Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen, and what a pleasure it is to be here today to officially open this 85th International Wool Textile Organisation Congress in Sydney.

For 150 years this great city of Sydney has been central to the international wool trade – indeed the development of this city can be in large part traced back to wool.

European settlement began with the First Fleet in 1788. History tells us that less than a decade later, the first Merino wool was shorn in Australia – barely 20km from where we are now – when John Macarthur, famously known as the pioneer of the wool industry in Australia, imported a modest flock of three rams and five ewes of Spanish bred Merinos from South Africa to his property in Parramatta.

Four years later, he took samples of the fleece back to England. This caused quite a stir.

The new blends from Australia were considered to be some of the finest wool every produced, and from that moment Australian wool has been synonymous with high quality.

In the decades that followed, Australia began producing millions of kilograms of wool each year.

For more than a century, wool underpinned what was one of the highest living standards in the world – our economy was – as the saying goes – riding on the sheep’s back.

In recent decades, Australia’s economic growth has been driven by capital investment in massive long term mining and energy projects, with China and Japan among our largest trading partners.

Today our economy is transitioning to a broader base. Australia has long been an open export oriented market economy but today we are a far more diversified exporter.

The wool sector continues to make a significant contribution to the national economy and is a major component not only of our fashion industry but our creativity economy as a whole.

In a rapidly changing economic environment, creativity and innovation gives Australian business a much-needed edge. Australians are renowned across the globe for our craftsmanship and creative talent.

Innovation will continue to be the key to sustainable growth and to ensure the Australian wool industry, among others, remains a global leader.

Last year, the Turnbull Government announced a $1.1billion National Innovation and Science Agenda.

The Agenda is focused on creating an environment in Australia that encourages a greater appetite for risk, more competition and greater productivity.

The Agenda is based on four pillars:

  • Culture and capital
  • Collaboration
  • Talent and skills
  • Government leading by example

Within the Agenda, CSIRO, our national science agency, will establish a new CSIRO Innovation Fund that will support the early stage commercialisation of ideas to help boost the Australian innovation ecosystem.

CSIRO has already played a significant role in the wool industry and I see this as another opportunity to drive innovation, invention and ideas within the modern wool industry.

The latest technology is being used to diversify the use of wool – making it more versatile and a more attractive resource.

Our Australian wool industry is leading a global wool renaissance, indeed a revolution. We are harnessing the versatility of our wool to respond to the constantly evolving demands and trends in the fashion and consumer world.

With hundreds of millions of people joining the middle class in the Indian Ocean-Asia Pacific region, Australia is exceedingly well placed to seize the opportunities presented by the growing demand for high quality goods and services.

Our expertise in agriculture, science, design, technology is backed by creative and resourceful people who are finding new and exciting ways of maximising Australia’s high quality resources.

A great example is Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) - a government and non-government research and development joint venture that has established “The Wool Lab Sport” to connect designers with manufacturers through the exchange of technical skills.

AWI, and through its subsidiary, The Woolmark Company, is  developing partnerships with international retailers, brands and manufacturers to increase demand – I hear that Adidas is now using wool in their latest jogging shoes.

Wool is back in vogue – for outerwear, sportswear, high street, haute couture.

Wool producers are also embracing different forms, shapes, textures, colours and styles, meeting world demand for better quality materials and accommodating the different demands of more casual, informal workplaces and lifestyles.

New developments in technology and other innovations can be introduced into Merino wool throughout the manufacturing process.

Through the latest in technology, cool wool fibres, three times finer than the average human hair, are being produced.

Lightweight and waterproof, lightweight and breathable – new wool fabrics can be used for any garment, accessories or products to be worn or used anywhere, anytime – from the highly practical to the exquisitely fashionable.

These innovations are transforming the global fashion market – the wool industry is a brilliant example of how a traditional industry can embrace creativity to become an exciting new industry. While wool has numerous applications in many industries, let me focus on fashion for the moment.

Developments over the past decade to improve the versatility of Australian wool have resulted in Australian producers collaborating with many of the world’s largest fashion labels.

In China, the textile firm Nanshan Corporation, and one of the supporters of this Congress, is working with the Australian wool industry to bring new products to market – wool textiles at the cutting edge, if I can put it that way.

Nanshan is both a market entry point for Australia in China and is proving a very effective way in which our two countries can work together to transfer technology and longstanding craft skills. It’s a relationship that is set to flourish in the years ahead.

The renowned International Woolmark Prize is an Australian initiative that connects the world’s leading fashion designers with high-quality Merino wool.

When the fashion design award was established by the International Wool Secretariat, the first winners in 1954 were two young unknowns – Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent.

In 2012, young Australian designer Dion Lee won the prize and he is now successfully building his brand in China.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade now works closely with the Australian fashion industry. Last year the Department and the Australian Fashion Chamber committed to enhancing opportunities for Australian designers and producers in overseas markets.

I see what I call ‘fashion diplomacy’ as essential to projecting Australia’s international reputation as a contemporary and sophisticated economy.

The fashion industry already makes a significant contribution to the Australian economy, employing some 220,000 people and adding about $12 billion per year to GDP. The industry exports around half a billion dollars annually.

We are showcasing our creativity in fashion weeks worldwide – from Melbourne to Mumbai, Sydney to Sao Paulo, Perth to Paris.

I have directed our network of overseas Embassies and High Commissions to play a role in promoting our design, innovation and materials to a global audience. This is all about increasing economic growth and creating more quality jobs.

How fitting it is that the theme for this year’s Congress is: ‘Wool for Future Generations’ and how inspiring was it to see the line-up of young professionals on stage this morning – the passion, the enthusiasm was infectious. We are encouraging younger Australians to be involved in this vibrant and creative industry at every stage.

There is no doubt that the wool industry producing contemporary wool textiles for the 21st century has a bright future in Australia and across the globe.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Australian Government is committed to unleashing the creative and innovative thinking that will give our businesses an edge in a highly competitive world.

To succeed in today’s global economy, we must not fear change, we must embrace innovation, technological advancement, and be prepared to move quickly in response to changing demands.

Australia’s fashion industry – and indeed our creative economy as a whole – depends on our access to quality materials, and the latest developments with Merino wool is an exemplar. As it has in the past, the health of the wool industry in this country reflects the health of our wider economy and general prosperity.

Delegates, do enjoy your next few days here in Sydney in this celebration of the style, quality and durability of wool.

I now officially declare open this 85th Congress.

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