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Car makers must show drive

Every Australian claims the benefits of the auto sector for less than $18 each.

JIM Griffin's company makes car hinges and tie-down cleats in Reservoir. He sells them in China - despite a 67 per cent increase in the value of the dollar from the lows we saw in 2008.

The car industry is one of our top export earners. The all-American Chevrolet Camaro was engineered in Melbourne - and so was the new Ford T6 Ranger pickup truck, sold in more countries than any other Ford vehicle.

The car industry put this city on the global innovation map. In the last year on record, the auto industry was the single biggest customer for local tooling.

It consumed $1.3 billion in locally manufactured iron and steel, $444 million in polymer products and $157 million in chemicals; along with $1.6 billion of professional, scientific and technical services. The car industry keeps more than 200,000 Australians in work. So imagine this country without it.

It's not just the future of the Bathurst 1000 at stake. It's not just your right to drive a world-class Australian car - a right that we've enjoyed for more than six decades and that we still prize today. No less than four of the Top 10 selling cars in this country are locally made.

No, take away the cars, and you take away any claims we have on the 21st century. Opinions will differ on the returns we can expect from the resources boom.

But no one, however bullish, claims we can rely on it forever. It has pushed the dollar to levels that are crippling to trade-exposed industries - our automakers among them. They are still keeping alive the raw materials of our post-boom economy.

The practical know-how. The advanced machinery. The university research programs. These are the bread-and-butter of any auto operation; but they generate jobs and opportunities in countless other ways.

Take SMR Automotive, a company making rear-vision mirrors in Adelaide. They supply almost a third of the global market today. But because they know car mirrors, they also know high-precision medical devices. They know how to make whitegoods and lighting systems that cost less to run. They have the skills in optical engineering, in high-precision moulding and in polymer electronics to take the lead in all these fields.

Companies like SMR are first and foremost automakers. They look to the three major vehicle producers in this country - Ford, GM Holden and Toyota - to provide the work that keeps people on the job, day in, day out. Those producers provide vital links to the global auto industry, still the great powerhouse of modern industrial progress.

That's how Australians stay at the peak of the technology curve; and that's how our component makers break into the global production chains.

I have little patience with commentators who insist on seeing this country as some kind of automotive backwater. Australia is one of only 13 nations with all the capabilities to take a car from the drawing board to the dealership - and we have sustained that position at a far lower per capita cost than most.

Every Australian claims the benefits of the auto sector for less than $18 each. Every American is paying 14 times that sum. So this is not the moment to be slashing our support, as Mr Abbott would have us do. It is time to prove to the world that this country is ready to make cars for the 21st century.

Electric cars are part of that future. But so too are lightweight composite parts. So are alternative fuels. So are intelligent design and clean manufacturing technology.

Australia can undoubtedly compete on its strengths in these fields - which is why innovation has always been the heart and soul of our $5.4 billion New Car Plan for a Greener Future.

That's how we secured the low-emission Holden Cruze, the hybrid Toyota Camry, the EcoBoost Falcon. That's how Australia produced the world's first carbon-fibre car wheel, as strong as steel and half the weight.

That's why engineers, doctoral students and elite researchers are working together on a large proof-of-concept fully electric vehicle in Melbourne. That's how our auto envoys helped local firms win overseas contracts worth more than half a billion in the last financial year.

I am not in the business of holding out false hope. There is undoubtedly a tough fight ahead for this industry, as the hard news from Toyota confirms. But let there be no mistake. This is a battle we are ready to fight.

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