Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) are an essential part of the new policy framework imposed by the Morrison government on the Australian people in the management of the current “Omicrom phase” of the pandemic.
They are essential for workplaces, schools, nursing homes and other locations at the heart of daily life.
The assumption is that Omicrom is less damaging than Delta and, the “con” is that Delta has gone away. The blind eye is that there will not be another mutation into a new variant that will require a new response.
The main purpose of the RATs is to get workers back in production and distribution so that profit-making does not fall. It’s workers who make the world go around, not big, and small business that employs them.
Deliberately, the government has set this policy knowing that there is insufficient RATs supply to match the requirements of its new policy. And everything unfolds at a pace that distracts from the making and supply of PCR tests.
Australia, overwhelmingly, relies on offshore manufacturing of RATs.
It never had to be this way and it still does not. Dependence on imported RATs could and should have been avoided. Locally made RATs has been possible but neglected or ignored by those in charge of doing the opposite.
Late last week the ABC told us there was indeed a potential Australian base for mass manufacturing of RATs, but the employers claimed they had received little support from the government to move to mass manufacturing. One has set up manufacturing operations in the USA. In fact, the report appeared the same day that the government confirmed the closure of 2 flagship funding schemes that would have helped these manufacturers and their potential workforces (see below).
Dig deeper, and we find yet another major policy scandal just below the surface.
Making RATs in Australia – yet another Morrison con job
The Manufacturing Task Force (MTF), remember that?
The MTF grew out of the set of major policy decisions that the LNP government made after a lazy response to the spread of covid19 in March 2020. They included JobSeeker, JobKeeper, JobMaker, and a tripartite “National COVID-19 Coordination Commission” (NCCC).
The manufacture of RATs here in Australia was, and still is, a task that should be driven by any MTF.
It has not been, and that is a gross failure that matches many others that the Morrison government has organised. Morrison’s “can do capitalism” is a con.
The NCCC was headed by Nev Power from Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Mining. PM Morrison said that the NCCC would work with “all arms of government, right across government”, and ensure public and private sector cooperation.
The functions of the Commission included to: "drive the development and co-ordination of staged and proportionate plans on critical non-health factors including:
# transport and logistics challenges
# industry co-ordination and adjustment
# labour and workforce planning
# delivery of essential services and maintenance of critical infrastructure
# support to vulnerable Australians
# input of scientific and technological expertise.
The availability and supply of RATs (and locally made vaccines and curative medicines) applies to each of these.
Nev Power’s first contribution was to promote methane-emitting gas as a priority for manufacturing. Even government supporters within manufacturing were questioning whether, indeed, the Commission would enable manufacturing renewal to do what would be required and what the circumstances encouraged.
The NCCC’s MTF would be headed by Andrew Liveris, arising from his role in manufacturing policy with the USA’s Obama administration. The task force included Innes Wilcox from the employers’ Australian Industry Group and, two unionists, Paul Bastian, then the National Secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Union, and Dan Walton, from the Australian Workers Union.
During his tenure Bastian advocated publicly and strongly for a “make it here” approach to the priorities for manufacturing in helping with the covid19 strategy, for example listen to his interview on the ABC’s Radio National. RATs could be have been manufactured to meet, in significant part at least, our needs and maybe also for export.
Just a few months later, on October 1st, 2020 Morrison announced a new, $1.5 billion, 4 year “Modern Manufacturing Strategy”, as part of the JobKeeper Plan.
First, $1.5 billion over 4 years is quite pathetic. In no way does it compensate or drive the reversal of Australian manufacturing employers’ capital strike that is still on.
Second, Morrison said not a word about either the NCCC or the MTF in his announcement.
For just a few days an excited Morrison promoted the impression that his government takes manufacturing seriously, talking about a “pivot” to manufacturing. Of course, anyone who has been working in or taking manufacturing seriously knows that this enthusiasm is the opposite of the long-term winding down of manufacturing that had\s been co-supervised by LNP governments and the big mining corporations.
The new manufacturing plan included these points
Aligning research and innovation capabilities and programs to priority areas
Setting National Manufacturing Priorities and developing road maps for action
Making supply chains more resilient to external shocks including through a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative
Measured against these, a serious policy failure is evident.
One of the 6 priority industries in the plan was “Medical Products”. Obviously, RATs fit within this industry.
One of the funding streams was for Medical products. Its purpose was described in these terms:
The Manufacturing Integration Stream – Medical Products grant opportunity supports projects that integrate Australian businesses into domestic and international value chains which will propel their goods and services into new markets. The opportunity provides co-funding to encourage linkages between local businesses and domestic and international firms. It will also facilitate the adoption of product standards and greater knowledge sharing. …
What do you get?
Grants of between $1 million to $20 million, up to 50% of the eligible project expenditure.
Who is this for?
Medical Products businesses who want to enter new markets or integrate into supply chains.
The scheme (round 2 funding) was shut down in December 2021, as was its associated “Integration Scheme”, thus compounding the policy failure.
Or, maybe, the whole scheme was always classic Morrison advertising, designed to appear far more than what was really intended.
The architects of failure and their challengers
The local manufacture and supply of RATs is a perfect example of what both the MTF and associated Strategy should have been driving. Dealing with supply problems and speeding up new, necessary products should have been a prime task.
Last week’s ABC article, referred to earlier in this piece, forgot all about the Task Force and the October 2020 strategy. Andrew Liveris, the chair of the MTF has been silent, even though the story is all about manufacturers trying to establish Australian based and made RATs. Instead, the priority has been to twist manufacturing policy to escalate a methane-producing gas led “recovery”.
Of course, Morrison had shut down the NCCC in May last year because its work was “concluded”. Counting his chickens. Nev Power had done his job on behalf of Australian mining, making sure that the mass of Australians would not benefit from a manufacturing industry that leveraged off mineral resources. People like Nev Power have grown very rich in mining off the back of the gutting of Australian manufacturing.
By then, Power was Chair of the Perth Airport (among other things).
He is the same Nev Power, yes ex- Chair of the COVID Commission, accused of flouting the WA government's travel restrictions. Testing the tricks to which his wealth and power entitle him?
Andrew Liveris, Chair of the MMT, has not yet said anything about RATs and other medical products essential for anti-covid strategy.
Liveris of course was caught out telling the Australian public nonsense about jobs in the gas industry when he appeared on Q&A 18 months ago. His whinging speech about innovation in manufacturing six months or so ago is in much the same vein when compared to the outcomes we now know about with the RATs debacle. He whinged about others while falling short in his own job.
The MTF should not have been a vehicle to promote gas but instead, it should have concentrated on a stocktake of existing and potential capability in medical products manufacturing, especially testing technologies. Just like the AMWU then and since has been pushing: Australian made to be “buy Australian”.
"You've really got to have a plan for the next 10 weeks to 10 months, to fill the factories up with work," said Mr Bastian, who is part of the Andrew Liveris-led COVID-19 recovery taskforce.
And the employers’ bosses? What have they been up to?
The Business Council of Australia’s (BCA) CEO, Tim Reed, conveniently dodged local manufacturing when interviewed on the ABC this week. At this point, the BCA has said nothing about the situation faced by the employers and their workforce described in last week’s ABC report.
Similarly, nothing from the AIG’s Innes Wilcox, a member of the MMT. The best he could come up with was an attack on the ACTU’s logical proposal that employers should ensure and pay for an adequate supply of RATs if it wanted its employees at work. That was described as unrealistic, even though some employers are doing it already, and it’s standard practice that company logoed hiviz workwear is paid for by the employer. If it’s a work requirement from which the employer will get a profit then the employer should pay.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) emphasises that the Australian people are now living in a crisis, not coming out of one and that the unavailability of RATs is a big part of that. They are correct to urge that workers mobilise to take direct control of their own safety.
The failure (deliberate or otherwise) of Morrison’s manufacturing policy to ensure that RATs made in Australia could serve our needs is a big part of what has been correctly described as “one of the worst public policy failures in Australia’s history."
The road ahead
When it comes to what Australian manufacturing should be doing by now, only the AMWU has shown the foresight to clarify nearly 2 years ago what needed to be done.
Paul Bastian: There is a need, we believe, to establish a task force in some of our key industries, such as food, defence, mining, and engineering. To look at two things: not just to see how we can localise our supply chains, but also to look importantly at our capability gap and how we might be able to fill those gaps in our manufacturing sector.
Future correction and a real deal for manufacturing jobs, including in medical products, means the Morrison government must go when this year's election rolls around.