The Belgian tycoon’s Punch Corporation has expressed an interest in moving on the plant and continuing its rear-wheel drive assembly line, but the State Government has thus far considered the plan a long-shot, in large part because it would require Holden to share its intellectual property.
But Weatherill – in his first trip to the US since a crisis dash to Detroit in 2012 – will lobby for the proposal, and urge GMH to offer guarantees on the welfare of its Adelaide workforce and what looms as a costly remediation of the site.
“Obviously material to this idea from Punch Group is GM granting access to the site,” he told InDaily.
“Punch Group can’t take the next step unless GM is on side, so we’re doing everything we can to encourage them to do that… we’ll speak to the key decision-makers there.”
Weatherill said he also wanted to question decision-makers about “how they’re handling the workers and the site, with or without Punch”.
“We think they’ve got significant obligations to SA, and we want to remind them of that,” he said.
“It’s in GM’s interests to keep a skilled workforce [at Elizabeth] right up until they produce the last car – but that may or may not be consistent with the workforce’s interests in terms of being re-skilled and finding alternative employment.”
There is a precedent for General Motors co-operating with Punch – the ailing car giant sold its Powertrain manufacturing plant in Strasbourg to Dumarey’s company in 2012, with all existing employees retained to continue the production line.
“They obviously have a history of collaboration with this company, but that was one particular place,” said Weatherill.
“The opportunities are obviously exciting, but we’re just trying to keep that in check.”
He warned federal support would be important, as “it’s unlikely Punch will be producing [enough] units to qualify for an existing subsidy scheme”. But he insisted the Punch proposal had merit, even in the short-term – with the local auto industry set to “fall off the edge of the cliff at the end of 2017”.
“That’s a lot of jobs to lose in our economy in a very small period of time, especially in a small economy like SA, [so] even if it’s only a 10-year proposal, that would still be a benefit,” he said.
“It gives you a 10-year path, rather than one year.
“I’ve always maintained having a car industry in the country is actually a very important thing [and] the 19 or so countries that make cars, they all one way or another subsidise the industry,” he said.
“They’re really important skills and capabilities that flow on to other areas of our economy.”
Weatherill’s US trip – his first trade mission to America as Premier – will run from March 9 to 20, and will also take in driverless car proponents in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – “an industrial state that’s transformed its economy and been very effective in creating that vision for an industrial ‘rust-bucket’ state to move to a more high-tech, successful regime”.
He will also be drawing on connections with Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon – which has a satellite campus in Adelaide – to sell SA as “the sort of southern hemisphere home of autonomous vehicles”.
“We’re trying to draw that link harder,” he said.
Weatherill will also visit defence tech companies Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, battery tech manufacturers in Chicago and organisers of the SXSW festival in Adelaide’s sister city Austin, Texas.
“This is my first trip to the US in this role – it’s the largest source of foreign investment and [Australia’s] second largest trading partner, so it’s a pretty substantial relationship,” he said.
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