The Australian Capital Territory, with its capital city Canberra, is only two hours from the coast, the snow and the city lights of Sydney. Indeed, the Territory was born of compromise. At the turn of the last century, both Sydney and Melbourne vied for the coveted role of Australian capital city and with neither willing to cede the ambition, a place was diplomatically selected between the two. The ACT has now become the heart of the Australian government, but also of a thriving knowledge export economy.
The ACT officially came into being on January 1, 1910, and it hasn’t stopped growing since. And for good reason. While being within easy reach of holiday destinations, life in the territory has much to offer: the lowest unemployment rates and the highest wages in the country, the seat of national government, the best universities, national arts institutions and a climate that embraces all four seasons. The ACT also plays host to a dynamic and vigorous export economy, one that consistently punches above its weight.
When you look at the ACT’s international trade data, some aspects on the surface appear hard to explain. For instance, according to the ABS, France was the ACT’s principal export destination in 2007/08: the recipient of 41 percent of the ACT’s exports. This is an example of the data skewing, often due to one company, in this case Australian Scientific Instruments (ASI). ASI manufacturers and exports instruments for the geochemistry and geomechanics industries. Their SHRIMP ion microprobe costs millions of dollars and when they win a contract to supply a microprobe to an international university, it tends to disproportionately affect the ACT’s international trade statistics. And while one industry skews the figures, others get overlooked. The Royal Australian Mint, for instance, tends to be forgotten in all the success of private industry. In 2007/08 the Mint exported $910,000 worth of gold coin and legal tender to overseas markets. The biggest export success stories however are based on service industries and public administration, with Canberra’s largest discrete export category being education services. At $222 million in 2007/08, it represents 22 percent of the Territory’s total exports. Canberra’s tertiary education institutions are particularly significant exporters with annual revenues and expenditure approaching $1 billion. A great example is the winner of the ACT Chief Minister’s Exporter of the Year award for 2008, The Centre for Customs & Excise Studies, based at the University of Canberra. The Centre provides customs research, consultancy and internationally endorsed educational programs ranging from vocational through to postgraduate and doctoral level. In fact, the Centre went on to become only the second ACT organisation in the history of the ACT Export Awards to win a category award at a national level Why is the ACT so strong at exporting in knowledge-based industries? Chris Horsburgh, Austrade regional manager for the ACT, says it is due in no small part to its nature as the home of the Australian government. "Many firms have extensive experience in selling to government and as such this provides them with some distinctive advantages in the sophisticated selling necessary to succeed in targeting the government sector globally," he says. This level of comfort with government is the foundation for the success of many ACT exporters over several industries. Obvious examples are defence and security exporters’ success selling to the Australian Department of Defence, which has then catapulted companies like CEA Technologies, Compucat, Codarra and EOS Space Systems into the path of other defence agencies including those in the USA and the UK. Information and communication technology companies such as Intelledox, Stratsec, Contentkeeper Technologies have also benefited. And in the medical field, Aspen Medical is an excellent example of a business which has designed innovative solutions for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and subsequently been noticed by defence organisations around the world. Aspen provides healthcare services to remote areas of high demand and are now the largest provider of health services to the ADF, providing all the health services to Australian forces in the Solomon Islands and Timor. Another driving force for local ACT companies is the need for growth external of the territory, due to the natural limitations of trading in the ACT. Horsburgh confirms: "International expansion can be a sound strategy for locally based firms as it can reduce reliance on a single market and provide diversified income flows."
Exporting from the ACT has many benefits: an experienced and highly skilled workforce, proximity to government, education and research facilities, a comprehensive telecommunications infrastructure and lifestyle options. However, challenges include the lack of smart capital or private sector investment, the need to establish Canberra as a brand in the international market, and the need to encourage ACT businesses to adopt a more commercial mindset and cultivate an export culture. To meet these challenges head on, the 2009/10 ACT Budget, handed down on May 5, included $3.1 million for business and economic development. The package supports a range of measures to assist exporting firms including:
- The ACT Exporters’ Network: an industry-led mentoring and information-sharing network;
- TradeConnect: a program that provides small grants to support access to professional business services;
- The ACT Government Trade Mission Program: a bi-annual program delivered in partnership with Austrade to introduce new exporters to overseas markets; and Ongoing support for the ACT Chief Minister’s Export Awards, which is managed by the Canberra Business Council on behalf of the ACT Government.
Other measures include the ACT government’s plans to take a census of export activity and develop a comprehensive database. Further, Canberra Airport Propriety Ltd is currently redeveloping Canberra Airport with a view to increase its capacity and potentially accommodate international flights. International flights linking Canberra to key overseas markets such as Los Angles, Tokyo and Beijing would expedite business travel for exporters and facilitate inwards investment.
The ACT’s export growth is no longer tied to the sheep’s back, but to the development of its enterprising knowledge economy. Maybe the idea of a ‘smart country’ isn’t a myth after all?
Are you an ACT company looking to step up to the next level in your export business? Help is at hand with the ACT government’s TradeConnect program (TCon). Launched in July 2008, the program assists ACT companies with building global opportunities and enhancing their international competitiveness through small dollar-for-dollar step-up funding grants that facilitate access to a range of export related services and activities. TCon has four funding support elements including in-country assistance, tradeshow assistance, global market research, and coaching/mentoring services. Since the commencement of the program, ACT companies have been supported in activities in a variety of overseas markets including the UK, USA, Japan, South Africa and New Zealand. The level of uptake has been reported as steady with applications assessed on a bi-monthly basis. The program has supported 13 ACT companies to date. As a response to feedback from the business community, and to bring the funding support offered in line with other jurisdictions, individual grants will be increased to $10,000, with a maximum of $30,000 over a three-year period, effective from July 1, 2009.