New car sales like canary in a coal mine
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New car sales like canary in a coal mine

Car sales are dropping. July sales were down 8 per cent and followed May and June which recorded reduced volumes on the previous year. My researcher and forecaster Charlie gets very excited about car sales as an economic indicator and he tells me we are experiencing the worst decline since July 2011. Something not so good is going on and there are those who believe that car sales are like the canary in the coal mine.

Louise, who carefully monitors social trends, especially animal rights, is appalled by the practice of sacrificing animals to save humans. She’s even more appalled at sacrificing local car manufacturing and then sacrificing the workforce as well.

Too late: Holden workers.

Too late: Holden workers.

Photo: Kate Geraghty

The fact is we love cars and we all remember our first one. Charlie wishes he still had his first car which was an Austin A40 that cost him $70. He is also proud of his more recent gesture of support for China-Australia trade with his purchase of a Chinese SUV called a Great Wall. It went pretty well for four years before it blew up.

“That’s not too bad,” says Louise, “our prime ministers usually blow up every two years”.

Louise is one of those concerned individuals who looks beyond the mainstream and it’s reflected in everything she buys. Her current car is a Skoda, made in the Czech Republic.

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Charlie nods his approval because the Czech economy is flying with a growth rate close to the highest in Europe and well ahead of what we’re doing in Australia. Unemployment is 2.3 per cent, well below everywhere else and their budget is in balance to boot.

“Enough with the macroeconomics Charlie,” huffs Louise, “cars aren’t just products, they are members of the family.”

And she’s right. I saw some research from the UK recently that showed 39 per cent of Brits give their car a name, and Bluebelle and Blue Boy are the most popular.

We can begin to see some of the cultural differences with the United States here where the most popular name, according to some surveys, is The Beast. Which, incidentally, is the nickname of the American President’s giant Lincoln Continental.

Charles Bridge, Prague: The Czech economy is flying and unemployment is low.

Charles Bridge, Prague: The Czech economy is flying and unemployment is low.

Photo: Supplied

The great car brand names are cultural icons and in this rapidly changing modern world it is more than evident in car manufacture. I’m sure that most Brexiters are horrified that the MG marque is now owned by the Shanghai-based SAIC motor company.

This negative feeling about change, especially change that causes shifts in tradition and power, is almost certainly an underlying factor in the poor car sales figures.

Charlie monitors these trends very closely. He investigates how people are feeling about themselves and the world around them and his most recent research shows that we are a worried lot.

According to his data, the number one worry, other than the traffic, is the cost of living and that is a tragedy for a country which is doing so well.

Illustration: Cathy Wilcox

Illustration: Cathy Wilcox

Charlie’s research in 2009 put cost of living third on the list and way back in 2002 in the days when there was widespread trust in John Howard it was 9th. Confidence in leadership is the key to dealing with this issue and leaders should read Charlie's research and resolve matters like energy policy which has dragged on far too long.

The more they fight among themselves the more they undermine public confidence in their capacity to look after the common good.

Second on Charlie’s list is security and it’s also a great concern. People are worried about security in many ways, particular personal information. Interestingly this issue has never arisen in Charlie’s previous research. Suddenly we’ve been spooked by online scams to the point that we are fearful about potentially lifesaving sharing of our health information with our doctors.

Louise frowns. "It will all end up on Facebook and you can’t tell me any different.”

The third biggest issue is housing. Our readers, who tend to be a little older, understand this one well. Many are very concerned that our children and grandchildren may never be able to own a house or even struggle to rent one. In 2009 this was issue number 8.

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And coming out of nowhere is the issue of corporate ethics. It’s now 6th on Charlie’s top 20. It was number 17 in 2009. As the banking royal commission rolls on, this issue may well rise further. I don’t know how banks and other major financial institutions are going to be able to rebuild their reputation and have people trust them again.

Charlie’s research is a good reminder that our leaders need to be aware of what is troubling people. In business the smartest thing is to listen and then take responsibility for a solution.

Or as the great car maker Henry Ford said, “don’t find fault, find remedy.”