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Hockey attacks AMWU

In question time, Joe Hockey links Toyota's decision to stop car production in Australia to union inflexibility on wages and conditions.

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The Prime Minister says Toyota's manufacturing workers will graduate ''from good jobs to better jobs''. If it sounds fantastic, it probably is.

Ordinarily, ''good jobs'' tend not to be those listed for extinction, but that might be nit-picking.

In Tony Abbott's defence, there are many precedents when low-skilled jobs, for example, are automated and workers can be retrained for cleaner and more interesting work.

History tends to focus on the successes - at the expense of the ruinous period of transition experienced by many people. It also glosses over those who never make it to the promised land - the ones who fall out of the labour market grid altogether.

A more pessimistic predictor suggests a third of displaced workers tend to find new jobs quickly, another third might take substantially longer, and the rest simply never work again.

Anyway, the problem for the government in selling this shiny new future is that so far at least, it has shown no notion of how it will come about. Apart from glib statements about the opportunities of modernisation, Abbott has offered workers no coherent policy response.

Neither have state governments been given any detail as they brace for large-scale unemployment, business collapses, and general economic decline.

Indeed, the chaos following Toyota's bombshell is testament to Canberra's mystifyingly low state of readiness for an outcome its policy of ending corporate welfare expressly contemplates. The government is now caught between its claims that it had no warning, and the assertion that everyone knew the end was nigh.

Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane on Tuesday tried to explain the good-to-better jobs aspiration. ''What it means is that over the next three years that we have in front of us, that we need to work with industry but also make sure we work with business to create a framework, then create the business investor confidence to ensure that the new jobs are created by new industries.''

Sorry? Is working with ''industry'' different from working with ''business''? What does it mean anyway?

By Wednesday morning, the minister was showing that he at least is getting to the scale of the problem. ''This will be probably the most significant step change in industry in Australia since the steelworks closed in Newcastle.''

Economists say the end of the car industry will probably not of itself plunge Victoria and South Australia into recession but concede it is a possibility, especially if there is not serious investment.

Reports that Toyota told the government in December that high labour costs were the key impediment to remaining in Australia justify Abbott's laments over the unions' central role in Toyota's demise. They were quickly validated by Treasurer Joe Hockey, even though they contradict the claims of ministers that the government was taken by surprise.

''I didn't know it was coming,'' said Employment Minister Eric Abetz. ''From discussing these matters with my colleagues, I don't think anyone else was expecting it.''

If the Toyota complaint was made in December in a private conversation between Hockey and Toyota's Max Yasuda, the company is now denying it happened. My money's on Hockey's version. But it does intensify the question as to what was actually done post-Holden to keep Toyota alive given the promised talks ''about the best ways of ensuring that happens''.

The next level of this problem must also be confronted now, that is, the knock-on effect. The aerospace industry employs thousands. Its executives talk of a ''shared ecosystem'', admitting they have long drawn on the best and brightest from car-making. So long to that supply.

Let's hope the government is not about to be caught on the fly again.

Mark Kenny is chief political correspondent of The Age.

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