Australia Can Make Things


This book explores the rise and fall of factory-based manufacturing in Australia, from its genesis after the arrival of the first European settlers, to its demise in the 1980s. It draws on many industries, but focuses on two specific case studies. One is Kempthorne, a major Melbourne-based maker of beautiful domestic and industrial lighting systems. The other is Simpsons, an Adelaide-based company that made state-of-the-art domestic appliances, particularly washing machines, stoves, ovens and refrigerators.

I examine the dramatically transformed and re-skilled work force that followed the decline of Australian factory manufacturing, and tackle the question: is the country doing better economically and socially without a highly-concentrated manufacturing sector?

Boosted by the discovery of gold in the mid-19th century, manufacturing in Australia took off. By 1861 32,000 men worked in factories. Federation freed up interstate trade. A small arms industry was established during the First World War. Locomotives were built for an expanding railway system of many different gauges. Stasis during the Great Depression was followed by the rapid expansion of manufacturing during the Second World War – ships, steam engines, rolling stock, artillery, motor vehicles, and aeroplanes – some of which were technically advanced.

Industrial expansion continued as Australian troops came home in 1945-6, married, built houses, and worked in factories. A post-war manufacturing boom protected by tariffs led to rising living standards that lasted into the 1980s, but then began to decline. The reasons were mixed: a failure of vision, a lack of confidence, industrial friction – above all, most Australian-made products could be made more cheaply in Asia and imported. Thousands of manufacturing companies went broke or were acquired by foreign corporations.

The book examines macro industries such as motor vehicles, steel-making, building materials and aviation. What went wrong with them and why? It also examines some Australian manufacturers that did survive including Ames Australasia which took over Hills Hoists, Cyclone, Nylex, and Trojan Tools; and Climate Heating Technologies that acquired Bonaire, Pyrox, Celair and Ilec.

The final section of the book asks whether a vacuum has been left in Australian job-creation by the decay of manufacturing. It concludes that it has not.  Between 1965 and 1982, 150,000 jobs were lost in factories, but more than two million new ones were created in the services and information sectors, and in products that Australians are good at making, such as sports goods. The environment sector also grew, with jobs in pollution control, soil management, drought-proofing, methane control in livestock and tree-planting. An impediment has been Australia’s inability to turn invention into commercial production, which is also looked at.

Some writers have covered much the same ground. I have drawn particularly on one of them – Antony Simpson and his book Revolution in the Home – the Simpsons of Adelaide 1853-1986 133 years of manufacturing (Openbook Howden 2021). But my detailed case study of Kempthorne is unique.

  • Specs:
    275 x 210mm; Case Bound
  • ISBN:
  • Author:
    Richard Broinowski

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