Prime Minister Julia Gillard Tuesday said the steel industry was crucial to Australia's future as she moved to reassure a sector suffering from the country's "patchwork" economy."The health of the Australian steel industry is critical to our infrastructure, energy, defence, transport, automotive, communications, construction and consumer goods industries," she said."In the new high-tech, low-carbon economy we’re creating, Australian steel has a strong and sustainable future."
Unions have warned the nation's manufacturing sector is facing its worst crisis in decades due to the meteoric rise of the local currency, low foreign steel prices and high materials costs.
This was highlighted by BlueScope Steel last month deciding to abandon its export business and axe 1,000 jobs, with sales hurt by fierce competition from China and elsewhere.
The cuts illustrated that while Australia's mining sector is booming, driven by demand for its raw materials from Asia, other parts of the economy such as manufacturing, tourism and education, are hurting.Gillard conceded the industry faces uncertainty, particularly with the switch towards a low-pollution future.
"For manufacturing and steel in particular, the challenges of transition demand a more targeted and immediate response," Gillard told the Australian Steel Institute convention.
After the Bluescope cuts were announced, Gillard offered the company emergency access to a Aus$100 million (US$102 million) contingency fund intended for a planned pollution tax, to be introduced next July.
She said Tuesday the industry must move towards low-emissions technology to stay ahead.
"For the first time since the Industrial Revolution, we will start decoupling emissions growth from economic growth," she said."It's an historic opportunity to propel our manufacturing sector to the forefront of smart, low emissions technology."
The government plans to invest in energy-efficient capital equipment and low pollution technologies and products through a Aus$1.2 billion clean technology innovation programme.