Without dog whistles, Abbott is right on two scores

by Crispin Hull on July 21, 2017

Tony Abbott’s conservative manifesto correctly questioned Australia’s high immigration and the build-in-Australia conventional submarine program, but there was some dog-whistling in the arguments. On immigration, the dog whistle was a xenophobic call for a slow down so present immigrants could get time to settle in and assimilate. On the submarines, he wanted an off-the-shelf one, but he thought it should be a nuclear one, which would be the thin edge of the wedge for a nuclear power industry that would in turn undermine renewables.

Nonetheless, high immigration and building conventional submarines are both really dumb and can only be explained by political parties’ pandering to donors who benefit from high immigration at the expense of the rest and to help keep some marginal seats in South Australia.

Remember, the Hawke Labor Government began the program to buy South Australian seats with defence jobs and Australia has been beholden to it ever since.

The two decisions are prime examples of dumb political decisions based on donors’ desires and the need to bolster support in marginal seats. The submarines will cost about 40 per cent more than if bought off the shelf. And having decided to build them in Australia, the nuclear option was out because Australia does not have the industrial capacity to construct nuclear submarines and could not get it within the time frame needed. Nor does either major party have the political will to take on a nuclear debate.

Local manufacture was chosen because of South Australian jobs, not because it was a better military option, though the top brass has been applauding it because it will provide a continuous gravy train of ship-building.

We can see how spending on big defence toys does not help much. It was not long after locking ourselves into the submarine plan and the multi-billion-dollar F35 Joint Strike Fighter that we learned that a North Korean missile could hit Darwin and before long North Korea could put a nuclear weapon on that missile. The submarines and the strike fighter are entirely useless against such a threat.

If the South Australian jobs were so important wouldn’t it have made more sense to keep the car industry afloat. Defence construction jobs have a fairly low flow-on effect because what they produce does not improve the economy. Rather they detract from it – unlike manufacturing or infrastructure jobs.

But the Abbot Government, steeped in market and neo-liberalism economics, decided to end subsidies to the car-manufacturing industry.

That decision was poorly timed because neo-liberalism and pure-market economics are out of favour right now, for good reason. They do not work unless diluted with some worthwhile government intervention.

The Government may well have been concerned about pouring good money after bad by propping up a stagnant industry that was making cars that were not very popular among anyone but fleet buyers. But the answer was not to remove the subsidies, but to put conditions on them.

Australia has now lost a major opportunity. The Government should have set a date and made the continuation of subsidies beyond that conditional upon innovation, particularly the production of an electric car. That would have been far too agile and innovative for Abbott, but the Turnbull Government could have given it a try.

There are 18 million internal-combustion-engine cars and light trucks registered in Australia. Virtually the lot will be replaced within the next decade by electric cars.

Far-fetched? No. The history of cameras shows us why. In 2000 Fuji put the first digital camera aimed at consumers on the market. But 2004 Kodak stopped producing film cameras and in 2006 Nikon and Canon followed suit. By 2010 only a few crackpots and aficionados owned film cameras.

Film and developing it simply cost too much, just like the $2000 worth of fuel a year it costs to run a car.

Getting instant photos bolstered the camera transition, just as greater reliability, lower pollution, less noise and fewer moving parts will bolster the car transition. But “backing winners” is not in the neo-liberal economist’s handbook.

We should have got submarines (if we really needed them) off the shelf from abroad and made cars at home, rather than buying cars from abroad and making the submarines at home.

It is interesting that Abbott in government ended the car industry and kept immigration high, but from the sidelines thinks that neither was a good idea.

It is sad that Abbott’s call on immigration came with a dog whistle, because aside from better economics, less congestion and improved living standards, a good reason for substantially reducing overall immigration is that we would have room to increase the refugee intake. Assimilation is not an issue.

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Speaking of being agile and innovative, second semester began this week and yet again we see students disadvantaged by the failure of university leadership to insist that the academic book trade change the way it does business.

Publishers still produce hundreds of thousands of textbooks in paper format. Every year or two academics put out another edition rending the earlier editions useless and unsaleable on the second-hand market.

It would be far better to have all the texts online with students buying access a semester at a time with a unique log-in that only works on one device at a time.

University libraries provide a fair amount of material online to those with a university log-ins. But why not go the whole way?

Authors could still be paid the same amount, or more, given the savings in paper and distribution costs. It would be better for the environment and fairer for students who have had a few financial hits in the past few years.

The paper textbook should go the way of the film camera and internal combustion engine.
CRISPIN HULL
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Fairfax Media on 21 July 2017.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

peter 07.22.17 at 6:27 pm

The submarines are a waste, war is a waste. The subs will take years to come online, by then technology will make the visible. Does the govt seriously believe a few subs is gonna stop a fleet, They spruik the subs are to protect trade, are sailors lives going to be put at risk to ensure a boat load of live cattle reach indonesia?

The F35s are also a waste, they are too expensive, have very limited range. A better option would be have plans to simply add a hypersonic missile to any cessna. Missiles designed and built and tested in australia recently reached 10,000 kmph, 8 times faster than any plane. There are tens of thousand cessna type planes in australia, they fly beneath the radar, have good range and in case of a war we would have an unlimited supply of planes.We would not have to wait 12 months for the yanks to build us one, plus further 6 months of fitting/testing. If their is a big war US would not sell us any as they would want them.

The closure of car industry is sad, your comments are good. But politicians are short and donation sighted sighted. I cannot think of one thing politicians have solved NDIS came close, NBN gets a 2 out of 10.

All the defence spend is about is to adhere to the US policy of 2% gdp defence spend. i say half of that to army engineers to build roads,bridges, indigenous settlements etc.

Funny how we can say 2% to defence but 0% to climate change.

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