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When exports are up the creek, you need a canoe ... or even a baby carriage


Queensland exports are taking a beating thanks to COVID-19 and China. So, thank goodness for all those small local companies – from baby carriage makers to boatbuilders – who are finding overseas markets, writes Robert MacDonald

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You’ve got to give Deputy Premier Steven Miles full marks for finding the good news among the bad.

Queensland’s exports are down 25 per cent on year ago – a slump of more than $20 billion courtesy of COVID and China’s trade cold war with Australia – and what does he do?

He puts out a statement highlighting a big surge in sales of Queensland-sourced “baby carriages, games, toys and sporting goods”, to more than $59 million, and the 13 per cent growth in “rowing boats, canoes and vessels”, to $132 million.

Canoeing and rowing are apparently growing in popularly during these socially distanced times.

But who knows why our prams, games, toys and sporting goods might suddenly have caught the eye of international buyers.

In any event, that was last month when Miles was acting premier for a while and just another example of a politician trying to put lipstick on a pig, you might say.

But he’s actually making a significant point.

Queensland’s economy is founded on our ability to sell to the rest of the world.

And right now, the raw numbers say our exports are in bad shape, mainly because of big declines in commodity sales, in particular coal, down by nearly a third, or about $12 billion dollars, in the past year.

Our service exports, mainly tourism and international education, also worth more than $12 billion pre-COVID, have also collapsed.

Demand for our commodities is cyclical, even without a pandemic, and that demand will one day begin to return, as will international students and tourists but only slowly, even with the best of assumptions.

Queensland Treasury is forecasting an 11 per cent fall in Queensland’s exports of goods and services exports in 2020-21, before a 9.75 per cent rebound in 2021-22 – still well below pre-COVID levels.

Which gets back to the point Miles is making.

If you’re an export-dependent economy, then spreading your risk makes sense.

And not just in terms of who you’re selling to – look what happens when China decides to get prickly – but also in terms of what you’re offering the world.

Queensland’s clever canoe and baby carriage makers are never going to replace our coal miners in terms of jobs and income for the state, but every small and medium-sized exporter around the state, means a few more jobs and a bit more stability for a local economy.

I’d argue that a dozen smaller exporters scattered through a country town will ultimately provide more stability than one big minerals processing plant or coal mine, which will, one day, shut down because of rising costs, falling reserves or a slump in international demand.

It’s one of the reasons why state and federal governments put so much effort into their trade promotion agencies.

Trade and Investment Queensland, with a current budget of $50 million a year, has 16 offices in 12 countries while Austrade, with a $200 million budget, has 80 offices around the world.

Whether this is money well spent is a perennial policy debate.

I’ve worked in both agencies and believe, by and large, it is an investment worth making.

Australia, and Queensland, have good reputations overseas and if a small exporter trying to break into a new market can take advantage of that goodwill by way of an Austrade or TIQ-sponsored trade mission or introduction, then why not?

The new travel-restricted age of COVID will test this tried and tested model of physically supporting exporters in new markets but both agencies can still earn their keep by identifying opportunities and introducing international buyers to local suppliers, virtually if need be.

And although I have no evidence yet to support this thought, it’s quite possible that these new travel restrictions have actually been a benefit for our trade and investment agencies.

One of the great time-consuming banes of any overseas trade office is the ministerial-led trade mission – TIQ handled 15 of them in 2018-19 and eight in COVID-disrupted 2019-20.

Whatever the ultimate benefit of having, say, your premier or tourism minister visit a particular market, the work that goes into developing the program – organising suitable meetings and media opportunities, preparing briefing papers and the sheer logistics – is enormously time-consuming.

We’ll have to wait until next year’s annual reports to see how effectively Austrade and TIQ used all this suddenly found free time.

In the meantime, there is a definite logic in governments’ helping small businesses become exporters and not just to give a politician an occasional bit of good news to announce.

Every baby carriage and canoe we sell overseas means just a little less reliance on an unpredictable China for our future wellbeing.

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