As Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane and South Australian Treasurer Kevin Foley fly to Japan for talks on the future of Mitsubishi’s Australian operations, the car company is looking more and more like something out of Arthur Daley’s caryard — with a nice, new, thick glossy coat of paint covering a rust bucket.

Presumably the Ministers won’t actually poke it. Their visit appears to be cosmetic, too.

MMA’s management fussed and fumed when the ABC revealed details of “Project Phoenix” last month, a supposed plan to shut down the Adelaide-based Australian operations as early as February next year or by March 2008.

MMA boss Rob McEniry said the draft document had been prepared by an external agency and had been rejected by Mitsubishi Australia management. “Let me be clear, there is no plan, there is no decision to cease manufacturing at the Tonsley Park plant, period,” he told the Sydney Motor Show guests late in October.

Mitsubishi, however, has bet the farm on one model – the 380.

The VFACTS car sales report for October 2006 shows that MMA sold a grand total of 46 380s to private customers. McEniry has said “The private fleet is low, and that is something that is concerning us”.

Earlier this month the News Limited motoring supplements reported that daily production rates at Mitsubishi’s Tonsley Park plant in Adelaide have slipped from 100 a day one year ago to around 65 a day.

McEniry, however, insisted that this did not mean the factory would shut. “How many times do I have to say it? There is no plan, there is no decision to cease manufacturing at the Tonsley Park plant, period,” he said.

Informed sources, however, tell Crikey of concerns over the level of throughput at Tonsley Park. Is it economical?

Crikey is aware a top-level paper prepared several years ago for the then Liberal premier of South Australia, John Olsen, bluntly said the state government should accept the inevitable and let the plant close.

The politics, however, are delicate – for both the South Australian and Federal Governments.

The Tonsley Park plant is close to the Liberals’ most marginal federal seat, Kingston, home to Mitsubishi’s Lonsdale engine plant, the closure of which was announced in 2004.

If Tonsley Park is to go, it would be best for the Government to get it out of the way as soon as possible.

It would also be best for the Feds and the SA Government to be able to pin the blame on Mitsubishi. Which is one reason why they might be heading for Japan.