OPINION: We will never abandon those who make Australia’s cars

The fight for Australia’s car industry is back in the headlines, with hard news at Toyota and open warfare in the Coalition. It could well have been resolved long ago. In the depths of the Global Economic Crisis, GM Holden’s then CEO Mark Reuss put the choice to me in the starkest of terms. Australia could be part of the new GM – or we could close the doors forever on the proud history that began with the Chifley Holden.  

I was reminded of that day – and the hard days that were to come for Geelong, Altona and Elizabeth – by President Obama’s State of the Union address last week. His account of the American struggle for auto was a defining moment in the speech; just as it has become a defining theme of his presidency. 

Obama’s choice, of course, had to be made in full view of the world. Many will recall the desperate missions sent from Detroit, as the US auto giants staggered ever deeper into crisis. Detroit itself was a terrible symbol of America’s industrial decline: the great auto heartland turned urban wasteland. There were many who feared it would never rise again. 

The President himself would not give up, and the country staked heavily on his faith in a manufacturing recovery. Before the crisis passed, the US and Canadian governments would acquire some 60 per cent of General Motors, at a cost exceeding US$50 billion. The total US assistance package cost $264 per American per year – about 14 times more than the per capita costs for Australia’s industry. Even that figure excludes the nine-digit deals pushed through at State level.  

To the critics, it could never seem rational. Divide the total assistance by the number of number of people directly employed in auto, and the price will always seem too high. But that is fool’s logic, as Obama understood.  

Lose the major vehicle producers, and you lose the component makers. Lose those firms, and you lose the toolers, the metal manufacturers, the suppliers of glass, chemicals and plastics. Lose their cars, and you lose the technical and scientific capabilities required to make them.  

So Obama knew, as I knew, that the fight for auto is never just a fight for cars. It is a fight for the kind of society we want to be. We want a society that provides high-skilled, high-wage jobs. We want a society that values advanced industrial production. That is why we want to be countries that made cars. 

This Government makes no pretence that there will never be a layoff in a car factory, and nor do we claim to manage the factories. What we seek to do is to preserve the capabilities in the bad times, so we can expand when conditions improve. 

Obama made the same promise to America, and it has been kept. General Motors is once more the world’s number one automaker; Chrysler is the fastest growing car company in the US; and Ford is investing billions in new models.  

The industry has added nearly 160,000 jobs. That effect has rippled throughout the economy. Indeed, the President’s newly released Investing in America report suggests that the auto industry accounts for almost a quarter of the increase in industrial production since the manufacturing recovery began. Little wonder that auto is the centre of Obama’s vision for manufacturing – and manufacturing is the first line in his blueprint for the nation. 

For my part, there have been many hard days since I took up this fight. I have shared them with working men and women across the country. However hard the test, the choice has always been simple. 

We did not choose defeat in the global economic crisis. We will not give up on the workers of the car industry now. This nation will hold fast to the path of progress. 

And if our political opponents will not share our fight, there are a million Australians in manufacturing who will.

[Manufacturing Minister, Senator Kim Carr.]