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In Holden’s wake, let the market, not government, pick winners

The evidence is mounting that government grants for business don’t work. InDaily journalist Kevin Naughton finds past subsidies to businesses have done more harm than good.

Government-funded assistance programs for businesses hit by the Holden departure make little economic sense. And Michael O’Neil, the head of Adelaide University think tank the Centre for Economic Studies, also says subsidies and grants made to businesses that haven’t been able to secure funding from normal investment channels are a “poor economic model”.

The view backs previous analysis of structural adjustment funds, innovation and investment funds and other schemes that follow manufacturing upheavals, such as the closure of Mitsubishi, which shows a high failure rate.

It’s a case of economic logic,” O’Neil told InDaily. “If you can’t tell a commercial opportunity from a non-commercial opportunity, then you shouldn’t be in business. Take the component suppliers, for example: these guys understand the market, and they will have already picked up new opportunities and got on with it. They don’t need a government assistance fund to do it for them.”

O’Neil says he was surprised by South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill’s response package in the wake of the Holden decision to cease making cars in Australia by 2017. “The Playford era age of attracting and subsidising industries is over, and Holden was the last chapter of it. Yet we hear the Premier talking about attracting another car maker to the Holden site. I can’t believe he’s thinking of trying to attract another car maker with a business model that we’ve just seen fail,” he said.

O’Neil says state and federal governments would be better placed putting the money into design and research centres. “Out of research comes development. You see it in defence. SA has had the Defence Science and Technology Organisation here for years, and that underpins our defence industry expertise,” he said. “Similarly, the CSIRO has led us into a whole new range of agricultural opportunities. Rolling out subsidies and grants for business ideas that can’t attract their own private investment or finance is not the way to go.”

In recent years InDaily has revealed a string of failures from the various schemes that followed the closures at Mitsubishi Lonsdale and Mitsubishi Tonsley and, in more recent times, the Automotive New Markets Program, designed to fund diversification projects for component makers. As recently as yesterday InDaily contacted Intex Holdings, a solar energy products developer that was given $1 million in the October 2008 round of the SA Innovation and Investment Fund. Intex Holdings, the state government had announced, would employ an extra 45 employees as it rolled out its “world-leading turbine technology to reduce fuel consumption in new and existing car and truck fleets”. The company is listed on its website as being based at 34-36 Oldham Road, Elizabeth Vale. The building, however, is home to a medical clinic, and staff there say they have never seen a company called Intex Holdings.

Intex company director Roger Davies, a radiologist, said yesterday the new solar technology was “poised to move to commercialisation”, but was unable to provide any further details. His business manager, Richard Neill, was also unable to provide any detail of how many people were now employed by Intex, adding that “there is a workshop at Edwardstown”. There is no telephone listing for Intex.

In 2011, InDaily revealed that Origin Solar, which had received $2 million from the post-Mitsubishi Structural Adjustment Fund to create sustainable jobs by making thinner solar cells, had packed up and moved to Idaho in the United States. The company had also received a further $6 million in renewable energy grants. A Origin Solar representative says the SLIVER cells project has ailed because the Australian market couldn’t support it. It later folded completely.

Another Structural Adjustment Fund project to hit the dust was the $3.5 million expansion of the Normanville Meatworks abattoir. The meatworks proposal didn’t pass development approvals, co-investors withdrew funds, and as the company’s managing director Bruce Webb said in 2011: “It never happened.”

A fourth project we reported on in 2011 was Labanalysis Services, one of the top-billed projects announced as “filling the gap created when Mitsubishi pulled out of manufacturing” in February 2009. The Labanalysis project was to provide services to SA’s growing mining sector. “The short answer is, no, nothing happened,” the venture’s then managing director, Tony Aykroyd, said.

Other fund recipients include Digislide (now in liquidation), Clean Seas (the tuna propagation project has been abandoned) and others that have been difficult to contact. A year ago the Gillard government announced a $1 million grant for Adelaide-based parts maker Hirotec to diversify its advanced manufacturing business. The grant has never been paid, and the project — for “e-coating technology” — hasn’t gone ahead. Federal government officials have declined to comment on the project.

There have been some successes: Broen Indsutries at Elizabeth created a handful of jobs with a $2.5 million grant and expects to employ up to 70 more people. But O’Neil believes the notion that governments can pick industry and business winners is flawed.

How is a government panel going to have more success in picking what works in the market than the businesses that operate in it? Holden is closing because the Playford era of assisted and subsidised manufacturing has ended. There’s no point in trying to extend its life,” he said.

*This article was originally published at InDaily

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  • 1
    MJPC
    Posted Thursday, 23 January 2014 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    This is the cargo cult mentality of government’s not understanding the capitalist mindset of the quick buck (ably assisted by a compliant media).
    Yesterday I heard some government aparatchik waxing lyrical about the promise of biotechnology jobs to take up the slack of unemployment in the car manufacture.
    So, come December 2015, we have Joe Average building Holdens, January 2016 he is developing the next antibiotic.
    Give us a break!
    Why do they continue to treat the public as idiots with annnouncements such as this?

  • 2
    Chris Hartwell
    Posted Thursday, 23 January 2014 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    MJPC - well, they did get voted in … I suppose they put 2 and 2 together?

  • 3
    Dulong Ttil
    Posted Thursday, 23 January 2014 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    If we want our country’s manufacturing industry (including car making) to be successful, a competitive $A is crucial to strengthen our car exports. To cite a good example, Japan has been applying an assertive Monetary Easing Policy, which drives the YEN downwards successfully. The immediate result shows that their Export and Tourism industries have picked up swiftly. Japan is now enjoying healthy export growth and has much more tourists visiting Japan.

    With the sound and robust stimulation by Japan’s Monetary Easing Policy (which in fact mainly injecting more printed notes into the market by their Central Bank), the Nikkei has soared from 10,398 to 16,291 just in 2013. Nikkei marks its best performance in forty years, and also the top performer among Asian markets in 2013. Analysts name this “Nikkei Ends Year on a High in Quiet Asia”. This is the power of an aggressive Monetary Easing Policy.

    Australia should consider this as a viable option to improve our economy outlook , so that our export can be improved instantaneously.

    A lower $A can help to improve our Export competitiveness, save the Australian farmers, exporters and manufacturers and reduce our trade deficit. It can also help to improve our Tourism industry, which was seriously damaged due to the high $A.

    Another thought is to engage a linked currency with USD, (e.g. A$1:US$0.80), which can give overseas investors good confidence in our economy stability.

  • 4
    mook schanker
    Posted Thursday, 23 January 2014 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Does the article contradict itself by suggesting to pour money into R&D instead? Surely if the economic model was successful then private investors would stump up the capital for R&D, otherwise it just seems like subsidisation by another means….

    The article should go for the ‘other’ heavy subsidy hitters though like the heavy electricity subsidisation and the mulitude of corporate tax rebates going around - surely these are just subsidies too? Want to make the economic model perfect in all areas - just sayin….

  • 5
    Mike Wilson
    Posted Thursday, 23 January 2014 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    Fair enough not supporting Golden. The next logical step is to stop supporting Tasmania. It’s never likely to turn a profit, employs fewer people than the auto industry, and is highly unlikely to perform well at Mount Panorama. Can we afford to keep it?

  • 6
    Mike Wilson
    Posted Thursday, 23 January 2014 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    Loving how auto correct makes GMH seem better than it is…

  • 7
    Hamis Hill
    Posted Friday, 24 January 2014 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Is it only co-incidental that all those involved with the failed companies benefiting from government largesse are likely to be associated with conservative politics?
    You know, “business people”?
    Heaven knows what they have lined up for rorting under Abbott.

  • 8
    The Pav
    Posted Friday, 24 January 2014 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    As a hypothetical I would love to know how Holden would have developed had it been a truely Australian company.

    How many decisions were made to comply with a global car plan where other wise a small nimble company would have innovated/ marketed to niche markets.

    Was the Monaro canned because it competed with say the Comaro and Detroit didn’t want that?

  • 9
    Dan Dair
    Posted Monday, 27 January 2014 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    The trouble with ‘the market’ is that it will do what is commercially viable.
    It won’t put jobs where the people are.
    It will put jobs where it is commercially viable.
    So all you South Australian blue collar conservatives remember that this is what you voted for…..
    When you have to sell-up at a massive loss in order to relocate to a different state because that’s where the work is.?

    mook schanker,
    Good point, rebates for the deserving & withdrawal of subsidies for the undeserving….
    Who decides which is which, why & how do you find out about these decisions.?

    The Pav,
    It seemed to me that the core problem with Holden was that it made cars for Australians. Nice cars, but not generally the stuff that the rest of Asia wanted to buy.
    If it made cars that were more saleable overseas, maybe it would have done better.
    I think it vital that any new car manufacturing in the region MUST export to survive. Australia isn’t a big enough domestic market to support a car industry on it’s own.

  • 10
    Dan Dair
    Posted Monday, 27 January 2014 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    The article trumpets the number of failures it’s found.
    Has anyone got the figures on successes.?

    Or is no-one here interested in success……?

  • 11
    Aidan Stanger
    Posted Tuesday, 28 January 2014 at 2:10 am | Permalink

    Dulong Ttil #3

    A lower dollar eould make our manufacturing more competitive, but thhere’s s lot more to it than that. The main source of Jspsn’s Manufacturing competitiveness isn’t a low yen but rather low interest rstes which enable their manufacturers to invest very heavily in robotics. Due to RBA incompetence, Australia’s interest rates have been set too high, which not only limited our manufacuturers’ acess to that option but pushed our dollar unsustainably high.

    But linking our dollar to another currency is a very bad idea. It means there would have to be a load of stockpiled assets to defend it when the official value is above what the market value would otherwise be. This means resources that could be put to more productive use would instead have to be devoted to acquiring those assets, and worse still, the possibility of running out of them introduces a hyperinflation risk. And inflation would be a problem if the dollar eere too low. So havingn a fully floating dollar is by far the best policy - all we need now is a competent RBA board!

  • 12
    chpowell
    Posted Thursday, 30 January 2014 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    In terms of subsidies, the two most grotesque ‘welfare queens’ in Australia are the electricity utilities and the mining industry.

    Let’s not confuse ourselves with the ‘rats ‘n mice’ above, Kevin!

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