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 Especially when the decisions of far-off Executives left us pedalling outdated larger vehicles that consumers no longer wanted or needed.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.