Monday, March 31, 2008

Lacking subsidies, or lacking a competitive niche?

The Aussie car makers, and there used to be plenty of 'em, once made small cars, and small engines. Leyland and its predecessors, for example, made useful if unreliable small fours. GM locally made a version of the Opel Kadett, and similarly adapted another Opel to make the bigger Holden Camira, and exported its 4 cylinder engine to places like - gasp - Korea. Aussie factories made Ford Escorts (or more correctly assembled them, badly) and even Volkswagen Golfs. They assembled Volvos and Nissans, and even plugged Holden engines into small Nissan Pulsars. Chrysler had a go as well with the small-ish Centura before selling out to Mitsubishi who sold up a storm with the 4-cylinder Sigma. There were Mazda-sourced and Ford assembled Lasers. And they too sold well. Completely-knocked-down kits were a common way into the small-four market game, but there were examples of more elaborately transformed vehicles as well. It has been done, and done pretty well.

But for reasons of pragmatism or shortsightedness, coupled with lowering trade barriers and/or the strengthening of the Aussie dollar against the strong car-maker's currencies, making imports increasingly cheap, it all changed. The old guard died off, leaving just old hands Ford and Holden on one side with the blow-ins Toyota and Mitsubishi on the other. Now Mitsubishi has quit as well. Just 3 makers left standing, all making the same sort of big, fat, dull cars. Everything else - everything decent - is imported.

Now you could say that big "family" cars have become the Aussie car maker's core competency. But these dinosaurs don't even sell to families, these are corporate fleet sales vehicles, selling on the back of a flawed tax system that subsidises excess. On the other hand they export small numbers to the car-mad US, South Africa and the who-cares-about-fuel-efficiency Middle East; and fewer still to rich Europeans looking for a powerful car without a BMW or Merc badge. But this is all small beer. Currency fluctuations would kill these markets in an instant, and a big rise in fuel cost would do the same. Or a rise in shipping costs for that matter. After all, you have to ship these dinosaurs all the way from Australia to anywhere else. It's a big distance and an added burden to an already-struggling camel.

But the remaining factories employ thousands of people. They may be building doomed rubbish, or at best a dwindling niche vehicle, but they remain employees, voters and human beings. Nevertheless we can't just dump the truth on 'em, we have to play political games.

So, that's the background. Then you read stuff like this: AUSTRALIAN-based car manufacturers have fewer subsidies and less protection than others overseas and face more difficulties exporting to Asia, two new papers will reveal today. And you think, 'same old, same old'. Let's prop up a basket case - not fix it, mind, just prop it up - and all will be well for a few more months. But no, Victorian Premier Steve Bracks said this, instead: But it would be wrong, he said, to assume his final report would call for more assistance to the industry. Hmmm. If not "more" then does that mean existing subsidies stay?

Well he went on to explain that "The review is likely to lead to an overhaul of how the government allocates its billions of dollars of assistance to the car industry", or words to that effect. To translate that a bit, what is being proposed is that leaner, lighter, more efficient big cars are what we want, and that calling the subsidies "investments in green technology" will make them less of a subsidy and more like good government in action. Oh joy.

OK, so yes, we have accidentally or on purpose found ourselves building only big cars, and yes, you can call that a niche. And yes, plenty of other places make great small cars and we are unlikely to make progress trying to beat Korea, China and India at that game. But plenty of countries make far better big cars, too. In fact we make pretty poor big cars. They are dull and unenlightened beasts that don't sell well now. No amount of dressing up subsidies as 'technological investments in the future' will remove the urgency from the world's shift to smaller vehicles. And not only are we are thousands of kilometres away from key markets, we just don't make cars very well. Our economy has moved into "services" big time and old style manufacturing is just not what Australia does well. So let's (for once) admit it, cut our losses and find real jobs for these people, before they feel the pain of our indecision. These workers deserve better than being strung along endlessly with forlorn hopes that cannot possible pass the barest of reality checks.

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