Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Toyota pulls the plug

There was a certain inevitability about Toyota's decision to pull out of local manufacturing. This is the initial reaction on The Conversation.

Discussions on what would be known as the Button car plan began in 1983. They were coordinated by Industry Division Four in what was then known as the Department of Industry and Commerce. I wasn't directly involved, my branch was concerned with the development of new policy approaches towards the electronics, aerospace and information industries, but I clearly remember the atmosphere. The plan was released the following year under the title the Motor Industry Development Plan.

I am not absolutely sure whether the Plan was a good thing or bad thing. At the time, some of my staff such as Bob Q felt that it was distracting from our efforts (Snippets - nostalgia, industry policy and the importance of shared returns) to position Australia in new growth industries. My view was a little different. I felt that the focus on the car industry actually gave us greater freedom to do new things than would otherwise have been the case. It is true, however, that the costs of things like the car and steel plans made it much more difficult, in the end impossible, to get the funding that we needed to kick-start new initiatives.

In policy terms, I am a pragmatist, concerned with what will work. In this context, the Button car plan did help preserve an industry that became, for a period, a major export earner, Australia's largest manufacturing exporter.

In the historical research that I have been doing, I long put aside the history of New England in the last part of the twentieth century. Why? It was just to damn depressing! When I did write, I began my paper this way:

On 30 September 1999, BHP’s Newcastle steelworks closed its doors for the last time, a victim of industrial restructuring. The closure was not unexpected. Following discussions with the unions, BHP had announced its intention to close the plant over two years earlier, on 27 April 1997[1]. However, the closure of what had been once the largest integrated steelworks in the British Commonwealth and Empire marked the end of an era.

The BHP, as it was known locally, had been a dominant element in Newcastle’s life since the plant’s official opening on 2 June 1915. Just as the plant itself had dominated the centre of Newcastle, just as its fumes had darkened the sky over Newcastle, so the people who worked for BHP or the industries that surrounded it had been central to Newcastle’s life.

“I’ve been in this shop for about 37 years” one steel worker said[2].

“I came here virtually straight from school. My grandfather started here in about 1915. And Dad was here for 42 years. When I was a young fella, I was offered a job as an apprentice butcher, and Dad said that: "BHP was good enough to look after my father and me, it’ll look after you. You’ll have your job at the BHP and follow the family lines." And Dad had a nice piece of four-by-two and it was always a good persuader. So when Dad said something you either said something back and ducked and weaved, or did what he said. Simple as that. Dad’s gone now.”

From 1950 came wave after wave of economic and social change that swept across New England. Whatever the general arguments in favour of restructuring, the reality as I saw it is that by 2000 it had left New England a poorer and much reduced place. 

I suppose that's why I have never accepted that economic and structural change will necessarily benefit Australia. This doesn't mean that we should support assistance to an SPC or a motor vehicle industry. It does mean that we need to understand that global change will not necessarily work in Australia's favour, that none of the nostrums of current theories dictate a positive outcome for the country.  

[1] History of the Newcastle Steel Works, HRRP Fact Sheet 1, BHPBilliton, http://www.bhpbilliton.com/bbContentRepository/docs/hrrpFactsheet1.pdf, accessed on-line 10 February 2011

[2] Interview carried out as part of the Newcastle Workers Cultural Action Committee’s molten arts project. Quoted by Bryce Gaudry, Member for Newcastle in the NSW Legislative Assembly, in the debate held to mark the end of the steelworks, 22 September 1999. Hansard p1078. Accessed on-line - http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/PARLMENT/hansArt.nsf/V3Key/LA19990922028 - 10 February 2011


Anonymous said...

Where are the truckloads of jobs Abbott was supposedly going to produce by sheer virtue of being Abbott? Still waiting and watching company after company fold.

Anonymous said...

The best way to buy Australian jobs is to buy their product, not throw taxpayer dollars at the industry, or create artificial shortages, or tariffs and what-not.

"tariffs and whatnot"?

Either the writer couldn't extend his list or he was relying upon his position as some sort of expert - and maybe thinking his "whatnot" would remain vaguely threatening, but carefully amorphous and therefore unquestioned.

The "best way is a ... whatnot"?

If so, I think we need a new breed of experts; the old ones just appear to be jaded and more concerned with the preservation of their status rather than shedding any light upon their area of professed expertise.

An old boys clump of little use; a bunch of human whatnots.


Jim Belshaw said...

Well, anon, the rather silly jobs promise is not looking too good. Silly because there is no way that it could be delivered in the way defined by any Government action.

kvd, I'm inclined to agree with you!

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