General Motors Holden’s decision to pull the pin on its Melbourne manufacturing plant spurred renewed debate around government-subsidised industry sectors.
But instead of throwing money into a flailing Australian manufacturing industry that simply cannot compete with its economically lean Asian neighbours, the Australian government needs to implement a long-term creative economy plan.
That means directing subsidies toward technology design and development in the manufacturing industry, and building a creative economy that generates knowledge useful to the manufacturing efforts of other nations.
The demise of manufacturing in developed economies like Australia also questions the impending changes in the labour industry, as “the robots take over”. But what if Australia’s industry subsidies and research priorities were fashioned to help us become a world leader not in car manufacturing, but in the design of the computer systems inside the cars?
Some economists, like The Conversation columnist Jason Potts, are calling for industry funding from the government to “be more like venture capital” and “fund the demand and not the supply”, to promote innovative market thinking and outcomes. In this capacity, government funding should not take the shape of bailout packages for dying industries, but should instead concentrate on the development of new skills and industries.
So: how can the Australian government invest money post-haste into developing the careers of those who will be on the front line in ten to 20 years time?
Funding the future
Recently, Carlos Ghosn, the French-Lebanese-Brazilian CEO of Renault-Nissan, predicted that driverless cars will be on our roads by 2020, making the science fiction driving scenes of the film Minority Report a not-too-distant reality.
We already have the beginnings of driverless car technology available now, beyond the cruise control fitted in all new cars. Some more expensive models have highway assist that not only controls our speed, but also our road position through a combination of GPS, radar and camera sensors. It has also been suggested cars will be able to perform lane changes by the year 2017, with some cars already gossipping with each other to alert your car of a sudden stop by another automobile three or four cars ahead.
Google is investing enormous amounts of time and money into developing driverless car technology. (Some say their aim to help us integrate our home, travel and office lives into the same activity; others argue it is to free up hours that could be spent using Google products).
Australian policy controls should be set to allow Australia to benefit from this new wave of technology. General Motors Holden’s pull out follows the recent Mitsubishi and Nissan plant closures and places pressure on Toyota as the remaining manufacturer within Australia. A bailout package from the Australian government would not have made any difference.
It is time we move the Australian manufacturing debate beyond, as Labor leader Bill Shorten probed, whether the Prime Minister knew Holden planned to close. We should instead be holding a more nuanced discussion of how can Australia look towards a more prosperous relationship with these international conglomerate manufacturing entities.
In November last year, Ford Australia hosted an Applink Hackathon in Melbourne, where software developers came from all over the nation to hack the latest operating system to be launched in the entire Ford range over the coming years.
The hackathon was an impressive two-day display of Australia’s information ecology, as amateur enthusiasts through to professional software programmers came together to advance the safety and functionality of the forthcoming Ford range, which uses the Microsoft Sync operating system.
Ideas presented on the day included an integration with the MYOB accounting software system for tradespeople, a fire detection and communication application, and a locative application that enabled the user to find service stations and monitor fuel pricing.
The concept of a hack is not new in any regard. However, the idea of a hack for a car operating system could tell us something about a possible future role for Australia in car manufacturing that does not revolve around factory workers on Henry Ford assembly lines. Rather, a potential collaboration exists in the knowledge economy for the design and development of the systems that control automobiles.
A healthy political discussion then, should be focused on how an Australian education system could be bolstered to accommodate more creative designers and developers.
Sadly, this discussion does not help the families and communities of those affected by the jobs lost as part of General Motors Holden global restructure, and our deepest sympathies go out to those individuals, families and communities.
What this discussion may promote is an avenue for policy makers and creative economy thinkers to pursue, and is a sobering reminder in the prevention of future hardships of manufacturing workers as the Australian market evolves.