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Opinion: Riding the rebound will be tricky

Disrupted industry is facing a heavily accelerated recovery in the general economy

 

This could get messy. The nation is looking forward to vaccination rates allowing borders to open properly and people to resume their existences to something akin to before the first Covid crisis.

First, because the chances of Covid-19 mutations are particularly good. Some of our ‘leaders’ may talk bravely of never going back into lockdown. But if biotechnology fails to keep up in the face of a nasty new strain, we could easily find ourselves ‘back to the future’, as happened with the Delta strain.

Something for companies to at least have a plan for, just in case.

More immediately, against a backdrop of an entirely disrupted global transport and logistics scene, pent-up demand within our shores is likely to test the industry’s ability to shoulder the transport and distribution load.

And keep in mind, some of that demand comes from the industry itself.

For instance, staff and skills shortages usually filled by immigrants and visa-holders aren’t due to closed national borders.

As mining, with its deep pockets, surges once again, that shortage is becoming even more acute.

Kudos to Western Australia for dragooning former defence personnel to drive trucks for the state’s bumper harvest. But there are only a limited number of them to go around elsewhere.

Down around the container ports, here and globally, the container logistics crisis has a long way to go. As evidenced by the rising oil, and therefore fuel, price, the economic rebound is global, so shipping lines are trying to rationalise container availability in the face of massive pressure, particularly in China.

But this will pass, in due course if not soon.

How Australia manages its own development is another matter.

Infrastructure continues the go-to item politically to show something is ‘being done’ to make the nation a better place.

Shovelling cash at that task has been easy and, despite pandemic-forced deficits forecast for decades, billions of dollars have been allocated.

In its First Infrastructure Market Capacity report, Infrastructure Australia sees expenditure “approximately doubling over the next three years, peaking at $52 billion in 2023”.

Consequently, it foresees the infrastructure sector needing 105,000 entrants, with about 35,000 vacancies failing to be filled.

The question is, where will the other 70,000 come from?

Infrastructure Australia is pinning its hopes on innovation, efficiencies and coordination.

Though unlikely, first is possible, but Australia has allowed its aversion to the other two full rein and that will eventually cost us all.

While that is more an issue for the ancillary side to struggle with, the lack of skilled truck drivers is industry-wide.

And what happens if that gets fully out of hand?

Certainly, few lessons learnt in Britain are relevant here, bar, say, the cost savings of aerodynamic trailers, an efficiency we still allow to go begging.

Granted, issues surrounding Brexit are half a world away. But blithely messing around with or neglecting crucial elements of the supply chains without planning for the inevitable consequences is pure incompetence anywhere.

In the US, those consequences, in the form of truck-driver shortages, crimped its economy’s recent recovery. But across the Atlantic it has been manifest in fuel and, on occasion, supermarket shortfalls.

The patience of a generally willing Australian populace to put up with restrictions until Covid vaccines got into enough arms has been tested. That would snap should fuel fail to make it to forecourts.

Meanwhile, it’s not as if we are out of Covid Crisis 1 quite yet. Though the vast majority of truck drivers are sensible people, these days, it only takes a small percentage of the deluded or deliberately misinformed amongst them for a small shortfall to have a big impact.

That wilful few were never going to take kindly to mandatory vaccinations at state governments’ behest. And there are murmurings of concern amongst trucking firms feeling the pinch, particularly in Queensland.

All of this makes how the nation performs economically next year and how it gets around its endemic weaknesses in mind-set and application that much more compelling.

Our continued prosperity means taking transport and logistics seriously.

Rob McKay is editor of ATN

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