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The future of export

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Ian Murray mixes with some of export’s elite and comes back from sharing visions of 2020 with a positive outlook for trade in the future. In late August I had the privilege of attending the Trade 2020 conference in Melbourne and then later had a further shot of enthusiasm by spending two days in Perth. It was a pity that at the original 2020 discussions held not long after Rudd won government, trade, despite its massive contribution to employment and our general standard of living, received very little airtime. Thanks to an initiative of Austrade and CEDA [Committee for Economic Development of Australia], Trade 2020 was held in Melbourne on August 26. Although confined to just over half a day, the program was terrific. The only pity was the fact that too few people took advantage of listening and debating issues with some outstanding speakers. Like all conferences that focus on the future, opinion on the way ahead was clearly divided. At one point we were all convinced to sell everything and move to that tropical island, which could possibly be under water. Then came Phil Ruthven, founder and chairman of IBIS World, who took us through a statistical journey that convinced me that in the final event, all would be well. Minister for Trade Simon Crean opened the conference and set the theme with a clear message: "We need the vision and energy to look beyond the horizon and ensure Australia is strategically positioned for the world on 2020." One element of achieving that position is, of course, how people see us from abroad. To that end, Crean announced that the Government will invest $20 million in attracting some of the brightest creative minds to take on the task of Building Brand Australia. Or as the Minister put it, "we need a better statement to the rest of the world about the breadth of our competitive advantage". Crean went on to talk about the importance of upskilling Australia, in particular being prepared for what will eventually be a borderless economy: "Australia must increasingly be able to succeed in a global economy without borders." He added that e-commerce has little respect for conventional trade across borders. "This is trade in the digital age. Our challenge is to move quickly to take advantage of the opportunity on offer." Other key issues the Minister got the audience thinking about were the importance of addressing costly transport and regulation hurdles, and the critical role G20 plays in pushing for conclusion of the Doha Development Round. He made the point that it’s everybody’s responsibility in ensuring that "trade triumphs over protectionism".

Youth and energy

An address by Dr Robert Shapiro, via video link from the USA, followed the opening address. Shapiro took us on a journey of the GFC, debated the merits of carbon-based tax versus cap and trade, and talked at length on the role played by young companies as we head for 2020, companies whose capital base are driven by ideas and innovation versus that of the easily measured capital base of traditional companies. The presentation from Phil Ruthven was, as always, positive. Apart from giving us all encouragement about the export sector remaining strong, his comments about Gen X "the quiet achievers", paralleled Shapiro’s ‘young company’ scenario; Gen X will occupy a lot of this space and be responsible for many of the ideas-based businesses. Event MC Ali Moore led the panel discussions, which focused on a wide range of subjects including infrastructure, education, the increasing role of the services sector, China and the emerging economies, and the Australian and global economy. While all panellists agreed on a bright future for trade and Australia, there were many differing views on whether it’s to be a ‘U’, ‘V’ or ‘W’-shaped recovery. However, there was consensus on the issues raised by the three key speakers: clearly young companies will continue to emerge and grow, skills development-particularly in e-commerce-will be a critical ingredient, services will become more dominant, and we need to be prepared for business without borders. And Gen X will be king, at least for a while. The conference left me feeling positive about the future, and spending a couple of days in WA reinforced that and more. Not only were the people I met with there gung ho about 2020, they felt much the same about 2010. I guess after a $50 billion announcement like the one from Gorgon, you would have to be positive. To leave a conference like this and go to Perth is a highly recommended prescription for positive thinking. -Ian Murray is the executive director of the Australian Institute of Export

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