In 1935, the chief general manager of BHP, Essington Lewis, visited Europe.
He returned with the view that war was probable and that Australia must immediately strengthen its manufacturing industry. He and other Australian businesses, including General Motors Holden and Orica, established the Commonwealth Airport Corporation a year later.
By 1937 a factory had been built in Port Melbourne and during the war the business would produce Australian made warplanes such as the Wirraway. The Allies won World War II not because we had the strongest military in 1939 but because we could build more planes, more boats and more tanks during the war. The cause of freedom won because the free economies had stronger and more efficient industrial economies.
Now comparisons with the 1930s are in vogue but, unlike then, over the past decade Australia has been de-industrialising. For the first time on record our manufacturing industry has declined over the past decade in real output terms.
And we have gone from producing enough raw petroleum to meet 96 per cent of domestic demand in 2000, to now only producing enough to meet half of our needs. A big part of that has been because we have
destroyed our energy competitiveness. In 2007, Australia had some of the cheapest power prices in the world. Today, they are some of the most expensive. The way we are going anyone in the future who wants to invade Australia won’t need detailed maps of troop placements and terrain, they will just need a weather forecast. A cloudy, windless day will be the time to do it, when all the renewable energy we have built is completely useless.
Notwithstanding the efforts of Essington Lewis, Australia’s electricity system of the 1930s was in a weak state. As the Bill to establish the Snowy scheme said with clarity that would be alien to modern bureaucracies, “... it is desirable that provision should be made now to enable increased supplies of electricity to be immediately available in time of war”.
Like the nation builders that led our country in the post-war environment, increasing reliable supplies of electricity must be a key part of our defence strategy. Unlike the 1930s, that strategy is unlikely to be driven by our business leaders. The heirs of Essington Lewis remain too focused on trying to save the planet from climate change, something they have no power to achieve, rather than doing the things they could do, like helping to build our industrial capacity and defend our nation.
That requires government to pick up the slack and invest in reliable forms of energy. That should mean building coal-fired power plants to produce reliable, baseload energy.
There are some that seem to believe that renewable energy can save the planet and defend the nation. But the submarines we are spending billions on won’t run on solar power. And, we can not produce more tanks and ammunition by relying on energy sources that are weather dependent. This year has forced us to face a number of hard, cold truths.
The coronavirus is just the most present and visible one but the longer term elevated risk of conflict in our region is much more dire to the future of our nation. The sooner we face truths about what it takes to defend our country, the sooner we will be in a position to defend our way of life.
After he successfully established the Commonwealth Airport Corporation, Essington Lewis went on to be the Director-General of Munitions during the war. In that role he eventually employed 150,000 people, established 213 armament factories and produced millions of rounds of ammunition.
We need to invest in our manufacturing industry so that it can play as crucial a role in our defence as our armed forces do.