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Can we leverage Aust brand to boost trade and investment?

30 January, 2008

"Its official – “You can’t get more Aussie than Bondi” said Peter Garrett, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, as Bondi Beach was added to the National Heritage list last week." Source: Tim Harcourt.

"He’s right – Bondi beach is a great Australian icon and how appropriate that it was recognised officially in the lead-up to the Australia Day weekend. After all, on Australia Day we often think of what it means to be Australian and Bondi is a great representation of Australia with its great natural beauty, its hip cosmopolitan but casual feel and its 100 year old surf club. But Bondi is also important to me because of its special importance in my own family history.

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Let me explain. Believe it or not, my grandfather, Ken Harcourt, a religious Jew from Lismore, born of Romanian and Polish refugee parents, was an original Bondi lifesaver 100 years ago at the beginning of the twentieth century. Ken, originally named Kopel Harkowitz, was the son of immigrants from Transylvania (which is sometimes considered Romania, sometimes Hungary – but if I am talking to Frank Lowy, it’s definitely, Hungary) and Poland. Kopel’s mother always wanted to him to be a Rabbi, but young Kopel wanted to be a true blue Aussie lifesaver at Bondi. He had trouble getting in the club as Kopel Harkowitz but when he fronted as Ken Harcourt, they said ‘no worries’. When I asked my grandfather why he changed his name, he used to say “Well, I didn’t really; I just went from the Goldberg’s to the Ice Bergs”.

"So that’s why I am a Harcourt, and why Bondi Beach means so much to me. In fact, in my book Beyond Our Shores – which is a collection of stories about Australia’s trading links with the world – I deliberately chose the beach as its cover. I thought it symbolic that a son of Eastern European migrants from way beyond our shores wanted nothing more than to be a true blue Aussie lifesaver at Bondi. In fact, a major theme of the book has been how important Australia’s immigration has been to our export performance and our national economic prosperity. Waves of English, Irish, Scottish, Greek, Jewish, Russian, Chinese, Lebanese, New Zealand and Indonesian migrants have all done their bit too grow Australia’s links with the world. Many of them have become lifesavers too! This is so special to Sydney and nowhere is this so apparent than here at Bondi with its great mix of languages and cultures.

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But there’s more to it than that. Not only is Sydney a beautiful city with beautiful beaches – like a Rio or Cape Townbut it works too! I may love my city but the rest of the world does too – and it respects us too. On Australia Day last year, the well respected Anholt GMI City Brands Index ranked Sydney to be the number one city in the world in terms of work, play and economic ‘presence’. The City Brands Index comes hot on the heels, of the many Country Brand surveys that rank Australia highly as the world’s leading country ‘brand’. Anholt GMI City Brands Index has done this as has the third annual Country Brand Index release by London based Future Brand.  In short, the world regards Australia’s climate as ideal, its natural environment unique and a place that would be on everyone’s ‘must see list’. Australian people are regarded as not only friendly and fair minded but also hard working and very well organised with a strong and stable economy. Both Sydney and Melbourne were well regarded in the City Brands surveys reinforcing Australia’s success as a country brand.

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So what do we make of all this?  Surveys like this in a way are just the beginning not the end. According to the surveys, Australia clearly has some great strengths to build upon. The world regards us well, people like us, they like our country and they think that Australia is a model of a modern economy, has well developed institutions and has built a strong community. It is clear that our image as a tourist destination is in really good shape – although we shouldn’t all be panicking about renting out the spare room. After all, as the surveys point out although people would love to visit Australia, not all of them will do so because of perceptions of distance. As Megan Gale, who as well as being a model is also Australia’s Tourism ambassador to Italy, puts “Australia is often there as a dream destination but Italians think it is like going to the moon, so I am working hard to make their dream a reality”.

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But can we leverage the Australian better for trade and investment? Despite our great rankings in Country Brand surveys, many Australian exports are hidden, apart from our large stock of ‘celebrity exports’ like our great movie stars, models and sporting heroes. Australia doesn’t have strong manufacturing export brands like Germany or Japan. Think of German manufacturing and you think BMW, think of Japan and you think of Sony, think Korea and you think of Hyundai. There are many global brands that have iconic status that are associated with their home country – like Volvo or Ikea (Sweden), Nokia (Finland), Coca Cola (USA), and so on. Australia doesn’t have the same consumer product icons, although this may be changing with Billabong, Rip Curl and RM Williams being identified as well known Australian brands in the global market place. After all, Billabong, despite being a small surf wear manufacturer just a decade ago, now earns more off shore income than Westpac Bank.

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In fact, many of Australia’s great exports are not consumer icons but are adding value behind the scenes – with commodities such as coal, iron ore, wheat, alumina, or liquefied natural gas (LNG) playing an important role. They are part of an industrial process rather than things you can buy in a shop. In addition, Australia produces a lot of services and knowledge-based manufactures that are also hidden from view. There are many mining software exporters doing well in the exploration industry in Russia and China and many agricultural services companies doing well in the Middle East and South America.

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In addition, many great Australian exports are far from hidden; in fact they are very well known celebrities. As we all know, Australia has been very successful in the exports of popular entertainment. In Hollywood, there’s Nicole Kidman, Geoffrey Rush, Toni Collette and Russell Crowe (ok, an Australasian export), in modelling there’s Megan Gale and Elle MacPherson, in music Kylie Minogue, Natalie Imbruglia, silverchair, Jet and the like and in television there’s Home and Away, Neighbours, the Crocodile Hunter and now Kath and Kim are making their charge up the export ranks. Australia’s celebrity exports do help people know about Australia they have not so far led to people buying more Australian products but they do raise Australia’s profile as a desirable place to go to – especially with our natural environment on display thanks to a range of stars from the Crocodile Dundee in 1987 to the Crocodile Hunter, the late, great Steve Irwin in the 2000s.

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But let’s get back to Bondi. Nowadays there’s a new Harcourt at the beach – my 3 year old daughter Yun Shi who, like her great-grandfather, loves a paddle in the surf. Yun Shi was born in Guilin, China in 2004 and (my American born and now true blue Aussie) wife Jo and I adopted her in 2005. It just shows that whether its East European Jewish lifesaver in 1910 or a Chinese born nipper in 2008, the beach belongs to all Sydneysiders and all Australians and is a great symbol of our country’s links with the world.

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As Peter Garrett used to say in a previous career, with Bondi Beach, we Australians have the ‘best of both worlds.’"

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