We’re no longer beholden to Detroit

To lament the death of the Australian car industry is to grieve for something which never existed. Australia has never been anything more than a branch office for the global players of Detroit and Tokyo. An industrial reflection, perhaps, of Australia’s subservient foreign policy. Our political class has never really had the courage or strength to take matters into their own hands. And so it continues with General Motors (GM) announcing the cessation of Australian manufacturing from 2017. The mainstream political debate is stuck between lamenting that this was an inevitable but natural result of market dynamics and that further public subsidies could have kept GM manufacturing in Australia.

The lifespan though of this 20th century model of car manufacturing was always going to be limited in Australia. Once we let the free market rip, we could not compete on productive capacity, labour costs (which is really more of a function of our over-valued currency than regular workers wanting to make a decent living) or geographic proximity to major markets. Especially when the decisions of far-off Executives left us pedalling outdated larger vehicles that consumers no longer wanted or needed. However limited this model is, though, Detroit’s decision to kill it off will cause real suffering for families and communities in South Australia and Victoria. There is nothing natural or inevitable about the jobs of 50,000 workers being tossed out. And the answer won’t be found in a return to Australia’s 19th century economic model of mainly natural resource and primary agricultural exports. Our continued economic progress will not come from regression.

We are, however, no longer beholden to Detroit. Within this crisis there is a limited opportunity within which to build our country anew for the 21st century. The State can take control of GM and Ford’s research, design and manufacturing facilities and use them to establish a properly Australian-owned car industry. One which is unlike any other in the world; largely free of the conventional internal combustion engine.

An Australia in which electric-powered vehicles are the norm would be a cleaner, stronger and more prosperous nation. We would significantly reduce our petrol-based greenhouse gas emissions (and our total emissions if we keep moving towards more renewable electrical generation). The air quality of our cities would improve markedly as tailpipe pollutants fade into a sort of Dickensian past. Our dependence on foreign oil will end. No longer would the lifeblood of our economy have to be transported across open oceans and through the shipping lanes of our neighbours. Moreover, household budgets would be less prone to the price-fluctuations that come with the daily trade in Singapore tapis and other crude oil indicators. In addition, the investment required for the wholesale renewal of our fossil-fuel based industry and infrastructure would set up Australian prosperity for a generation to come.

None of this, though, will happen by accident or good fortune alone. After the takeover of abandoned Ford and GM facilities, we would need the following accompanying policy measures:

The creation of an Australian-owned automotive company with the mandate to research, design and produce a new generation of electric vehicles. A company which would need to Detroit’s unhelpfully rigid management structures.
Investment in the mass infrastructure necessary to support a predominantly electric vehicle fleet.
The transference of public subsidies away from resource extraction and fossil fuels towards stimulating demand for electric vehicles.

We have a high skilled workforce and the access we need to natural resources to produce excellent quality electric vehicles. If we get the initial policy settings right we’ll have the demand we need from the domestic market to get the industry up into a position to export onto the world market. We already know that Australia is a country which has a strong demand for practical and sustainable products – over one million households already have solar panels installed on their roofs. The only question is whether we have the will to achieve this industrial reorganisation. After all, will power is a characteristic which the Australian political class often lacks. Being visionary, daring and working hard is somewhat less enjoyable than getting the tax payer to fund your attendance at a mate’s wedding. Fortunately we can supply them with that will – a strong community campaign could build support for this option. In an unstable political environment, it would only take a few politicians to champion the idea for it to gain momentum. Vehicle workers, environmentalists, unionists and anyone who cares about the progress of Australia has a window of time between now and the 2016 federal election to make this an issue.

Vehicle workers should not have to passively accept a debate on the terms of their joblessness. There is an alternative. This is not about life-support for a dying industry but the birth of a new industry which can not only set up our prosperity but help us take a civilisational advance.

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Australia’s Kleenex workers – used for dirty jobs then thrown away

My union, the National Union of Workers, held a demonstration this morning at Southern Cross Station called the Fluro Fightback. Here’s the corresponding article in The Guardian about it, “Australia’s Kleenex workers – used for dirty jobs then thrown away”.


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Coalition’s job security campaign contradictions

Just what are the Coalition promising to do to increase job security? The answer is very little and there is an important reason why, writes Charlie Donnelly.

“If you want to hang on to your job and have job security you will not be guaranteed that job security under Labor because everything they say and do is pointing the economy in the wrong direction. It is only the Coalition that is going to make the decisions that get the economy back on track.” – Joe Hockey

It doesn’t surprise me that the Liberal Party is attempting to abolish a price on carbon, lower corporate tax rates and get rid of the mining tax. What does surprise me is the manner in which those policy positions are being justified and communicated to the electorate. Name a Liberal Party policy and you’ll find a justification connected to job security.

The Carbon Tax: “…if you vote for the Coalition the carbon tax goes – that is good for households, it is good for your job security.”- Tony Abbott.

Slashing corporate tax rates: “We are today reducing company tax so that your job security increases.” – Tony Abbott.

Abolishing the mining tax: “I’m so determined to improve peoples’ job security by abolishing the mining tax.” – Tony Abbott.

Even when it comes to equal marriage, Tony Abbott would not commit to a conscience vote because the Coalition would focus “on things like reducing cost-of-living pressure and increasing job security“.

To be fair, I haven’t yet picked up any direct connections between cracking down on “illegal boat arrivals” and “job security”. Unless something changes, and soon, the use of this “job security” rhetoric will form part of successful Coalition election strategy.

As a campaign tactic it’s effective because it speaks to the experiences and concerns of the vast majority of Australians who are out of the labour market attempting to get in, who are struggling with underemployment and/or insecure forms of employment, or are one of the lucky few in permanent full-time employment but are anxious about losing their position.

For now this rhetoric is working. Recent polling carried out by Qdos Research on behalf of the National Union of Workers highlights just how critical job security is as an issue for Coalition voters in marginal seats. Across the seats of Deakin and Brisbane, 75 per cent of Liberal voters think that casualisation is a problem. Moreover, 41 per cent of Liberal voters in these seats indicated that they would vote for a party that took strong action on secure jobs. A significant segment of Coalition support is dependent on being associated with positively impacting on job security.

This makes an examination of Coalition industrial relations policy important. Just what are the Coalition promising to do to increase job security? The answer is very little and there is an important reason why. The Coalition’s industrial relations policy is based on a single, simple belief that increasing corporate profitability leads to more secure jobs. As Joe Hockey put it on the first day of the election campaign, “the only way to have job security is if the business you are working in is profitable”.

But there is a clear contradiction in this statement. Today there are many, many highly profitable Australian companies employing people in increasing numbers in insecure jobs. They are employed on casual contracts year after year, on short-term contracts and through casual third party employment.

The NUW represents workers at warehouses for Coles and Woolworths. Last month Woolworths announced a yearly profit of $2.3 billion and Coles $1.5 billion. Yet these two supermarket giants now employ many of their warehouse workers casually through third party labour hire companies. Many must wait for a text message each day telling them if they have work. They have no holiday pay or sick leave and never know how much money they will earn each week. Coles and Woolworths’ huge profits have not led to job security for these workers.

It’s a situation workers across the country face. Increasingly in Australian offices, on worksites and in government departments the workforce is being casualised. Since the 1980s, Australia’s economy has grown and grown, but so has casual employment. A quarter of all Australian workers are now employed casually.

This isn’t even factoring in the blooming of a plethora of other insecure working arrangements from labour-hire, third party outsourcing, fixed-term contracts and subcontracting. It’s clear that corporate profits and insecure work have risen together. Liberal voters know this. In the polling referred to above, 53 per cent of Liberal voters thought employers could reduce the use of casual jobs and short-term contracts but they are usually more concerned about saving money. For these workers, Coalition policy will not increase their job security. The Coalition cannot help these workers while its policy is based simply on increasing corporate profitability.

Therein lies the contradiction at the centre of the Coalition’s popularity – it pledges to deliver outcomes that are pushed farther away by the policy-making means it will employ. This job security rhetoric will turn into a point of instability for the next Coalition government when it fails to deliver the job security millions of casual workers in Australia crave. It will also do very little for the many more Australians who are likely to be pushed into the growing army of insecure workers.

Charlie Donnelly is the national secretary of the National Union of Workers. View his full profile here. This article was originally published on The Drum website here.

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PRISM and Hannah Arendt

My latest article is up at Overland. It’s a piece on the wider implications of PRISM against a reading of Hannah Arendt’s essay, Lying in Politics.

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The Dangers of Abbott & Abetz


After Rudd’s announcement of his PNG option, you may be thinking with Labor governments like these, who needs Tories right? This is, however, a discussion we still need to have to form the basis of coherent Left strategy for the next Coalition government. If you’re in Melbourne, I hope to see you down at Trades Hall on Thursday 25 July at 7pm.


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For a universal income

My latest post is over at Overland – check it out.


June 19, 2013 · 4:36 am

A Direct Response to the Coalition’s Policy to Stuff Workers

On Wednesday, the LNP announced their IR policy to Improve your employer’s ability to exploit you. Well that wasn’t exactly the name but it is the strategy, and that’s what I’ll expand on in this post. If you want to feel the cold hand of Voldemort on your soul then you can read the original policy document here and make up your own mind. Continue reading


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VB get your hands off #AnzacDay

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5 reasons for the great disconnect


No, I’m not talking about broadband vs. #fraudband policy making in Australia (as much as I theoretically appreciate the concept of fast internet).

But rather the disconnect between two parallel conversations – our political/business elites talking to each other and talking over the top of the rest of us, while the rest of us aren’t listening. What we have are two discourses – distinct and foreign to each other. In Australia, we have a solidly social democratic majority. It is a majority who believes most of the benefits of economic reforms from the 1980s and onwards have flowed to corporations. It is a majority who believe in substantial government economic intervention, and who still don’t support (nearly 20 years later) the privatisation of Qantas, Commonwealth Bank and Telstra. It is a majority who support increasing taxes for big corporations. Check out Pollytics for the polling data. Continue reading


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What is to be done?

I feel I’m living in a moment where people all around me are waiting. Looking for a choice – attempting to come to a decision. In or out. Left or right. The choices are flowing past and through us, temporarily there to grab. Yet still we grow ever bluer; fearful that whatever choice we make will be “The Wrong One”. But as we wait the crisis grows closer.

The ground crumbles beneath… Continue reading

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