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Issue #1627      February 19, 2014

“Blame the victim” policy backfires

The Abbott government’ practice of blaming workers for the crash of Australia’s auto manufacturing and fruit canning industries backfired last week.

The head of Toyota Australia denied that he had told Treasurer Joe Hockey the Toyota workers and their unions were responsible for the decision to cease manufacturing cars in Australia, and blamed the high Australian dollar for the decision.

The manager of food canning company SPC Ardmona also denied the government’s claims that the company’s impending closure was prompted by its employees’ sick leave claims and their “excessive” wages and conditions, which, the government said, included 104 weeks accumulated redundancy pay, “cashing in” unused sick leave on retirement, and nine weeks annual leave.

The local Liberal MP, Sharman Stone, also very courageously accused the government of lying when it blamed the company’s workers for the crisis.

In fact, the total claims for sick leave, long service leave and other entitlements last year amounted to less than 0.1 percent of the company’s cost of goods. Employees lost the entitlement to cash in unused sick leave two years ago, and they get four weeks annual leave, not nine. The maximum redundancy pay is 52 weeks, not 104 – and at the rate of two weeks pay for every six months employment, they have to work for the company for 26 years to get it!

The company management pointed out that the primary cause of its financial problems was the dumping of canned food from other countries. When faced with this problem New Zealand recently took steps to limit the practice, but Australia has not followed its example.

The wrong way to go

With regard to auto manufacturing, a major factor that weakens Australia’s competitive position is the low tariff on imported cars. In 1984 it was 60 per cent, but under Australia’s trade agreements, the tariff is less than five per cent for trade with the US, New Zealand, Chile, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

However, Brazil’s current auto tariff is 35 per cent, China’s 25 per cent, and India’s between 60 and 100 per cent. In contrast, our present tariff for trade with those countries is just five percent, and the Treasurer is now considering removing the tariff altogether!

The government appears to see the crisis in the food canning and auto industries merely in terms of the opportunity it offers the government to force Australian workers to accept reduced pay and work entitlements. That’s the basis of the government’s recent submission to the Fair Work Commission’s current review of Australia’s 125 industrial awards.

In fact, the crucial issues involved in these industries include the impact of their collapse on the workers and industry suppliers, and on Australia’s primary and secondary industries as a whole.

The collective expertise and individual skills represented by those industries and in associated companies will be lost to the nation if their factories shut down, and thousands of people will suffer bitter economic hardship.

The SPC Ardmona crisis has already claimed its first victim. Last week, faced with economic ruin a distressed orchardist pulled up all the fruit trees he would have harvested, then committed suicide.

The world is entering a period in which the population is rising but food production could suffer because of the impact of climate change, pollution and loss of arable soil and fresh water supplies. Yet the government is quite willing to see the last major fruit canning facility in Australia cease operation.

The development of secondary industry is of primary national importance. Tony Abbott is right in saying that the focus of secondary industry should be on high technology products. However, he and his government don’t seem to think this applies to the auto industry.

In fact, that industry is on the point of tremendous change, because of the global reduction in oil supplies and the necessity for a reduction in the rate of carbon emissions. Those factors constitute tremendous problems. However, they also hold the potential to not only save the Australian auto industry, but to radically improve its trading position.

The right way to go

The government should take steps to protect the auto and canning industries from the competitive trade advantages offered by other nations, by limiting the amount of canned and fresh food products that can be imported, re-imposing quarantine restrictions on imported food, and imposing tariffs on imported cars equivalent to the import tariffs imposed in the country of origin.

It should also offer to bail out SPC Ardmona and the auto companies, but only under the condition that the government becomes a major shareholder, with any benefits going to the Australian taxpayer, and with the industries undertaking to utilise high technology and produce low or zero carbon emissions in the course of production.

The government should also stipulate that the auto industry must produce a given minimum proportion of electric vehicles each year, as the Californian state government did in 1992.

That would assist the nation to exceed its carbon emission targets. However, it would also place Australia in the forefront of quality vehicle production, because electric vehicles enjoy significant advantages over petrol-driven vehicles, including much lower maintenance requirements, lower running costs and “green” credentials.

The booming US electric vehicle company Tessler intends to install solar-powered recharging stations on major hjghways and to recharge cars carrying its logo free of charge. That has tremendous implications for Australia, because our population is largely urban, most of our car journeys are less than 100 kilometres (well within the range of electric vehicles), and we receive far more sunshine than many other developed nations.

The government has a wonderful opportunity to save the fruit canning and auto production industries and to help the nation ride the crest of a new wave of technological change. But it won’t, because Abbott and company have no national vision, they’re only interested in blaming the victims of capitalism for its failings and squeezing the maximum profit out of the national workforce.

The responsibility for dealing with the current industrial crisis will only be taken up by individuals and organisations that actually believe in revolutionary change.

Next article – Commission should investigate slush funds linked to LNP

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