No thanks, we don't want more jobs really
Now we know how East Timor feels about natural resources projects, only in reverse. While the Timorese are desperate to have a massive liquefied natural gas plant built on their land, Australia has happily accepted Shell processing the Prelude field on a giant floating platform and a bunch of greenies would like Woodside to do the same with Browse Basin instead of bringing gas ashore in the Kimberley. Looks like we're not so keen on jobs after all.
It's not hard to imagine that, just a little while ago, there would be some sort of outcry about multinational Shell minimising Australian job creation by building its entire $12 billion floating plant in South Korea. More than four football fields long, the monster platform will sit 200 kilometres off the coast freezing gas and loading it onto ships that will never visit Australian ports.
The Prelude workforce, presumably flown in and out from Australia, but not necessarily, will be measured in scores. By comparison, the construction team on Barrow Island assembling the Gorgon LNG plant is currently 3000 and will peak at 5000, before falling back to a production workforce of just a couple of hundred.
The Chevron-managed Gorgon is a much larger project and Prelude, like much of Australia's gas, is lot further away from land, but the difference in Australian jobs remains indicative of the difference between building plants onshore as opposed to having the job done in a Korean shipyard.
The same would apply if Woodside took Geoff Cousins' advice about the $30 billion Browse Basin project - all those construction jobs would go to Korea and the vast Kimberley coast line could have one more pristine beach.
Woodside isn't taking advice from the retired adman-cum-eco warrior. The development is going ahead on land, but it is symptomatic of a new attitude to jobs – the dip in yesterday's job advertisements survey notwithstanding, they aren't the priority they used to be at the resources boom's frontline.
Same old songs
Plenty of other industries, lobbyists and politicians still sing the same old songs – assuming that any policy or development that creates employment is good, any loss of employment is bad. That is the first call by the domestic retailers seeking protection from cheaper internet competitors, without GST on eBayers “88,000 jobs will be lost”. Tony Abbott's anti-carbon tax scare campaign has rolled through factory after factory, the opposition leader telling workers the “big new tax” will cost them their jobs.
That job creation per se might no longer be the Holy Grail doesn't quite register with politicians or public, particularly when various surveys indicate more Australians are feeling nervous about holding their current job as the scare campaigns work.
The case for a change of priorities has been put by Ross Gittins in one of his columns:
“We're returning to a '60s-style economy in which the demand for labour exceeds the supply, and all our now deeply ingrained thinking about a perpetual shortage of jobs is no longer correct and needs to be abandoned.
“When, for all practical purposes, pretty much everyone who wants a job already has one, it is no longer true that a project that will create 200 jobs will increase total employment by 200. Rather, the workers who fill those jobs will have to be attracted from their existing jobs, and it may well be necessary to bid up wages to attract them.
“Certainly, it no longer follows that saying a new project will create jobs means governments should applaud it and subsidise it. Nor does it follow that saying a particular industry will have to shed many jobs because it has struck difficulties of some sort obviously obliges governments to step in with subsidies to protect those jobs. Most of the workers involved shouldn't have much trouble picking up jobs elsewhere.”
The reality is that the resources industry already can't fill the potential jobs it has. There is no drama about Prelude being entirely built in South Korea because we simply couldn't build it here.
There was a quote from the former BHP CEO, Chip Goodyear, during the first leg of this commodities boom along the lines that launching a big new project in Western Australia just meant you increased labor costs by 10 per cent. It's going that way again.
It's different for the East Timorese who very much want Sunrise exploited onshore with any and all the employment that it might bring. Joint venture partners Shell and Woodside want to go with another floating platform. Unlike Australia, East Timor has unlimited unemployment – it certainly isn't a poor little rich country suffering the problems of success.
Michael Pascoe is a BusinessDay contributing editor.