FOLLOWING a Victorian Liberal MP’s attack on her own party over the future of SPC Ardmona (SPCA), Shadow Minister for Industry Senator Kim Carr says time is running out to save Australia’s last fresh fruit processor.
“Australian manufacturing can’t afford more division and indecision,” Senator Carr said.
“The government needs to understand that once capabilities such as these are lost, they are lost forever.”
A $50 million co-investment package from federal and State governments to upgrade SPCA operations is yet to be decided. After sacking 73 maintenance workers over the Christmas period, SPCA has failed to rule out further job cuts in the near future.
Senator Carr said at a time when agricultural exports potential was thriving, it was “extremely disappointing” that SPCA was not being supported by government.
“In the face of unprecedented opportunities for growth in Australian agriculture and increasing demand from Asian markets it would be absolute madness to allow Australia to lose its fresh fruit processing capability,” he said.
“Do we really want to be in a position where none of the fresh fruit we grow in Australia can be processed here?
“We saw the stark consequences of this approach at the end of last year when the government effectively forced GM Holden out of the country, costing thousands of jobs and jeopardising the future of automotive manufacturing in this country.
“The simple fact is that Australian manufacturers do not compete on an equal footing and the government needs to recognise this.”
Senator Carr said Labor’s $25 million assistance package - put forward last September - was fully budgeted and included conditions to protect the taxpayers’ investment.
Funding for the project would have been provided on the basis of agreed conditions with the company, including a commitment from SPCA and Coca-Cola Amatil (CCA) to maintain operations in Australia for an agreed period.
CCA agreed before Christmas to a number of conditions put by the government to clear the way for a taxpayer cash injection into SPCA, putting pressure on cabinet to approve the deal.
In September, Senator Carr – then federal Industry Minister – said: “We are not going to bail out the company but we will back them with $25 million in federal government assistance, if they are prepared to reinvest and commit to a long-term future in Australia and long-term jobs for Australians.”
MP Sharman Stone slammed cabinet members resisting SPCA’s $50m assistance request as motivated by free-market “dogma”, inflaming further debate over so-called corporate welfare within the party.
The internal fight over SPCA follows the hard line taken by the Abbott government on the closure of Holden late last year. In December, Prime Minister Tony Abbott indicated he was not inclined to give SPCA the requested funding, ¬arguing it could lead to a “queue of ¬businesses” asking for money.
At the time, Mr Abbott said his government did not exist to "build a field of dreams" but to exercise careful stewardship of taxpayers' money.
"We don't believe in corporate welfare but we do believe in trying to give people and entities a fair start in life,'' he said.
"The silence coming out of Canberra at the moment is deafening," Save SPC Ardmona campaign co-founder Lee Lavara said.
Alarms about the economic uncertainty of the company were flagged in 2011 when an operational review of SPCA's food processing resulted in 150 jobs being axed.
Despite supermarket conglomerates Coles, Aldi and Woolworths switching to SPC Australian-grown home brands in place of cheap imports, Mr Lavara said the industry still desperately needed government support.
Dr Stone said she was concerned parent company CCA could lose patience if a decision is not made by January, and decide to cut its losses.
"Things are very grim. I hope Coca-Cola Amatil's shareholders are willing to hold out and give this company time. But I'm hopeful the right decision will be made by cabinet," Dr Stone said.
Senator Carr said: “The Liberals’ dogged pursuit of free market extremism at any cost is not in Australia’s favour”.
“It is extremely disappointing to see the Victorian government now appearing to also walk away from their $25 million co-investment in the project.
“The Commonwealth and Victorian governments must commit without delay to supporting this company, and the many workers, businesses and communities who depend upon it.”