THE FEDERAL Government will allocate $188.5 million to fund industry growth centres – aimed at boosting research growth in sectors including the oil and gas industry.

Launched in October as part of the government’s industry innovation and competitiveness campaign, the move was spruiked as an “action plan for Australia’s future” and one which would build a strong, prosperous economy for a safe, secure Australia.

The $188.5 million will be divided into five key growth sectors including food and agribusiness; mining equipment, technology and services; oil, gas and energy resources; medical technologies and pharmaceuticals and advanced manufacturing sectors.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane said the centres were one of six new initiatives, to be implemented over the next 18 months, focusing on job creation, growth and competitiveness.

The move was part of a co-ordinated approach to capitalise on some of the nation’s biggest growth drivers, while propping up some sectors which were struggling.

“These industry-led Centres will foster better use by industry of Australia’s world class researchers so that the community sees stronger commercial returns from the $9.2 billion annual Commonwealth investment in research,” Mr Abbott and Mr Macfarlane said.

While Australia had experienced 23 years of economic growth, Mr Abbott and Mr Macfarlane said this success was no reason for complacency, citing some key challenges ahead.

“Commodity prices have fallen from their peak in 2011, government finances have deteriorated significantly since 2008, our population is ageing and multifactor productivity growth has been flat for a decade,” the pair said.

“The competitiveness challenge is an ongoing one, and further reforms to promote the Agenda’s ambitions will be developed over the longer term.

Other initiatives announced include planned changes to the 457 and investor visa programs, encouraging employee share ownership and reforming the vocational education and training sector, as well as promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills.

Under plans to improve the 457 program for skilled migrants, the government will reform sponsorship requirements; streamline arrangements for existing approved sponsors; reform English language requirements and move to a risk-based approach for compliance and monitoring.

“Safeguards will remain in place to ensure that the 457 visa program is not rorted,” Mr Abbott and Mr Macfarlane said.

“It will continue to be a requirement that a foreign worker receives the same market rates and conditions that are paid to an Australian doing the same job in the same workplace.”

The government is also to host a series of round table discussions across Australia over the coming months, they said.

These woudl be an opportunity to “consult the business community, industry associations and peak bodies, as well as academia, on the policy directions outlined in the competitiveness agenda.”

The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) said while more work was needed, the government’s action plan had the potential to position Australia as a leader in global energy development.

“Recognition of the oil and gas industry as one of Australia’s key economic drivers and a source of future growth through a number of initiatives including the establishment of industry growth centres is a positive step forward,” APPEA said.

“Investment to improve the focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects in primary and secondary schools along with reforms to the vocational education and training system can deliver a job-ready workforce for future resource projects.”

APPEA said it supported the announced reforms to sponsorship requirements; streamline arrangements for existing approved sponsors; reform English language requirements and move to a risk-based approach for compliance and monitoring.

However, APPEA expressed its dissatisfaction over what it said was a lack of reform to existing labour market testing arrangements.

“Labour market testing makes the process of employing temporary skilled migrants significantly more difficult, and will hamper the participation for Australian employees in the international talent development and sharing programs of global oil and gas companies,” the industry group said.

“Beyond the announced reforms to build a skilled labour force, broader reforms to labour market arrangements remain urgent.”

APPEA repeated its call for the government to overhaul the Fair Work Act to introduce a new form of enterprise agreement to specifically apply to construction of major capital projects, such as large mines and LNG plants.

“These reforms can help secure future growth in Australia’s oil and gas industry,” APPEA said.