OPINION: by Chris McCormackNews Weekly
Are we really a clever country?
, March 1, 2014
Australia. The lucky country? The clever country? Or something else entirely? There have been numerous occasions, recently, that have made me question what we really are.
Take our ability or willingness to make things in this country any more. The other day I heard the so-called “hidden persuaders” on Brisbane’s ABC Radio 612 ask a rhetorical question: “Do we really care that we won’t manufacture Holden cars in Australia anymore?” Their answer was as resounding as it was patronising: “No!”
I dare these self-proclaimed experts, these cultural elites, to knock on the doors of the 90,000-plus families which will be affected by the death of Australia’s car industry in Australia after Ford, Holden and Toyota go the way of Mitsubishi and cease production altogether.
The tentacles of the automobile industry extend far and wide, and those who only see the loss of a few thousand jobs at the plants are living in a fantasy-land. The flow-on effect from the resultant loss of automotive parts manufacturing and of the wider manufacturing industry, including the correspondingly vital research and development sector, will be like the final nail in the coffin for Australians actually making things here.
We are one of only 13 countries in the world with the capacity to produce cars, from the design phase through to the finished product rolling off the factory floor.
One has to ask why is there such apathy or, much worse, seeming delight expressed by many prominent voices at seeing the demise of Australian production, not just in cars but in textiles, footwear, clothing and agriculture?
The catch cry from those celebrating this impending doom is that if you can’t become competitive, then you should get out. They say we shouldn’t be pouring our hard-earned tax dollars into propping up unprofitable firms.
In theory, this argument sounds perfectly reasonable. Why should we continue to funnel money into businesses that cannot stand on their own two feet?
Well, in order to become more competitive, we would have to slash wages to levels akin to those earned in developing nations such as Thailand, India, Malaysia, Romania, Uzbekistan or China, where increasing numbers of vehicles are being produced. An average monthly wage in these countries is less than the average weekly wage in Australia.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine too many people getting excited about our virtually unparalleled — for the moment at least — standard of living declining to that of a developing nation.
In countries with similar standards of living to ours, the voters see the value in government subsidies ensuring the survival of what is deemed an essential industry.
These are the per capita subsidies in some first-world nations directed towards the car industry: United States — $264; Canada — $96; Germany — $90; Sweden — $334; and Australia — $18.
Yes, you read that right! A paltry $18 per person to keep an estimated 90,000 people employed. Are we so dim-witted as to shrug nonchalantly at the demise of an entire industry as if we would be no worse off — or even better off — without it?
Australia’s car industry subsidy needs to be increased to nearer that of nations that value jobs and industry and, in so doing, avoid the massive impost of increased welfare payments that will naturally follow when workers, many of whom are middle-aged, are laid off. They will not seamlessly migrate to other imaginary high-paid jobs while gloating, “I’m glad we’ve seen the back of that industry!”, as proponents would have us believe.
They won’t — as former Prime Minister Paul Keating proclaimed in the 1990s — thank the government for removing them from a lousy job on a production line to find a better one a week later.
Because of our comparatively low volumes of vehicle consumption, governments of both persuasions need to work closely with car-makers to flesh out better export market opportunities so as to guarantee not just wads of cash but a sustainable and prosperous future for our domestic vehicle production.
It’s a similar story with SPC Ardmona, the last remaining cannery in Australia. While it is owned by Coca-Cola Amatil (CCA), one has to ask, even if a massively prosperous company such as CCA is losing money on one aspect of its business, why would it continue to operate that part of the enterprise?
It would defy logic. The 4,000 jobs at stake here require a $25 million investment from the Commonwealth government and $25 million from the Victorian government in addition to the $90 million that SPC would contribute to bring SPC’s plant into the 21st century.
On ABC television’s Q&A program, federal Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek suggested that the Commonwealth portion would be almost recouped in one year’s taxed income from the plant — apparently around $18 million.
This is the least the Commonwealth can do after sustained government policies allowing cheap inferior quality imports have devastated the agricultural and value added food industry. We simply can’t compete on price with products from nations with lower wages.
Recently, the Anti-Dumping Commission found that overseas food produce is being dumped on Australian shores at 26 per cent below cost. The government must limit these anti-Australian imports which are crippling our local industry.
Let’s hope that politicians can prize off their horse-blinkers as they gallop in step alongside the juggernaut of free trade. Once our industries are gone, they are never coming back.
Chris McCormack lives in Victoria Point, Queensland.