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Morning Herald

Pubdate: 11-Dec-2008

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 17

Wordcount: 851

Save the shonks: a car rescue deal you can trust


My first Sydney car was lubricated out of its Parramatta Road car yard with the heartfelt handshake, sincere goodwill and honest-to-God promises of a yellow-haired, pink-skinned Scot named Charlie. “Ee, ye canna go wrong with this, wee lassie,” he brogued. And she was a good car, while she lasted. Sadly, that wasn’t terribly long. It was roughly 36 hours, from memory, before black smoke issued, along with a sound like the devil grinding his teeth. And then another few weeks while I sold it for about the value of its leather seats.

OK, I was naive. Being eight months’ pregnant can skew your judgment. And trusting a used-car salesman isn’t something I’ve done again. But the incident gave me a feeling for the industry and a deep understanding of why Kevin Rudd is so eager to bail it out. Bankruptcy couldn’t happen to a nicer lot.

It’s funny, isn’t it, how the global crunch is turning the tables? Funnier still how the turning seems to be 360, leaving the screw-ups still on the starched white linen with the crystal and silver, and the meek are still underneath, inheriting shite.

Take that heart-wrenching scene a few weeks ago where the three cleancuts, Rick, Alan and Bob, fronted Congress. Surely, they reasoned, $US25 billion wasn’t a lot to ask for saving the American economy. And perhaps, being General Motors’ Rick Wagoner, Ford’s Alan Mulally and Chrysler’s Robert Nardelli, they were in a position to deliver. The fuss at the time was mostly about them flying to the Washington meeting in their private jets and their nonchalant dismissal of hypothetical salary cuts. “I think I’m OK where I am,” Mulally famously replied, meaning, reclining on $US21.7 million a year.

Later, after a little spin, the three revised their position, making the second Detroit-Washington road trip in home-brand hybrids (although still separately) and pledging salary reductions to $1. Given that a single year’s salary for Mulally would support a congressman and his family for 128 years, however, such concessions slide seamlessly into so-what territory.

Then there’s the sheer, breathtaking privatise-the-profits-socialise-the-losses hypocrisy of the thing. But the real question and, one hopes, the real reason why Congress so cruelly closed its collective heart to the musketeers, was their aggressive war against the electric car, all of a decade earlier.

Here they were, selflessly volunteering to lose the Lear jets and “step up” work on electric cars when, just a couple of years earlier, GM had deliberately and controversially scrapped its entire thousand-strong fleet of EV1s, as memorialised in the film Who Killed the Electric Car? And when all three, GM, Ford and Chrysler, had actively sued the state of California for daring, in its 1990 Zero Emissions Vehicles Mandate, to require just such cars to be produced.

The state won, eventually, but the victory was pyrrhic, since California – which every other state in the US was preparing to follow – has since dropped its original goal of 100,000 zero-emissions vehicles by 2003 to a vastly less threatening 7500 by 2014. Rick Wagoner now says the scrapping of the EVs was GM’s “worst ever” decision – but only for PR reasons, when really they should sue the state for not mandating the new technology. People stopped buying American cars because they were big, dirty and stupid.

These are the very guys we’re proposing to dig out of a hole, with $2 billion to car dealers even as we’re giving $35 million of Kevin Rudd’s special “green car” fund to help Toyota make 10,000 hybrid Camrys a year from 2010.

Why would you do that? Sure, vehicle sales have fallen, but this is a good thing – to crow about, not compensate – especially since, before the fall, the only category showing growth was four-wheel-drives. And why give special funding when the technology already exists? Electric vehicles have been on the road for years – not just GM’s much-mourned EV1s but any number of hybrids, plug-in hybrids and backyard conversions.

There’s even the new CSIRO-patented UltraBattery, now licensed to Japan’s Furukawa battery company and US manufacturer East Penn. It’s a lead-acid job, heavier than the lithium-ion batteries in, for example, the $US98,000 Tesla roadster, but hugely cheaper.

Why not simply link all car-industry bail-outs to genuine zero-emissions cars? By genuine, in this coal-fired country, I mean electric cars driven by renewable energy; solar, wind, or even the Simpson desert steam said to be capable of powering the whole of NSW for the next 30 years?

Why not use our green-car funding to turn car-share from a minority interest into a must-have accessory, so long as all cars are zero-emission? Why let the RTA give councils an excuse to refuse even self-funded car-share proposals, as Ku-ring-gai Council did six weeks back, because it has no car-share policy in place, and “no plans to prepare” one?

The recession should focus our greenthink, not fuddle it. Kevin Rudd’s response to grease-palmed Charlie and the Parramatta Road gang should be in kind. “Mate, have I got a deal for you?”


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