagement Minister Bill Johnston said a key focus of Labor’s whole-of-government approach to fostering new business and trade links in the world’s most populous region – the Asia Pacific – would be addressing WA’s long-standing reputation as China’s quarry.
“We need to work hard to market our capacities and our skills, because that’s our real strength,” Mr Johnston said.
“There are many places in the world that have bountiful natural resources endowments, but what separates us from those places is our capacity to get that endowment out of the ground and use it.
“That’s the skill, so marketing those skills, not just in the mining sector, but beyond the mining sector, is crucial.
“It can’t be just a we sell, you buy relationship, it must be much broader.”
To strengthen WA business links with the Asia-Pacific region, Mr Johnston said the state government would seek to not only promote the state’s tourism capacity, which has been bolstered by a $425 million destination and events marketing commitment over the next five years, but to also encourage and attract foreign investment in a wide range of industry sectors.
The state government’s Asian Engagement Strategy would largely be aimed at six countries – China, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, India and Vietnam – with China considered to be “first amongst equals” of that bunch, he said.
Premier Mark McGowan’s first overseas mission will take place later this year, with Tourism Minister Paul Papalia, Education Minister Sue Ellery and Mr Johnston to join Mr McGowan on a delegation to China.
“We are very excited about our opportunity to travel to China, the plan is to highlight the opportunities to deepen the relationship, particularly around international students, research capacity and tourism,” Mr Johnston said.
“While there may be some controversies around state-owned enterprises investing in Australia, we are a country that is built on foreign investment and we welcome foreign investment.
“We allow 100 per cent foreign ownership of projects in Australia, not just talking about mining projects but other businesses.
“We don’t require them to sell down at some future date, we allow, subject to tax laws, profits to be repatriated and there are no restrictions on dividends, so we are an attractive place for foreign investment, and we also have a stable regulatory environment.
“We have a strong and long-established practice for resolving contractual disputes … these are all reasons that Chinese foreign investors should see Australia as a great place to invest.”
Specific industries where WA had a competitive advantage included transport and logistics, Mr Johnston said, as well as new energy technologies and mineral engineering technical services.
“Just as an example, Oxfam has published a report saying that there are 1.3 billion people without access to reliable electricity,” he said.
“Those people are going to get access to electricity in the next 30 or 40 years through the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank, and we have the technology to provide that opportunity.
“The disaggregated generation profile of our remote communities is a real strength for us, so this is a real business opportunity.
“We need to translate the technology that we have in Perth into a business opportunity in the Asian region.”
Mr Johnston said one of Labor’s strategies, which was still in the embryonic stage, would be to leverage off existing strengths in the education sector and focus on alumni from Western Australian universities.
“The best and the brightest are coming to our universities, and after 10 years they are going to be in middle management and after 20 years they are going to be in leadership positions,” he said.
“Students get such a rich experience, not just the learning that they do at the university but the personal growth they get in their years in Perth.
“So how can we take advantage of that connection?”