Governor Kevin Scarce called for action , not talk, as he urged a business forum yesterday to accept that “the closure of Holden will be a defining moment for our state”.
As 490 people gathered for the Committee for Economic Development (CEDA) Beyond2017 forum at Adelaide Oval’s William Magarey Room, the news that Toyota had joined Ford and Holden in putting up the “closing down” sign was still sinking in.
With barely a single state politician in sight, business leaders looked for answers as ABC TV Q&A host Tony Jones coordinated the questions.
Scarce had proposed the idea of an “action plan rather than a talk fest” last December when he met with CEDA Chief Executive Professor Stephen Martin.
“We have the opportunity here to drive the transformation of the economy,” he urged the panel and the audience.
“Transition is not beyond us. Some media and some people are too focused on doom and gloom. We can all help drive the next step.”
The positivity didn’t last long.
No sooner had Jones opened the panel than former Federal Manufacturing Minister Greg Combet, now the State Government’s Automotive Transition Coordinator, declared “the car industry is now dead”.
“Car makers have gone, many suppliers won’t survive,” he said.
“I consider this an economic catastrophe.”
Economic Development Board Chairman Raymond Spencer was more upbeat.
“The major issue here is that we have time to restructure,” he said.
“We have a lot of opportunities here. We can, for example, turn our ageing population into a positive as we develop skills in servicing the needs of that sector … chase the silver dollar, if you like.”
Air-conditioning manufacturer and renowned innovator Frank Seely also had a positive view.
“We’re not dead and not dying,” said the founder and chairman of Seeley International.
“We need to innovate and automate.”
Alf Ianello had a sterner message when the discussion turned to how much involvement governments should provide via soft loans and grants to replace dying industries.
“The less government involvement the better,” the CEO of the Detmold packaging group said.
“What amazes me is that when you hear the car makers say that the exchange rate was the problem. If your business model is based on a factor that you cannot control, then your business model is flawed.”
KPMG’s local CEO Con Tragakis bemoaned the lack of leadership among some business and political sectors.
Spencer was then asked from the floor if he thought the coming state election would pose any issues of continuity. His answer surprised many as he assured the audience that he could work with both major parties – as could those that had been in negotiations with the current State Government.
“There are areas where there has been bipartisanship,” he said.
“I give both parties credit.
“When the Minister for Manufacturing (Tom Kenyon) travels overseas he’s been taking the Shadow Minister (Martin Hamilton-Smith) with him,” Spencer revealed.
“The message is ‘you can come to South Australia, it doesn’t matter which of us is minister, there is going to be a consistent environment to support you’ and that’s a good thing.”
When the topic turned to the state’s high reliance on defence industry contracts, former federal Cabinet member Combet was apologetic about delays and indecision on the future of Australia’s submarine manufacturing and maintenance.
“I’m disappointed we didn’t take more decisions to address that.
“We haven’t taken that far enough.
“I would applaud any decision that gets on with the subs project.”
When Jones asked the panel to summarise their views, the focus switched from the death of a car industry to the need to take responsibility for our own future.
“We have the great advantage of being a small state,” Spencer said.
“It means we are able to be fast when we react.”
Whether it had been just a talkfest or will result in action rests with the 490 attendees. The Governor, however, appeared pleased.
Audio and video of the forum is available at ceda.com.au
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