Some interesting ‘spin-offs’ from colonialism

Australians were British subjects until 1948, when Australian citizenship was introduced. Quaintly, following its invasion/killing/settlement phase, Australia set out to be a nation of only white people, where no man would disdain any kind of work. A strange ambition, considering its location; set in ‘coloured’ seas, and surrounded by worrisome foreign faiths. This objective is not true today, not while welfare and cheap Asian labour is available.

A commendable national ethos of a ‘fair-go’ then evolved. Seemingly fading now. Trade unions became strong, but have now reached ‘bully-boy’ status, as my newspapers tell me. Yet, as I was told by an elderly Australian, it was the communist immigrant-English trade union leaders who had achieved much of the benefits enjoyed by industrial workers when I arrived in the country in 1948.

During WW2, having been Britain’s back yard till then, Australia (with its British-subject residents) placed itself under the control of the USA – for protection from the Japanese. The post-war hegemonic American Empire which evolved enabled the new Australian satrapy to become an industrialised nation without going through the normal process of industrialisation, step by step.

Major US corporations established a range of industries in Australia. While some competed with one another, they also limited their markets to Australia (avoiding competition with themselves overseas). Becoming progressively inefficient relative to their overseas competitors, both technically and economically, the new industries needed ongoing high tariff protection. Such protection reinforces high-cost production.

In 1963, as an employee of the Australian Tariff Board, I was pejoratively labelled a ‘free trader,’ because I recommended the progressive reduction of all tariffs. Why? Because we were increasingly uncompetitive internationally. For example, Japan’s per unit labour costs of certain major products were lower than in Australia; yet, labour costs were higher than in Australia!

Then, to show how poorly we had been governed (possibly through a subconscious subject-mentality), an ALP (Australian Labor Party) Government began to lower the tariff wall. The ALP normally represents workers. As a political orphan (a communitarian small-l liberal – ‘neither fish nor fowl’), I was entranced. The values of a former colonial subject were implemented by a political party representing workers who had benefited substantially from employment in tariff-protected industries.

Australia seemed to be on the way to becoming a truly independent nation.

Putting down coloured roots in White Australia

I wrote about the following experiences in the mid-1990s. I was told by a professor of history and politics that they depict a sliver of Australia’s post-war history. They also show the growing acceptance by Australians of Asians in their domain.

“Accepted for citizenship while Australia was still officially white, I worked for the Australian government in such interesting fields as ethnic affairs (looking after the settlement needs of migrants); in the screening of foreign investment in Australia (to ensure that it was not against the national interest); the provision of assistance to secondary industry by government (ensuring the continued inability of Australian industry to be competitive globally); and the artistic (but very reasonable) creation of balance of payments statistics. Indeed, in 1963, I was the first public official (in the then Tariff Board) to argue for reduced import tariffs; naturally, I was disparaged as a ‘free trader.’ Yet, within 6 years, the term came into fashion.

I also made a small contribution to the education system in the national capital (in part by being the foundation chairman of a school board); to career protection in the Australian public service – by leading, for seven years, a trade union sub-committee working on career protection, i.e. improving the equity and efficiency of selection procedures (I received a Meritorious Service Award from my union); and involved myself in a couple of other community concerns (including overseas aid and public speaking for school children).

Twice a year, the local press is likely to refer to two on-going events which I initiated. That is, I believe that I integrated into the Australian nation quite successfully and productively, but without losing my cultural identity or without losing sight of myself.”

In mid-2015, I know that being bi-cultural is no big deal; but one should not expect a foot to do what a hand can do. Apart from that, it is interesting being an insider and (simultaneously) an outsider; the challenges are sociological, mental and moral.

Of persons and personalities

I enjoyed working in that office. The staff were obviously selected for their personal and communication skills, apart from necessary skills in analysis and report-writing. The members of the Board were generally courteous and competent, even though the odd senior public service appointee could be preoccupied with his relative status.

… Of all the members of the Board I had worked with, one was a particularly charming man. He was often seen dining or even travelling with attractive, polished ladies, all of whom seemed to be his nieces. He had a lot of them. He had no airs and was always willing to ask for explanations.

One day, he claimed to have difficulty with the idea of the high cost of final products resulting from the tariff applicable to the materials in the intermediate chain of production. I offered a reasonable analogy of the process whereby DDT accumulated in meat. “Aha!” he said, “I now understand!” He represented the rural sector.

Unfortunately the humourless chairman of that enquiry apparently felt that my ‘bizarre’ sense of humour would one day get me into trouble – but he was a stuffed suit. “No bird soars too high if it soars with its own wings.”

During the six happy years I spent in that office, I was promoted twice, rising to be the first operational team leader, or sectional head. On each occasion, the question was raised: how would the Aussie staff accept me? However, did anyone ask how I would manage a team of Aussies? Apparently there was no doubt about that. I had learned to call a spade a spade and, occasionally, a bloody shovel or, for that matter, a f***ing shovel. That is, I spoke the language of the masses and had the approach of an Aussie manager to staff. I also worked ridiculous hours, rewrote pages of our reports, and took full responsibility for anything I put up the line, i.e. I gave my team total protection and loyalty.

My colleagues were a mixture of Masons, Catholics, golfers, other Christians and “calathumpians” (a term used by my mother-in-law to refer to religious people with no readily identifiable label). The Masons complained that they had to be twice as good as the others, as the CEO (another Mason) leant over backwards to prove that he did not favour the Masons. The Catholics were never heard to complain. The golfers, being a species apart, were happy to be promoted when opportunities arose, as long as they were free to stop and tell anyone who was not smart enough to avoid them, about their weekend golf – hole by hole, stroke by stroke.

The other Christians and calathumpians were normal people with no special distinguishing features. Irrespective of faith, affiliations, or interest, we all drank together every Friday evening. The only risk was that a third-generation Irish-Aussie would bring out his ancestral accent by seven o’clock in the evening and, on Monday morning, would want to tell you the joke that you had told him on Friday – with one variation; he told you the punch line first. It was a cohesive office.

Relating to industry was interesting. I found co-operation and courtesy at every level. … One company came for increased protection for almost every product; yet the company as a whole usually made a great profit. The difficulty for us was that the piecemeal approach to a company’s tariff needs did not enable the agency to examine the company as a whole.

In my last year in that agency, I let an accountant loose on that company (when many of its products came under examination). He came to the conclusion that the company had a profit centre from which all supplies, including furniture, needed anywhere in the company’s operations, were marked-up heavily before being sent out to operational centres. How clever and how profitable.

… However, by the end of my term in the agency, there had been another sea-change. The office began to recommend reduced effective protection to inspire increased competitiveness in global markets. When this began to happen, the industry department’s social club threw out those of us who worked for the agency (although we still worked for the same Minister). We were the free traders, and thus operating against the received wisdom of government. So we formed our own social club, which I led for a year.

I then left, looking for different work. Strangely enough, many of the economics-oriented people also left at about the same time.

(The above extracts from ‘Destiny Will Out’ suggest how, in the 1960s, the Australian government protected an inefficient manufacturing sector dominated by foreign enterprises. These were allowed to produce only for the local market; the car industry today – with 3 remaining manufacturers – is an excellent example.

The enabled high-consumption nation is increasingly dependent upon service industries. It seems that we do not want to learn from dynamic nations such as Singapore in preparing for a competitive long-term future, which includes manufacturing.)

The economic conundrum that is Australia

As soon as you look at Australia’s economic situation, you know that the country’s industrial base is substantially owned, and therefore controlled, by foreigners. There are not many major industries not under the control or influence of overseas shareholders. You find out, too, that the people are either indifferent to this situation or think that it is all right; or they simply deny it.
… The necessary emphasis is on expanding production. Without expansion, the economy stagnates, affecting employment, income flows, and all the rest of it. … And how is this growth – industrial growth, not population growth – to be achieved? (Although there was once a senior public servant and his politician master who supposedly coined the rallying cry, “Root for Australia” as a solution to Australia’s population needs.)

… A few decades ago, it was reported that Australia is unique among relatively developed nations. In a very short time after entering the industrial development phase, the country skipped the normal phase of widening and deepening its industrial foundations and became a high consumption nation – through redistribution of incomes policies. This was done for socially desirable motives, but it ignored, and continues to ignore, the need for national savings to fuel future growth.

So, who provides this fuel? Why, foreigners of course. … When you look at Australia’s balance of payments data, you will find that it is the continued inflow of foreign capital which upholds the Australian economy.

It’s against this background that I joined an agency whose role was to assess the protection Australian manufacturing industry needed through duties or tariffs imposed on competing imports. … The executive staff of this small agency were very courageous in appointing a migrant, especially a coloured one, to deal with senior representatives of industry in the early Sixties. Most of the latter would be ‘old’ Aussies employed, to a large extent, by foreign owned enterprises.

I would have been the first foreigner in their dealings with government. It was fascinating to watch the expressions on some faces when they came to realise that I was the initial and main filter of their sworn public and confidential information on their productive viability.

… My first report was on a single product. I apparently introduced, without any such intention, two major changes in the operation of that agency. I wrote an eleven page report, when apparently others had produced much longer ones in a comparable context. I had also recommended removal of tariff protection for that product. I therefore became the first “free trader” in that office; in the prevailing atmosphere of protection that was not a great reputation.

Hence I was privileged to have my first report examined by the CEO (Chief Executive Officer) line by line; every fact was checked, and every statement was examined for accuracy, fairness, grammar, and style. I passed. … He approved my inspection of production facilities. He knew what I was really after; to get behind the smooth witnesses and their beautifully packaged data. I thus managed to talk to production engineers, research staff and marketing peoples, formed my impressions, and asked the Board to seek the information which would either confirm or deny my suspicions. I also obtained approval to visit the applicants’ opposition who spoke freely outside the ambience of court-like hearings.

… I got to know the deputy chairman of the Board well, early in my career, when he summonsed me. Quite gently, he pointed out that I had no right to ask a witness for any information … I was to give him my questions and my reasons. Once he understood how I operated, reasons were not necessary.

… It was therefore a surprise for me (and for everyone else) when, in a difficult case, the deputy chairman asked a really curly question and literally forced the witness to deal with it. He then looked over at me sitting at the next level, which was above that of the audience, and gave me a broad wink. That was the best way to tell the whole industry whose question it really was. But he was a great man, seconded from industry. It was a pleasure to work with him, provided no mistakes were made; otherwise one could come out looking like the proverbial pancake.

(These extracts from ‘Destiny Will Out’ indicate that I continued to have wonderful bosses. The CEO of my first public sector agency, who wanted me to remain, understood my need to expand my skills. The next CEO and the Deputy Chairman of the Board liked my approach; I was allowed to inspect facilities as I wished because I ferreted out necessary background. Most importantly, I was accepted by those in the private sector: perhaps they sensed my support for private enterprise.

Yet, we were upholding economic and technical inefficiency in the manufacturing sector. I therefore attempted to infuse a free trader perspective into our work, as this could contribute to greater efficiency in those firms and industries living behind a tariff wall. I spent 6 years in this agency, and was promoted twice.)

The development of the host nation

It would have been a terrible shock to the immediate post-war Australians, who had been British to their bootstraps, to find large numbers of Europeans coming to stay because of a government policy. However, having placed itself under the protection of the USA when Japan threatened it, the nation now needed an extended labour force to develop its infrastructure, and implement the foreign (mainly American) investment which followed.

When the needed workforce was in place, Australia jumped from an under-developed nation ‘riding on the sheep’s back’ to a high consumption industrial nation, thus by-passing the normal path of slow, incremental industrialisation. Behind the necessary tariff wall, Australian industry blossomed, but became progressively inefficient (both technologically and economically) relative to the rest of the industrial world.

I worked for 6 years in the Australian Tariff Board which looked after the protective needs of Australia’s manufacturing industry. However, in my first report in 1953, when I recommended the removal of tariff protection for a product under scrutiny, I was pejoratively labelled a ‘free trader.’ It was a Labor Government which, many years later, introduced a less protective regime, thus inducing industry to become more competitive globally.

But, we Australians ate well then, and still eat well, thanks to an unending flow of foreign capital – which naturally results in foreign control of much, if not most, of our businesses and natural resources. Yet, we remain comfortable in our lifestyles, aided by myopic political leaders not known for any sort of implementable planning for a sound future.

One surely has to challenge those responsible for permitting more than one automotive manufacturer to be established to cater solely for the small Australian market. Overseas demand was met by the parent companies. A comparable policy applied to other industries. Because of high labour costs, unit costs were simply not competitive. Yet, with high (or higher) labour costs, Japan reportedly had lower unit costs in comparable industries. This was because of production for a global market. Should Australia learn from Singapore? See ‘Destiny Will Out’ by Arasa.