From the first question time of 2014:

Leader of the opposition, Bill Shorten:
My question is to the Prime Minister. In the light of the last answer about SPC, can the Prime Minister explain the difference between his government’s treatment of SPC on the one hand and Cadbury on the other?

Prime Minister, Tony Abbott:
Well, they are totally different circumstances. One, if I may say so, was a request for business welfare; the other, if I may say so, was a local tourism infrastructure grant.

Well, the prime minister may well say so but it’s time to start asking if such glib and convenient answers are good enough. Every incoming government has a period of finding its feet while enjoying the hubris of an election win but now that we are over 15% of the way into the Abbott government’s first term, we should be able to expect some more serious answers than this.

Of course it’s true that the Cadbury factory in Hobart is also a major tourist attraction. It’s a tourist attraction because… Hello? It’s a Chocolate Factory! Chocolate factories are awesome! Chocolate is awesome and everything to do with chocolate is awesome. The science is settled, the debate is over. By any measure, canning fruit is not as sexy.

Condesceding Wonka says, "Oh, so you also need government assistance? Too bad your factory isn't cool like mine."If Cadbury has managed to diversify their business by making their factory a major tourist attraction, then good for them. However, in making the distinction between business welfare and tourism infrastructure, the subtext seems to be that SPC could have got a government grant if they did tours of the facility.

For all I know, maybe they do. I do know that to those who take an interest in how things are produced, a tour of the SPC factory (or the Holden or Toyota factories for that matter) would be just as fascinating as a tour of the Cadbury factory. To be blunt though, nobody ever made adorable movies about an eccentric, reclusive genius and his fruit cannery, did they? Based on the distinction the government has made, SPC is being punished for not being cool enough.

Also, call me old fashioned, but I always thought factories were primarily about making stuff. If they can expand their business into tourism as well, that’s great, but if Cadbury gets grants because they’re a tourist attraction, that puts them on the same level as the blacksmith shop at Sovereign Hill – less a place of making things and more a reminder of how we used to.

Now, I’m not assuming that SPC needs the grant. The parent company of SPC-Ardmona is Coca-Cola Amatil. I am not smart enough to crunch the numbers, but I remain to be convinced of whether the local bottler of the world’s most popular sweet fizzy water really needs $25 million from the federal government. Equally, I wonder whether one of the world’s most famous chocolate producers really needs a $16 million grant for what is basically a sideline.

However, mature government is about weighing options and choosing the greater good. Maybe CCA is just trying it on, but what would happen if SPC closed? It wouldn’t just affect the SPC workers who lose their jobs and the farmers who used to supply them. No business exists in a bubble. The sudden reduced purchasing power of those who lose their jobs will affect other businesses throughout the region with more job losses and possible business closures. At what point does all the lost tax revenue and increased welfare payments that go with business closures cost the country more than $25million? Again, I’m not clever enough to crunch those numbers, but the Coalition in opposition used to love cost/benefit analyses. Have they done one on this, or are they just being ideological?

Can we really not afford it? To put it in some kind of perspective, $25 million is…

The government that was elected on a promise of ending wasteful spending apparently thinks these are all wise investments even though it is an open question as to whether any of them will contribute anything to the economy.

To complicate matters further, this week Qantas renewed calls for government assistance. Tourism infrastructure doesn’t get much bigger than a national airline. I make no comment on whether any company truly deserves government aid but the government’s justifications for its priorities just don’t add up. They have painted themselves into a corner and it’s not even six months in.

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