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Aussie-themed US-run chain provides food for thought

For too long we've let foreign firms exploit and profit from our ideas.

In March, the American division of the international restaurant chain Outback Steakhouse launched a campaign to raise $1 million, through the sale of certain menu items, to help US troops and their families.

Though the restaurants are supposedly Australian in menu and ambience, and our troops are fighting beside the Yanks, the campaign publicity material ignored this little fact.

Outback Steakhouse is a chain with almost global reach marketing the theme that munching its meals is a true Australian experience.

Staff are known as ''outbackers'' and the menu includes Walkabout Soup, Alice Springs Chicken, Gold Coast Coconut Shrimp (not prawn) and The Melbourne, which is some kind of giant steak.

There are hundreds of outlets in the US and around the world from Beijing to Britain - and even six in Sydney offering a truly Aussie experience. If you think this is an example of Australia capitalising on the global envy of our charm, culture and tastes, you are wrong. The chain's headquarters is in the US state of Florida.

We have long been content to have foreigners - rather than ourselves - exploit and profit from our ideas and our raw materials, from the macadamia nut to the black-box flight recorder, so why not a US-based company that globally markets Australian-style food.

In keeping with this trend is the fate of Gippsland Aeronautics, Australia's only significant local designer and manufacturer of aircraft; its factory is near Morwell. It makes a crop duster and a successful eight-seater, the Airvan, which it has sold around the world, including to the US armed forces.

But the company's most optimistic project was to resurrect the 17-seater twin-engined Nomad, which was built in the 1970s and '80s by its original designer, the Government Aircraft Factory, now in the hands of America's Boeing.

With precious little interest in their products from state or federal governments, the global financial crisis meant Gippsland Aero had to find an overseas investor, and this they found in Indian car and tractor conglomerate Mahindra & Mahindra. It snapped up 75 per cent of the company late last year and, while shopping, also bagged the Melbourne-based aircraft components firm Aerostaff Australia.

While national attention has been focused on the bleating of the mining industry over a new tax, despite the apparent armistice after Julia Gillard's ascendancy, at the back of the national mindset is a terror that these glorified rock shovellers will make good their threats to do more of their shovelling offshore. In the meantime, home-grown industries that actually make something disappear into offshore hands without a whimper.

The sale of these two companies has been virtually unrecorded in the mainstream Australian media. The Indians are astute business opportunists and Anand Mahindra, vice-chairman and managing director of the $7 billion conglomerate, says the acquisitions are to help his country expand its fledgling aeronautics industry.

In the past, India has had no shame in bolstering its manufacturing by buying cast-off but functional designs from elsewhere, such as the 1950s British Morris Oxford car that is still built as the Hindustan Ambassador, or the 1950s British Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle that is still built as the Indian Enfield Bullet motorcycle. Mahindra & Mahindra has long been building a copy of the World War II Jeep and now the Airvan seems destined for the same future.

Anand Mahindra admitted as much when he said the attraction of buying Gippsland Aero was that it owned aircraft types that were already certified to fly. This includes the Nomad, which dropped in Australian esteem after a series of crashes due to a design fault. More than half of the 172 built are still flying, having had the design flaw sorted. The plane is still popular in Asia and the Pacific, because it is cheap to fly and can operate from rough airstrips.

Resurrecting it has been Gippsland Aero's big project, and if it succeeds the profits and expertise will be in Indian hands; home-grown technological success does not seem something we value.

Bureau of Statistics figures show Victorian manufacturing jobs fell from 265,000 in the February quarter this year to 245,000 in the May quarter, the lowest on record. When we transfer ownership, we transfer control.

So what happens when a US-owned and controlled restaurant chain markets Australian food? This month their Bangkok restaurant's outback feature is - prime New Zealand lamb chops. Ah well, the flags are almost identical anyway.

Geoff Strong is an Age senior writer.

 

20 comments

  • The Americans themselves are looking down the barrel of insolvency due to the globalised free trade results of losing most of their manufacturing base. The West has been very stupid in following this paradigm and it will lead to our extinction and the rise of Asian empires. We have followed the American path of military might while selling off at a loss all the things that logically the military are there to protect. The greed and moral stupidity of corporate executives who are the only ones profiting from this debacle are there for all to see and realise.
    Superannuation handouts are the scraps for Pavlov's dogs to keep us in line so that multi-national corporations can use us as tools and our common wealth as resources to line their own corporate pockets. Meanwhile we are losing the planet and environment that supports this crazy affair.

    Commenter
    Lynne
    Location
    Lismore
    Date and time
    June 28, 2010, 9:17AM
    • "glorified rock shovellers" - right back at you Geoff, you glorified pen pusher.

      Commenter
      Don
      Location
      Cairns
      Date and time
      June 28, 2010, 9:28AM
      • Hey Lynne, if you think the Australian military is mighty, wow are you in for a shock!

        Defence hasn't had a decent stack of money thrown at it for years, most of our ships are second hand and a lot of personnel struggle on poor wages, with little stability in life, partners who struggle to make careers after getting shipped around the country at the drop of a hat, broken families and a complete and utter lack of compassion from either the Government or the public. In fact most of the time they just get abused by people who have no idea what it's really like, and yet these would probably be the first to whine if they ever actually needed defending.

        Commenter
        Ailie
        Date and time
        June 28, 2010, 9:34AM
        • The biggest problem the Australian economy faces is public apathy. Walk into a room of 100 people anywhere in this country and you would be hard pressed to find even 10 people that are informed on important issues such as these. You would be even harder pressed to find people that attempt to buy Australian made products wherever possible to help bolster domestic manufacturing and food production. With a bit of time and effort you can buy 97% Australian made when you go grocery shopping. I only know of two people that try to do so and one of them is my partner. Pretty sad.

          Commenter
          G
          Location
          Brisbane
          Date and time
          June 28, 2010, 9:47AM
          • Who bloody cares?! At this time of great political flux, what an inconsequential article! What the hell is Australian food anyway? British stodge with some Asian spices?!

            Commenter
            M T Pockets
            Date and time
            June 28, 2010, 10:12AM
            • Interesting article, Geoff, So what if some Yank entrepreneur borrows Australian themes for a restaurant. If you object to that, I guess Australian entrepreneurs are just as much at fault for "Hollerin' for a Marshal", chewing on Weston's Wagon Wheels, sucking on a Redskin lolly, playing the US games of basketball and baseball.

              I could go on, but it is more instructive to look at Geoff's loaded language. Miners are "glorified rock shovellers". Objecting to a ruinous tax is "bleating". Get with the program, Geoff -- you're new leader is making piece with the miners, but you're still quoting from the talking points issued by her predeccessor.

              Then there is the unhinged observation that we let the rest of the world exploit our bonza little macademia nut. Geoff, consider it a fair trade -- after all, we eat corn, tomatoes and potatoes (all from the Americas), our merinos came originally from spain and our cattle are from all over the world. Lucky those countries didn't have their own little Geoffs, or we be really stuffed, with no beef snags, fried tomatoes and hash browns (another US innovation) for brekkie.

               

              Commenter
              kaboom
              Location
              Kensington
              Date and time
              June 28, 2010, 10:32AM
              • The current free market model is finite and empires com and go regargless of how millitary staff are treated and by whom! YES, the billionaire protesters are just glorified shovellers

                Commenter
                RJ
                Location
                MELB
                Date and time
                June 28, 2010, 10:39AM
                • M T Pockets - June 28, 2010, 10:12AM

                  READ THE ARTICLE. It was about the loss of productive manufacturing and R n D in Australia and the focus on mining rather than value added industry. The food thing was simply a way of starting the discussion.

                  Commenter
                  G
                  Location
                  Brisbane
                  Date and time
                  June 28, 2010, 10:44AM
                  • You be right there kaboom, maybe with a bit if prescience you have nailed with is going to happen. Maybe "our new leader" will "make piece with the miners". Piece after piece after piece as she tears their case to shreds and whilst ensuring that they make a fair profit on their product, Australia gets its fair share too.

                    Commenter
                    Denis
                    Location
                    Perth
                    Date and time
                    June 28, 2010, 10:57AM
                    • If the Aussies had the idea for the Outback steakhouse and then the yanks pinched it you could claim they 'stole your idea'...but they didn't! No they just put a few labels on their dishes, a label on their staff, a label on the restaurant...et voila! Another theme restaurant!
                      Do you really think Aussie manufacturers would employ more people than they need to keep Aussies in employment...or perhaps the business men who run these companies actually focus on the bottom line of staying in business!
                      You're dreaming!

                      Commenter
                      Matheus
                      Location
                      Melbourne
                      Date and time
                      June 28, 2010, 12:00PM

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