Nicholas Stuart is a columnist with the Canberra Times.
Nick Stuart has written three books,
Kevin Rudd: An Unauthorised Political Biography;
What Goes Up: Behind the 2007 Election; and
Rudd's Way: November 2007 - June 2010.
Saturday, December 14, 2013
Can't make a car . . .
Pretty hopeless, really, as this article for the Canberra Times suggests . . .
WHAT'S THE POINT?
What's the point of Australia?
Perhaps, if we can't even make a car, we should just give up manufacturing and retrain as baristas, working in cafes. We could become adept at blaming the world for our ills as we sit over cappuccinos and lattes, before going off to our job where we'd make them for other people. After all, vehicles are a core element of our way of life. We rely on cars yet can't, seemingly, manufacture them. Perhaps this is nature's way of telling us that, as a country, we should just forget about having a diverse economy and instead recognise that all we can manage to do is dig things out of the ground. The economists say that's our competitive advantage. Digging and growing things. After all, the free market is supposedly always right and it proclaims this country can't make cars. Case closed.
In the beautiful theoretical world of textbooks, this may indeed be the case. But if you live in the real world, you'll find things are very different. As usual, the minute somebody tells you ''this is the way things have to be'', they're either stupid or lying; possibly both. Yet the economists and politicians have been having a field day this week, despite their failure to articulate any answers to our problems. Neither group has answers to the critical issues facing us, and that's fine. The problem is they're not even prepared to admit this or search for answers.
This is why Tony Abbott's plunging in the polls. He's not prepared to explain why the country exists; why we can't make cars or even how we might be able to manufacture anything in future. Does he lack imagination or is he simply trapped and imprisoned by ideologues who've got his ear and don't know which end they're talking from?
(This is the add Fairfax placed in the middle of my article. Can you believe it? A Beemer! Idiots . . . )
But enough anger. Let's cool down by taking a quick look at what's happening in the real world. Firstly, the prime reason the car industry no longer exists is the rise of the Aussie dollar.
Enjoy those cheap overseas holidays, because they're purchased at the cost of jobs in Adelaide. Paul Keating proudly floated the dollar 30 years ago this week and today nobody proposes that we return to fixed exchange rates. But this doesn't mean the government should just let go of the steering wheel, yet it has, handing it instead to a humourless drudge with no imagination at the Reserve Bank. The US has been happily manipulating exchange rates for years. They call it ''quantitative easing''; we call it exporting unemployment. The Fed's keeping their dollar low and firing up their auto industry. So what's our answer? To run around like Chicken Little shouting the sky is falling, while fat businessmen tell workers they need to slash their wages and compete with workers in Thailand. More mee krob for breakfast, anyone?
Although the plutocrats are only too ready to point out our wage rates are more than those overseas, note how ready they are to use these same international comparisons whenever they sniff the chance of a wage rise themselves.
Holden was losing $3750 on every car manufactured in Australia. The executive team earned an average of $455,000 each after big pay rises this year. Fiddling with these costs might have helped the company stay in the black.
But this isn't the only side of the story; at times even the rationalists have a point. Nobody's been discussing the revolution that is 3D printing. In the past if you wanted to fabricate a complex piece of machinery, you had to use pretty much the same techniques Henry Ford developed when he devised the first assembly line. More machines, yes, but basically it still revolved around people using nuts and bolts and welding things together. That's not the way we'll be making things in future; 3D printing will change all that.
At a party last weekend I was told about a Canberra company that's printed, incredibly, it's own bicycle - rubber tyres and all - yet nobody there had ever made a bike before. Skilled workers will soon be old hat. The new world's an exciting place. So don't sound the death knell for Australia - ring it instead for our political system. It's increasingly apparent this is a collection of people without any answers, lacking the insight to see opportunities that are pushing themselves forward.
The noise coming from the Hill is deafening; yet unexpected silence descends whenever we might hope for an intelligent perception into what's actually going on.
And this is where Abbott's strategy is falling apart. Leaders like Keating may (often) have been wrong, nevertheless they were aware of the big issues and waded into the debates offering leadership. Our PM hasn't. Instead there's a void.
The public space is being filled by the contributions of headline-grabbers pushing their own bizarre barrows with nothing genuine to contribute. This is a moment at which we need a national conversation to determine the path our society should use as it travels into the future. Let's hear it. Discuss the real issues. Why are we here? What's this country for?