The early 1970s saw a toxic combination of local and global factors. Global inflation, rising oil prices and increased competition from an industrialising Asian market, saw Australian industry hit hard. When successive federal governments decided to reduce, then largely remove protective tariffs, industry could no longer compete. Three thousand factories closed their doors between 1973 and 1980, throwing many more thousands out of work and the decline continued. By 2001 a mere 16 per cent of wage earners was employed in manufacturing: by 2016 this had declined further to 7.8 per cent. The manufacturing that remains is now in highly specialized areas, with small niche markets.
The 1970s was characterized by high unemployment and significant levels of economic distress, especially in former manufacturing areas. Alternative employment was slow to emerge, and many former factory workers were forced into low-paid, casual work, with none of the benefits of full-time work. Rates of physical and mental illness skyrocketed, along with incidents of family violence. After the economic security of the 1950s and sixties, it was a very difficult time for many workers. Unfortunately, this trend has only continued, and a new term has emerged to describe this low-paid, casualized workforce — the ‘precariat’.
The motor vehicle manufacturing sector held out longest, partly because subsidies were paid by successive governments desperate to retain the jobs associated with it. But eventually these multinational companies all bowed to economic pressure and made the decision to close their plants in Australia. Ford closed its Broadmeadows plant in 2016, GMH followed in 2017, and Toyota ceased production in the same year. Thousands of workers lost their jobs, both those in the car plants and others who worked in component industries. Some families had worked in the car plants for two or even three generations. Government was left with high unemployment and huge industrial sites to repurpose.
The COVID pandemic
Just as the two world wars of the twentieth century exposed Australia’s industrial vulnerability, the COVID global crisis has highlighted the absence of a local pharmaceutical industry with manufacturing capacity. In 2020 and 2021 Australia was forced to import millions of doses of anti-viral vaccines along with other new essentials, like face masks. Moves are now underway in Victoria to create a local pharmaceutical capability, building on the state’s history of chemical manufacturing. In time such specialized industries may provide welcome industrial employment once again.