OPINION: Hail the yellow vest

The car industry has been given a new lease on life, with funding securing jobs for years to come – and it’s not just because our PM fancies herself in a yellow vest. 

[Image, right: Julia Gillard visiting Holden’s Elizabeth site when the Cruze was launched last year.]

THE Australian government has pledged $34 million of its Automotive Transformation Scheme to help bail-out car manufacturer Ford and its local Broadmeadows operations. The sum makes up part of a $103-million-injection into the Falcon and Territory SUV production lines; the remainder is coming from Ford’s headquarters in Detroit.

The government is saying the plan will ‘safeguard’ Ford until 2016, creating an extra 300 jobs in production and R&D.

The workers are obviously stoked, since just before Christmas there were rumours of job cuts across the board. 

But some taxpayers don’t seem very jolly. ‘Let manufacturing die!’ they cry. Our Manufacturing Minister has been dodging some pretty hairy questions from the media, suggesting that Australia can’t support the funding in the long-term, and if automotive manufacturing is struggling, then shouldn’t we just let it die naturally (or put it out of its misery)? 

Senator Carr and the Prime Minister actually struggled pretty hard to get that funding, and I’ll tell you why: the car industry employs 46,000 Australians, and another 230,000 jobs rely on it.

Carr and Gillard trecked over to Detroit, to plead with the big guns at Ford and General Motors to provide more funding for their Australian operations – and they got it. Well, they got it from Ford, and apparently they’ll get it from Holden too, within the month.

They told the US execs that the Australian government would also put its money where its mouth is, because car manufacturing is really that important. 

Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t they do a good deed here? There are only 13 countries that build cars from the ground up, and we’re one of them. It’s actually pretty tough making cars – you need a lot of skilled people, a lot of new technology and a lot of other car manufacturers around you so that your supply chain costs don’t hit the roof. We’ve done OK for the last 100 or so years – we’re just going through a tough run right now. 

So why are automotives suddenly not worthy of being saved? When the government forked-out for the textiles, clothing and footwear (TCF) industry, people cheered. The poor TCF sector was (is) on its knees and government funding helped some of those companies pay for new capital equipment, re-think their production lines and their capabilities, put plans in place to become more environmentally-friendly, save some energy, and ultimately gear-up to take-on the big leagues in China. 

Maybe it’s all a matter of perception. Maybe, more Australians felt sorry for ailing TCF manufacturers because many of them are family-owned – and none of our automotives are. But think about all the families of all those factory workers whose husbands, wives, brothers and daughters will still have a job in four years. That’s a pretty good deal; I’d be happy with that. 

Taxpayers should be able to appreciate what’s just happened here. Any funding that will help keep skilled people in the country is good. And according to Senator Carr, the average Joe won’t even notice the cost; no more than a football ticket, he said, whereas in the US each person is paying more like the cost of a week’s rent to prop-up their automotive industry.

It’s a positive move to help manufacturers and Australia should be grateful (especially after what the government did to stick us with the carbon tax). Now, if only the Opposition would get on-board and both sides would stop arguing about who is wearing a yellow vest, are they wearing the vest for the right reasons, and who is ‘hanging up’ said yellow vest. Because giving money is one thing, but being honestly concerned about the future of manufacturing is about more than just a vest. 

But alas, I’d probably have better luck rallying the TCF manufacturers to get into the shiny yellow vest business – it’s booming at the moment.  

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