By Chris Melham, Chief Executive Officer, Civil Contractors Federation (National)

Prior to the last federal election, the then Opposition Leader, Anthony Albanese, announced to great fanfare Labor’s ‘Buy Australian Plan’.

Speaking to the NSW State Labor Conference in October 2021, Mr Albanese said if Labor were elected to Government, it would maximise opportunities for Australian businesses in major infrastructure projects.

This included the establishment of a ‘Future Made in Australia’ office within the Department of Finance to actively support local industry in taking advantage of government purchasing opportunities.

And importantly, he said a Labor Government would “provide opportunities for mid and small tier Australian companies to participate in the infrastructure pipeline helping to build and strengthen our sovereign capability.”

This, he said, would be achieved by “packaging tenders where appropriate, into multiple packages that allow smaller companies to bid for them.”

After having been in Government for more than five months, the Civil Contractors Federation (CCF) will be formally approaching the Government to better understand how, and when, it will be implementing this key election policy.

PROCUREMENT REFORM IS THE FIRST STEP

Mr Albanese also went on to say that 95 per cent of the top- 20 infrastructure projects worth more than $500 million were delivered by foreign-owned companies from 2015 to 2020.

At the time of the announcement, CCF warmly welcomed it.

According to Labor, around $190 billion has been spent on government contracts over the last three financial years, showing that procurement policy is a major economic lever available to drive the economic recovery from COVID-19. CCF agrees.

We have been strongly advocating for the civil infrastructure sector to be used as a lever to lead Australia’s economic recovery in the wake of COVID-19 and the economic recession.

Procurement reform of the Commonwealth Governments’ $120 billion rolling ten-year infrastructure investment program is an important first step in turning the economy around.

Furthermore, debundling major projects as a means of encouraging more tender bids from Tier 2 and Tier 3 companies and SMEs was a key theme of CCF’s report Rebuilding Australia – A Plan for a Civil Infrastructure Led Recovery.

I was pleased to recently discuss this report with the Hon Catherine King, Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government.

It is encouraging to see Labor adopting CCF’s key infrastructure procurement recommendations to increase Australia’s sovereign capability.

CCF looks forward to the Government working more with the states and territories to break up large contracts where possible to allow Tier 2, Tier 3, Tier 4 and smaller SMEs an opportunity to bid for civil infrastructure tenders.

To enable this, the Commonwealth Government’s $120 billion ten-year rolling infrastructure investment program needs to focus on ensuring there are sufficient resources within the state and territory procurement agencies to deliver the pipeline to market in a way that maximises opportunities for small to medium contractors.

Maximising the use of local workers and businesses was a key point CCF made to the House of Representatives Inquiry into Infrastructure Procurement, so it is pleasing to see Labor committing to this reform.

THREE KEY TAKEAWAYS FROM THE JOBS AND SKILLS SUMMIT 2022

Certainty around the infrastructure pipeline was one of the key matters discussed at the Jobs and Skills Summit 2022 – Infrastructure Roundtable which I attended with other infrastructure sector leaders and was chaired by Minister King. From an infrastructure perspective, three important matters emerged as key themes from the talks.

Firstly, a nationally coordinated, clearly defined, transparent and predictable pipeline of infrastructure projects will provide the sector with more certainty and enable better strategic planning. There was also an acknowledgement that industry is keen to be involved in discussions to provide advice on what works.

Secondly, improving sovereign capability while simultaneously promoting local upskilling through effective long-term planning alongside sound migration policies will allow for a more sustainable and productive sector.

And thirdly, procurement reform is vital to the success of any measures and the construction industry needs to be an employer of choice to guarantee the future successful delivery of the infrastructure pipeline.

These are important initiatives which CCF hopes will be included in the Employment Whitepaper which is due for release later this year.

CCF is also looking forward to greater detail on how the Government is going to implement its pre-election promise to provide opportunities for mid and small tier civil construction companies to participate in the infrastructure pipeline.

Specifically, further detail is required on the approach the Federal Government is going to take to package tenders, where appropriate, into multiple packages that allow smaller companies to bid for them.

It is time for the Government’s good intentions to
be turned into actions to create more local jobs and to improve the strength and sustainability of Australia’s civil construction industry.

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