In his latest analysis, appearing exclusively in The Bug, Australia’s foremost political commentator Rufus Badinage considers an enduring policy challenge facing our political leaders.
Over the many decades I have spent as an adviser to politicians and governments of all political colours, there has been one topic that has exercised the minds of all of them.
That is the size and performance of our manufacturing sector and its spin-off effects on the national economy.
I recall very well how Sir Robert Menzies, as the nation’s longest serving Prime Minister, was keenly aware of the need for a vibrant manufacturing sector.
While on his staff I became acutely aware of the PM’s desire to promote local manufacturing.
He once confided in me that he had always envied former Labor Party Prime Minister, Ben Chifley, and his involvement in the launch of the Holden motor vehicle.
Indeed, not many people were aware of it at the time, but Sir Robert kept in his desk drawer a copy of the iconic newspaper photograph of Mr Chifley launching the first Holden off the production line in Melbourne in 1948 (pictured).
Sir Robert desperately wanted to do something similar and as one of the senior members on his personal staff – having been seconded from my position as Assistant Deputy Under-Secretary in the Commonwealth Department of Tariffs, Rural Subsidies, and Native and Oriental Affairs – it was my task to make it happen.
At that time, back in the early 1960s, there were several local businesses trying to compete in the car-making sector against the big names such as General Motors-Holden, Ford, and Chrysler. The Japanese manufacturers had gained a foothold in the local market but were still making their presence felt.
I recall I did arrange for Menzies to be photographed at a couple of car factories.
One was at the Adelaide factory of Lightburn & Co where the company, best known then for its washing machines, was turning out a little car called the Zeta.
Sir Robert was keen on the idea of a photograph, but because the Zeta had – shall we say – a unique look about it, the end result (pictured) never had the same iconic feel as Chifley’s effort.
Putting the Prime Minister behind the wheel of a Zeta Sports model (main picture above) was even less satisfactory.
The motor car industry has long been a sort of “canary in the coal mine” for our manufacturing sector.
Now that all local manufacturing of mass market vehicles has ended with the final closure a few years back of the Ford and Holden plants, politicians of all persuasions have been keen to stress their plans for ensuring we retain a manufacturing capability and that we remain a nation “that makes things” as they are wont to say.
But do our politicians have the policy ideas and commitment to make it happen? Or are they all just talk?
I was dwelling on this matter the other day while reading that excellent advertising-free broadsheet tabloid The Australian in the sunroom of my Brisbane dwelling.
There in a prominent position was a story that warmed my heart and gave me hope.
It seems a family-owned Adelaide confectionery company has bought the rights to make the Polly Waffle from the global food maker Nestle (pictured).
Now, in my day that company was called Nestle’s and its name was pronounced “Ness-ells”, but at some time in the recent past it started to call itself Nestle, pronounced “Ness-lay”, and even used one of those funny little French acute symbols on its last “e” to drive home the point. But I digress.
The real point to consider and celebrate is that this piece of bright news about the return of a delectable treat that disappeared from the local market in 2009, shows our diversified manufacturing sector is not dead and buried.
Of course the giant manufacturing companies in Asia, Europe, and the USA can turn out cutting-edge technological devices, innovative electric vehicles, new energy technologies, life-saving medical equipment, and highly sophisticated aircraft and even spacecraft.
But that single news item proves to me that we here Down Under can still hold our own.
While ever a little Australian firm can wrap marshmallow in a wafer tube and coat it with chocolate, all is not lost for manufacturing in this nation of ours.
I for one can’t wait to see Polly Waffles back on the shelves and I shall be the first to buy one, put in my good teeth, and bite into this symbol of Australia’s economic future.
Rufus Badinage MBE, now retired, is one of Australia’s leading experts on politics and public administration having worked as a senior bureaucrat for various state and federal governments.