Chief executive Mukund Narayanamurti says his charter from the federal government was to increase the skills of the whole workforce and the training work in regional communities like Warrnambool and the Pilbara has involved both helping existing industries and identifying new opportunities.
“They all complement each other,” he says of programs at large companies and small rural family businesses.
In Warrnambool, Asialink China training specialist Nick Henderson worked with Miller to create the Warrnambool China Bureau which has become a flexible one-stop shop for local businesses to get feedback on whether they might have export potential in China; it runs information sessions on Changchun and other China opportunities; can provide on the ground assistance finding partners in Changchun; and runs trade missions like the one in September.
“We can just set up a mentoring conversation or we can do in depth market research,” Miller says of a service he would like to have been able to access when he first worked in China in 2008.
He says that while Changchun officials were initially attracted to a Warrnambool relationship because they were interested in the dairy industry, that industry is more able to manage relations with China by itself.
Instead the potentially more productive work from Warrnambool’s perspective has occurred in education links, aged care, wine exports and tourism promotion in China along with capacity building at home.
The Warrnambool city relationship is also now being extended to four surrounding rural councils with a total population of 110,000 and the Great Ocean Road tourism region.
From the sky Wellcamp Airport emerges from the sprawling Darling Downs beef country like a secret military facility on a remote frontier.
But the privately built, first new airport in Australia for 50 years has become a sort of new frontline in the long quest to reap more value from rural commodities the local farmers have been producing for more than a century.
The Wagner family built the airport in a remarkable 19 months using construction techniques honed in their long established infrastructure business and have created a new supply chain to Asia with a weekly freight flight which goes from Sydney, Melbourne and then Toowoomba to Hong Kong.
Business people and government officials say the airport and the flight have transformed the way many local businesses function because they have a joint vested interest in ensuring the flight succeeds. Those who want more flights to give them regular access to Asia for products like fresh vegetables or milk now need to work with other producers to boost interest in exports.
When the ASEAN ambassadors are shown around the new freight building a 747 aircraft engine wrapped in plastic was in one corner and car in another.
But the row of big white individual temperature controlled cold storage rooms are the key to the new export supply chain for a region which markets itself as one of Australia’s biggest food producers.
Wagner tells his visitors: “We are very proud that there had never been a 747 cargo flight in and out of Queensland until we built this airport. So we see ourselves as a major cargo hub going forward.”
His story of defying sceptics by building a new airport with his own money and staffing it with his own employees from the check-in desks to the baggage handling strikes a chord with officials from countries where airport construction is a key constraint to growth.
While Toowoomba mayor Paul Antonio also talks up how the airport has put the local rural producers within 12 hours of half the world’s population, he argues that its real value will only be achieved when it is linked to the proposed inland rail line between Brisbane and Melbourne and a new highway to Brisbane.
A roundtable discussion between the ASEAN ambassadors and local agribusiness representatives on how to expand trade with emerging Asian economies highlighted some key challenges:
- Better cold storage links are needed to improve high value fresh food exports.
- Farm businesses need to cooperate more to improve their economies of scale against global food multinationals.
- Food value adding needs to be rethought so that it is done in different countries depending on skills and competitiveness.
- Australia needs to work with regional countries on more harmonised biosecurity standards.
Like his Asian-focussed local government counterpart Shaun Miller on the other side of the country, Tony Friday joined the Pilbara Regional Council after a business career in Asian countries.
Now as the chief executive of what is an umbrella business development agency for four smaller councils including Port Hedland and Karratha, he has built links with China and Indonesia with the aim of creating a broader long-term connection in food production and tourism that provides jobs as the iron ore mines become more automated.
Friday concedes that trying to build new connections to Asia in a part of the country where iron ore miners have been doing that for decades might seem unusual, but says the community needs wide-ranging connections than the resources exports.
He says the council’s EastXWest Forums in Jakarta in 2015 and Shenzhen in 2016 have brought investment into the region and encouraged local beef and tourism businesses to better understand the opportunities in these countries.
Friday says Shenzhen was chosen to make the point about how a small fishing village became a booming part of the Chinese economy with a special economic zone to draw in foreign investment.
He argues the long running debate about declaring the entire north of Australia a low tax zone has undermined the possibility of trying the idea out in a place like the proposed new port at Port Hedland to make freight shipment for non-mining produce easier.
Nevertheless, he says, the Shenzhen Forum led to plans for a Chinese movie to be shot in the area, new tourism developments and a Port Hedland office tower development.
But the links to Indonesia may prove more substantial with the Singaporean businessman Bruce Cheung buying Pardoo Station in 2014 with plans to revive live cattle exports from Port Hedland using new breeding stock he is introducing to local beef farmers, as well as his own station.