John Button & America’s Australia

We’d never heard of former Labor politician John Button until we learned he’d died earlier this week. But as we read a few obituaries, we learned that Button played a key role in reducing tariffs on the Australian auto manufacturing sector (which were around 60% in the 1970s, we also read.)

The John Button Car Plan doesn’t seem like it was terribly popular at the time. But dropping tariffs exposed Australian industry to global competition. That competition eliminated firms (and jobs) that existed because the barriers to entry for foreign producers were so high. It also gave consumers better products at cheaper prices. Individual industries unable to compete globally lost out. But consumers won.

Still, Australia is a tough spot when it comes to the division of labor. In a country of just 20 million people, you are not going to be able to produce a huge variety of manufactured goods. There are just not enough people for the division of labor to work-where you can build up specialists in all sorts of manufacturing disciplines.

Australia’s situation is not nearly so dire as say, Mexico or even some of the Gulf countries. Those countries are reliant on one commodity for a large part of their economy. Australia has a diversity of natural resources. But when it comes to innovation and economic diversification, there’s plenty to accomplish in Australia.

On a different note, we found a great article written by John Button the February 2007 edition of “The Monthly” magazine. The article was called “America’s Australia,” and referred to a 1942 book called “Instructions for American Servicemen in Australia.”

The book tried to help American soldier in Australia (there were 1 million of them in 1942, compared to seven million Aussies) understand more about their local hosts. It had some dubious definitions of Australian words. But since we were on the subject of the differing attitudes between Americans and Australians this week (with respect to guns) we found the article really refreshing.

We know what America is. It’s an abstract idea of equality. It’s based-correctly or not-on the proposition that all men are created equal. Americans are big believer in reinvention and self-invention. If life is getting you down, you could simply pack up and start over somewhere else. Mobility-social, economic, and physical-is key to understanding why America’s are so future focused and un-traditional.

We wouldn’t think that Aussies are traditionalists either. Both countries are young. But they clearly don’t have the same set of values (if millions of people can be said to hold the same values, or believe in the same national mythologies.)

As for us, we like both cricket and baseball, VB and Budweiser, Sydney’s Northern Beaches and Colorado’s Rockies. As for Australian values, we are still trying to figure those out. Button gives us his take, while comparing Australians to Americans.

“We spend time trying to describe our differences from Americans because they are the people we are most like, and our identity as Australians depends on difference. In the process, we end up defining some things which are these days described as ‘Australian values’.

“The prime minister [John Howard at the time] has been good at this. In speeches on various important occasions, he has referred to our virtues as being ‘a fair go and practical mateship’ (part of our ‘creed’), ‘a sense of fair play and a strong egalitarian streak’, ‘decency and pragmatism in a classless society’, ‘tolerance and hospitality’ and ‘those laconic characteristics which we hold so dear’.

“Perhaps ‘Australian values’ are not as immutable as might be believed. The things we ‘hold so dear’ – the mateship, the sense of fair play, the egalitarianism, the laconic characteristics – came out of a convict heritage, and later from the shearing sheds, the mines, the construction sites, the trenches of World War I: from all those places where hardship was endured and collective action was the most meaningful response….

“It is possible that Australian society may come to resemble, by default, some of the worst aspects of American society. For me, this would be a tragedy, because I like John Howard’s stated Australian values, and neither an individual nor a country can live on nostalgia. And if this happens, there’s no way we can blame the Americans, which we sometimes like to do. As our forebears used to say, we might just end up looking like a mob of drongos.”

Dan Denning
Markets and Money

Dan Denning
Dan Denning examines the geopolitical and economic events that can affect your investments domestically. He raises the questions you need to answer, in order to survive financially in these turbulent times.

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2 Comments on "John Button & America’s Australia"

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Now Dan, don’t come the raw prawn………..or I might just get on shank’s pony and give you a good bullocking…… only joking. There’s a fabulous book called, “Overpaid, oversexed, and over here”, which describes what happened when the American GI’s hit our shores. The kids loved them, my dear old mum would reminisce and regal, because they would give them chocolates and chewing gum: things kids just couldn’t have if not for them. The women loved them too cause they knew how to treat a sheila, but the men wanted the yankie doodles to just bugger off and leave their… Read more »
the button car plan wasnt so good from the point of view of the consumers who worked for the car industry, who lost their jobs.sure the unions needed a bit of restraint and common decency bashed into them, but the Aus car industry supported a decent standard of life for the workers, decent cars for the consumers. remember those beautiful gt falcons, the chrysler charger, the holden monaro??nothin ever came out of japan with the style grace and grunt of a falcon gt.we were turning out own steel into our own cars and doing it well.the japs sold us cheap… Read more »
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