Planes, trains and automobiles (that we used to make)

Image: www.motorshopdemammoet.com

Last month I had a somewhat public rant about the decision by the NSW state government to award the contract to build new trains for NSW to an overseas (mainly South Korean) consortium.

While my op-ed piece may have been construed as being a touch sensationalist, overall the amount of support and positive commentary that I received for my online rant was not only surprising; it was in many ways very heartening.

As I wrote: “What is clear by the many comments is that the Baird government – the ideological soulmates of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who continually espouses the ‘jobs and growth’ mantra – has basically kicked its own party and the people of NSW in the guts with this odious and short-sighted announcement,” it dawned on me that those in power truly do not (or perhaps cannot) understand the real value that our manufacturing industry brings to the community.

Back in the day when manufacturing meant grimy overalls and thermos flasks filled with black tea, it was never clearly articulated to those who are now our ruling elite (who were probably only toddlers at that time) just how critical and for that matter, crucial manufacturing is to any society’s or for that matter, country’s economy.

Think about it – manufacturing has always been something that very few people in Australia understand or for that matter talked about. I include in this our esteemed gaggle of publically-quotable economists, who, while treating the manufacturing sector as a line on their spreadsheets, also rarely think about the macro-economic value-adding effects that this sector provides.

But let’s not talk about the big picture when personalisation (or micro-economics if you will) can give you the exact gravitas of the manufacturing industry.

As I noted, my own father’s first job in Australia was “…working as a fitter and turner for ComEng, helping to build the silver double-decker suburban trains that are still in service today. That job helped put food on our table and allowed us to buy a car, a house and helped us live a good life…”

 Now let’s expand that into a bunch of semi-rhetorical macro-economic questions. Just how many auto makers did we once have? How about train makers? And what about plane makers?  And yes, Australia once made planes – Government Aircraft Factories (GAF) was an aircraft manufacturer owned by the Government of Australia based at Fishermans Bend in Melbourne, which in 1987 was renamed as Aerospace Technologies of Australia (ASTA) and then privatised.

As for car makers – how about Holden, Ford, Nissan, Toyota, Leyland? And as mentioned, the likes of CommEng, English Electric, James Martin & Co., Clyde Engineering- the list goes on and on.

Just how much value-adding did these companies do for the Australian economy via local employment and export earnings, only a select few economists would be able to answer.

However, what is crystal clear is that as our economy shifts to a smarter (read: smaller) manufacturing base and services, although I’m not an economist, I can safely say the overall benefit to Australia’s GDP will just not be the same.

This I why the NSW government has for some time been selling off most of our industrial heartland to property developers.

As Bruce Springsteen wrote in his song My Hometown: “Foreman says these jobs are going boys, and they ain’t coming back.”