First published in The Australian, 3 June 2013

Australia must respond to rising regional powers. 

My heart goes out to all those who are affected by Ford’s coming closure of its manufacturing plants in Australia. I feel for the people directly involved. I feel for the tertiary students dreaming of a career in the automotive industry who will be concerned about their future employment prospects in Australia. And I feel for other members of the manufacturing sector contemplating if they are destined for the same unfortunate consequences.

This uncertain future is something we must address as a nation. It is a wake-up call to finally, and truly, answer the question: how will we create and sustain jobs through enhanced skills, innovative workplaces and entrepreneurial spirit? Principally, we mustn’t panic.

It is imperative at times such as these to remain calm and consider that hardworking, well trained people can be redeployed into other sectors. To achieve this, however, actions must be defined and people held accountable for their undertaking.

This sort of focus will help ensure this set of terrible circumstances becomes an outlier rather than the norm. It will also put us on the most direct, uncongested road to a competitive and prosperous future Australia.

In truth, Australia’s competitive future is about confronting the opportunities and challenges of our changing economic circumstances in order to maintain global relevance.

Australia as a nation is surrounded by hypercompetitive emerging economies that pose some of the most extraordinary challenges and opportunities the likes of which we have never experienced. The harsh reality is that we have to compete in a different way we have to be smarter, we have to be innovators.

As a national priority we have to urgently transition to a knowledge-based economy, one that’s capable of generating the high-paying jobs of the future, maintaining high levels of employment that underpin our quality of life.

The sad news about Ford’s closure has been coming for many years. It is a result of the protectionist tendencies exhibited in recent years that have been understandable, but misguided: they have propped up an uncompetitive industry that hasn’t been able to stand on its own. They have given false hope and cruelly raised expectations.

That sort of myopic policy could never last. It’s hard to paper over costs that are twice that of Europe and four times that of Asia.

Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better, but there is reason to be optimistic because at our core we are an innovative people. This is reflected in Ford’s decision to retain in Australia a Centre of Excellence for Vehicle Development that will keep some highly skilled jobs in Australia.

If we truly care about employment, then being relevant in a competitive world mailers.

The issues of competitiveness transcend the automotive sector.

Across the board we need a different dialogue between government, business and the trade union movement to build Australia’s competitiveness.

At the National Press Club recently I launched CPA Australia’s research on competitiveness. The findings are rigorous, and with 6000 business respondents they paint the most accurate picture of competitiveness that we’ve ever seen.

Within it, the vehicle industry is laid bare in all its uncompetitive glory. This industry is not the only sector in Australia with a competitiveness question mark over it.

The competitiveness alarm bell sounded some time ago. We can’t keep hitting the snooze button. In the interest of our future, it’s time for Australia to wake up.

Alex Malley is the chief executive of CPA Australia.